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Aboriginal seasonal camping along the NSW coast

Aboriginal communities camped along the NSW coast on a seasonal basis throughout much of the twentieth century. The coast is dotted with the places where they stayed during holidays, while between work, or during particular fishing seasons. Seasonal camps offered an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends and to have a break from life on government-run reserves or missions. They are remembered as places where people could live partly off the resources of the coastal environment. At some places like Mystery Bay and Saltwater, Aboriginal communities continue to gather and camp at particular times of the year.

Mystery Bay ca1895, William Henry Corkhill, National Library of Australia: an2499548-v

Mystery Bay ca1895, William Henry Corkhill, National Library of Australia: an2499548-v

Camping on the beach was a common part of reserve or mission life for Aboriginal people who lived near the NSW coast. Certain times of the year offered opportunities for families or entire communities to spend several days or weeks camping together on the coast. These times usually coincided with the Christmas and Easter holidays, local employment seasons (such as bean picking), or with certain fishing seasons. From about the 1960s, it became common for Anglo-Australians to spend their summer holidays in motels and caravan parks along the state’s coast, sometimes in the same places where Aboriginal people held their seasonal camps, making it more difficult for Aboriginal people to continue these traditions at certain locations.

Seasonal camps were significant, and highly anticipated, for several reasons. First, they were the places to where Aboriginal people could 'get away from town’, or take a break from seasonal work.1, For those living on reserves or missions, Christmas and Easter camps offered rare opportunities to spend time away from the controls and constraints of reserve life, and away from the reserve manager. Patricia Davis Hurst 'always found it amazing' that the manager of Purfleet reserve allowed people to camp at the beach at Saltwater each year:

This was the only time in the lives of the local Kooris where they could get away from the prying eyes of the manager and the Welfare… It broke the monotony of living under extremely harsh conditions for the rest of the year.2

Secondly, seasonal camps were fondly remembered as fun times. Away from reserve managers or townspeople, Aboriginal people of all ages were free to enjoy the coastal environment, and spend their time swimming, playing games and sports, fishing, and collecting marine resources. Families and communities who might have normally lived apart, reunited on the coast at Christmas or at other times, making seasonal camps an opportunity to 'catch up' or spend time with people they might not otherwise have seen on a regular basis. Della Walker's description of Christmases at Yamba captures this sense of fun and freedom:

Every Christmas time they used to come down to Yamba and have the whole six weeks there. We'd play games at night time. There were big sandhills and oh, how we enjoyed ourselves. There were about sixty or seventy, I suppose, used to come. Two big truck loads full of our Aboriginal people from all over at Casino. And they used to enjoy their holidays. We'd go to the beach gathering pippies and oysters. We thought that it was lovely. When our friends came from Casino we were overjoyed to see them. And it was there that I came to know the friends I have now.3

Charles Moran, who lived in Kempsey at Christmas time in 1948, later recalled how he enjoyed the seasonal camp on the coast at Hat Head:

There were about 100 of us, all camping for a week and with plenty of fishing, yarning and playing games. It was my first real holiday and the first time in many years that I could really relax and not be thinking about tomorrow. I enjoyed becoming acquainted with more of my relatives, who were all very friendly and welcoming.4

Thirdly, coastal seasonal camps were an opportunity to live and work on, and to maintain ongoing connections to, Sea Country. Communities lived partly off their Country's resources for the duration of the camps. They were an important occasion to pass on cultural knowledge to younger generations5 and also an opportunity for children to learn about their Country and the management of that Country.

Culture camps, held today across NSW, are in some ways a continuation of the seasonal camping tradition and are often held at the same locations.

Locating seasonal camps

Along the entire NSW coast, certain locations were used regularly by Aboriginal communities for their seasonal camps. They were typically spaces where few white people lived or visited. In a sense, they were spaces that had been bypassed by white settlement, and hence Aboriginal campers had a fair chance of being undisturbed and their activities were likely to be unencumbered. On the north coast of NSW, Saltwater was popular for Christmas and Easter camping for people from Purfleet Reserve,6 Red Rock was a Christmas camping site for people who lived at Corindi Beach,7 and Yaegl people from Maclean regularly set up their holiday camp around Christmas time on the eastern edge of Lake Arragan.8 Such camping sites, one historian suggests, 'were usually chosen as “good food places” where people could get away from town.' 9

Location of Saltwater Christmas Camp, OEH

Location of Saltwater Christmas Camp, OEH

Collecting and eating seafood was a central experience of the seasonal camps. For Patricia Davis Hurst, who described camping at Saltwater as 'a ritual that happened every Christmas and Easter,' the effort of making camps 'was well worth it, because for the next five weeks there would be nothing but swimming and eating all the sea foods and bush tucker you could eat.' 10 The camps were an annual occasion for consolidated communal living on Sea Country. Some of the larger coastal seasonal camps included Boundary Creek (south of Ballina), Yamba, Saltwater and Mystery Bay (on the far south coast), but there were many more along the coast.

Boundary Creek

Aboriginal people living on Cabbage Tree Island in the Richmond River south of Ballina on the far north coast usually walked to the beach at Boundary Creek for their Christmas and other holidays. Mavis Davies and Yvonne Delsignore fondly recall Christmases spent at Boundary Creek, when 'everyone from the island would go out there to play games on the beach in the afternoon. They were lovely days'.11 According to Yvonne,

...we'd always look forward to going to Boundary Creek, getting pipis and camping out there on the beach… That was good – we'd have a lot of fun out there. I can remember the shoreline had so much driftwood – there was heaps of driftwood – all the kids would collect it to make the fires on the beach at night. There was plenty of fish at that time.12

The Boundary Creek Christmas community was not limited to people from Cabbage Tree Island; they were joined there by families and friends from elsewhere in the region. Mavis recalls that 'in the afternoon busloads used to come – all the friends from Casino, Coraki – everywhere'.13 Sandra Bolt, also from Cabbage Tree Island remembers too how Christmas was 'the happiest times for family gatherings', when 'cousins from Kempsey and Nambucca would come to visit us'.14

Aerial view Cabbage Tree Island

Aerial view Cabbage Tree Island


Ruby Langford, while staying at Cabbage Tree Island, joined the local community for their camp one year:

On Boxing Day everything was packed up and all the people went out in boats across to the other side and headed towards the beach. We were running along the sand dunes and stuffing ourselves with pig face, a salty fruit which grew in the sand. The older ones had fires going and were cooking boilers of pippies that you could smell for miles. The men played cricket on the sand and kept an eye on the kids swimming. The beach wasn't patrolled so we had to be careful.15

South coast camps

On the NSW south coast, many Aboriginal families spent their holidays camping at Potato Point north of Lake Brou (now in Eurobodalla National Park), Barlings Beach near Tomakin, or at Mystery Bay south of Narooma. Les Simon recalls that at Potato Point, 'they built humpies from bent over saplings, clad in bark, no roof in summer, more like a wind break with a sandy floor. Three people would fit in each one. They caught salmon, lobster, abalone, bumbulas, mussels and conks.'16 Alan Mongta also recalls catching lobsters and abalone, fishing and being shown old carvings by his uncles.17

People living on the reserve at Wallaga Lake travelled to nearby Mystery Bay for their summer camps. Although their old campsite is now a camping reserve managed by the local shire council, Aboriginal people from the area still use Mystery Bay as a camping place every year during Christmas and January. One of these people, John Pender described the significance of Mystery Bay to himself and his community:

John was recently sitting on the rocks at Mystery Bay with his 70-year-old uncle Keith 'Hooks' Page. His uncle had sat in the precise location as a 12 year old, in the 1940s. John sees him and his family as having 'visiting rights' to Mystery Bay. His contact with Mystery Bay keeps on going, although it is a bit harder to stay there for more than a week due to the camping fees. Christmas 2005, New Years Day was a scorcher, reaching 43 degrees. John described how all the campers, elders and kids, came onto the beach to cool down. All of these koori people have an affinity with that place, as a meeting place for families that have been moved or have relocated to distant towns and cities. Families from Victoria and Sydney, meet up at Mystery Bay, annually. John has brought his children to Mystery Bay to ensure that they meet their relatives. '…Mystery holds power, power sitting in the land, you can almost hear the corroborees, singing in the bush… it comes to you when you are there…'18

Links to related gazetted Aboriginal Places

Further reading

Byrne, Denis & Maria Nugent, Mapping Attachment: A spatial approach to Aboriginal post-contact heritage, Department of Environment and Conservation, Sydney, 2004.

National Parks and Wildlife Service, Aboriginal Women's Heritage series (Ballina and Cabbage Tree Island; Nambucca Heads; Nowra; Wollongong; Port Stephens), National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney, 2003.

Office of Environment and Heritage, Living on Cabbage Tree Island, Office of Environment and Heritage, Sydney.

Office of Environment and Heritage, Research resources for Aboriginal heritage: Living and working in coastal NSW, Office of Environment and Heritage, Sydney, 2012.


 1 Johanna Kijas, There were always people here: A history of Yuraygir National Park, Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, Sydney, 2009, p. 64

2 Patricia Davis-Hurst, Sunrise Station, Sunbird Publications Taree, NSW, 1996, pp. 158-9

3 Della Walker, Me and You: The life story of Della Walker as fold to Tina Coutts, Aboriginal Studies Press for Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1989, p. 22.

4 Charles Moran, Talk Softly, Listen Well: Profile of Bundjalung elder Charles Moran, Southern Cross University Press, Lismore, 2004, p. 90.

5 Denis Byrne & Maria Nugent, Mapping Attachment: A spatial approach to Aboriginal post-contact heritage, Part 2, Department of Environment and Conservation, Sydney, 2004, p. 114.

6 Byrne & Nugent, p. 87.

7 Anthony English, The Sea and the Rock Gives Us a Feed: Mapping and Managing Gumbaingirr Wild Resource Use Places, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney, 2002, p. 19.

8 Kijas, p. 64.

9 Kijas, p. 64.

10 Davis-Hurst, pp. 158-9.

11 Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, 'Mavis Davies', Ballina and Cabbage Tree Island, Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, Sydney, 2007, p. 22.

12 Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, 'Yvonne Delsignore', p. 29.

13 Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, 'Mavis Davies', p. 22.

14 Department of Environment and Climate Change NSW, 'Sandra Bolt', p. 11.

15 Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don't Take your Love to Town, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2007, p.34.

16 Les Simon quoted in Susan Dale Donaldson, Stories about the Eurobodalla by Aboriginal People: Stage Two Eurobodally Aboriginal cultural heritage study (public report prepared from Eurobodalla Shire Council and NSW Department of Environment and Conservation, Sydney) 2006, p. 81.

17 Alan Mongta quoted in Donaldson, Stories about the Eurobodalla, p. 15.

18 John Pender quoted in Donaldson, Stories about the Eurobodalla, p. 105.

Page last updated: 14 November 2012