The Wi-abul/Widjabul people are acknowledged as the Custodians — the Guardians/Keepers/Protectors of this very sacred country and its significant spiritual sites. The Rosebank area, including the rainforests of the Whian Whian State Conservation Area & Nightcap NP were once occupied by “The Clever People” of the Widjabul Clan, part of the Bundjalung Nation. Widjabul people have lived in this area for many thousands of years and cared for the country. This land, and the water that flows through it, is sacred to them. The Widjabul called the rainforests the great ’store book’ of nature.
Whian Whian is derived from the Bundjalung word ‘weeung weeung’ meaning clever fella, clever man or men of high degree. These men were responsible for the appropriateness of duty and responsibility to Country and People. These men and some woman were described as possessing special powers including telepathy, foreknowledge, warnings of danger, significant dreams and ESP and were the holders of great wisdom. There are many documented stories of the clever men predicting death or sickness in families that lived miles away. Some referred to this as a “telegram”. All men who went through an initiation became “a little clever” but a specialist had to take a high degree in further training. Male ceremonies were quite secretive and individual rigorous tests were represented by ’weals’ on the skin. These were located straight across the chest. Clever Fellas were also the camp doctors with specialist healing powers.
The Aboriginal community have had an association and connection to this area and the lands of the Nightcap NP & Whian Whian SCA are part of the identity, spirituality, connection and resource base for the Widjabul people. The Widjabul’s special powers are connected with particular sites in the forest which remain important today. Archaeological evidence shows Aboriginals have inhabited the North Coast for 6000 years but it is believed they have lived here for much longer.
Terania Cave escarpment
Gibbergunyah Cave & Falls
Significant Water Holes
Protester Falls - significant site
Protester Falls cave
Aboriginal Mural at Rosebank School
NPWS Signage at Minyon Falls
Black bean seeds
The area contains a complex network of of mythological & significant sites and walking trails that are closely interrelated and bound by the “Dreaming”. The forests of the Big Scrub provided an important cultural value for the transfer of traditional knowledge, bush food and medicine. The district provided an abundance of native food, flora and fauna which was once hunted and gathered.
Cunjenvoi medicinal plants
A nomadic lifestyle maintained a balance of supply and demand for food and native bush medicines. The Widjabul moved around in small extended family groups and did not trespass on each others hunting territory or intrude on another groups sacred sites. They did however go visiting on invitation when certain foods were in abundance.
For instance Clans would converge on Casino when the yellow flowers appeared on the casuarina trees as this signalled that the wallabies were fat and tender. They went by invitation to the coast at Ballina to the ’Bullen Bullen’ festival each winter to share in the salmon and mullet harvest and oyster season. Trade was also undertaken and consisted of possum skins and possum skin belts, ochre and gemstones in return for coastal produce such as fish, dilly bags and shells.
Bunya nut seed pod
Every 3rd year large numbers of people travelled to the Bunya Mountains in SE Qld for the 1–3 month long ’Bonyi Bonyi Festival’ (Bunya Nut Festival), when the Bunya Pine bore their bumper crops. Neighbouring clans feasted on the Bunya (Banja) nuts, held ceremonies and traded. Marriages were also arranged and grand corroborees were held at night lit by the campfires. By 1876 the Bonyi Bonyi was no longer held.
There are 2 recorded significant sites that lie within the Whian Whian SCA and other significant sites within the Nightcap NP and the surrounding private properties. Birthing pools, middens and traditional pathways can be found on many private properties while shelters, caves, initiation sites, and bora rings are protected in sacred traditional knowledge. Mt Burrell, known locally as Blue Knob is the highest point in the Nightcap Range and is believed to be of significance to the Widjabul people as a mythological site as are Dirangah Rocks.
Spirit creatures were also known to live on the Nightcap Range. One such creature called a “Buyuny” is said to live between Minyon Falls and Peates Mountain. It was recommended that in order to remain safe you must keep a fire burning overnight if you camp here.
Other spirit creatures which live in the mountains include the “Wabanggah” a boogie man who guards his cave and the “Djarawara”, a little hairy man with a bushy tail who guards minerals.
Archaeological excavation from the Terania Cave suggests food and material gathering was undertaken in the rainforests. Bangalow Palm leaves were made into water containers and the bark of the Giant Stinging Tree was processed, woven or knotted into dilly bags as was the Native Hibiscus. The abundant groves of Bangalow Palms were also used as bushtucker. The smaller 4–5foot (1.2–1.5m) palms when cut open had a pure white sweet heart which provided a succulent and nutritious food source. Finger limes and native bush nuts (macadamia nuts) also occurred naturally in the Whian Whian and were eaten by the Widjabul. Unbarbed spears were used to hunt larger animals, boomerangs were used for birds, edge-ground stone axes were used to dig possums & honey out of tree hollows and to cut steps in the trees to reach them, sharp fire-hardened sticks were used to dig for native yams/roots, hand nets were used to catch mullet & tailor, grinding stones were used on hard seeds & roots to make flour, and smoke was sometimes used to flush possums from their hollows. Communal drives were used to hunt smaller animals which were in abundance. A hunting and gathering lifestyle was common as the forests provided a huge diversity and abundance of food. The northern rivers Aboriginal women were particularly known for their expertise in plant identification and there use in medications. The rainforest provided black bean seeds, figs, ginger, nuts, berries, palm hearts, roots, pheasant couchal, bushturkey, rainforest pigeons and pademelon. The eucalyptus forests provided wallabies, bandicoots, possums, honey, echidna, snake, koala, goanna, flying fox. The creeks provided ducks, turtle and their eggs, catfish, mussels, water plants, crayfish, yabbie, eels, cod, bass and perch. Three pronged spears were used to catch fish. Some grasslands were burnt to concentrate and encourage the animals from the forest and make them easier to hunt. These grasses were burnt in winter or during sept-oct to catch the storm season. By the time spring came around these grasses were refreshed and became prime hunting areas.
The Widjabul would only hunt for what they needed as they had a mindful respect for the animals and country. R.C Gordon said “Do not dismiss the animals, cause they just as responsible for that place as we are. And without the animals, there’d be no us, and without the water there’d be no us. Without the trees, there’d be no us. That’s why it’s always ”Be mindful! “Garrima!” “Garrima!” that’s the main thing with it. “Garrima!”
The Widjabul people moved along the ridgelines on traditional pathways as travelling along the creeklines of the original Big Scrub made movement too difficult and too slow. These walking trails were the link to the coast and the inland and usually ran where springs or waterholes could be accessed easily.
One such traditional pathway that was known in the Rosebank region was a trail that followed the ridge up to what is known today as Rainbow Hill on Fox Road. Rainbow Hill was considered to be a women’s place. Women and children would stay there while the men and boys of initiation age would head off for Mens’ business. This was a suitable place for the women to stay as it was close to the permanent springs located on Reeveer Park and at Turkey Creek (originally known as Diamond Springs on the old maps). Food could be obtained easily from the nearby Boomerang Creek. The magnificent waterhole on Boomerang Creek provided a place for the women and children to relax, swim, fish and collect mussels. Many artefacts have been found around this waterhole and several midden sites with shell remains have also been found near the Reeveer Park spring. Shells at these middens also include shells from the ocean, indicating that this was located on a traditional pathway to the coast. A special Women,s place cave is also located nearby. The men and boys would head off, sometimes for weeks, towards the Minyon Escarpment and visit several other small caves on route to Peates Mountain which is known locally as a men’s place.
The waterholes are known as sacred places as they provided a place to hunt. These waterholes were also places where the pademelons, wallabies, echidnas, birds, goanna and quoll would come out of the rainforest to drink, This provided easier prey for the hunter when animals emerged from the forest around 3–4pm as it cooled down. The catchment area surrounding Rocky Creek Dam is known in Widjabul ideology as Ngathanggali jogunba — the Creator’s Country. It is an area high in spiritual significance to all Bundjalung People and another sacred waterhole was located here. Upper Coopers Creek is known as another sacred place containing birthing pools and Terania Creek in The Terania Basin contains the sacred circle pools and shelter cave.
It is believed that most of the ceremonial bora rings were destroyed during the clearing of the Big Scrub, however a State Forester believes one may remain in the forest on Rocky Creek where he saw two rings joined by a narrow path which was adorned by small clay figurines of native animals including the koala.
Camp sites were generally located out of the wind, under the cliffs and in caves where shelter could be provided away from the heavy rainfall and storms. These were not permanent and were located, where possible, with good vantage points over waterholes where a good eye could be kept on the animals that would come to drink. ’Gunyas’ were built to provide additional warmth and protection from the wind.
Before white settlement, a number of traditional methods were used to conserve the rainforest and protect it from destructive bushfires. Fire Stick Farming was used by the Ancestors and it was the Elders who would decide when the season was right to burn. This was usually undertaken in Winter, so that the land would regenerate in the following spring.
Men were not allowed to marry until they were initiated and these initiations took place in the Bora rings of which there were two. One larger circle and a smaller circle linked by a narrow path usually to the west of the larger ring. The larger Bora ring was also often used for ceremonies and corroborees involving song and dance, where women could attend and watch. The smaller ring was very sacred and far enough away to be private and used only by men. The last known corroboree was held in 1910 at the Modanville Reserve. It was put on for the whites and hundreds of visiting Aborigines.
In 1861 Aboriginal life changed as settlers moved in, developed the land and alienated the Widjabul from their land. The Sir John Robertson Land Act came about and the free selection Act was passed. This saw the Big Scrub rainforest being cleared and fenced and with the tree felling came the disappearance of the Widjabuls native bushtucker, being possums, koalas, birds and native honey. As the undergrowth was burnt off the other wildlife also disappeared these being the wallabies, quolls, snake, lizards, goannas and edible roots. Aboriginal land and hunting grounds were destroyed. Missions were then set up to provide housing, medical aid and schooling and this is where they were exposed to diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, smallpox and dysentery epidemics which affected hundreds. The use of traditional dialects and customs then started to decline. Remaining Widgabul people preferring to stay on their country took up local jobs with the new settlers. It was the decline of the dairy industry that saw the Widgabul leave their lands as jobs were lost. Many moved to Sydney or Coffs Harbour in search of work.
Much later in 1974 the brothers, Frank and Fletcher Roberts, approached the Principal of the Northern Rivers College of advanced education in Lismore with a view to starting a section for Aboriginals. The result was the formation of the Institute of Aboriginal Community Education where books were produced to record the dialects of the area for use by Aboriginal children and other learners.
In November 2001 a native title claim was applied for by the Wiyabul Djagon with the National Native Title Tribunal by the Elders, Murray John Roberts, Mr Fletcher Hilton Roberts, Mr Barry Roberts & Ms Terry Roberts. The claim was for an area occupying roughly the same geographic are as todays Lismore Local Govt Area. This area includes the Nightcap Ranges in the north, out to Bangalow and the escarpment in the east, almost to Coraki in the south and to the McKellar Ranges in the west.
It is estimated that 2625 Aboriginals were living in the Richmond-Clarence region in 1836 when first white man contact was made. Within 20yrs this number decreased to 1900. Violence and poisoning contributed and starvation reduced numbers further to 1200 by 1881. It is thought that the original Widjabul clan numbered between 1,000–1,300 people.