Goat Island – Conservation Kayaking

‘Conservation kayaking’, by former conservator Julie O’Connor. From Signals 103 (June-August 2013).

Centrally located in Sydney Harbour, Goat Island is managed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). As part of the recent Sydney Harbour National Parks Management Plan, NPWS plans to encourage greater use of the island.

NPWS officers are working with volunteer organisations to preserve the botanical and biological environment surrounding the island’s buildings. During August, September and October 2012, I made three visits to historic Goat Island with a group of conservation kayakers, which offered an insight into the island’s maritime history.

Preparing for the trip.

Preparing for the trip.

On each visit to the island, we launched our kayaks from Birchgrove Park, and then circumnavigated the island from east to west. Approaching from the south-east, we passed an Aboriginal shell midden, a pile of discarded shells on the shore. This is the last dietary remnant of the Sydney Aboriginal people who used Goat Island before its colonial occupation from the 1820s. It later became a source of lime for mortar during the construction of buildings on the island.

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Bathing in a dead whale : crazy or cure?

Rheumatism sufferers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were bombarded with many strange potions, lotions and pills – all claiming to cure their complaints. None were perhaps as strange, or stomach churning, as the curious cure practiced in the seaside town of Eden, Twofold Bay.

‘When a whale is killed and towed ashore and while the interior of the carcass still retains a little warmth a hole is cut through one side of the body sufficiently large to admit the patient, the lower part of whose body from the feet to the loins should sink in the whale’s intestines, leaving the head, of course, outside the aperture. The latter is closed up as closely as possible, otherwise the patient would not be able to breathe through the volume of animoniacal gases which would escape from every opening left uncovered.’

The Whale Cure for Rheumatism in Australia, published by The Graphic, illustrator William Ralston, 31 May 1902. ANMM collection.

The Whale Cure for Rheumatism in Australia, published by The Graphic, illustrator William Ralston, 31 May 1902. ANMM collection.

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Koori Art Expressions: a visual treat

Creativity abounds at many Sydney schools.

Koori Art Expressions, an exhibition of artworks by students from public schools in the Sydney area, is being hosted this year by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The exhibition opened on 15 November and a sneak preview behind the scenes reveals the talents of many school students and their diverse range of approaches to their art and sculptures.

A colourful and imaginative nest-like sculpture created by students from Malabar Public School and Matraville Sports High School incorporates rock and tree elements which the students had learnt are important gifts from the ancestors.

Sculpture titled “Connection” with hand decorated sticks and rocks.

Sculpture titled “Connection” with hand decorated sticks and rocks.

Paintings such as the one below show great skill and flair and meld traditional techniques with contemporary approaches.

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My Special Place – School students meet Saltwater Visions

One of the education programs for primary and junior high school students at the Australian National Maritime Museum is called ‘My Special Place’. This Visual Arts program focuses on the artist’s use of cultural and personal symbols to communicate a sense of place.

Students with teacher guide in gallery with Indigenous barks and artworks

Students in the museum’s Eora gallery during the My special place schools program

While the Saltwater Visions NAIDOC week display of ten bark paintings from the museum’s Saltwater Collection is on display in the Tasman Light Gallery, the museum’s teacher guides take groups of students and begin their session by sitting them down in front of the barks. Continue reading

Canoes and culture at Saltwater Freshwater for Australia Day

On Friday 25 January David Payne and I made our way north to Taree from Sydney. With one of David’s derivative plywood nardan (or derrka) strapped to the roof, and sheets of stringy bark in the boot of the car, we were on our way to the Saltwater Freshwater Festival on the banks of the Manning River on the mid north coast of New South Wales.

The festival is held every year along a river or on the coast at a centre within the 10 local Aboriginal Land Council areas grouped in the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance. This festival, the fourth, was held in Taree after the 2012 event was washed out by the floods.

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Saltwater Freshwater CEO Alison Page accepting a nawi model made in the workshop with David Payne (L) and Daina Fletcher (R).

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Australia’s first watercraft – Tales from ‘100 Stories’

Dugout canoe with sail

Annie Karrakayn, Ida Ninganga, Isaac Walayungkuma, Yanyuwa and Garrawa, Rra-alwanyimara, dugout canoe, 1988 Paperbark tree, 496 x 60am (length x bredth)

Yolngu country, eastern Arnhem Land, and the wet season is slowly seeping into the land. Three men haul a dampened sheet of stringy bark from a smouldering fire that carries the scent of the bush. Carefully, they push one end of the heated bark through a narrow gap between two sturdy branches driven almost parallel into the ground. Like wet, pliable leather, the warm and supple end folds upwards, and the sides come together dripping moisture at the base. The men then bind the top of the branches together tightly and, using a sharp blade, make a long angled cut, forward and down to the bottom tip of the folded end of the bark. Holes are pierced along the raw edge and fingers deftly thread fine, damp bark strips to sew the sides together. The prominent bow of a derrka has been created, and a canoe unique to Australia has begun to form, built with knowledge and skills that are thousands of years old. Continue reading

Boorun’s canoe at Melbourne Museum

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Uncle Albert Mullett, with daughters Doris Paton (Steaphan’s mum) and Christine Johnston at Bunjilaka

A few weeks ago I attended the opening of Boorun’s canoe, an exhibition at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Gallery, which we heard about at the Nawi conference.

This exhibition was born out of the canoe building project undertaken in Gippsland, Victoria, by senior Gunai/Kurnai Elder Uncle Albert Mullett, initiated by his grandson, artist Steaphan Paton and photographic artist Cam Cope, one of Steaphan’s acquaintances from school, to explore and strengthen culture from Steaphan’s Gunai perspective, and to understand and connect with it from Cam’s non-Indigenous perspective.

Steaphan and Cam spoke about the collaboration in the Canoe Communities session at the Nawi conference, yet Uncle Albert Mullett was unable to make it to Sydney because of ill health.  It was an honour to meet him at the opening and it was wonderful to see his bark canoe in the gallery space.

Uncle Albert Mullett is a leading figure who led the Gunai/Kurnai people to gain full native title over their traditional lands in 2010 and he is a respected master-craftsman of traditional wooden artefacts.

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Removing the bark for the canoe. Photographer: Cameron Cope

Uncle Albert built the canoe with Steaphan and other young men of his family over some months over the past year. The canoe was chosen as the perfect way to share and pass on knowledge and skills, in an intergenerational continuum. The canoe holds an important place in Uncle Albert’s Gunai/Kurnai culture – Boorun the pelican flew to Gunai/Kurnai traditional lands in Gippsland with a canoe on its head and canoe-building is something he in turn learnt from his Elders.

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Canoe on display in exhibition

The beautifully textured tied bark canoe with its fire hearth takes centre stage in the Bunjilaka gallery, encircled by Cam Cope’s magnificent photographs of the process unfolding and a film of the Boorun creation story.

At the Nawi conference we saw Cam’s photographic series on screen but in the flesh these large scale black and white photographs take your breath away – nuanced, sensitive and powerful, with fabulous captions. The scale of the photographs matches that of the canoe and they are in no way merely contextual. They show Uncle Albert Mullett guiding the process, peeling bark, stripping, shaping and firing it – the respect he holds central to each one – the photographer largely invisible in the entire series, except in one shot where his hands are shown caked in mud. They are sensitive respectful portraits of a family making their canoe led by their grandfather which conclude with Steaphan seated in the canoe, paddling on the local waters of Lake Tyers, like many before him for thousands of years.

“Lake Tyers was the perfect place to float the canoe; the country is picturesque with so many stories and so much history.” (Photo caption from exhibition)

The exhibition is on until 4 November at Melbourne Museum.

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Steaphan Paton seated in the canoe, paddling on the local waters of Lake Tyers. Photographer: Cameron Cope

Object of the Week : Kunmatj (small dilly bag)

Object of the Week: Kunmatjs

Kunmatjs are dilly bags from the Northern Territory used for carrying small fish such as catfish. They are a common item across many Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory and known by a number of different names depending on their region of origin. This bag is painted with red ochre and decorated with painted images of catfish in white clay. Traditionally dilly bags were left unadorned but artist Lena Yarinkura has decorated this kunmatji to express her local Aboriginal culture. Lena Yarinkura is an artist from south central Arnhem Land who works with fibres, barks, bronze and aluminium. Her works cover ceremonial regalia, baskets, bark paintings and sculptures. She has exhibited locally, nationally and internationally since 1987.


Kunmatjs, ANMM Collection

Dilly bags are traditional bags used for gathering food and could be hung around the neck in order to leave the hands free. They are typically woven out of natural fibres including grasses, animal tendons and reeds. Depending on the region of their origin, these bags have a variety of names and are produced from different materials. They are typically left undecorated without paint when used for their traditional purpose of gathering food. Today they also serve an artistic purpose and are often painted with images such as catfish.

Pandanus is a common material used in Arnhem Land for making baskets, bags and traps. The plant grows in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia in damp environments near creeks and waterways. The top leaves of the plant are collected, stripped and dried in preparation to be woven into traditional objects such as baskets, mats, fishing nets and sculptures.

This kunmatj is representative of Indigenous weaving techniques and functional carrying equipment used in the Northern Territory. It is a common utilitarian object used by men and women when hunting and gathering food. Today these functional items are also produced for artistic purposes.

Saltwater Boatmen – Meet Keith Vincent Smith

Keith Vincent Smith

As the museum’s conference, Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft nears, we will be turning your attention to the fascinating array of speakers who will be presenting on the 31 May and 1 June. Previously, I wrote about the story of Gnung-a Gnung-a, the first Aboriginal to sail across the seas to America. I enjoyed delving into part of the history of first contact and early European settlement, and Dr Keith Vincent Smith’s talk in the first session will be a welcome addition to what is shaping up to be a diverse program of events.

Keith is an independent historian and curator, whose expertise includes ethnology and the history of the Eora, the Indigenous clans of the Sydney coastal area. His talk will feature the first illustrations produced of Aboriginal watercraft at Botany Bay and cover some of the earliest moments of contact between the British and Aboriginal peoples, who had greeted the foreigners on board their nawi or stringy bark canoes.

Keith curated the exhibition, Mari Nawi – Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney in 2010. He described this exhibition as a ‘journey across time, place and cultures.’ Already, preparations for the conference have achieved exactly that, with nawi building being undertaken on the shores of Sydney Harbour. Next week, on 30 May, past and present will come together and canoes will light up Darling Harbour marking the beginning of the conference, but more importantly, it will symbolise an Indigenous cultural tradition that began thousands of years ago.

Have a look at the program of events and register online today.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

Collecting bark for more canoes

Monday, 30 April and I am on a mission to collect bark for more Indigenous canoe projects, this time it will be working with Tribal Warrior Association’s Youth Mentor Group. Getting bark is not a simple ‘go to the shop’ process – it needs permission, planning, and manpower. Paul Carriage Cultural Liaison Officer from Forests NSW (FNSW) and a member of the Ulladulla Local Aboriginal land Council helped provide all three of these things. It needs timing too – its best with wet ground that keeps the trees moist so the bark will lift, this came courtesy of El Nino and the rain we have had over the past months. And it needs a day on the road and in the bush. Meeting Paul mid-morning I followed him into the Boyne State Forest about 10 minutes north of Batemans Bay, cruising along the dirt road and pulling off to let the logging trucks through.

Felling a tree

Dave Mills from FNSW was there with his truck, ready to fell and haul out the logs we would need, and Paul’s organisation had rounded up a team of helpers from MogoLALC, including Elder Uncle Tom Butler. For me it was chance to catch up with Paul, Dave, Uncle Tom, James and Cameron who had been there for the Ulladulla workshop, but there was not much time to socialise after Dave felled the first yellow stringy bark and brought out a four metre long trunk to a clearing down the track.

Stripping bark from tree

Safety first as Paul noted the rules, and then cut a slit down the bark on the trunk. Next Paul showed us how to pound the bark with the back of an axe. This made the bark spring off the hard, woody interior, and if the timing is right and the tree is moist, it comes off with relatively ease. For us we were in luck, each big hit saw a patch lift, you could feel and see it bounce up, and tapping it gave a hollow sound, so we knew where it needed an extra hit. We took turns pounding the bark, easing it off then rolling the log to get to the underside and pound away again. A long pinch bar helped prise it back gently, and helped roll the heavy log.

Stripping bark from tree

After 10 minutes of heavy axe work and two people working together, we rolled the log out of the bark. This was going much better than anticipated as some of Paul’s previous experience had been measured in hours. Dave felled three more trees, and we had the barks off almost as quickly. The Mogo team laid their barks out and went straight into peeling off the loose exterior bark that would not be needed on the canoe hull. Meanwhile I rolled up the two I had helped pound off and we strapped them to a frame I had tied to the roof racks. I also collected saplings for branches needed to support the sides, tied them on, and then taped a red shopping bag onto the overhanging limbs.

Loading bark onto back of truck

By 2 pm we had cleared out and I was on the Princess Highway heading north, sore but satisfied and looking forward to a coffee in Berry!  Soon there should be canoes….. Keep watching this space.

Bark rolls on top of car

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Workshop on model watercraft

Flinders University, 29/30 March 2012

I am recently back from coastal Port Noarlunga on the Onkaparinga River south of Adelaide, where I held a two day workshop building models of Australian Indigenous watercraft.

Sponsored by Flinders University and coordinated by lecturer Jennifer McKinnon, I worked with 10 archaeology and maritime archaeology students, exploring the construction of different types of watercraft at scale and using this to discuss the background of the craft, plus the many aspects of indigenous  culture that are expressed through their diverse variety of canoes and rafts.

Participants of model building workshop in backyard

This was a workshop with a few differences; it was outside the classroom in a backyard, it was hands-on, it had fire, there were scones and Arnott’s assorted biscuits,  and there were no handouts or notes to take home.

One the key concepts of  Indigenous  watercraft construction was that the knowledge of their design and construction was handed on by word of mouth and demonstration, so I kept to that process, and the students took home the information in their heads and in their models.

We started sitting in a circle and talking about the background to the craft, the loss of the ‘canoe culture’ that once existed on many waterways, the diversity of craft around the country, and how I had got involved in all of this. Then we went to work using the samples of bark that Keryn Walshe, from South Australian Museum, had been able to source some days beforehand. Each model type began with me demonstrating the construction method then everyone had a go themselves.

Two workshop participants building model bark canoe

The process worked – watching, listening and questioning. The students took in the ideas and quickly produced models, sometimes taking them apart and improving them at a second go.   Throughout the two days we learnt about using materials in sympathy with what they could do, and we learnt about using and adapting what was around us too, seeking plants and parts of them from our backyard and kerbside surroundings to make ties, ropes, caulking and support structure.   We put them over a fire to dry them out and singe off the loose fibres,  used the spikes off Phoenix palm fronds as needles, saved twigs and branches form the fire wood pile to build rafts, all the time  sharing ideas and results.

Seven model bark canoes

As the workshop drew to a close we had five different types represented;   nawi or tied-bark canoes from south-east Australian coast, derrkas from Arnhem Land made famous by 10 Canoes, a walba raft from Mornington island, a rolled bark canoe from Tasmania, and a ‘shopping trolley’ type of towed raft based on an example I had seen in the National Museum of Australia’s collection.  We also had ideas forming for the next time- more model types, maybe larger ones too, and additional materials that could be useful.

Workshop participants with model bark canoes

To wrap up the two days I did a lecture in the city on Friday evening about the Australian Register of Historic Vessels ending with its focus on Indigenous watercraft and the forthcoming Nawi conference. Hope to see you all there!

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Nawi news: Display of historic images

From Wednesday 4 April the full exhibition of Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft will be opened for viewing in the lead up to the conference on indigenous watercraft in late May. The exhibition features Saltwater Freshwater bark paintings, technical drawings of a raft and a dugout canoe, and historic images from a 1929 mining company visit to Cockatoo and Koolan islands of the Buccaneer Archipelago off the Kimberley coast in WA.

The images on display are sourced from a photo album acquired by the museum several years ago at an auction in the United Sates. Considered important for the images of Aboriginal people it held, the album was compiled by an Australian mining company during a series of mining survey expeditions to the Kimberley in 1929 and 1930. The company photographed potential iron ore deposits – for which the Kimberley have since become renowned – and carefully placed the photographs into an album, with handwritten labels.

But the photographers lens quickly turned from the rocky outcrops of ore to the local people who were guiding them. Most of the album is taken up with shots of Dambimangari and Mayala people. Like many European Australians in Australia’s north and west in the early 20th century, the photographer was obviously fascinated with the traditional lifestyles of Aboriginal people.

Two kalwas loaded for a sea journey

The album is full of images of people hunting, fishing, and catching turtle and dugong. Importantly for the Nawi conference, there are several photographs of people in canoes and rafts. With the permission of the Traditional Owners of Cockatoo and Koolan islands, these images of watercraft will be on public display for the first time.

Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 2

Sunday, 22 January

The day started with bright sunshine, another fire, renewed energy and good ideas. One idea included thinning down the middle of the third bark sheet, as this was the area that was hardest to fold. Another idea was to dismantle canoe number one, reduce its width, cut off the daggy end and start it again.  While we waited for the fire to heat up and then settle down, Tom went down the road to cut some blueberry ash branches for the beams we would need later on.

Heating up the bark with potatoes in fire

Sheet number three went on the fire and started to heat up, while Paul started lunch preparations by popping foil wrapped potatoes underneath the sheet of bark! The folds went well this time as we reheated and folded the ends of the first sheet again. We were now getting the results we wanted – tight vertical sets of folds, neatly pegged and bound, with longer strips of bark making the binding easier. The process was working.

The physical nature of the work builds a healthy appetite and plenty of potatoes were cooked, and then consumed as the morning went into lunch.

Left: folding corners Right: completed canoe 

The last thing to do was to secure and strengthen the middle of the canoes with cross branches and bark ties, pulling it all together.  The re-formed canoe number one looked a bit thin on the sides, so we decided to add branches that would form gunwales, a feature not widely reported on this type of canoe. Most records suggest they had some cross beams or frames only, but at least one or two reports observed canoes where the sides had been strengthened in this way.

We cut down the blueberry ash branches that had been de-barked by Tom, and tied them into place with smaller bark strips. We tried different ways of sewing the bark through the bark sides and tying the various parts into place. Two hulls were completed over the afternoon before it was time to tidy up, take a group photo and call it a day. 

Group photo of canoe builders 

The desired outcomes were achieved. First and foremost we had learnt and improved with every step we took. We had also gained invaluable experience with the material. We began to recognise its qualities and how to take advantage of them.  There was great satisfaction all round by being part of this process, and realising how much had been learnt and could be passed on.

Finally we had three boats, one for each of the three groups who participated. Three boats that we hope will encourage more and help re-establish a vital piece of Indigenous culture that has been missing for a number of generations. 

David Payne
Curator, Historic Vessel Register

Read: Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 2

Bark canoe workshop, Ulladulla – Part 1

Saturday, 21 January

In late October 2011, the museum awarded a grant through the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPSS) to the Budamurra Aboriginal Corporation at Ulladulla, allowing them to host a weekend workshop to build tied bark canoes with material supplied by Forests NSW.

The grant also included sending me (David Payne, museum curator) to share my research of Indigenous watercraft and recent experience building a tied bark canoe, as reported in my blog last year.

Two days before the workshop, Paul Carriage, Cultural Heritage Officer, with the Forests NSW Southern region, and his colleague Dave felled four stringy barks. They peeled off the bark and took it to a stream where it was left to soak.

Paul was a key member of the workshop group, along with his brother Shane from Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council (ULALC) who applied for the grant, and other ULALC members. We also had Jonathan Hill and Gordon Campbell representing Vincentia High and the Jervis Bay region, while Elder Tom Butler came up from Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council with James and Cameron.  During the workshop other people came and went – they looked on, joined in or just gave their encouragement as we steadily turned sheets of bark into canoe hulls over the two days, all out in the open.

We followed the steps recorded and illustrated in reports from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The information is short on detail, but clear on concept.  Essentially we had to fold the ends and tie them with strips of bark, then support the middle with branches.

The build…

The weekend started on Saturday morning with four of us up to our knees in a stream well off the main road, heaving three 4 metre long pieces of wet, heavy bark to Dave’s Forestry truck. The bark was taken to ULALC and their backyard, the site for the canoe building.

Loading stringy bark logs onto truck

Step one

We had to invert the bark so the outside of the tree became the inside of the canoe. Then came the long, laborious process of peeling off the loose exterior bark, back to the good fibres tightly woven together that give the canoe its strength and form.

The sheets were about 4 metres long and 1. 4 metres wide – a lot of area to cover on hands and knees. Hatchets and other blades are used to lift an end of the bark to start a strip peeling. Then you stand up and peel it back as far as it will go. 

When we reached an even clean surface, both ends needed further thinning down for about a metre in, to make it easier to fold. Peeling this back showed the wet, resin coated nature of the live bark. This moist and supple feel is vital to the process – old dried bark is not suitable.

Stripping back bark

Step two

After a late lunch, we lit a fire – our means of heating the ends of the bark to help with the folding process.  After the flames died down we put the first end over the hot coals. Quite quickly it picked up the heat, almost to a point where you could not leave your hand on it – that’s the temperature test. The bark is then taken off the coals and laid down on the grass. Working on their knees, two people, one either side, grasp the bark at the edges and fold the sides into the middle with two folds. A third person lassos it with a rope, further compressing the ends. A fourth person pierces the folds with a screwdriver so a branch peg can be hammered through, helping secure the folds. Finally wet strips of bark lash the end together and its complete. 

Tying the ends of the bark canoe

Over the first afternoon we heated and folded four ends to form two boats. As we progressed, each end improved on the last. We encountered problems as we went, such as tears in the bark ends, uneven thickness at different points, and the general nature of a material that none of us were all that familiar with.

We made the fire wider to help with the heating and began to hose the ends lightly to reduce drying out. Each end was part of a learning process and that summarises the intention of the weekend. We expected mistakes, and problems, but by doing a series of canoes we also hoped to learn and improve. With a mixture of modern tools and traditional materials we went upwards on the learning curve.