Searching for nagega in Papua New Guinea

Breakfast spot on 4th August, an atoll in the Engineer group. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

Breakfast spot on 4th August, an atoll in the Engineer group. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

David Payne, Curator of Historic Vessels, is currently on a research trip in remote Papua New Guinea to document traditional watercrafts and their construction techniques.

We have spent a bit of extra time at Alotau, there are a few things needing attention: doing some running repairs, reprovisioning, taking on fuel and water.

We had a break through on the morning of Sunday 13th August: We have located our first nagega, the big canoes that are a focus for this next part of the voyage in Massim region.

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The Massim canoes of Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

A sailau coming to a village. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

A sailau coming to a village. Image: David Payne / ANMM.

David Payne, Curator of Historic Vessels, is currently on a research trip in remote Papua New Guinea to document traditional watercrafts and their construction techniques.

Coral Haven is at the eastern extremity of the Louisiades Archipelago in Papua New Guinea. Yesterday afternoon it was a windswept place with rain squalls – after all, the south east trade winds blow strongly in August. To get here involves travelling into the trade’s rough seas, passing through the Engineer Group and then the Conflict Islands, having started out from Alotau in Milne Bay about eight days ago. Today it is time to leave our sheltered anchorage on Nimoa Island, beside Sudest Island down at the eastern end of Coral Haven, and start the return journey.

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January 26: One day, many meanings

Worimi man Steve Brereton paddles a nawi in Darling Harbour in 2012.

Worimi man Steve Brereton paddles a nawi in Darling Harbour in 2012. Image: Andrew Frolows/ANMM.

On 26 January the museum has often sailed the HMB Endeavour replica in the Tall Ships Race on Sydney Harbour. This year, Endeavour will not be out, but another important vessel linked to the museum will be involved in the 26 January events.

At 7.30am on Thursday at Barangaroo Reserve a bark canoe – or nawi in the Sydney Aboriginal language – will bring ashore a small fire from the Tribal Warrior vessel. The fire will be lit as part of the WugulOra (One Mob) ceremony that will begin Australia Day events in Sydney by ‘recognising our shared history’. Previously held at the Opera House, WugulOra will be at the new Barangaroo parkland site for the first time this year.

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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

Day One: Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft

Shoalhaven canoe project

Shoalhaven canoe project presentation with Steve Russell, Noel Lonesborough and Jim Wallis

At the close of a fantastic first day of the Nawi conference here at the Australian National Maritime Museum, we thought we would share some impressions and snippets from the event.

While there are a wide variety of people, ways of teaching, storytelling and of sharing information here at this event, there are some vital common threads emerging through the presentations of our speakers.

Alison Page, Executive Officer of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, opened today’s proceedings with a heartfelt speech about the importance of a revival of traditional cultural practices. She articulated that the passing on of knowledge and traditions to the next generation is what provides them with identity, strength, confidence and a sense of their place in the world.

During morning tea John Moriarty gave an inspiring talk, as photographs of his childhood were projected onto the wall behind him. John spoke of how he was taken from his family and his home as a child, but that he treasures the early years of his life spent in the bush, learning traditional practices such as canoe building that gave him a sense of identity as an Aboriginal person. He too reiterated the importance of passing this knowledge through the generations before it is lost.

Aboriginal artist, Jonathan Jones, discussed the centrality of traditional watercraft within his artwork and how it translates beyond two-dimensional works, and into the realm of sculpture. He plans to travel down the Murrumbidgee River to learn more about watercraft and the surrounding culture and lands.

Daryl Wesley’s presentation brought an archaeological perspective to the conference with his examination of maritime images in the rock art of Arnhem Land. He also provided some information on the different chronological frameworks used to assist in dating such as changes of style in the art and – of all things – beeswax!

As an example of intergenerational knowledge sharing in action, Cameron Cope and Steaphan Paton presented on their arts collaboration ‘Boorun’s Canoe’. This project followed Steaphan and his family as his grandfather taught them the traditional art of building a canoe. Steaphan stressed the importance of the canoe as transport, as a way of life and as an icon in the origin story of the Gunaikurnai people. The passing of this heritage from one generation to the next continues the past into the future, so that the story never ends. Revitalising, reawakening and renewing.

Some of the bark canoes used on the harbour on Wednesday night

Some of the bark canoes used on the harbour on Wednesday night

Canoe making presentations dominated the third session and the day closed off with a canoe making demonstration and a dinner on the rooftop terrace of Pyrmont Bridge Hotel.

For more information on these talks, and the many other fantastic speakers who attended the first day please see our website.

Nicole Cama and Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistants

Boorun’s Canoe

Who was Boorun?

Boorun was a pelican, the first of the Gunnai/Kurnai people who came to Gippsland. When Boorun first travelled to the area, he carried with him a bark canoe. As he walked, Boorun heard a tapping sound coming from his canoe. At the deep water inlets, Boorun stopped and turning over his canoe he discovered, much to his surprise, that there was a woman in it. She was Tuk, the musk duck and she became his wife and mother of the Gunnai/Kurnai people.

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Boorun’s Canoe is the title of an indigenous cultural arts collaboration by artist Steaphan Paton, his grandfather Uncle Albert Mullet and photographic artist Cameron Cope.

The project tells the story of Gunai/Kurnai elder Uncle Albert Mullet as he teaches his grandson Steaphan Paton and other young men in his family how to build a traditional bark canoe. The project captures the canoe’s creation through to its successful floating by Steaphan and his family, and in doing so highlights the importance of transferring intergenerational knowledge and the preservation of cultural traditions and pride.

Boorun the Pelican, our Gunai ancestor, came to Gippsland carrying a bark canoe on his head. Canoes are part of our story of who we are and where we come from. I want to respect my ancestors by continuing the tradition of canoe-making and safeguard it for future generations.  Aboriginal Artist Steaphan Paton.

Steaphan Paton, Uncle Albert Mullet and Cameron Cope will be among the speakers presenting at the conference Nawi : Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft which begins at the Australian National Maritime Museum during Reconciliation Week and runs from 30 May to 1 June. The conference will look at First Australians’ long and continued connections with watercraft. Some highlights will be artist talks and hands-on canoe making workshops.

The conference commences on Wednesday evening when a number of bark canoes from around the country, lit by traditional fires, will make their way from the museum’s wharves into Darling Harbour. You can still register to come along and participate in this conference, and hear the full story of Boorun’s Canoe.

Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistant

Canoe building in Sydney

Last Wednesday’s fine weather had everyone out enjoying it if they could. For me and 10 others, it was perfect for nawi construction. We were building more tied-bark canoes, probably the first ones to be built on the shores of Sydney Harbour in well over a century.

I was down at Blackwattle Bay, working with an all Indigenous group made up of  members from Tribal Warrior Association’s Youth Mentor Group, their CEO Shane Phillips, and from National Parks and Wildlife Service NSW, Dean Kelly, Aboriginal Cultural Liaison Officer, three of his team and Elder Uncle Keith from La Perouse.

This was another step in the museum’s commitment to working with and supporting Indigenous communities. For me, it was an opportunity to learn from the group and to share the knowledge of building nawis that I’ve built up over the past 12 months. There is still a lot that is not known about the craft and has to be discovered by practical experience.

The bark was already there – my previous blog about my Bateman’s Bay adventure tells that story – so we started with an introduction, just talking about the bark. The most important thing is to understand the life and spirit captured in the bark; it’s a living part of the tree. The capillaries that carry the nutrients, created by leaves, form the fibres and strength of the bark we were going to use. It has life that we can put into our nawi.

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A fire is lit to heat up the bark

We then got into the practical side. We cleaned off the loose bark, stripped the ends down to make them thinner for folding, pulled long strips off for ties, set up a fire, shaped some wooden pegs… there was something for everyone to work on.

We laid the first end of the bark over the fire within 40 minutes of starting, and 20 minutes later the heat was doing its job. So the folding team took their sides as the sheet was removed.

Hands on each side we grabbed the edges and folded it in and then back on itself. Another person at the front kept things aligned and got the middle ready to take its final crease, while the ‘lasso man’ tightened the rope to secure it all in place. On with the rope, then back off as we realigned the folds, then a final heave and we had an end in place, rising up as it should!

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We begin to tie the second end of the canoe.

Next, a blueberry ash peg was hammered through, holding the folds in place as strips of bark were lashed around to complete the process. We then turned the bark, heated it over the fire and did it all again, this time for the cameras. SBS and ABC had each sent a crew to capture the action.

Watching over the process was Redfern’s Police liaison officer, he had come down to see what the boys were up to, and staff from the museum had come across as well to see what these projects I have been doing actually involve.

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Tying the ends of the bark canoe

The final step was to fit a support structure, to push the sides out and give it a bit more shape and strength. Afterwards the TV crew interviewed us, keen to hear what everyone thought of the process.

We formed the ends on the second bark and called it a day. We were happy to have got this far, and in good shape to finish the second canoe in the coming days.  A big tidy up followed, nawi building seems to develop a lot of loose material – dead bark, strips off the inside of the bark, leaves and twigs off branches, firewood. All signs of productive activity and the restoration of a significant cultural activity – nawi building on Sydney Harbour.

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

The Nawi conference is only a few weeks away! Over two days 31 May – 1 June, people from all over Australia will gather to explore Australia’s indigenous watercraft though a series of talks, demonstrations and performance. You can register on our website.

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Complete bark canoe on top of car

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.

Nawi conference registrations now open

We are thrilled to announce that delegate registrations for the conference Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft are now open. If you register before 31 March, you will receive the early bird rate.

This first major conference exploring the watercraft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will bring together people from all over Australia to share their knowledge, skills and stories. Over two days, we will explore Australia’s Indigenous watercraft through talks, demonstrations, performances and workshops.

We’ve added a few of the conference highlights on our website, so head on over and check it out. More information will be added as the program is finalised – it’s sure to be a fantastic few days!

Group photo of canoe builders

Recent canoe building workshop in Ulladulla, NSW

Conference dates

Wednesday 30 May
Evening welcome function

Thursday 31 May – Friday 1 June
Conference program

Conference location

Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Delegate fees

Early bird (before 31 March) $220
Concession rate $165
Full rate $275

You can register for the conference online now.

We look forward to seeing you there!

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.

Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft

Next May the museum will host a two day conference called Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft.  Over this past year the Nawi team at the museum have been busily planning for the conference and during this time have connected with people all over Australia working on a wide range of canoe building projects. The more we hear about these amazing projects, the more and more excited we are about coming together at the conference to explore the craft.

Daina, Steve and Rachel with the Gamedi Bark Canoe from the ANMM collection

Daina, Steve and Rachel with the Gamedi Bark Canoe from the ANMM collection

A few weeks ago we met up with Steve Brereton and Rachel Piercy, who are working on a canoe building project in Gathang Country (Forster -Mid North Coast NSW).  As part of their project they will document the construction of a stringy bark canoe and explore many aspects of the craft from production and use. We’re looking forward to seeing the results!

In the new year we’ll confirm the Nawi conference program and also announce the first round of early bird conference registrations, so keep an eye out for that.

On the move with Indigenous watercraft – ANMM visits Vincentia NSW and Triabunna Tasmania

 In May 2012, the museum will host a two day conference called nawi- Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft.  While planning for this event we have connected with many people across Australia who have provided some fantastic opportunities for outreach to the wider community.

Recently I visited two regions to give talks about the craft, show some of my own models and demonstrate materials, and discuss participation in the conference.

Yellow Stringy Bark Canoe

Yellow stringy bark canoe model. Approx 600mm long. Photo: David Payne

My first visit was in late August to the South Coast of NSW, at the invitation of teacher Jonathon Hall from Vincentia High School, where he teaches the local Dhurga language and other aspects of Indigenous culture. The school and Jervis Bay area have a strong Indigenous community and welcomed the chance to learn more. 

It was a long day! Starting at 8.15am with over 170 students involved. The students gathered around a 3.5 metre long tied bark canoe or nawi, and were surrounded by  models, bits of bark and drawings that were there to look at and touch as well. The presentation covered the diverse range of craft, how they were built and used, and how the museum is researching their story. The students eagerly asked questions, passed around the models and bark samples, and everyone wanted to touch the canoe.

The real highlight was the fact the canoe has now stayed at the school. The canoe was given to the school, to hold on behalf of the south coast communities, and will now be available for them to look at and perhaps even use. The canoe was built in Sydney in 2009 by NSW teacher James Dodd, and given to me earlier in 2011. Back in 2010 James and I launched the canoe on Sydney Harbour to the amazement of the early risers at the local Mosman park, and although it had some leaks, it worked very well for short paddles and poling along close to shore.

Meluka rolled bark canoe

Rolled bark canoe model, made from meluka. Approx 600mm long. Photo: David Payne

During my visit to the South Coast, I met with Ulladulla Land Council member and NSW State Forests Cultural Heritage Officer Paul Carriage to discuss plans for a workshop on the South Coast. The workshop would see elders meet over two or three days to build bark canoes, then take the skills they have learnt back to their communities and build more with the younger members.  The aim is to reinvigorate the community and bring back a missing tradition and vital part of their culture.

My next visit was to the Spring Bay Maritime and Discovery Centre in early September – with dolphins in the bay, a new canoe and a community celebrating its past. This was another excellent exchange between the museum and regional Australia.  The centre sits on the coast of Tasmanian in Triabunna, just north of Hobart, and the presence of Maria Island offshore is one of the dominant features. There is thought to have been almost 40,000 years of Indigenous occupation of sites on the island, which in more recent times was only accessible by water.  The rolled bark canoes that were used to cross over to the island are unique to Tasmania and were made by the local community from reeds and bark.

Maria Island and Spring Bay

Maria Island and Spring Bay. Photo: David Payne

The Spring Bay Centre has only recently opened, and ANMM assisted with advice on one of their exhibits featuring parts of an early wooden craft found in a riverbed, which probably came from the first decades of European settlement in the bay.  However, the centre realised that the true origins of local vessels were the Indigenous canoes. So, consultant and vice president Sue Atkinson formed a plan to build a canoe that would be the centerpiece for a display on the Indigenous community and their stories for Spring Bay and Maria Island.  Colony47 assisted with the project that saw Indigenous mentors working with younger community members to build a canoe from local materials. It was a huge success; they even took it to a field day further north and launched it in a lake where they paddled it around. The canoe is now housed inside the centre.

Canoe at Spring Bay Centre

Canoe at Spring Bay Maritime and Discovery Centre. Photo: David Payne

At the kind invitation of the centre, I officially opened the exhibit. I also made two presentations on the bigger picture of Indigenous watercraft to over 100 visitors A highlight was to show my model of a rolled bark canoe, made using melaluca bark. Watch out for more models being made by some of those present!

While in Tasmania, I also caught up with TMAG Indigenous Collections curator Tony Brown, and his brother Buck who was a mentor in the Spring Bay canoe building project. I’d first met Tony and Buck when building a canoe in 2009, so it was good to talk about how the craft had developed as they made more, and how they and others could contribute to the forthcoming conference with a presentation on their various projects, and even a demonstration of techniques.

What a great experience… Two visits, over two weeks, with two communities showing a wide appreciation of their own watercraft and where they fit in the big picture of Australia’s wonderful range of original Indigenous watercraft.

David Payne, Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels
Australian National Maritime Museum

For more information about the nawi conference, please visit our website. Call for conference papers, presentations and demonstrations now open, until 31 October.