visiting Awabikal country

July 12, 2014


In the last week of June, I had to travel to deliver a presentation at a conference.

It is hard for me to leave the kids. My husband is more than capable of looking after them, but my guilt at forsaking my duties as a mother is palpable.

I was away for two nights, three days. I went to a city on the New South Wales east coast called Newcastle. Newcastle is Awabikal Country.

I hadn’t been to Newcastle for 30 years. It’s not really somewhere you think of going by choice. In the past it was a centre for the steelworks and has always been a port for the coal industry.

My Aboriginal great grandmother spent a lot of time in Newcastle. My mother lived with her during her early childhood and remembers frequently going to Newcastle, but she doesn’t remember why. It wouldn’t have been for cultural reasons, my great grandmother grew up with two white parents, her birth mother and stepfather, and four white siblings – she didn’t receive any cultural training.

The organisers of the conference put me up in a very nice hotel on the beachfront and gave me an ocean view from my room.  I hadn’t been to the seaside for about 5 years.



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What a special time I had.

Whales were migrating up the coast heading for warmer waters in Queensland. When I wasn’t at the conference I was mesmerised watching  the whales. They came so close to the shore. They weren’t breaching. You would see the spray first, and then their backs. Occasionally you would see a fin come out of the water, or a tail. There were pods of dolphins too.


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Near the centre of this photo, you can see the spray of a small whale.


I was also mesmerised and delighted by how alive this city is. It filled me with joy.

There were people getting out and doing stuff from first light.

On one of my walks, an older fella told me that every day he drives 50 minutes, one way, to come to this part of Newcastle. He said that he lives on his own in the bush, and here he enjoys seeing so many people out and about.

People were..

walking – on their own, in family groups, in friendship groups, with prams, with dogs


exercising in the park


bathing – we are mid winter and the water was 16 degrees celsius

doing sun salutations

rock fishing

meeting up for hot chocolate

feeding pigeons


paddle boarding – I’d never seen paddle boarding before

boating, sailing


Surfers are such a hopeful bunch aren’t they? They were in the water at sunrise. They waited for the waves that would get them a nice ride. They sat on their boards and watched the whales go past. They were in the water for hours. Surfing is like dancing, it’s an individual activity done in companionship with others. I admire those surfers’ balance and flow.

The landscape? Australians are coastal dwellers. About 90 per cent of our population lives on or near the coast. There was no part of this Newcastle city landscape that has not been touched or transformed by white Australians. There were many relics of the past 140 years of shaping and reshaping – pavillions, bath houses, walkways.

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It must have been a beautiful place before white occupation. But it isn’t ugly now.

Although the air smelt of ozone and industry, there was such vibrancy and hope. The weather was warm! And there was so much light!


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Where I was staying was 300 metres from the city centre of Newcastle. The first day I took a walk around the streets. They were so quiet. I could have stood in the middle of the road for 5 minutes without being bothered by a car. In Sydney, 300 metres from any town centre would have you getting run over in 5 milliseconds.


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This sign tells of the spirit of Yiran nali that lives at the cliff face. It warns visitors to stay quiet, because even a whisper will upset Yiran nali and he will loosen rocks from the cliff face.

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An Awabikal man that I met at the conference, talked about the legend of the kangaroo at Nobby’s Head (Aboriginal: Whibayganba). He said that in the Dreamtime, a kangaroo had done something to hurt his Kangaroo clan. The kangaroos were giants then, what we now call ‘megafauna‘. The clan cast him out to the point, and told him he had to stay there. He buried down into the earth at that point. The Newcastle area is known for earthquakes. In 1989 there was a big earthquake which caused a lot of damage to the area. When there is an earthquake, the local people believe it is the kangaroo at Whibayganba kicking his legs under the earth, frustrated that he is still trapped there. The Awabikal man said that Whibayganba used to be much bigger, whitefellas reduced the size of it so the sailing ships could fill their sails quicker.


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The foliage at the front of this photo is pigface, a native plant. It is fleshy and edible.


I travelled by train to and from Newcastle. If I had driven it might have taken two hours. By train, it took five hours to get there, and four hours to get back. But oh my! the views! I’d forgotten how beautiful the country through Berowra Waters and the Central Coast is.




Now I am home and I miss the whales, the sound of the waves, and the aliveness of that place. It is dark here in the mountains in mid winter. The days are short. The sun is weak. The past few weeks I feel that I have been asphyxiating with the weight of winter, like I am being slowly crushed by a python.

I want to take the same trip next year. To take my boys to see the whales and experience this different way of being. Our part of the Blue Mountains is a sleepy and lethargic place and my boys have fallen under this spell. They have become such introverts and home bodies. It is so easy to be lulled into this quiet, introspective way of being.

This trip to Newcastle has given me a different perspective. All of my nerve endings feel like they have had a current run through them. I am feeling restless.







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6 Comments on “visiting Awabikal country”

  1. greenmackenzie Says:

    Sounds like a great trip, and I love the way that you bring the energy of the place through your being and into the post. Also love the idea that a place can seep sleepiness into our bones. Lovely post, thank you


    • tree girl Says:

      Thank you greenmackenzie.

      It was a trip I didn’t want to take but that I very much needed.

      That reminds me, I haven’t been to see what you have been up to lately. I have been reading a bit about Celtic history lately. My Irish ancestors came from County Clare and County Kerry. I mentioned this to an Irishman that I know recently, and he said that County Clare is very beautiful. So I googled it and it does look wonderful. Then I discovered that the poet John O’Donohue came from County Clare. This led me to reading all sorts of stuff, from their funny little proto money rings through the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, the Crusades and so on. Such a lot of history! One fella wrote about how he found a medieval hawking bell in the fields around Raglan Castle, and I instantly thought of you and whether you have that castle on your blog.


  2. michaelwatsonvt Says:

    Aye, what a lovely post. I feel as though I have visited. I love the vistas. A long time ago I lived on the coast of Northern California. Each year the grey whales migrate up and down the coast. They are immense creatures. One day one followed me as I walked the beach, then turned around with me and returned! It stayed just far enough out to be safe – maybe 2o meters. I was blessed, although I don’t believe I grasped the full impact of that experience at the time, perhaps I still don’t.


    • tree girl Says:

      Hi Michael

      These whales were humpbacks and southern right whales. Humpbacks are huge, and southern rights are smaller.

      At first I thought “yeah, there’s some whales out there”, and the more I watched them the more addicted I became.

      I dipped into “My People’s Dreaming” by Max Dulumunmun Harrison yesterday. In it he described a process where the Elders sang and called out to the dolphins and slapped the water, and the dolphins came and pushed fish onto the beach so the clan could have a good feed. Gives ya shivers.


  3. phrogmom Says:

    It sounds amazing! I wish I could visit too!


    • tree girl Says:

      Hi phroggie

      I don’t think it would be worth travelling from the US to see our Newcastle. You must have places with a similar vibe over there?


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