Life on the Clarence River: Aboriginal Heritage

I recently visited a few Aboriginal sites in the Clarence Valley, NSW, which turned out to be wonderful spots. Wild and all but forsaken places that are as beautiful as they are important to Aboriginal heritage. Places with a story to tell…

Aboriginal heritage
Ulgundahi Island (background) sitting now quietly on the Clarence River

Ulgundahi Island

One such place is Ulgundahi Island. Comprising a mere 45 acres, Ulgundahi lies a few hundred metres off the mainland of Maclean in the Clarence River. It’s an important heritage site for the Yaegl aborigines, who were forced there – from as early as 1904 – to be contained.

The Yaegl lived in huts and were taught the white missionaries’ ways in the island’s school and church. Gradually, Ulgundahi’s population expanded until floods forced the families to leave permanently in 1961. However, the island continues to remain at the heart of the Yaegl people.

I chatted briefly with local Maclean artist and Yaegl woman Frances Belle Parker, whose mother grew up on Ulgundahi. She tells me the island is off limits to anyone without a permit from the Yaegl Aboriginal Land Council. It’s now heritage-listed land.

Frances remains deeply inspired by Ulgundahi, which is captured in her beautiful artwork here.

Even though I didn’t reach the island, knowing where it was and what it signified gave me a whole new perspective on the area. It also made me realise the Clarence River has a lot of islands, many of which are just waiting to be explored….

The Woombah midden

Aboriginal heritage
The site of the Woombah midden

The Woombah midden was a fun place to explore, particularly as it’s not signposted. After receiving a map of the Lower Clarence Aboriginal Tourist Site Drive from the Clarence Coast Visitor Centre, I was off. Heading north from Ulgundahi towards the pretty bushland village of Woombah, I had to guess my way to the site, as its location is marked only roughly past the Goodwood Island turn-off.

After several stops and riverside rambles, I wandered along an old, rough track past a property (which looked private), down a handsome field of sward and bingo! I reached the ancient midden site. The site, which was used by the Yaegl tribe to prepare and eat food, particularly seafood, is the largest found on the east coast of Australia.

The midden contained kangaroo, wallaby and dingo bones, with the dingo bone estimated to be over 3,000 years old. It’s allegedly the oldest recording of a dingo found in Australia.

Aboriginal heritage

I stood there – once again on the edge of the Clarence River – and tried to imagine the feasts here thousands of years past. It was a particularly pleasant spot, with freshwater, private BBQs settled on trim lawns and portly trees. I spied a silhouette of an eagle overhead, and wondered what the BBQs might be like here in another thousand years’ time…

2 thoughts on “Life on the Clarence River: Aboriginal Heritage”

  1. William Philp

    When my ancestors first came to the Clarence River in the mid 1800’s, they eventually settled on what is now called Ulgundahi Island as it was on the wrong side of the river for the local Aborigines and Bad Spirits were there. They fished and collected shells which were crushed and sent to Sydney for lime mortar. They then moved to other locations around the lower river. Around the turn of the century, the area where the shells were crushed was discovered and assumed to be a Midden and now a historical site. The reality is that the Philp family were the original occupants of Ulgundahi Island.

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