A Year of Yes, Week 1: Aboriginal Heritage Walk – Royal Botanical Garden

It feels like a splurge to be in the city on a Wednesday. I would be performing household tasks like laundry and meal planning but am instead enjoying a cup of peppermint tea in the botanic garden reading a book and waiting for the walk to begin. Bliss.

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I notice people gathering at the meeting point. I’m feeling very self-aware all of a sudden as people arrive with their friends and family and I am solo. The day is sunny and a mild 16c, I focus on the gorgeous weather and the sounds of Sydney’s bird life frolicking instead.

Terry is our guide and he’s naturally welcoming and warm. He’s of aboriginal descent himself so I’m looking forward to his perspective on the topic today. He seems thoroughly Australian as he greets each guest with a smile and a “G’day”.

He explains about the country he is from, Barkindji (near to the Murray and Darling Rivers), stating that they are traditionally river people and fisherman. He reminisces about growing up cooking fish with local herbs like lemon verbena and Australian peppermint wrapped in melaleuca paper bark. The fish is wrapped together with the herbs and cooked in an underground oven, buried with hot coals. He is keen to show us many of these plants so that we can identify them ourselves for use in our own cooking.

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We first sample Australian mint which has a strong flavour and tastes slightly earthy unlike a traditional peppermint leaf. Next, we pick lemon myrtle leaves, crush them and inhale the scent. It is notably used to clear nasal passageways and relieve headaches. The smell is divine and I immediately feel more alert and energised, it’s wonderful. He grabs several more leaves for each of us to take home to make a mug of tea.

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Lemon myrtle leaf

We visit a candlenut tree. The nut itself is oily and flammable and he says it will burn for 15 minutes. The Aborigines would dig out a small hole in the nut and insert a bone or stick so that it would stand upright then set it on fire. It would have been used to light a shelter. Useful information I think, if one were stranded out in the bush.

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Candlenut

We wander through the melaleuca garden and discover there are many varieties of tea tree which I hadn’t realised. The black tea tree is the most attractive of the trees with a darker trunk and greener leaves. The flax leaved paperbark tea tree Terry describes as the most useful as both the bark and the leaves contain tea tree oil. It can be peeled and used as a band aid or you could grab a handful of the tiny leaves and rub them all over body for a natural mosquito repellent.

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Flax Leaved Paperbark

The dianella plant grows “super fruit” blue berries. Terry claims one berry is equivalent to 10 blueberries in levels of vitamin c and antioxidants. As a bonus to the fruits of the dianella, the leaves of the plant grow long and tall and clutch together to form a fan. He says to pick the second leaf from the end, as it’s the best one, then blow into the flat end of it creating a whistle sound…called a snake whistle. Snakes don’t like the vibration of it and will retreat from the noise. Snakes won’t nest in it either as the leaves are very sharp along the edges. The elders tell their kids to stay with the Dianella if they get lost. They can blow the whistle for help and also the snakes will avoid the area anyway. Clever.

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Dianella

We also discuss a bit of local history on the walk. Growing up in America where history is taught very US centric, I am eager for information about my new home. Terry shares stories of the British first arriving in Australia and the terrible things that happened to the Aborigines as a result. We hear tales of the warrior Pemulwuy, an aboriginal man who led the resistance against the European settlers. I hadn’t realised these original inhabitants weren’t even considered citizens of Australia until a referendum in 1967. It blows my mind just how recent the wounds are and it becomes clearer to me why people pay respect now to the “custodians of the land” on such a regular basis.

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Interesting to note that the Aboriginal language is an oral one. Words are written out the way that they sound. Terry jokes that there is no correct spelling but you had better write it out so that you can properly recall it. If you mispronounce something you just may end up offending someone.

At the conclusion of the walk we are treated to home-made wattle seed damper served with finger lime jam. Damper is a traditional Australian soda bread baked in the coals of a campfire or camp oven. Finger limes are considered the caviar of the citrus world. They come from a rare rainforest tree growing in north New South Wales and southern Queensland. It was a welcome treat to conclude our morning.

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While we fortify ourselves we have one final lesson, in boomerangs. I had no idea there are so many different variations. Some are designed to return whereas others are not. These you can distinguish by the shape, the traditional ‘”V” shape returns. He shows us some designed to kill and these are more like an “L” shape and thus do not return to the thrower. Plus there are different types for say attacking an emu versus a bird. Those are meant to disable, a bundi stick is then implemented to finish the job and not leave the animal to suffer.

Today was thoroughly enjoyable, not only did I learn more history about my adopted home but I spent the time learning about natural healing and food, some of my favourite topics. A tour combining eating, walking and culture – a perfect trifecta. I would highly recommend it if you visit Sydney or even live here as I do. https://www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/whatson/aboriginal-heritage-tour

 

 

 

 

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