Bochara-Bugara-Pawur (Glenelg River) is a boundary and a connection for three language nations: Boandik to the west, Jadawadjali Clans of the Wotjobaluk Nation in the north, and Gunditjmara in the south and east. The river system was a permanent source of food and resources through the seasons, as well as an important travel and trade route. Resources such as fish, eels, textiles and bush medicines are still collected today. Many heritage places and cultural sites lie along the river including cultural trees, shell middens and massacre sites. Traditional Owners hold the view that water is linked to the health of people and Country, and we need to be actively involved in water management.
In the Glenelg River Yarns project, Boandik, Wotjobaluk and Gunditjmara Traditional Owners are working together to reconnect with the river and share the cultural values and stories that define it.
This project is about spending time together on the river, young people learning from old people, sharing stories about important places, animals and plants; about the ancestors, about the dispossession, forced removal and massacres, and about our continuing connections and obligations to the river.
Through this process we will design a Cultural Flows plan for the river, which will help achieve environmental outcomes, as well as advancing the social, cultural and economic interests of the Gunditjmara, Wotjobaluk and Boandik Traditional Owner communities.
Through this project and others like it Traditional Owner communities are building the capacity, knowledge and authority to look after rivers and wetlands and restore them to health.
This project is supported by Glenelg Hopkins CMA through funding provided by the Victorian Government.
Going through the fish surveys, it's, like I said, it's been a change from catch, cook and eat to catch, weigh and measure. We're also tagging them as well so we can come back in and capture the same individual and check it for its growth and that sort of thing. And as I said, we're naming them, so we've developed a relationship with as well. I've got one that's named after my son so I take a special interest in him.
But in that Darlot's creek area, the numbers are fairly good compared to elsewhere and that's due to our land management techniques and people aren't really able to go in there except for us so what we've tried to do is do a bit of an awareness campaign within the mob to say, tell them how long it takes them to reproduce, how long they live, requirements they need, and just change people's attitude from "it's just a food source" to one of those things I just mentioned about how they're an extension of ourselves. We are what we eat we've been doing it for thousands and thousands of years so if it was to disappear like so many other species have, I said the other day, at the mussel thing, that every time a species disappears from the landscape a part of us disappears as well so, it's pretty important that we try and save what we can and nurture back that habitat to enable them to be able to hold on.
The Pricklyback, Or Glenelg Spiny Freshwater Crayfish, is well known to the Traditional Owners of the Glenelg River. It used to be a popular food when numbers were higher.
It is a large, long-lived freshwater crayfish, distinguished by its robust claws and spiny carapace (main body). This species is usually olive green in colour, sometimes brown, with splashes of red on their claws and legs.
The species is listed as nationally endangered and threatened in Victoria.
Distribution: The Glenelg Spiny Freshwater crayfish (Euastacus bispinosus) is endemic to southwest Victoria and the South East of South Australia, with the vast majority of its habitat occurring in the Glenelg River Catchment. It is found from Gariwerd to within 20 km of the Glenelg River mouth.
The majority of crayfish occur in the tributaries of the Glenelg: the Crawford, Stokes and Wannon rivers. Despite the species wide range, the actual area of occupancy in the Glenelg River catchment has dramatically reduced to less than 20 km2.
Feeding and diet: Glenelg Spiny Crayfish are omnivorous, foraging on the riverbed for organic material including decomposing vegetation and animal material, aquatic macrophytes and algae. Adults may be the apex predator in some streams and systems, where they predate on fish and aquatic invertebrates.
Their large and heavily armoured claws enable pricklybacks to move obstacles such as stones to locate prey, and to handle a wide range of prey sizes. Spiny crayfish have often been referred to as 'structural engineers' since this substratum movement is thought to play a role in nutrient recycling and the structural dynamics of streams.
Population outlook: Spiny crayfish have suffered long-term population decline due to overfishing and combined pressures on their habitat. However, recent management actions across the Glenelg River catchment, including the fishery closure, introduction of environmental flows, and habitat protection are aiming to help with species recovery. Education initiatives have also been key in raising awareness of this unique and vulnerable species.
Bush tucker - the roots or yams
Burning the understory enables sunlight to reach and feed the yam daisies (the murnong tubers and flowers), which were a staple of the diet of Gunditjmara, Boandik and Wotjobaluk ancestors.
When the women harvested the murnong, they would loosen the soil with a digging stick, then pull up the tubers. For every three tubers, they would call them grandmother, mother and daughter, take two and leave one to grow back again.
There were millions of murnong or yam, all over the plain…
The women were spread over the plain, as far as I could see, collecting murnong.1
Reports from the 1830s give an idea of how abundant and important this plant was.
Yam daisies were all but wiped out with violent dispossession and removal of Aboriginal people from the land and the destruction of traditional land management, and the subsequent widespread introduction of livestock which eat the leaves of the plant and compact the soil.
Murnong are still rare in the wild today but they are making a comeback on Aboriginal owned and managed land and can be found in remnant bushland.
Find out more
1Clark, Ian D (1998). The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Volume One: 1 January 1839 - 30 September 1840. Beaconsfield: Heritage Matters. p. 156.
Tupong were known as “Tuupuurn” to the Gunditjmara people. Sometimes harvested in great numbers they were an important source of protein for Bugara-Bochara-Pawur (Glenelg River) Traditional Owners and were considered a great delicacy.
Tupong are good eating, the roe is beautiful. There are stories of people who carried rocks across the bottom to look for fish. I remember people in great army coats fishing in winter, not for recreation but to feed us. Uncle Johnny Lovett; Gunditjmara and Boandik elder
Tupong (Pseudaphritis urvilli), also known as Congoli, sandy, sand trout and many other names, are found in fresh, brackish and marine waters across Victoria, Tasmania and southern NSW as well as the eastern part of SA, and are relatively common throughout the Glenelg River catchment.
The species occurs in coastal streams and estuaries, where they inhabit slow-flowing water around log and snags, under over-hanging banks or among leaf litter. Tupong are primarily an estuarine species, but can comfortably live in freshwater or the ocean.
Tupong are classified as a diadromous fish, which means they require movement between freshwater and saltwater to breed.
For this reason, they require adequate river flows at certain times of year to allow upstream and downstream movements.
Spawning is thought to occur in autumn and winter, when adult fish move downstream from freshwater to estuaries. Larvae are carried out to sea and juvenile fish mostly stay in the downstream areas of the estuaries and gradually move upstream as they grow larger.
The Black Cockatoo (the red-tailed and the yellow-tailed) is a significant totem species for Bugara-Bochara-Pawur (Glenelg River) Traditional Owners. This ancestral being is known as Kapatj/Gamadj. For Maar and Mara people the call of the black cockatoo foretold the approach of friends.1
The south-eastern red-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksia graptogyne) is now restricted to a small area of south-west Victoria and south-east South Australia. There are only an estimated 1,500 birds remaining in the wild.
The species has a highly specialised feeding habit, restricted to desert stringybark, brown stringybark and buloke. Tree hollows in large old and dead eucalyptus trees provide essential breeding habitat.
57% of all suitable habitat has been lost and remaining habitat is under threat from continued land clearing, stock ringbarking and pine tree invasion. Although large areas of stringybark habitat remain, bushfires and inappropriate burning have reduced seed production and food availability. Fires scorching the canopy in stringybarks can inhibit food production for a decade.2
Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Barengi Gadjin Land Council are involved in partnership projects with Glenelg Hopkins CMA aiming to reinstate cool season cultural burning which can help protect stringybarks from summer bushfires and which don’t damage the canopy or seed production.
1Woodland Birds: Identification booklet for the Glenelg Hopkins area; Birdlife Australia, Glenelg Hopkins CMA; 2016
Scar trees are also known as cultural trees, canoe trees or shield trees. Along Bugara-Bochara-Pawur (Glenelg River) there are many scar trees, most often Red Gums, although Stringybarks are also sometimes scarred. The scar trees, along with other cultural heritage places and objects such as shell middens and stone tools, are evidence of the long Aboriginal history and habitation along the river.
Scar trees, they were used for coolamons, canoes, shields, that sort of thing. Pretty cool when you see a scar tree, something that old, it could be four, five hundred years old… and generally [the scars] face north to south so the sun doesn't hit it from east to west which would kill the tree. So it becomes a living monument to days gone by. Shea Rotumah, Gunditjmara and Boandik Traditional Owner
Scar Trees are created by Aboriginal people deliberately removing bark. Bark is a versatile and plentiful material, and the ancestors were expert in taking the bark while allowing the tree to survive and thrive. The size and shape of the scars indicate the different uses of the bark.
To remove the bark a stone axe was used to cut around the shape required, and the mass of bark was then levered off.
Cultural trees also resulted from marking for directions or boundaries, and food collection. Sapling branches were often tied together to signify a boundary.
Cultural trees provide an important link to our ancestors but they face many threats, including insufficient water and floodplains no longer receiving floods, inappropriate fire regimes and bushfires, and timber cutting.
Canoe trees […] need to be re-flooded every couple of years to keep alive. If that old canoe tree dies - where our elders take us to learn about carving canoes and we want to take our kids to show them how to carve canoes - if that tree dies, it's only a matter of time until it falls down and we lose it. So it's important that we get to flood those places. Tyson Lovett-Murray, Gunditjmara Traditional Owner.
Gunditj Mirring factsheet: www.gunditjmirring.com/gunditj-mirring-fact-sheets
Aboriginal Victoria factsheet: www.aboriginalvictoria.vic.gov.au/fact-sheet-aboriginal-scar-trees
The culture to us was a multifaceted thing and with the colonisers, when they came, they developed and introduced another culture, but it was called monoculture and it doesn't necessarily fit in with this landscape, the habitats, the ecosystems or its biodiversity, so we're interested in trying to save as much habitat as we can to restore species and numbers.
We've got a pretty intrinsic relationship with nature with the country and with all that live on here, we don't see ourselves as separate. We don't own the country, it owns us.
The Echuca Declaration (2007) of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations defines Cultural Flows as “water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations. This is our inherent right.”1
In other words, Cultural Flows means that First Nations and Traditional Owners can manage their water in ways that reflect their values and their culture, including the sacredness of water. “Aboriginal law and custom continue to be in force on each Nation’s Country and this will guide their decision-making on how water is used on Country.”2
In practice, Cultural Flows could mean diverting water to an important wetland or billabong that does not usually receive enough water any more, due to irrigation pressure or reduced rainfall and climate change. Or it might mean that Traditional Owners decide to water important cultural trees or habitats that are stressed due to dry conditions; or maintaining seasonal flows to help culturally significant species thrive.
Cultural Flows might also mean that Traditional Owners can access water to support cultural industries, agriculture or fish farming; or that Traditional Owners can decide if or when water is taken from rivers and wetlands for other uses.
Traditional Owners may produce a detailed cultural flows plan in which cultural values and the cultural character of the river, floodplain or wetland country shape how water is managed in that country.
We see the water as a living entity, its own being, and it has its own sense of belonging, and it fell on this place here because it belongs to here. It probably shouldn't be taken off country.
For the partners in the Glenelg River Yarns project, spending time on the river discussing the cultural values and stories of that Country is an important part in deciding what Cultural Flows means for them and for the Glenelg River.
When Covid came along, we could not meet together on the river, so the Glenelg River Yarns website idea was born. The stories on this website are part of the culture of the river.
2 Dr Erin O’Donnell, Professor Lee Godden and Dr Katie O’Bryan. Cultural Water for Cultural Economies: Final report of the Accessing water to meet Aboriginal economic development needs Project. Published by University of Melbourne, 2021; p 10. https://law.unimelb.edu.au/centres/creel/research/current-research-projects/cultural-water-for-cultural-economies