Walking on Country Tour 2018
The Riverina Presbytery was honoured to host this year’s Walking on Country tour, featuring a week’s bus tour through the lands of the Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta Nations. Organized most efficiently by Paul Creek of Lockhart Uniting Church, the tour attracted more than 40 people from throughout New South Wales.
Commencing on Saturday 14th April in Wagga Wagga, we were welcomed by Cootamundra Uniting Church for lunch, with the balance of tour members joining us there off the train. We then visited the former Cootamundra Girls Home (now renamed Bimbadeen College) and heard the tragic stories associated with the Government policy of taking Aboriginal children away from their homes and communities. Our next stop was West Wyalong for two nights. On the Sunday, we attended church services with the UAICC (United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress) congregation at Condobolin, led by a committed and energetic Auntie Beth. This congregation serves many indigenous communities in the surrounding areas; one of them is the settlement of Murrin Bridge (formerly a Government Reserve), on the Lachlan River not far from Lake Cargelligo, where we attended a worship service in the afternoon, listening to further stories from the local elders.
Monday was a day of travel, stopping in Narrandera for morning tea (where we heard a Uniting Church Indigenous Elder craftsman, Michael Lyons, explain his artwork in the Church and play the didgeridoo beautifully) and then on to Hay and a time of reflection in the Uniting Church, before moving on, through Balranald and on to the small town of Euston on the Murray River; our base for the next two nights.
One of the highlights of the tour took place on Tuesday when we drove about 90km directly north from Euston – mainly on a bumpy unsealed road – to the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. Included in this world-famous site is Mungo National Park which contains five dry lakes, in one of which, Lake Mungo, was found (in the 1960s) the remains of an Aboriginal man and woman dating back more than 40,000 years. Mungo Lady, as the woman is referred to, is the earliest example in the world of cremation. Our Indigenous Guide took us walking on the wind-blown sand dunes of the eastern side of the Lake where gradually more remains from the distant past are being revealed.
It was while we were in Euston that we visited the town of Robinvale, across the Murray River in Victoria, and enjoyed a Pacific Islander Feast at the local Uniting Church. Both the Fijians and Tongans entertained with their singing. The Minister in Robinvale is Rev Kerry Needham, who with husband Don served previously in Wellington, NSW.
Wednesday and Thursday saw us based in Echuca where we immersed ourselves in the story of the Yorta Yorta people, near Shepparton in Victoria. This Nation has produced remarkable individuals, including Pastor Doug Nicholls and William Cooper. It was Cooper who alerted Australians to the sorry history of the Aboriginal people when he led marches to Canberra in 1938. The Yorta Yorta people themselves have had their native title claims rejected by the Federal Government but the Victorian Government (led by Premier Steve Bracks) signed a historic co-operative management agreement with the Yorta Yorta people covering the public land in north-central Victoria.
Friday saw us return to Wagga Wagga, with a stop at Jerilderie Uniting Church for Morning Tea and an outdoor Communion Service. The last focus of our tour was at Harefield, just outside of the Wagga, the home of Auntie Flo Grant and the centre of the Wiradjuri Language Program. Auntie Flo’s brother, Stan Grant (yes, father of the TV personality of the same name) spoke to us about his 30-year involvement, working with the CSU, in the recovery and teaching of the Wiradjuri language. Stan Grant (Snr) recounted how his Grandfather had taken him out as a teenager, into the bush, taught him the traditional crafts and passed on the lore and the language.
Our week-long immersion in Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta experiences has been a memorable time for all of us. As I write this, I hear the Didgeridoo playing at the beginning of the dawn service on Anzac Day in Canberra. Our First Australians have much to share with us and to enrich our society and culture.
Andrew Thornley, 25 April 2018.