UNCLE Max Dulumunmun Harrison, a Walbunja man of the Yuin Nation, spent many a day as a youth and young man trapping fish at Mystery Bay.
He and his ancestors for thousands of years before him built up the rocks in elaborate structures so that at high tide the resultant pools of water trapped all kinds of fish from trevally to leatherjacket.
Now he wants the rocks at Boat Harbour Point to be not only recognised as a traditional Aboriginal site but he would also like to the see ancient skills and upkeep of the fish trap brought back to life with young men schooled in the ways of the past.
“These rocks constructed by the ancient ones allowed the sea to come in from both ways,” he said.
“This proves they were not just lazy black fellows walking around, but they were architects, builders and engineers in their own right.”
Uncle Max met with Greens MP David Shoebridge at the site of the fish trap earlier this month and is seeking to have his undisputed cultural authority over the site formally recognised in a care agreement with the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH).
Mr Shoebridge said this would allow the fish trap area, currently considered Crown property, to be handed back to him, pursuant to section 85 of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, as an Aboriginal Owner registered under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983.
“No response has been received from the OEH for Mr Harrison’s formal request for a care agreement, which is made even more difficult by an agreement between the OEH and NSW Fisheries relating to the management of intertidal areas,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“While all Aboriginal people carrying out traditional cultural activities are exempt from prosecution for interfering with Aboriginal objects, this exemption alone does not adequately reflect Mr Harrison’s status as the authoritative knowledge holder for the site or the responsibility placed on him personally to care for the site and pass on the knowledge of his people to future generations.”
Uncle Max lives in Sydney now but is a former chairman of the Merrimans Local Aboriginal Lands Council that oversees the Wallaga Lake Koori village community.
He still visits the area regularly and enjoys passing on his knowledge about traditional life in the Gulaga and Biamanga areas, which includes the Mystery Bay fish trap.
He said the strong force of the ocean had obliterated the fish trap walls over the decades as they required regular upkeep to function.
He said he would like to see young Aboriginal men working on building up the fish traps again and he was keen to pass on his knowledge of how they used to work.
Uncle Max said he his mates would catch the fish, store in wetted down hessian sacks and then take them up to Central Tilba and as far as Cobargo to be traded with farmers and townsfolk for commodities such as flour and butter.
“We used to ride our bikes all the way to Cobargo, which was the best place to sell the fish because they did not have access to the sea like in Narooma and Bermagui,” he said.
These were then used to cook up the fish themselves back at the traditional camp at Mystery Bay where the current camp grounds stands.
Area recognised by Eurobodalla council
The “Connecting With Country in the Eurobodalla” report by Sue Feary and Susan Donaldson and released by Eurobodalla Shire Council in 2011 addresses the activities and structures at Mystery Bay.
The report states that across Boat Harbour Point there are many natural features that could have been used to trap fish.
And while there is no physical evidence of a constructed fish trap, artificially placed rocks may have been washed away or are buried under sand.
The report also mentions the ochre/white clay source at the top of the cliff at the Eurobodalla National Park picnic area and oral history demonstrates that it has been a place of resource collection, including at the present.
The large midden adjacent to the council car park was also noted.
“Little can be done to preserve the fish traps as cultural features as they are predominantly natural physical elements within the highly dynamic littoral zone,” the report states.
“The most effective action would be to preserve the knowledge about the existence and use of the area by Aboriginal people for trapping fish.” The Office of Environment and Heritage, the local Aboriginal land council and/or Council could consider installing interpretive signage describing how the fish traps worked and it is recommended that the area be defined as a Heritage Conservation Area in the Eurobodalla Local Environment Plan.
Another report for the Eurobodalla entitled “Preliminary public Aboriginal heritage inventory” released in 2009 goes into the interesting traditional history of Mystery Bay:
“Only one days walk from Wallaga Lake, lays Mystery Bay. For the residents of Wallaga Lake, Mystery Bay is one of the main camping and fishing places.
Beryl Brierley, born in the Tilba area, has memories of camping and fishing at Mystery Bay throughout the 1940s.
‘People from Wallaga Lake always collected white clay along the creek. The place has been covered over by the road now. Everyone painted their wood fire chimneys with the white clay, everyone was proud of their white chimneys. There was a fresh water spring where the houses are now. It is probably in someone’s back yard…’
Traditionally, Mystery Bay was the place to find muttonfish or abalone. Nan Stewart cooked muttonfish on the beach at Mystery Bay.
Sisters Harriett and Pam often walked with their parents between Wallaga Lake and Mystery Bay.
Harriett’s mother once found a skeleton on the point at Mystery Bay. So the families choose to camp in the bush, closer to where the houses are now.
Harriet remembers her grandparents fishing and camping here, and also at a place between Bunga Head and Mystery Bay.
There was a fresh water spring flowing onto Mystery Bay, near where the campground is today.
Pam recalls collecting abalone here. Lionel Mongta recalls the Andy, Parsons, Davis, Noble and Carter families camping at Mystery Bay.
The Noble family had tribal markings on their bodies. Fresh water once flowed onto the beach. There is also a man-made well on the north side of the campsite.
This campsite was good all year around, so people could stay for months at a time.
Fish would be fried with butter bartered, in exchange for snapper, from the Thompson’s farm.
Percy Davis’s brother ‘Uby’ camped at the most easterly end of Mystery Bay and travelled between Tilba Tilba Lake and Mystery Bay depending on the availability of fish.
If bream were plentiful at Tilba Lake he would camp there. If snapper were on at Mystery Bay he would camp there.
Lionel’s grandfather, Bob Andy worked as a tracker in search of the gold missing from Mystery Bay from off government geologist Lamont Young’s boat which was sailing from Bermagui to Sydney in 1880.
The story, as told to Lionel, was that the boat anchored in the bay in search of water, while a smaller rowboat came ashore.
The smaller rowboat was found with spears, and bullet holes but without people, alive or dead, or gold.
Ted Thomas used the traditional fish traps at Boat Harbour Point when he was a child.
People residing at Wallaga Lake also used 1080 Beach, also known as Tilba Beach during the 1950s and 1960s as a summer camping area.
It was not a long walk from Wallaga Lake. Pam Flanders recalls fishing for flat head, prawning and collecting blackberries here.
The area is seen as a teaching place where traditional ecological knowledge can be passed onto the younger generations.
Families from other areas would meet here with Wallaga Lake families.
Lionel recalls there being a spring fed fresh water creek at the northern end of the beach however, weeds presently choke the creek and the water is not running.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Merv Penrith and Shirley Foster frequently took their kids to camp at Tilba Lake, Mystery Bay and 1080 Beach.
They slept in a tent and fished on the beach and in the lake. They took fresh water to Tilba Lake from Wallaga Lake.
‘I have been through a lore that is 1000s of years old, if I can’t fish in Tilba Lake, there’d be hell to pay, I need to fish…’ - Mervyn Penrith.”