By Uncle Graeme Russell
“Heading north across the muddy Hunter River, you leave Awabakal land and enter Worimi country. Worimi country stretches over sand dunes and wetlands, rivers and mountains, bays and forests. Sand and water country, as the eagle sees it. Bountiful lakes and wetlands abut several of the longest, emptiest beaches in the state. Dingoes still howl at night along those beaches. The traditional place names tell a story of abundance. Tuncurry: plenty of fish. Booti Booti: much native honey. Karuah: place of native plum. When the first whitefellas arrived, they noted that the Worimi were tall and stout and “more prone to laughter than tears.”
Worimi elder, Uncle Graeme Russell grew up in Port Stephens and learned to surf on Coolites in the bay. Surfing has taken him all over his ancestral land chasing swells to Box Beach, Treachery, Winda Woppa, Seal Rocks, Birubi Point, and Boomerang. Today he’s a respected educator who’s passionate about passing on cultural knowledge. It’s a difficult and fragmented history to relay and Uncle Russ can’t share it all. But he’s able to give us a glimpse into what it would have been like to live off these pristine waters and to know these pre-modern lands.
“My tribe were saltwater people, so we had a real affinity with the ocean. The ancestors lived a productive life – they knew where to get their food and they could read the land and the seasons. They knew when the fish were moving and they’d go down and wait for them to come along and catch them. They knew so much about the ocean and the coastline because their whole life revolved around it. Life was especially good in the summer months – it was a time to get up and move around. When the fish went off they hunted kangaroos and echidna and possum. Those places are still there – Pindimar, which is over near Hawks Nest, to us that’s the place of the black possum.
“The Worimi were actually made up of around 18 different clan groups, or ngurras, who lived in different regions but shared a common language (gathang). Some lived by the coast, other family groups were living inland as far west as Gloucester. Birubi Point was a special meeting place for all Worimi ngurras. When you stand on the hill there at certain times of the year the Southern Cross stands dead straight in the sky and when it did, it was a sign to send up smoke signals invite all the mob to come together for a big feast at Birubi.
“Dark Point is another special place for us. Lots of middens and burial grounds there and we are still finding stone artifacts in the dunes. Dark Point connected the coastline to Broughton Island during the last ice age. There’s evidence the mob were around then and continued to visit by canoe when the island separated from the coast. They had canoes for inside the harbour and larger ones for ocean-going journeys. I think they would have also used canoes to catch waves and play in the surf. Imagine what it must have looked like here at Port Stephens (now a busy tourist harbour) to look out and see 50 or 80 canoes out fishing together and no other boats or buildings around.
“Fishing was so important, and it was the Worimi women who were the best line fishers. Sometimes when a young baby girl was born into the tribe they would tie a line around a left finger and after a month or so it mortified and fell off. The mother would take the baby out into the canoe and they would offer the finger to the fish so when that girl grew up she became a gun fisherwoman. The fish would always be attracted to the line the girl held because she had offered her finger. And I remember hearing that my great grandma would dive for lobsters while the men threw rocks to scare off the sharks.
“Our dreaming stories are passed from elders down the generations and explain the environment and the world around us. The one I’d like to share here is one that surfers might relate to – it’s about how the coastline and sand dunes at Stockton were shaped by a fierce storm…
“A long, long time ago the land was very flat, and the bush grew next to the seashore. One day the Worimi were out collecting their food for the day – the men were hunting the animals with their spears and boomerangs while the women were picking berries and digging pippies from the wet sand. Then suddenly Marloo, the storm spirit appeared and brought with him Morawah, the wind spirit, and Guarauh, the sea spirit. Together they created a fierce storm that pounded the land and frightened the Worimi people.
The Worimi thought they were being punished by Marloo and they didn’t know the reason why. So a wise old Worimi man called Bapoah gathered up his people and moved them inland to Tanilba Bay. After many weeks Tooken the sun spirit came out from behind the clouds bringing warmth to the land and causing Marloo to disappear. Morawah turned into a soft breeze and Garuah calmed the ocean. The Worimi were happy that Marloo had gone and decided to return to their camps and settled back into their normal ways of living and hunting and gathering. When they returned to the ocean everything was different. They were very surprised by what they saw. Morawah had pushed the sand from the sea shore and formed the large sand hills that remain today. The Worimi noticed there were now lagoons between the sand hills and the sea shore. The land had changed forever – there was lagoons, there were plenty of animals, there was plenty of fish and there was plenty of freshwater. And the Worimi lived on those lands from that day forward for thousands and thousands of years.” – AS TOLD TO KIRK OWERS
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