Gunung Willam Balluk, Woi Wurrung, Kulin Nation

When you start to look around, to read the old words, to see the paintings from 1770 onwards and then view the photos beginning in the 1860s you begin to see and understand the landscape and the people who owned and managed it. An important painting, looking from Gisborne to Mount Macedon, by Robert Hoddle in 1838, before new settlers had the numbers or means to clear the land, shows open fields managed by First Nations custodians, the Gunung Willam Balluk.

The newly invaded Australia rode on the sheep’s back on pastures created by First Nations people (country repeatedly referred to as park like by early European settlers). We then mined and washed gold from First Nations’ land and creeks. We became wealthy on and by taking their carefully managed lands; our beautiful old shearing sheds and majestic stone buildings speak of this wealth. Often these original custodians were killed by disease, violence or mournfully removed from their lands and responsibilities and relocated to reserves. Taking people’s land and therefore breaking a way of life that evolved over such a monumental amount of time was an utter devastation of the first peoples (estimated to be between 300,000 to 1 million at 1788). Their devastation brought about the opportunity for the prosperity of todays multicultural 26 million.

It took a long time but I finally learned this name of the peoples of the land where we live and farm here at Bindi. I’m fascinated, saddened and challenged to begin to feel the landscape, the ancient trees, grasslands and waterways of our land and the greater local landscape as it was moulded and managed for many thousands of years. These people were responsible for much of the cleared lands we grow our vines on and for the magnificent curated stands of ancient trees on this land where we live. They have my admiration and curiosity. And some sense of responsibility.

Gunung Willam Balluk, meaning creek dwelling people, managed the region south of Mount Macedon and towards Bacchus Marsh. This is the land of what’s been called Gisborne for a little short of 200 years. If you live in this area you know the creeks and the landscapes they were responsible for….for….30,000 years (120,000 if you follow Bruce Pascoe). They cleared and managed the land with fire. They deliberately created wildlife habitats and corridors and ensured their own safety by strategically reducing fuel loads to prevent and restrict bushfires. Their small family group farmed and formed our defined local areas and were responsible for their upkeep. They were not randomly passing though; they lived with the lands we live on today and they intimately knew and manipulated the views, the plants, the animals and ways of the seasons. They adjusted the randomness of the landscape into an order that gave sustenance, safety and cultural bonds.

Perversely, to the eventual detriment of the Gunung Willam Balluk (and all clans and nations) they created an open grazing oasis of productive grasslands, managed clean creeks and shelter belts that drew European farmers to quickly dominate this land and the local culture in a very short time. A tragedy in many ways that profoundly endures (yet has the possibility of some remedy).

Henry Gisborne, of the Border Police, came to the Macedon Ranges in 1840 to deal with the “aboriginal issue” faced by the first new settlers, who arrived in 1836 (long time locals were considered recalcitrants needing suppression). Gisborne left, his name stayed; the long continuing local culture was disrupted, dominated, alienated and driven away. Or worse. Their open pastures and creeks were taken and used for wealth creation of the new arrivals.

My family began here in Gisborne from 1850 in various forms; the Telegraph pub, New Gisborne butcher shop and the railway line establishment. In 1872 my grandmother’s father witnessed the last gathering of the Gunung Willam Balluk peoples on the banks of Jackson’s Creek. This family story always held a fascination. I was born about 500m from this creek. And then grew up on the open grasslands on Mount Gisborne, with its bordering defined stands of forest, significant individual ancient trees and grand views from strategic points. The grazing of the 120 years before I was born in many ways kept the landscape open and framed as it was before 1836, broadly before 1788. When you stop grazing or burning strategically the regrowth trees reclaim the space. It was not by accident we have many ancient preserved trees and then only the regrowth of recent years when the grazing stopped. The grazing gave an important economic return but also compacted the ground, led to water runoff and erosion into creeks and halted the diversity of sensitive plants and much animal habitat. Australia’s true first settlers and local people cleared land with fire and carefully lived for tens of thousands of years in small, sustainable numbers. The new graziers expanded in both human and stock numbers rapidly. Some complain about the  growth in houses and traffic today in and around Gisborne; imagine 1836 and then the gold rush of the 1860s and the effect on the long time locals who lived in harmony with this land. That really was a radical and heartbreaking disruption.

So, why “this”?

Wandering our land, seeing old trees and open ground, rock outcrops, long views to Mt Macedon, the You Yangs, Ballan and beyond has always made me think about how it was then and how it came to be. That European settlers, relatively few in number and without machines for clearing, being capable of making this open land so quickly never made sense to me. The old drawings of the town, early photos of the region made it impossible to be convinced that random nature or early European management made this amazing open grazing land. Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth helped explain our open grasslands and ancient trees. This land we work and farm and live on tells us of those who lived and worked here for so long. Our land at Bindi tells me stories and demands respect and understanding. So we begin. Reading AW Howitt, La Trobe’s compilation of letters from new settlers around the 1840s, Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe’s works has been revelatory and brings some clarity. Rachel Tanner’s 2001 research and compilation of information on the Gunung Willam Balluk is a very important work, a local starting point. These and other works are well worth reading and giving opportunity to make up your own mind on how things came to be and how our collective future can be improved.