The Barwon River is of particular significance to the indigenous people of the Geelong and Ballarat region, the Wathaurong. The Wathaurong people included many different clans, each with their own laws and language.
Wathaurong Cultural Heritage Officer David Tournier explains that the river was not only important as a food and water source, but was also part of a network of ‘highways’ used by Aboriginal people to travel hundreds of kilometres from the dry inland country to the sea.
The Barwon River was a virtual ‘supermarket’, providing everything from food to water to materials.
David explains how fish traps were made from young saplings shaped into a V in the river bed, to stop the bigger fish from getting out, making them easy to catch.
“The people at Lake Mungo would use the rivers to travel south, along the Darling, Murrumbidgee, Murray, Loddon and Campaspe. After walking across the floodplains at the Great Dividing Range they would use the Werribee, Moorabool and Barwon Rivers to get to the sea.”
“The cumbungi, or bull rush, which now chokes up a lot of the river, was used to bind together the fish traps, make baskets and the roots could also be eaten.”
He finds it strange that we use pesticides to remove these plants, when they are perfectly good for harvesting.
“We’ve got some of the most exotic foods in our own backyard, yet people don’t capitalize on it.”
David would like to see more research in how we can use these so-called ‘pest’ plants. “There are lots of plants – like the chocolate lily and lily-pily – that could be cultivated and they taste fantastic.”
Part of David’s job is to protect the cultural heritage sites of the Barwon River area. He explains that thousands of sites, such as scar trees, ancient camp sites and burial sites have been found along the river – but many are yet to be recorded.
“There is a lack of understanding in the community of how a river system works. Our rivers are the lifeline of this country, they act like a circulatory system. If you put a rubber band around your finger and leave it for six months, you have a problem.
“No-one has been allowing the water through our rivers – that’s why we have the drought now. There are parts of the Barwon River you can step across.”
David believes we need to stop polluting the river with pesticides, replenish indigenous plants and remove the dams and weirs which block the Barwon River. “We need to allow the water to flow through to prevent these blue-green algal blooms which poison the river.”
“The river is dying – but I don’t understand why, because it is a resource for everybody. We need to work together to fix it up as best we can.”
Story by Anna Boustead