Gomeroi grandmother and long time anti gas campaigner, Suellyn Tighe, guided Sydney Knitting Nannas and Friends around the southern part of the Pilliga Forest on Sunday. Nannas listened and learned about Gomeroi culture and the need to protect it.
Our first stop was at a natural spring where Suellyn’s granddaughter, with clapsticks, sang a song to welcomed us in language, then repeated the song while Suellyn translated it into English.
“This song is a reminder of why people are here – to stand up and protect the Pilliga”, said Suellyn.
Mother earth is calling me
Mother earth is calling me
Stand up for the Pilliga
Stand up for the Pilliga
Stop for the beautiful bush
Always the bush
Always the water
Now the good grass and the good winds
Care for the land
Suellyn explained to us the importance of the natural spring and of all water to Aboriginal people as outlined in her speech to the Independent Planning Commission hearing on the Narrabri Gas Project. “Water is the cultural thread which binds our Gamileroi identity and connection to country through oral histories.”
Determined to see the source of the water, the intrepid Nannas, walked up a hill through long grass, past a manmade dam, to where water trickled out of the ground into a small pond near a rock. A disused railway track passes within a metre of the spring.
The Pilliga is a recharge area for the region’s shallow aquifers and the deeper Great Artesian Basin which are at risk of contamination from the Narrabri Gas Project.
Suellyn’s home town of Coonabarabran was one of many country towns to run out of water in the last drought and the council had to sink several bores to obtain water for domestic use.
Driving from Coonabarabran to Baradine on the right hand side of the road, we made a quick, unplanned stop at a roadside stall with an honesty box, to buy pumpkins.
Our next stop was on the left hand side of the road where a plaque on a rock commemorates Oxley and Evans 1818 Macquarie River Expedition. The rock was not easily seen from the road because of the length of the grass. From here you look back over to the Warrumbungle Mountains. When coming from Baradine, it is easier to see the rock and the view as it opens up between the trees.
Here Suellyn pointed out the shape of a wombat in the distant Warrumbungle Mountains. She told us the following Gomeroi story –
In a time when food was scarce four hunters searched everywhere, and eventually found a wombat. In the distance they saw four strangers hunting in the same area. Instead of talking to the men and sharing the wombat they decided to hide it and then pick it up on their way back. They continued hunting but failed to find anything else.
Before returning to camp, they looked everywhere for the wombat they had hidden but they could not find it, so they returned to camp empty handed. Back at the camp they saw the women and children had just finished a feast of food shared by the four strangers.
The moral of the story is about the power of sharing and the loss of status and hunger that comes from not sharing. The strangers’ generosity had had a better result than the other hunters’ greed and selfishness.
Later Suellyn told us that after bushfires the mountain looks even more like a wombat as the burnt trees looked like bristles.
On entering the excellent Baradine Discovery Centre, we were greeted by National Park rangers saying “yaama”. This architecturally designed, environmentally sustainable building houses interactive displays on the Pilliga Forest and Gomeroi cultural heritage.
Nannas collected free information and maps on the area, saw the collection of stuffed animals not easily seen in the forest and watched interactive displays to discover the hidden secrets and history of the area. They visited the local art exhibition and bought presents from the shop for their grandchildren.
From Baradine Nannas travelled on to the Sculptures in the Scrub and the ancient Sandstone Caves. The first part of the sandy road was very rough but once on No. 1 Break Road it varied, but most of it was in good condition. We had lunch at the picnic tables provided at Sculptures in the Scrub.
Then Suellyn and her two grandchildren did a “show and tell” with traditional items made and used by the Gomeroi people. Suellyn pointed out the design technology used to make and enhance functionality of spears and other objects. She is teaching her grandson traditional tool-making. He proudly showed us a digging stick he is making and explained the method of construction and the reasons for doing it that way.
Then we walked up the hill to some, but not all, of the sculptures, as we were running out of time. (The following day some of the Nannas returned to complete the 3km circuit walk, which was quiet and very enjoyable as there were fewer people there.)
We continued driving along the straight No 1 Break Road across the park, which was quite rough in places. It was a relief to get to the Newell Highway.
For many the Sandstone Caves were the highlight of the trip. Suellyn, who had contributed much of the signage in the park, told us not to touch the caves as the sandstone was soft and crumbled easily. Photographs cannot do these caves justice – they are awesome, spiritual, soulful. A wonderful experience and we felt very privileged to be in this special place in the company of this wonderful Gomeroi family.
Throughout the day we were helped by Suellyn’s two delightful grandchildren along difficult tracks. They ensured we didn’t run into sticks poking out of the bush and as we walked around the caves they passed on their knowledge of the things we saw. We witnessed their pride in their culture, their fascination in stories and their respect for their grandmother. We admired their ability to remember our names.
Later, Nannas all declared this the best day of their listening tour.
By Sydney Knitting Nannas and Suellyn Tighe
 Written by Suellyn Tighe together with a great advocated for The Pilliga and long time friend of Suellyn’s