I find it fascinating that places of historical significance become virtually forgotten, particularly when they’re wedged in urban corridors, where people walk past everyday. One such place is Ukerebagh Island, an Aboriginal heritage site where Australia’s first Aboriginal politician, Neville Bonner, was born (under a palm tree) in 1922.
I was keen to investigate, even more so after I learned Neville Bonner joined the Liberal party in 1967, the same year the Australian referendum was passed, which allowed Aborigines to vote for the first time and the Commonwealth to create indigenous laws. Perhaps this place was the seed of change, perhaps not. In any case, adventure called and I was off.
Ukerebagh Island, which is located in the mouth of the Tweed River in northern NSW, functioned as an Aboriginal reserve from the 1920s to the 1960s. It was used primarily as a home for Aborigines working in the area, however wayward types were also herded here to keep them from white settlements. Families continued living on the island until the 1970s.
Today, locals walk to the island during low tide, or travel by boat, either to fish or pass on indigenous culture. Two ladies working in the reserve told me the place is also a favoured spot for lone drinkers. Ukerebagh Island, it seems, is still a bit of an outcast, a refuge for fringe-dwellers.
As I’d left for Ukerebagh Island on a whim, my usual style, I arrived during high tide. Wandering along the shore’s edge, I spotted a few tired looking vessels and considered borrowing one, but decided it best not to piss anyone off. However, all was not lost, as the remainder of Ukerebagh Nature Reserve is attached to the mainland and harbours a few secrets of its own…
Ukerebagh Nature Reserve
Exploring the reserve boundaries, I passed a riverbank littered with a potpourri of urban waste, including a Jack Daniels can, a basketball and various shades of plastic. Further ahead, just outside the museum dedicated to the Minjungbal people (who once inhabited these parts) lay more waste dumped by an empty field in front of Coles. Just 200 metres to the right, commuters whirred and rattled their way along a busy road. Turning left, I entered the reserve and discovered I was the only one there.
It felt a little like I was entering a museum dedicated to one of humanity’s more sane epochs. Two ladies working at the museum’s café told me the palm tree, under which Neville Bonner was born, has since fallen. I’m still keen to venture onto the island during low tide and I’m planning to do so shortly. With these thoughts I continued inside to the bora site.
The bora site
Bora sites were used to initiate Aboriginal boys to manhood, they were strictly a male affair and were secret and distinct to each tribe. The initiations allegedly contained a series of challenges, often involving “shock tactics and intimidation”. I’ve written an earlier post on bora sites here if you’re keen to learn more. Most bora sites now lie beneath houses, buried, forgotten.
What’s distinct about this site is that it exists solely due to the efforts of one woman, a species – as I’ve already mentioned – who was forbidden from such places. Margaret Kay was shown the site as a young Aboriginal girl in Byron Bay. She later moved north to the Tweed area and took it upon herself to ensure its continued existence, persuading the council to protect it after her death in 1968. This bora site was believed to have been last used in the late 19th/early 20th century.
After exploring the site, I walked through a stretch of Ukerebagh Nature Reserve, which comprises 125 hectares and is the old hunting ground of the Minjungbal. Strolling past a bong (more evidence of a forgotten reserve), I approached the coastal boardwalk with not a soul in sight. The boardwalk was partly submerged from the tide, but was a nice walk that weaved through mangroves, past clear water, alongside Ukerebagh Island – a place, I’m told, that now holds little more than trees and memories.