Wollemi National Park’s Hidden Cultural Treasures

Hand stencils near Colo Heights

Mark Roebuck, NPA member and bushwalker

Australia’s Aboriginal Rock Art is of World Heritage significance.  Many people are familiar with the spectacular rock art of Northern Australia.  It is a lesser known fact that similar treasures lay on the doorstep of Sydney’s large population centres.  Wollemi National Park consists of 5,000 square kilometres of rugged and difficult to access, trackless terrain.  It is rich in Aboriginal art and other cultural sites.  Many of these sites have only recently been re-discovered.  Many more remain in obscurity, lost to knowledge (waiting to be found) due to the forced cultural disconnection of the Aboriginal custodians and protected by the rugged wilderness.

Some sites around the fringes of Wollemi have been known to white people for some time as they are close to access roads.  Many more have been ‘chance discoveries’ by bushwalkers in more remote regions of the National Park more recently, for example ‘Eagles Reach’.

I have been lucky enough to live most of my life in Lithgow, on the doorstep of one of the largest national parks in NSW.  We have been bushwalking and exploring in Wollemi since the mid 1970’s, before it had been declared a national park.  Consequently, we became ‘connoisseurs’ of camp caves from an early age.  They provided us with comfortable shelters on our various explorations.  It didn’t take long before we started to notice some of these caves were decorated by Aboriginal art, and appeared to be in uncharted locations. 

These more recent discoveries stimulated a more systematic ‘searching’ programme for art sites as it became clear that the area was rich in ‘undiscovered’ art sites.  The Wollemi Rock Art Project (WRAP) was born under the auspices of New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, and many significant sites were discovered.  Aboriginal elders were consulted and aided to visit and reconnect with their ancient and remote sites.

Since the demise of the WRAP (due to funding constraints) work has gone on undaunted – searching, logging and reporting on Aboriginal Art Sites in Wollemi.  The work is painstakingly slow and must be meticulous.  Trips range from simple car-based day trips to full pack week long exploratory level bushwalks.  All sites found are reported to the Department of Environment and Heritage AHIMS Unit and the information is not shared elsewhere.  From the AHIMS unit Aboriginal groups with interest in these sites have full access to the information.  To my knowledge most of the recently located sites remain to be visited by contemporary cultural custodians or by archaeologists.

This work is of the highest importance because these art sites are precious and sacred Aboriginal artefacts and deserve the utmost in protection.  Their importance in the cultural landscape of Aboriginal use of the Wollemi region is yet to be fully elucidated.  Their significance may extend to gaining World Heritage status for Wollemi/Yengo National Parks on cultural criteria, in the same way that, for example Kakadu and Mungo NPs enjoy.  Finally, their preservation is important for future generations.

In order to protect these sites, their locations must be known.  Threats to their survival are increasing.  Climate change is causing more intense fires as we have recently seen – intense heat can damage art sites, exfoliating rock layers and destroying painting of ochre.  Also, Government attitudes to established World Heritage areas is demonstrably poor, as we have seen with the recent proposal to flood World Heritage areas for the Warragamba Dam wall modifications.  It is vital to know where Aboriginal sites are located to prevent their loss in this way.  Hence, it is becoming more pressing to extend these surveys into remote area of the parks.  In pre-colonial times, the art sites were probably ‘maintained’ by the custodians and artists – perhaps ‘touching up’ and adding to the art with repeated visits and protecting sites from the ravages of fire by ‘cultural burning’ techniques.  These measures might be reinstituted if Aboriginal people could be reconnected to these significant sites – cultural burning ‘practitioners’ could be integrated into the NPWS management and directed by them.

There are very few of us currently involved in this work, as far as I know.  We are not getting any younger.  I would love to hear from others who are interested in this endeavour.  More ‘sets of eyes’ certainly make searches easier!  I feel the need to pass on this project in the years to come; ‘a generational change’.  Coordination of the work is vital of course, as there is no point in covering areas already explored.  On this note, it is surprising how, despite an area being on the ‘beaten track’, art sites close by remain undiscovered – I think it is our bushwalking (and driving vehicle) habit of ‘sticking to ridges’ which accounts for this.  We have occasionally been standing in a newly located art site within earshot of traffic!  Descending into the valleys from these ridges in search of caves and art reveals another world, sort of a ‘parallel universe’ or dimension.

I have already mentioned that many trips we do are day trips with car based camping; others however are multiple-day exploratory walks in trackless areas.  A certain skill set is needed for many of the trips that we undertake.  Walkers must be very fit, fully self-sufficient with lightweight equipment and safety gear including a GPS and an EPIRB.  They must be capable of navigation competence in wilderness areas.  Great sensitivity and cultural awareness is needed for this work as the sites are of sacred importance.

Finally, I would also love to hear from Aboriginal people with a cultural interest in this work and/or visiting any of these sites.

Contact Mark via email

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