Ulgundahi Island | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Ulgundahi Island

Item details

Name of item: Ulgundahi Island
Type of item: Landscape
Group/Collection: Aboriginal
Category: Historic site
Location: Lat: -29.4340726985 Long: 153.2124983570
Primary address: Clarence River by North Arm, Maclean, NSW 2463
Parish: Harwood
County: Clarence
Local govt. area: Clarence Valley
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Yaegl
Hectares (approx): 25.93
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT199 DP751373


The site is an Island located within the Clarence River
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Clarence River by North ArmMacleanClarence ValleyHarwoodClarencePrimary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Yaegl Local Aboriginal Land CouncilAboriginal Group 

Statement of significance:

Ulgundahi Island and its surrounding waters is highly significant to the cultural, social, spiritual and heritage values of the Yaegl people and other Aboriginal people who have a strong association with the island. Ulgundahi Island was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve in 1904 and became home to most of the local Aborigines living in camps scattered about the fringes of Maclean and Lower Clarence Region including Southgate, Ashby, Lawrence and Ulmarra. Being one of many Mission sites across NSW, its social significance relates to the associations with the Aboriginal Protection Board removing Aboriginal people from local towns and cities in an attempt to abolish all traces of Aboriginality. Today the island and its significance to the cultural and heritage values remains strong for the Yaegl people and other Aboriginal people who have an association with the island. The island continues to be utilised by the Yaegl community for uses such as educational tours and organic farming.
Date significance updated: 30 Nov 04
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Construction years: 1904-2003
Physical description: Located within the Clarence River, Ulgundahi Island is approximately 14.16 hectares in land size and approximately 1.5km long. The western end of the island continues to change shape due to the silt build up.

During the years of control by the APB, the Aboriginal people were allowed to farm crops of cane, corn and vegetables. Today, parts if the island are still being used by the local Aboriginal community for its farming purposes.

There are 2 remaining structures, though in poor state. One located in the NW end of the island the other towards the SE side. The main structure on the NW side, is to be said is the first house built on the Mission. The condition of the structure, is poor. Made of corrugated iron, it still retains the original flooring of timber and clear of being taken over by vines. The other structure, also built of corrugated iron does not appear to have a roof, though its walls are still standing. Its condition is poor and covered in vines.

A new structure now stands on Ulgundahi Island, and acts as an undercover area. This allows school groups and members of the community to come and sit and Ulgundahi Island.

A symbolic item still remains on the island, that being the large fig tree which is located towards the Western end of the island. Fig trees have a special significance to the Yaegl community. It is said that fig trees hold spirits and must not be disturbed.
Modifications and dates: The island continues to be modified due to the continuation of farming. The community also have future plans to include interpretation and signage and undertake conservation works to the old houses.
Current use: Farming land and school excursions for cultural heritage/history purposes.
Former use: Aboriginal occupational settlement


Historical notes: Ulgundahi Island has been a site of occupation since 1880 when many Aboriginal people retreated to the island when Europeans had introduced diseases and the land had been taken up by European farms.

In 1904, a portion of Ulgundahi Island was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve under the control of the Aboriginal Protection Board (APB) and in 1907 the whole of the island was included in the Reserve. The name Ulgundahi Island, is to have come from a Yaegl word meaning 'shape of an ear'. Several families already resided on the island and it was reported in 1904 that eight acres be set aside for a Reserve and that supplies of roofing iron and tanks should be delivered immediately. (McSwan 1992:322). Concerns by European residents had been expressed about Aboriginal camps on the fringes of nearby townships and in 1908 the APB relocated families from Ashby onto Ulgundahi Island increasing the resident population to 60. In 1909, Aboriginal people from Harwood Island fleed to Ulgundahi Island due to a European farmer burning down the camp of more than 40 bark dwellings. (Heron 1991:16, Ledgar 5-6)

The basis of settlement at the island is farming, each head of a family having an average of about three to four acres, while child endowment of 5/weekly is paid in respect of each child under the required age, and there is a scale of rations to the extent of 10/ weekly for those who need it, with two outfits of clothing and a blanket yearly for each person. (Daily Examiner, 13 June 1936). The allocation of 3- 4 acres to each family to cultivate for maize, cane and vegetables, no doubt to encourage industry any surplus porcude could be sold. (McEwan 1992:322)

Rations were supplied for children but not to adults as a rule. (McEwan 1992:322). For any adult that wasn't able to earn sufficient, the following weekly ration was provided with a half a ration for each child: - Flour, 8lbs; sugar, 2lbs; jam 4oz; dripping, 8oz; potatoes, 2lbs; onions, 8ozs; baking powder, 4ozs. (Daily Examiner, 13 June 1936).

The APB provided clothes which were all the same, black trousers and blue shirts for boys and purple dresses for the girls and no shoes. Medicine was given by the Manager, regardless if it was needed or wanted, quinine, caster oil, cod liver oil and kerosine were some things given regularly. (Smith 1990:17)

In 1908, the APB appointed an European manager who was also to be the school teacher to Ulgundahi Island, who resided at Ashby an attended the island each day by boat.. In the same year the Aboriginal Provisional School was established on the Island and other buildings included a buidling, outhouses and a tank. . A number of children from the island attended the Maclean School and it was said that parents of European children attending the school objected to the Aboriginal children from Ulgundahi being alloweed to go to the same school. There was very little taught to the children of the island.

In 1910 a small church was built by the residents of the island. A report in January 1921 states that Mr John Cameron paid the balance of funds needed and furnished the church. Until 1910 the minister Rev. Scott Neil visted the island regularly to take services. His sister took Sunday School clasess and became involved with the welfare of the women and childern. Other demoniations became involved from time to time, espeically the Baptists, Free Presbyterians and Salvation Army. An organ was later provdied which was played by Mrs Blakeney.

The families were not compelled to remain on the island by the authorities, though with a hostile European society and the power of the manager to allocate an absent family residence to others, these were enough reasons as to what influenced people to remain on the island. There was conflict between islolation and assimilation as the children were trained only for employment for the white community as farm labourers for the boys or in domestic service for the girls.

Men would harvest the cane and take it to Harwood mill. Each home on the island had its own fruit - peaches, oranges, mangoes, passionfruit and grapes. Those who had vegetable gardens would pick and prepare them for the markets. Any money that was earnt from the sales of either cane or vegetables all went back to the APB never to the person who sold it. It was reported in 1911 by the APB that this goal had practically been achieved, with only one person in receipt of rations.

Continual flooding of the island, caused the state authorities to question the viability of the settlement. The 1921 flooad a been a bad experience. Families were often left to fend for themselves for up to three months at a time. Further floods occurred in 1928 and several during the 1940-1950. In 1951 the government school was closed and children were required to go by boat to Maclean to attend school. In 1958 the APB manager retired, and was not replaced.

Yaegl families often moved to places off the island for holidays or camps lasting from one to two weeks to an entire summer. A popular destination known as Murrayville, a tributary of the north Arm of the Clarence. Families would often camp for six weeks at a time, and were drawn to the abundance of 'wild food' known as 'cobra' or wood worms. Ashby was another camp used, especially during times of flooding of the island. Yamba was also a popular place for families to visit for the entire summer months to exploit the food resources of the coast and waters.

By 1961, the residential focus of Aboriginal families had shifted from Ulgundahi Island to Aboriginal reserves in Yamba and Maclean.

The Aboriginal families living on Ulgundahi Island were governed by the APB for approximately half a century, until the withdrawal of the APB towards the end of the 1950's. In 1956 the Hillcrest Aboriginal Reserve was created on land on the edge of Maclean, and serveral houses were built for families who wished to move. By 1962, the last Aboriginal families had left the island to take up residence at Hillcrest.

Dreaming Story

In the rising of the first sun to warm the rain-drenched earth, three brothers sailed from the east. These brothers bore various names, depending on who you believe and what language you speak. Some have written their names as Berrung, Mommon and Yaburong.

These brothers sailed with their families towards our land. From a distance the land looked lush and green. The mountains blurred the horizon in purple hues. Their canoes moved closed to the land but they could see only the salt-encrusted coast, pale with sand, studded with cliffs and boulders. The green promise of forest was only an illusion. Depondently they moved away, thirsting for fresh water, cool land.

From a cliff a woman with skin the colour of clay called out to the sailors, inviting them to her land, to stay. She called out to them but they did not hear her and against the dark landscape they could not see her. She called to them again and again but the three brothers and their canoes moved away.

Frusted, the clay woman called out to the sea. She bade the sea wreck the seafarers and bring them to land. The canoes broke apart with the rising of the waves and smashed against the boulders, staining them black. Large pieces solidfied into jutting rocks. Shredded wood sank to the sea floor and transformed into seagrass. Berrung, Mommon, Yaburong and their families wre forced to swim. The women held their babies above them. Lost and exhausted they beached themselved upon the shore.

With that, the woman of clay turned from the sea and walked inland, towards the forest and mountains. The travellers huddled together on the sand. The women comforted their babies while the men planned to look for materials to build canoes. Others organised to search for food. A woman broke from the group on the beach and began to walk alone.

Dirrangun, one of the old women with many daughters and grandchildren, walked along the water's edge for a while, then headed inland, beyond the salty, spindly shrubs, over the dunes. She sought peace, away from the constant wind, the never ending rush of the waves.

The gritty sand gradually turned softer and brown under her feet. The sinewy trees of the coast shed their salt and turned lush and green with each step Dirrangun took. The land opened to her and began to offer her the forest. Trees tall and wet. Mist hung grren and silent. Sighing to the ground Dirrangun began to dig for yams. The moist soil crusted under her nails as she dug and her body ached with the effort of surviving the sea. She longed to rest under the trees.

Her family would be waiting, hungry. She was please with the food she found. Dirrangun gathered the yams in her arms and turned back towards the beach. The woman of clay appeared in front of her. Dirrangun dropped her harvest. The woman gestured to calm her and 'You are my sisiter now. The soil from which you feed is your home. You are welcome to stay."

Dirrangun sighed with relief. Her long hair was turning grey with years and she was weary of the sea. Other clay people emerged from the mists, dark people not sombre, and she saw that their faces mirrored her own. Dirrangun felt the soil stain her skin and decided her family should stay in this new place.

She turned back to the beach to tell her family they had fopund home. But while she was gone, the sun had peaked. Berrung, Mommon and Yaburong had eaten fish and mussels. Their bellies were full. They had dound enough wood to crete new canoes. They sealed the canoes with sap from fire.

They looked to where Dirrangun had walked and saw only the salt-encrusted caost. They reasoned that Dirrangun must have perished, being so old. The three brothers convinced their families to leave without her. The camp fires had settled to embers and the brothers were impatient to move.

As her people sailed from the coast Dirrangun returned to the camp. She called out to the brothers, urging them to turn back. Weeping with dismay she called out to them again and again. Still they would not turn back. Her disappointment turned to anger, and clenching her fists, she cursed her family. As her tears fell to the sand and mixed with the water the sea began to turn violent. Waves thrashed into a storm and again up the coast. With that, Dirrangun consoled herslef by setting up camp in the forest and living on yams. She named her new camp Yamba.

Once her family had settled they came looking for Dirrangun and she introduced her family to the people of clay. The three brothers created clans with the clay people and moved from Yamba. Together, over time, they peopled the forests, rivers and coasts. They all looked to Dirrangun who had united them.

But Dirrangun had not forgotten the sense of rejection she felt when her family tried to sail away without her. From then on she remained very wary of her family and lived away from them. As Dirrangun became older and more vulnerable she began to hid her food and water.

The dust of time started to weigh Dirrangun down and turn her skin grey. Her long hair turned white and formed a halo around her face. People began to believe Dirrangun was part spirit. Only the old clay woman became her friend, teaching her to spirit herself away in the forest.

Dirrangun moved inland, up into the mountains where the forest canopy shut out the light. She stayed at the base of a spring and kept it hidden under some bracken. Two of Dirrangun's daughters needed somewhere to stay and Dirrangun made them welcome. But after a while the good feeling between the women began to wane and they argued. One of the sisters' husbands intervened. As a husband he had the title of buloogan. He was a handsome, almost arrogant man. He had forgotten the importance of Dirrangun and saw only an old stick of a woman. He ridiculed Dirrangun hid her water and waited for these youngsters to leave. But they didn't leave and just fell asleep at her camp.

But while everyone was sleeping, two of the buloogan's dogs found the hidden spring. Snuffling the bracken away the dogs slurped up the water. Happy and dripping water they ran to their master and licked him on the face. The buloogan awoke and followed the trail of water back to the spring. Dirrangun lay curled around it.

Angry at being outsmarted by an old woman the buloogan thrust his spear into the spring, fracturing the rocks around it. The water burst through, forcing Dirrangun away. Full of pride and arrogant with his new power, the buloogan called to the water to drown Dirrangun. Although Dirrangun tried to build a platform above the rising water, it swept her and the trees away. Dirrangun tried to push mountains to dam the spring but the water just flowed over and around them. Forests submerged under the water and the people fled to higher ground.

The force of the water from the fractured spring caused the valleys to flood, leaving hundreds of islands in its wake. This became the Clarence River.

Dirrangun tried to sit in the floodwaters and use her powers to block the flow but the river proved too strong for her and she was pushed out of the way. Helpless and angry she stood at Yamba and watched as the frsh water washed into the sea.

Betrayed by her family again, Dirrangun threw herself, angry and despairing, into the water. Her white hair dissolved into foam. Knowing she had lost her spring forever, Dirrangun cursed the river to tunr salty so no one could drink it near her old resting place. The water around her chruned, salty and bitter. Her body turned to stone. Where the river meets the sea.

Whenever you hear the roaring of the ocean and see the foam, bitter and frothing on the beach, that's Dirrangun making sure no one can drink her water. It is Dirrangun in despair. It is Dirrangun's Dreaming. (Bayet-Charlton 2002)

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
2. Peopling-Peopling the continent Aboriginal cultures and interactions with other cultures-Activities associated with maintaining, developing, experiencing and remembering Aboriginal cultural identities and practices, past and present. All nations - sites evidencing occupation-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Events-Activities and processes that mark the consequences of natural and cultural occurences (none)-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Land tenure-Activities and processes for identifying forms of ownership and occupancy of land and water, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal (none)-
6. Educating-Educating Education-Activities associated with teaching and learning by children and adults, formally and informally. Aboriginal Schools-
7. Governing-Governing Government and Administration-Activities associated with the governance of local areas, regions, the State and the nation, and the administration of public programs - includes both principled and corrupt activities. (none)-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Birth and Death-Activities associated with the initial stages of human life and the bearing of children, and with the final stages of human life and disposal of the dead. Remembering the deceased-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
Ulgundahi Island was gazetted as an Aboriginal Reserve in 1904 when Aboriginal families were moved to the island from settlements all over the Lower Clarence region including Southgate, Ashby, Lawrence and Ulmarra. By 1905 there were 21 people living on the island. The site is of state significance as it is able to demonstrate evidence of occupational living by these groups through the associations that still exist today with the Yaegl people of Maclean. Members of the Yaegl community and descendants of those of the original families placed on the island have a strong connection to the land and its surrounding waters.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
Ulgundahi Island has a strong and special association for its social, cultural, heritage and spiritual values for the Yaegl people and other Aboriginal people of the lower Clarence region. The area is well known for its dreaming stories of the making of the Clarence River by the wicked old woman of the Creation period, Dirrangun. The island became a focal point for all the communities in the area: people were born, married and died in this place and every one of them is remembered by today's Aboriginal community.

For the Aboriginal people of today who have an association to the island, it holds a special place as a symbol of their changing place in history and their ability to not only survive all the injustices they suffered, but to come out of if stronger, and more aware of their culture and their place in the landscape of this region.
SHR Criteria g)
Ulgundahi Island and the surrounding waters is highly significant to the Yaegl people and other Aboriginal people associated to the island to their cultural heritage values. The area is outstanding as it is able to demonstrate a particular way of life and custom of the Yaegl people and other Aboriginal people who lived on the island. Although there are no physical buildings remaining, except for the skeletal structure of the first house built on the island, and a smaller skeletal structure covered in vine, the connection to land and its spiritual and cultural values are held high within the community.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0172124 Dec 04 2049827

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenBrenda Smith1990Anecdotal History of the Yaegl People
WrittenDella Walker & Tina Coutts1989The life story of Della Walker - Me and You
WrittenE.H.McSwan1992Maclean The first Fifty Years 1862-1912

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5055412
File number: H04/00094

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