Life and death on Dyarubbin

Reports from the Hawkesbury River

ON THE RIVERBANK at the old Sackville Aboriginal Reserve on Dyarubbin there’s a stone obelisk. It seems permanent and solid, but it has a habit of slipping out of landscape and memory. Erected in 1952, the obelisk was later swallowed whole by lantana, and when found again during a clean-up in the 1970s, nobody could recall anything about it.[i] There is a sense of quiet reverence to it – this tall, solitary monument dark with age, like a gravestone. But perhaps more striking is the fantastical old fig tree nearby, its interwoven roots wrapped over a massive rectangular rock.

I am here on the river with Darug descendants Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins and Jasmine Seymour, as well as historian and archaeologist Paul Irish. It’s autumn, the season of mirror-still water and pure-white morning fogs that burn off gradually to shreds and wisps. We are on our first field trip for the project The Real Secret River: Dyarubbin, launched in 2017 and inspired by a precious find in the Mitchell Library – a list, neatly handwritten, of more than 170 Aboriginal names for places on the Hawkesbury River. These words were given to a scientifically minded Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John McGarvie, by the Aboriginal people of Dyarubbin in 1829.[ii] McGarvie helpfully linked the Aboriginal words with the names of the settlers’ farms too. This means, stunningly, that it is possible to pin at least some of these words back to their river places. It means that these places might be known once more by their soft, rolling Aboriginal names, that the words might again be spoken as part of living language and shared geographies. And then, what if we think of these names and places as portals to the larger Aboriginal world of Dyarubbin? What if they could also be reconnected with Aboriginal traditional knowledge and language, and with history, archaeology, geography and ecology – read together through the prism of the river?


WE CHOOSE SACKVILLE Reach and Portland Head for our first field trip because these areas are archaeologically rich and historically significant. Paul’s research reveals at least twenty-six rock-shelters, campsites, paintings and rock engravings on both sides of the river here (there are hundreds more north and south). In the late 1790s, this was also the area of strongest Aboriginal resistance to the settler invasion. The riverbanks here are so narrow that Aboriginal warriors – men and women – could attack from the higher ground. The onslaughts were so fierce that settlers were driven out. Those who returned in 1803 were attacked again. It’s a spectacular landscape, too, because this is where Dyarubbin re-enters the ranges, flowing uphill through its deep sandstone gorges before turning east at Wiseman’s Ferry and heading for the sea. Towering rock outcrops stand sentinel at the gateway to the stone labyrinth.[iii]

We drive up and over the ridge to the west of the river, and down to the old Sackville Reserve. The reserve was officially declared in 1889, but Aboriginal people had been living in the area long before that. This was the country of Gomebeere and Yallahmiendi, the koradjies (doctors) who met Governor Phillip’s exploratory party in 1791. It was the Aboriginal people living here who later forced the settlers out, who were visited by missionaries in the 1810s, who were recorded by name in the official ‘blanket lists’ of the 1830s.[iv] Their descendants lived among settlers on the river throughout the nineteenth century. The last resident of the old reserve was Andy Barber, a tall, straight-made, well-known man with a shock of white hair. He died in 1943 and the reserve was revoked three years later. Then in 1952, Percy Walter Gledhill, president of the Royal Australian Historical Society, donated the obelisk, which was erected on the old reserve. The words engraved on the plinth tell us it was raised ‘as a memorial to the Aborigines of the Hawkesbury’.[v]

Local Sackville man Dennis Mitchell joins us at the reserve site. Like many Hawkesbury people, Dennis can point to the farms of the earliest white settlers (the ones who eventually managed to stay), and those of their children and grandchildren. He grew up on a farm beside the reserve and witnessed the dedication ceremony here in 1952; in fact, young Dennis was dispatched to show the important visitors around. When the obelisk was rediscovered in the 1970s, it was Dennis who stepped forward to explain it.

Dennis tells us that originally the monument was painted white, with black and gold lettering – again, the visual vocabulary of a cemetery. But the stronger association is with Australian war memorials, the obelisks erected in the absence of the dead themselves. Yet we don’t find the names of Aboriginal people engraved on this one, only the names of white dignitaries who placed it here.

The obelisk was dedicated on the 5 July 1952. This date was deliberately chosen because it was the day Governor Phillip’s party sailed past this part of the river on their first exploratory journey in 1789.[vi] The implications are striking: however well-meant and sympathetic, this obelisk marks a kind of final closure, from the day the first white man set the clock of history ticking in this place to the final exit of its Aboriginal people. The monument is about death – not an individual’s death, but the metaphorical death of a race, here on the Hawkesbury – a local, late echo of the old and long-held settler belief that the Aboriginal people were destined to die out.

So, it is strange to stand here at this monument with Leanne, Erin and Jasmine – Darug descendants, whose families are connected to the people who lived on this reserve. I wonder if a more appropriate symbol of the Aboriginal people of Dyarubbin is the ancient fig that clings tenaciously to the rock nearby, roots reaching deep into the river soil.

We drive back around to the Sackville Ferry, tirelessly chugging across the river near its dramatic, cliff-bound hairpin bend. From nearby Tizzana Road you can look south over the area Reverend McGarvie noted as Dorumbolooa. Linguist Jim Wafer, who is helping with the project, has glossed Dorumbolooa as ‘place where the rainbow passed through or is located’. Jasmine points out that rainbows are important in Aboriginal spiritual life and mythology; among many Aboriginal groups, the great creator serpent appears as a rainbow, shimmering across the sky. Here on Dyarubbin, we know that rainbows signalled supernatural power and ominous portent. And a little further upstream from Dorumbolooa, carved on a rock platform beside the river, is Gurangatty, the gigantic Eel-Being, the powerful creator of the rivers and valleys hereabouts, who lives in the lagoons and the deepest parts of the river.[vii]

These river reaches were not only an Aboriginal stronghold, but a place infused and throbbing with spiritual meaning and power. Was this why they fought so hard for them?


TIZZANA ROAD IS beautiful, winding past tranquil lagoons and flanked by stony ridges clothed in bushland. The road takes its name from the Tizzana vineyards, established in 1887 by the famous Florence-born surgeon Thomas Fiaschi. Dr Fiaschi hired local Aboriginal workers, and there are large photographs of them proudly displayed on the sandstone walls of the winery. Early twentieth-century newspapers published evocative stories about these workers, camping on the riverbank during the harvest, singing hymns and playing gum leaves.[viii]

We’ve arranged to meet Michael Kemp at the vineyard too. Michael is Hawkesbury born and bred, descended from early settlers, and like Dennis he knows this part of the river intimately. Michael’s uncle donated land for a local nature reserve, a rare bit of surviving river bushland in a crook of the river nearby. There are rock engravings there, as well as in many of the local paddocks and yards. We head off to the reserve in convoy. Not far up the road, where the lagoons and vineyards give way to the bushland on higher ground, Michael pulls over and jumps out. He calls to us, waving his arms and pointing, ‘There were lots of Aboriginal huts here,’ he says. ‘They were on both sides of the road; they lived all through here.’ Michael’s great-grandfather William Kemp employed some of them on his citrus farm.

Who were these people? Where did they go?


HISTORIES OF THE Hawkesbury have traditionally focused on and celebrated the multiplying, intermarried, ever-expanding settler families. Settler history is full of life, full of ‘firsts’. But Aboriginal history is usually presented as the flipside of this: it is stalked by death, marked out by a mournful litany of ‘lasts’. Yet on our river journey today, we’ve found traces of Aboriginal people – their living and working places, their art and sacred sites – everywhere in the river landscape, and in local memory.

Down near the river, the bush reserve rises from drained wetlands up a steep, forested slope. It’s getting chilly now, the sun is going down. We walk through wild, weedy woodland to a dry creek and waterfall in a secluded, shadowy gully. Clear, cold water flowed and tumbled here until the 1980s, when it dried up. Carved into a boulder is a strange symbol, an oval with a line at its end, which none of us have seen before. Leanne, Erin and Jasmine examine this place carefully, talking softly; there would have been lots of food nearby in the bush and in the swamp, they say. This may have been a women’s place, a birthing place, a place of new life.

Our journey into the real secret river, Dyarubbin, has just begun.



[i] Jack Brook, Shut out from the World: The Hawkesbury Aborigines Reserve and Mission, Berowra Heights, NSW, Deerubbin Press, 1999, p. 12

[ii] Reverend John McGarvie, ‘Native Names of Place on the Hawkesbury’, McGarvie Papers, 1825-1847, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

[iii] Collins, Account, 2, 11, 371; Sydney Gazette 3, 17, 24 June 1804; 21, 28 April, 5 May, 2, 9, 30 June, 7 July 1805.

[iv] Phillip in Hunter, Historical Journal, pp. 341, 343-4; Tench, Complete Account, pp. 226-9; Reverend Walter Lawry, cited in Colwell, Illustrated History of Methodism,170-1; see Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence, Papers dealing with the issue of blankets…including returns of the native population, 1833-40 [‘Blanket Lists’], State Archives of New South Wales.

[v] Brook, Shut out from the World, pp. 12, 58-61; pers. com. Dennis Mitchell.

[vi] Alan M. Dash, ‘Phillip’s exploration of the Hawkesbury River’, in Joselyn Powell and Lorraine Banks (eds) Hawkesbury River History: Governor Phillip, Exploration and Early Settlement, Wisemans Ferry NSW, Dharug and Lower Hawkesbury Historical Society, 1990, pp. 26-7; Brook, Shut out from the World, p.12; Dennis Mitchell.

[vii] See R. H. Mathews, ‘Some Rock Engravings of the Aborigines of New South Wales’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol. 44, 1910, 401-405; Frederick D. McCarthy, ‘Rock Engravings of the Sydney-Hawkesbury District. Part 2: Some important ritual groups in the County of Cumberland’, Records of the Australian Museum, vol. 24 no 14, 1959, 214ff; Frederick D. McCarthy, ‘Records of Rock Engravings in the Sydney District: XXXVIII, Group 38…The Peter Howe Trust Reserve’, Mankind, vol. 3, no. 11, 1947, 322-29; Reverend William Walker, 1822, cited in Jack Brook and James L. Kohen, The Parramatta Native Institution and the Black Town: A History, Sydney, UNSW Press, 1991, p.127.

[viii] Australian Town and Country Journal,19 April 1905; pers. com. Peter Auld, Jonathan Auld and Michelle Nichols.

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