THE SOUTH EAST QUEENSLAND ABORIGINAL DREAMING:

CODES OF ENVIRONMENTAL PRACTICE THEN AND NOW.

J Godfrey. All rights reserved 1999

Last updated 19/08/07


"If I'd known you were coming, I'd have baked a snake" is a phrase from a popular old song, which might have been a catchcry for an indigenous menu at ceremonies last century, in Tingalpa and other parts of the Bulimba Creek catchment in South East Queensland.

In the aboriginal cultural pantheon the carpet snake ("Morelia spilotes" or "Kabul" in the Maroochy regional indigenous dialect) was an icon symbolizing waterways, based upon practical observation of the reptile's ability in dry seasons to divine concealed water sources in the form of springs and swamps. Together with their faunal associations, such springs were celebrated in aboriginal lore with a sacramental focus due to their material value in an arid climate. Indigenous place-names like "Maurira" and "Kuraby" described the spring-fed water holes which once hosted "Kippa" [ young man ] initiation rites either side of Bulimba Creek's middle and lower catchment.

Modern geological studies suggest the springs might emanate from an aquifer associated with a sandstone formation in the Ipswich Sedimentary basin. If Bulimba Creek were to be largely spring-fed for much of its length from such an aquifer, it could explain the legendary softness of the water in colonial times, which attracted the activities of seven wool scours over a 90 year period. While the high water quality facilitated the washing of fleece and low maintenance regimes for the scour's steam engine boilers, the operations of the scour severely diminished the water's purity downstream with organic and chemical leachate. Considerable topsoil was supposed to have been removed from one Carindale scour site in recent times before residential development could proceed [an eyewitness report of the time alleged that a good deal of that soil was deposited under what became the Carina Bus Depot, in what has always been a line of drainage to Bulimba Creek ]

. There would be grounds for anxious speculation as to whether arsenic from that period or more recent chemical contaminants may have penetrated the aquifer associated with the creek.

Early this century fruit farmers at Rochedale and Sunnybank tapped the aquifer extensively, saving themselves from ruin in the severe drought of 1903-1906. That drought, [an uncannily similar precursor to the contemporary drought of 2007, but lasting for a shorter time ] led indirectly to further population crashes of local native fauna, which suffered under government bounties enacted at the time for the relief of Queensland farmers. A member of the Mt Gravatt Historical Society has mentioned that when he and other youngsters swam in the creek at Upper Mt Gravatt in the 1930's, there would occasionally be a strong downward undertow when Rochedale farmers were known to be pumping from the creek or the aquifer. That undertow may have led to the drowning of a teenager there during that time. The aquifer is now apparently being mined by the Brisbane City Council in the Runcorn area, as an outcome of the city's current water shortage.

South East Queensland Aboriginal Dreaming tales often confer anthropomorphic gender attributes upon waterways and mountains associated with them. Some mountains might have been considered as sources of life-giving conceptual power (e.g. Mt Beerwah of the Glasshouse outcrops was portrayed as a pregnant mother) while the streams emerging from them were sometimes likened to lactatory or seminal flows. Endowing such localities with cultural tags as "no-go" or restricted zones in such legends, may have reflected an indigenous understanding of the ecology of their plant and faunal food resources, whereby some of those species' propagating habitats were set aside for population renewal after over-hunting or gathering. This practice was known by south eastern tribes as "mimburi" and could be considered as an aboriginal genesis of national parks at a time when a conservation ethic had rarely entered the less spiritual, mercantile mindset of the oncoming foreign invaders.

Aborigines of S.E. Queensland would have regarded the breach of this kind of geographic taboo in 1841 by the then Supervisor of Public Works for Moreton Bay, Andrew Petrie (for whom Mt Petrie at Belmont is named, following a previous hapless expedition in 1838) as a provocation inviting malevolent retribution from the resident spirit of Mt. Beerwah. Rising to 300 metres, the mountain was known as "Biroa" to Maroochy aborigines, considered by them as the domain of the spirit "Brocalpin" and comprising a remnant of a Dreamtime episode linking surrounding mountains and rivers in a pantheon of didactic belief. Great misfortune was supposed to befall any one who defied the steep rock faces in an attempt to ascend the mountain. After having scaled several other peaks in south east Queensland as an enthusiastic amateur surveyor with an eye for native timbers suitable for construction, (eg tallowwood and spotted gum found on upper slopes) Petrie was warned by local tribesmen that a penalty would most likely be inflicted by Beerwah's spirit for his forbidden incursion.

Petrie had already incurred the anger and distress of local aborigines by his ingress into the " Bunya " country, his having used force upon one Maroochy tribesman to compel him to find Bunya plants for the benefit of the expedition, his removal of those plants and his having cut a section of timber from a large Bunya tree considered to be the subject of privileged access by other aboriginal identities in the district. Sorcery was supposed to be one weapon available to the prestigious owners of individual bunya trees taking offence at Petrie's transgressions.

Petrie and his son John set out to climb the mountain unaccompanied by their native guide named Jack, who made it clear he had no intention of falling victim to the taboo. It's possible Andrew Petrie himself might have been prevented by a recurring knee injury from completing the ascent, while having been responsible for the decision to ignore indigenous warnings against entering the area in the first place.

John Petrie was to call his later home on Gregory Terrace " Beerwah", no doubt as a memento of his exploit.

In 1848, some years after his blithe procession to the mountain's summit Andew Petrie contracted a case of "sandy blight", a common opthalmic condition of the time [ also known as trachoma]. Through impatiently seeking prompt treatment for the ailment which normally healed itself after a short period of visual impairment, he fell victim to surgical mismanagement by the dubiously competent practitioners [ of whom Dr. Ballow was one] of the time, losing the sight of both eyes.

This doubtless gave a sense of vindication to the earlier cautionary note struck by indigenous doomsayers, however much Europeans might have decried any connection between the two incidents.

The Petrie Family was to be stricken by further misfortune. Immediately following his medical trauma Andrew Petrie suffered the accidental death of his son, Walter, who lost his life due to falling into, and then drowning in Wheat Creek near the family home at the eastern end of Queen St.. Later John Petrie was to similarly suffer the loss of his own young son, Walter, in yet another drowning accident. A second son of John Petrie, who had become manager of the family quarry at Albion, died prematurely in his 20s. from a heart attack. After the flood of 1893, Andrew, another son of John Petrie, underwent insolvency, bringing ruin upon the family firm with a huge debt-funded venture building entertainment venues at the Albion race course site, from which that branch of the family was not to recover for 9 years.

In the light of contemporary "monstering" of south east Queensland landscapes, it's regrettable that taboos arising from indigenous environmental management haven't been perpetuated into the present, and that a healthy dread of similar penalties from violation of such ancient taboos might have done much more to preserve south eastern landscapes than the limp-wristed legislative measures of protection of contemporary government.

 

References:

Petrie, C "Reminiscences of Early Queensland" Watson, Ferguson, Brisbane 1904.
Flannery, T. "Future Eaters." Reed New Holland Aust. 1994.
Wallin, A. "A Cultural Heritage Analysis of Mt Coot-tha Forest, the Deagon Wetlands, including Sandgate Lagoons and Kedron Brook Environs". A Wallin and Associates, Brisbane, 1998.
Steele, J.G. "Aboriginal Pathways in South East Queensland".
Mr. Len Bird: Personal Communication: Mt Gravatt Historical Society, Nov. 1999.
Brisbane City Council Heritage Unit "Heritage Summary for Kuraby"
Robertson, C. Kuraby Local Area Plan, B.C.C. Brisbane. 1996.
Beale and Fray "The Vanishing Continent" Hodder and Stoughton Toronto.
Denning, R. "Notes on History of Mt Gravatt". Mt Gravatt Historical Society Brisbane 1999.
Stephens, N.C. "Queensland Field Geology Guide" Geol. Society of Aust, Brisbane 1984.
Spilsbury, Greg: B.R.E.C. Personal Communication: Nov. 1998.
Cribb, A. and J. "Wild Food in Australia". Collins. Sydney 1974

Dornan,D. & Cryle,D. " The Petrie Family- Building Colonial Brisbane " UQP, B'ne, 1972

 

 

 

Knox Wool Scour Cribb Road Belmont ca. 1930/40.
Bulimba Creek in Background.