First Australians

There are many Indigenous cultures in Australia, made up of people from a rich diversity of tribal groups each speaking their own language, holding their own cultural beliefs and traditions. Long before Europeans settled in the Torquay region it was home to the Wadawurrung (Wathaurong) people, one of five language groups making up the Kulin Nation who prospered in the areas surrounding Port Phillip and Western Port Bays. Traditionally, the Kulin people lived as hunters and gatherers with seasonal changes in the weather and availability of foods determining where campsites were located.

The five communities are known as:

  • Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) of the Birrarung (Yarra) catchment
  • Boonerwrung of the bays and south coast
  • Taungurung of the Koriella catchment (Goulburn River)
  • Wathaurung of the western plains
  • Dja Dja Wrung of the northwest region (Loddon River).

Each of these large groups are divided into a number of smaller, land-owning communities.

The Wadawurrung (Wathaurong) consisted of 25 separate land-owning units called clans which had commonalities in language, custom, traditions, marriage ties, totems, burial rites and very strong trading links. It was also the group with which an individual Koorie would firstly identify herself or himself. Clans looked after their land, they owned it and renewed it. They met at times of ceremony.


It is believed that the combination of available resources including drinking water from the fresh water Thompson’s Creek (Bream Creek), and a reliable food source in the form of shellfish, made the Breamlea dunes a likely site for Aboriginal habitation. The GORCC 2010 study reports that isolated stone artefacts associated with shell middens* indicate the activities of the Wadawurrung people at Point Impossible, Whites Beach, Deep Creek, Zeally Bay, Yellow Bluff and Spring Creek. Shell derived radiocarbon age was 2046 ± 20 Before Present (BP). The artefacts suggest activities such as hunting, camping and shell collection.

* Shell middens are the remains of meals of shellfish once gathered and eaten by Aboriginal people.

Pascoe (2003) states that the people conscientiously managed their land by building substantial houses, cultivating root vegetables and promoting grasslands by using controlled winter fire to promote the best conditions for plants and game and eliminating the risk of wildfire in summer.

Pascoe (2003)


The tribes would also gather on the banks of Spring Creek where they would feed on edible roots, small mammals, fish, crayfish, shellfish and berries.


A small sample of the many plants from this area which comprise the Wathaurong diet include:

  • Murnong (Yam Daisy: Microseris lanceolata) Sometimes it is eaten raw as a radish, but more usually it is cooked in baskets in earth ovens. Cooked roots were often carried about for food when travelling.
  • Potato (Milkmaids: Burchardia umbellata)  This is still a very common plant in the Geelong area, its roots were cooked in similar fashion to murnong. As with murnong potato, tarook (Blushing bindweed) and puewon (Bulbine lily) were tilled regularly, and in such a way as to leave sufficient parent roots to bring on next season’s growth. The sharp sticks (karni) used for the collection of roots, separated bulbs and aerated the soil.
  • Karawun (Spiny Headed mat Rush: Lomandra longifolia) The basal stems of these plants are pure white and taste like celery or water The stems can be cooked, but in spring the raw shoots are delicious as a fresh salad. The leaves of this plant are excellent for basket weaving.
  • Boyungkaal (Watercress)  There are at least two varieties of cress. The refreshing salad leaves have a slight peppery taste and are consumed fresh and also enhance the flavour of fish when stuffed into the body cavity.
  • Barring-gootch (Small-leaved bramble, native raspberry: Rubus parvifolius)  A small raspberry but very delicious and common in summer.
  • Warrigal Cabbage (New Zealand Captain Cook’s lettuce: Terragonia tetragoniodes) This plant is found over a wide area of the eastern coastal area and was used widely by sailors including Cook to prevent scurvy. It is very refreshing as a fresh salad vegetable, but it is also very good slightly steamed on hot rocks.

Wallabies, echidna, possums, quail, pigeons, parrots, geese, spoonbills, snakes, lizards, and many other birds, mammals and reptiles were taken as game and cooked for their flesh.

Fish and Shell Fish

Mullet, whiting, flounder, flathead, salmon, trevally, tommy-rough and many other species were speared and netted, particularly along tidal flats and in estuaries.

Kooderoo (abalone), Tjorriong (rock lobster), Warrener (turbot shell) and Eugarie (pippi shell) These white bi-valve shells are collected from surf beaches and are carried back to camp and cooked directly on the fire. The shells are discovered by grinding the feet into the sand. When one shell is found, the area is dug out with the hands, and usually many shells are then uncovered.


Middens were associated with large communal ovens, not just waste dumps.

Food baskets woven from green rushes ( e.g. sword sedge and mat rush) were filled with murnong (yam potatoes), meat ( possum, wallaby, duck, fish, leaf vegetables etc), sewn up tightly and covered with hot stones and glowing coals were left to bake slowly. The smouldering pot/oven was called a minne by the Wathaurong.

When the pit was swept out the animal bones, burnt shells, vegetable remains and ashes, built up beside the oven. This pile is known as a ‘midden’. It is the evidence of a limited type of shell types e.g. abalone, mussels, oysters, limpets, periwinkle, pippis etc. It is the evidence of burning or pieces of charcoal which distinguishes this pile of shells from a natural collection.


Living on the land many tools were needed for hunting, fishing and cooking tasks. These included such implements as axes, axes, barbed spears, knives, scrapers, grinding tools.

Flint and greenstone axes with ground edges were bound into cleft sticks using kangaroo sinew and grass tree resin. The sinews contracted and tightened as they dried while the resin acted as a super bonding glue.

Baskets were woven from hair and grass, very strong rope was made from stringy bark, fishing nets up to 30 metres long were made from hair and bark cords, while bowls, basins and babies’ cradles were shaped from the bark of trees. Water vessels could be manufactured from animal skins and hollow limbs, clothes were shaped from tanned animal furs and sewn together with thin tendons. Some people even wore the skins of swans and pelicans as a decorative shawl.

Pascoe (2003) states that canoes were cut from the bark of trees and some were 6-10 metres in length. A shaped slab of bark was wedged from a living tree and the ends tied together with kangaroo sinew, twine and wooden pegs and thwarts inserted to maintain the canoe’s shape. The tree continued to live and several of these ‘canoe’ trees can be seen, including one outside the MCG and one outside the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-op.

At night the people would place a small mound of wet clay in the bow and light a fire on it so that they could go out on the water and have the firelight attract fish to the canoe. Fish were speared or caught on lines made from human hair and with hooks shaped from filed shells or bird bone.


Just like the language of the Aboriginal people, music too was diverse. The Wathaurong people used possum skin percussion, clap sticks, bull roarers and boomerangs and other instruments. Songs provided the history of the people as well as entertainment. Dance was linked to the music providing a three dimensional representation of history, spirituality and current events.


Pascoe (2003) cites members of Major Mitchell’s party of ‘exploration’ seeing a dwelling in Western Victoria capable of housing 40 or more people, the size of a small church or hall. Such large buildings were often surrounded by a village of smaller buildings. Robinson wrote that they resembled large mounds and were built with stone or timber walls and turf roofs.

At Cape Otway, Geelong, Ballarat, Barwon Heads and elsewhere villages of this type were seen prior to the war and many had bower spinach (a staple vegetable) growing on the roof in much the same way as Europeans grow grape and passion fruit vines over the verandah. On short fishing expeditions or while travelling from one district to another smaller bark mia mia’s were erected. This type of dwelling became more common after the 1840’s as access to land for permanent living space was denied them.


With unlimited access to food resources Aboriginal communities lived healthy lives. The arrival of Europeans, in particular sealers who were known to rape or steal women and girls, small pox and syphilis were introduces to the Aboriginal community.

It is certain that these diseases and other introduced respiratory ailments (made worse when Aborigines could no longer re-build their houses to shelter from the weather) killed many people, lack of access to traditional food and water sources also had an impact but war was probably the greatest cause of death in the indigenous population.


Thousands of plants were used as medicines, these included:

  • Greenleaves of many plants, in particular eucalypts or the Narit or River Mint (Prostanthera) and other mints were heated in rock pits as a steam bath for sufferers of arthritis and
  • Melaleuca Leaves and bark of some melaleuca species were used to wrap around fractured
  • Moolaa (common bracken). The white sap from young roots is excellent for bites. Twisting the roots produces a sticky white milky substance which prevents the pain from bull-ant bites


Long, long ago in the Creation, the all-powerful Bundjil took the form of the eagle and created the Kulin people – their languages, their laws and their lands. Later, Barwool, an ancestral headman, cut the Birrarung (Yarra River) to free the country of floodwaters. This inundated the plain where the Kulin had hunted kangaroo and formed Narrm (Port Phillip Bay).

All Kulin had as their defining social moiety (totem) either Bundjil, the eagle, or Waa, the raven (crow).


The Wada wurrung clans were the first to come into direct contact with the white man around 1802 – Lieut. John Murray in the Lady Nelson chartered part of Indented Indented Head and named Swan Bay’ (Clark 1990 qtd. in GORCC 2010).

Torquay History, Wathaurong, Kulin, Wadawarrung
s. State Library Vic

The Wada wurrung balug were the clan who adopted William Buckley in 1803 (Clark 1990, qtd in GORCC 2010). He had escaped from the Sorrento convict settlement at Sullivan Bay, and had spent his time in this district before he met two Aboriginal women from the Wada wurrung balug clan (Barrabool Hills) about a year later. When he came across the women he was holding a spear he found near an Indigenous man’s burial mound, consequently they believed he was the reincarnated spirit of their kinsman.

s. State Library Vic

Buckley went with them to their camp where he lived for the next 32 years, becoming a respected member of the Wathaurung community learning to hunt, fish and gather food.

William Buckley’s recollections from this time (documented and published by Morgan in 1852) included many observations regarding the lifestyles of his adopted people. These observations provide the only first-hand written account of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the area before their displacement by Europeans. It must be remembered that Buckley could not read or write, so was unable to verify this account of his story told to Morgan. According to Morgan (1852 qtd. in GORCC 2010) Buckley settled at Karaaf River (Thompson’s Creek), ‘the locality being full of roots’. These roots presumably occurred in the wetlands behind the dunes at Point Impossible, but the type of root is unknown. He also describes an abundance of Bream in the creek (hence the other name for Thompson’s Creek, Bream Creek), large numbers of which he caught by constructing a weir built from sticks and rushes. The exact location of this weir is unknown but occurs some way up the river. Apart from the roots and fish, Buckley mentions yams, gum (possibly Acacia), possums, Kangaroos, wombats, snakes, lizards, rodents and wild dogs as commonly eaten. Buckley rarely mentions the eating of shellfish.

There is a well located at Breamlea which is reputed to have been used frequently by Buckley

when he camped at Bream Creek. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this information – could it have been a statement made to increase tourism to the area? There is a cairn identifying the hole in the ground as the well but it too states ‘reputed’ to have been the case.

Photographs 2 and 3 (above) show Queen Mary and Queen Rose from the Wada wurrung photographed at Coranderrk between 1876-77. Both are dressed in European clothes but are photographed displaying traditional cultural items including woven baskets, shoulder bags, a nose bone, boomerangs, a possum skin rug and a digging stick.


Marshall, B. and J. MacCulloch 2012

Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Conservation Manual: CORCC Crown Land Reserves between Torquay and Lorne.  A Report Commissioned by the Great Ocean Road Coast Committee (GORCC).

Wynd, Ian 1992

Barrabool – Land of the Magpie. Barrabool Shire, Torquay

Pascoe, Bruce 2003

Wathaurong : the people who said no –  prepared by for the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative and Coast Action

More to explore

Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative

Details of traditional life can be found

For a video presentation about the Kulin Nation, please see:

Trevor Edwards is Chairperson of the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative in Geelong. Here Trevor talks of the work of the Co-op and of his journey of understanding towards reconciliation.

Wrapped in Culture: Possum Skin Cloak Making Project