Tae Rak, a wetlands environment which is part of the World Heritage Listed Budj Bim Landscape, is a remarkable place. Not only is it a place of evident beauty, but it a landscape that has been actively cultivated for thousands of years by the Gunditjmara people. The presence not only of eel traps, but the remains of dwellings, makes Tae Rak (and the surrounding Budj Bim landscape) one of the oldest examples of aquaculture in the world. This post is going to look at Tae Rak, the life cycle of the kooyang, or short-finned eel, and the Gunditjmara use of the land. There will as always be photos.
I want to stop here to discuss the privileges I am bringing to writing this post. As with other posts about Australia’s First Nations’ history and the landscapes that reflect it, it is important to understand two things. Firstly that I am not a First Nations Australian. I write these posts with no claim to special knowledge, I am reiterating the information from the guides on the day as well as some external research (see the references listed at the end). Secondly, that I am in the position of having benefited from the invasion and colonisation of Victoria’s First Nations people, both from my heritage and my job. The first of this is especially true when looking at Tae Rak, as it’s less than an hour’s drive from Port Fairy, a town that my ancestors founded on land that was stolen from the Gunditjmara. My ancestors were not specifically involved in massacres in the area, but that was largely a result of timing, they arrived too late, but they were definitely active recipients of the immediate dispossession of land. I am fifth generation Australian on both sides of my family, most of my ancestors arrived in the 1850s, and thus my ability to sit here comfortably on my laptop and write this post is a privilege inherited from 200 years of dispossession. I also work for a library, which are inherently colonial organisations, that privilege a western system of knowledge keeping and knowledge management. While we are doing what we can to rebalance those scales, it is a not a simple process.
So having said all that, why am I writing this post at all? The answer is because the history is fascinating and deserves to be more widely known, and if I can contribute to that even a little then that is worth it. Also the landscape is so lovely, and the stories so interesting that I wanted to have a chance to tell them.
The final disclaimer is that there is a lot that is not known. This is common across First Nations groups across Australia, due to colonisation, invasion and quite intentional destruction of knowledge. In Victoria is is especially true as First Nations people were forced off country into missions in the 1860s, and language and culture were actively banned.
So what is Tae Rak? It is the wetlands system known as Lake Condah to the Europeans. It is part of the broader Budj Bim Landscape in Western Victoria, which includes the (probably) extinct volcano Budj Bim. The landscape was cultivated and shaped by First Nations peoples for thousands of years before the invasion by Europeans. In recognition of this, it was World Heritage listed in 2019.
I wanted to begin by giving an idea of what the landscape looks like. It is volcanic, which is a key point. This whole area of Victoria was shaped from the eruptions that gave rise to Budj Bim about 27 000 years ago. Though Tae Rak was created by larva flow from an eruption about 8000 years ago. This all gave rise to the basalt landscape that you can see in the photos below.
Bud Bim is actually one of Victoria’s newest volcanoes. First Nation belief systems record the eruption, with Budj Bim being the head of the ancestral being who left behind part of themselves at the end of their dreaming journey, and the larva flow being the teeth. The same belief system tells of journeys of creator beings to near by landmarks, including to the south where Deen Maar (Lady Julia Percy Island) guards the final resting place of the Gunditjmara people when they die. You can see Deen Maar on the horizon below.
Essentially the Gunditjmara belief systems speak of a landscape, described by Eileen Alberts from the Gunditjmara, as left to them by the ancestral beings, with the resources to live a settled lifestyle. They had the dammed waterways, the stones and the rocks to build aquaculture systems and wetlands where reeds grew to make baskets, and the food enriched landscape to survive.
This was a land that was shaped and cultivated, lived on for thousands of years.
Geologically, what the eruption of Budj Bim 8000 years ago did was to dam the Darlot Creek, which through time and, what is now called Condah swamp working its way through the larva flow, created Tae Rak.
What you see today is only a fraction of the size of the original wetlands that the Gunditjmara used for everything. But, conversely, it is much bigger than what you would have seen even fifteen years ago. This is because the decision was taken to drain Tae Rak following severe flooding in 1946, work was completed in the 1950s, and Tae Rak became largely farming land. In 2010 a new weir was built to again create a facsimile of the dam created by larva flow thousands of years ago, and water was returned to the wetlands, though nothing to the capcity it would have once held. You can see the weir below.
First, though, to return to the purpose of the aquaculture systems that were constructed. And to understand this, I need to properly introduce an extraordinary creature- the kooyang, or short-finned eel. You can see some in the tank in the video below.
Now, saying eels are fascinating is not something I thought I’d ever be saying, but their lifecycle is truly extraordinary. The kooyang you see in the tank above are somewhere in the middle ish of this cycle. They can grow up to 1.1 meters long and live for 14 years for males and 18 years for females. They’ll eat most things, including any carrion that ends up in the water. When they are headed towards the end of their life cycle, they close over their anus to ensure they keep all their nutrition in, then they fin their way out of the wetlands, through river systems, and mud sometimes, out into the ocean. From here they fin their way up the east coast of Australia to the coral sea, a journey of thousands of kilometres, when there they, probably, dive down to the depths, explode, all the eggs and the sperm mix in the warm water and new eels are spawned. These tiny glass eels begin to make their way back down the coast of Australia where they follow the smell of freshwater back to Tae Rak, often climbing weirs, dams and waterfalls to make it, growing as they do so, to become a yellow eel and then ultimately a silver eel, before starting the whole process again when they’re ready to spawn.
These incredible creatures also make incredible nutritious food, and are the reason for the Tae Rak eel traps, though other things were caught in them too. Essentially the larva flows from Budj Bim created pockets in the ground which became pools and the Gunditjmara created channels between them to take advantage of seasonal changes in water height. They created these connecting channels between the pockets to move eels around to where they wanted them. These channels were created through solid basalt, probably through a combination of digging it out and setting it on fire and rapidly cooling it to make it crack and easy to remove. Some channels are more than 50 m long. They also made weirs to control the velocity of the flow of the water. There are deliberate narrowing points in channels, where traps made from reeds were placed to force an eel through a V which they couldn’t swim out of, and from where they could be easily harvested. These aquaculture systems were also used to ferry eels into larder pools where they would be kept for later harvesting. You can see one of the latter systems below.
The final image is the channel between the pools.
So, with this incredible food source, and aquaculture system, you needed somewhere to live. There are remains of permanent dwellings at Tae Rak. They were often built on the ridges, for the advantage of the vantage point. You can see the foundations of one below.
This particular house would probably not have been lived in all year round, but would have been occupied by the Gunditjmara when they were using the resources at Tae Rak, though this isn’t true of all First Nations dwellings in the area. They would not have been built entirely of stone. These domed dwellings would have been a stone wall topped with wattle and daub, and reeds. You can see some modern interpretations below (admittedly in a slightly decrepit state).
The image above is from the near by Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected area, which is about half an hour from Tae Rak and would have been a meeting and gathering place for the Gunditjmara. You can see one of the gathering place below with the foundations of dwellings, which unlike image from Tae Rak would have been communal and interconnected.
At Tyrendarra you can also see a further extension of the wetlands and the remains of the formerly vast reed beds.
I am aware I have been using the word ‘remains’ a lot, that is because quite often that is all we have left. The basic question of ‘what happened to all the stone dwellings’ is answered by the photos below.
Most of the stone was appropriated for use by the invaders, including through stone walls to mark out the boundaries of this land they were now claiming to be theirs. The wall you can see above is about 10 m from the first house. Now taking stone from old dwellings and repurposing it is something done the world over, there’s plenty of buildings constructed from Hadrian’s wall for example. The key difference here is that these dwellings didn’t just fall into disuse, the people who had been using them were killed or forced off their land, and no one ever tried to deny that Hadrian’s wall existed in the first place. Even today with mounting archaeological evidence, accounts from early pastoralists and surveyors describing large groups of Gunditjmara living in permanent structures, and the Gunditjmara’s own belief system and oral tradition, which is just as valid as any western version of history, the existence of these dwellings is denied, sometimes actively.
This sadly brings me back to where I began, the dispossession of the Gunditjmara. This isn’t intended to be a history of dispossession, invasion and colonisation of the Gunditjmara, as that would be a whole post on its own and I can not do it justice here. But have a look at my reference list at the end for more information. I will however give an overview. The key fact is that the Gunditjmara didn’t magically vanish, they fought for their land, their lifestyle and their people as did all First Nations people in Australia.
Invasion happened quickly. Major Thomas Mitchell (who I have written about before here) surveyed the Western District in 1836, and whalers and sealers had been moving up and down the coast. As more colonisers moved in, there was more conflict with First Nations people and more were killed, and more women were attacked. ‘Protector’, and not very nice man but avid diary keeper, George Augustus Robinson noted that some shepherds ‘appeared to devote more time to the native women than to their sheep’. The best known of these massacres in the area was a bit south and west of Tae Rak, where 20 Gunditjmara people were killed in 1834, known as the Convincing Ground Massacre. But this was not an isolated incident and violence did not remain the realm of whalers, sealers and surveyors. Pastoralists moved in and, by 1841, there were more than 88 stations between Geelong and Portland, many covering vast areas of land. And with the pastoralists came sheep and cattle who destroyed the natural ecosystems and the soil in their wake. The land that had been cared for by First Nations people for thousands of years was irrevocably damaged, as well as being stolen. This wasn’t a passive resistance to this invasion either, the Eumerella Wars fought in the 1840s were a sustained campaign by the Gunditjmara against invasion. The rocky Budj Bim landscape was an ideal place to wage war from. It was the use of native police, brought in from other parts of the country, that ultimately turned the tide against the Gunditjmara.
Physical violence was not the limit of the influence of the colonisers. The place names changed too, and the colonisers laid their own belief and world views and history across the landscape, shaping it culturally to match. The western name for Budj Bim is especially galling, as it began a Mount Eeles after a British aristocrat, but was bastardised to Mount Eccles which means absolutely nothing. By the 1860s First Nations people were being herded into missions, often not on their own country, and language and culture was being banned. It’s the equivalent in the Western world of burning the library and the museum to the ground.
For the Gunditjmara this mission was the Lake Condah mission, and while ultimately in some ways it became a place of community, it was in essence a place of control and many times punishment.
So this is a brief overview of the tangled web we are only just starting to beginning to untangle today. This brutal history must be understood and recognised as part of our own foundation myth. And First Nations histories and stories and perspectives must always be at the heart of it.
Today Tae Rak stands as a symbol of this. It is owned now by Gunditjmara, though they are still trying to buy back more of the surrounding land. This came about through a series of land mark native title cases, which sadly I don’t have the space to discuss here- again that might be another post. The Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre, again run by the Gunditjmara, is a starting point for cultural tours of this unique landscape, so the story of Tae Rak can continue to be told.
Site Visit 2023
The People of Budj Bim: Engineers of aquaculture, builders of stone house settlements and warriors defending country / Gunditjmara People with Gib Wettenhall
All the photos are mine