Aboriginal culture on the Great Ocean Road

Southwest Victoria’s coastline and hinterland supplied natural resources for Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years. As such it holds significant spiritual connections related to the land, wildlife and Aboriginal ancestors. The Great Ocean Road was built on land owned by clans pertaining to Gunditjmara, Wathaurong, Eastern Maar and Gadubanud language groups.

Unfortunately, long before the GOR was a mere gravel track, the area’s natural resources were also of significance to European immigrants. Farmers, fishermen and whalers in the early 1830s would come into increasing conflict with Aboriginal people. Later, mining industries such as sand, gravel, coal and gold, and the fishing and timber industries, exploited the area’s natural resources, making physical changes to the landscape.

Vast areas of land were cleared and non-native animals such as horses, sheep, rabbits, cats and foxes greatly altered the natural ecosystem. The availability of traditional food sources and the ability to manage the land in traditional ways was also greatly reduced. Low-intensity burning, for instance, was used by Aboriginals to revitalise areas for agriculture, and reduce the risk of bush fires.
Horrific human massacres followed including notable sites at Blanket Bay and the Bay of Martyrs. The Aboriginal population was devastated, with the fraction that remained being forced into Aboriginal reserves and missions such as Framingham Aboriginal Mission near Warrnambool.

Jeremy Redmond is co-owner and small group guide at our Great Ocean Road tour specialists, Australian Natural Treasures: “About 80% of the Aboriginal people in the southwest of Victoria died in the first 40 years of white settlement from disease and conflict. It is always quite devastating for our guests to hear that the conflict was so one sided and that we still have work to do on recognising our Aboriginal people properly. When the conversation takes place at a place such as the ‘Bay of Martyrs’, for instance, known for the settlers driving the Aboriginal men off the cliff at gun point, it comes as a surprise to even the Australian tourists as we were all a little oblivious to what went on.”

When the Great Ocean Road was built by returning WWI veterans (1918-1932) there was little left to imply that the land belonged to anyone other than the Australian state government of Victoria.

New research relating to fire charred stones and scattered shell pits at Moyjil (Point Ritchie) near Warrnambool, actually suggests that human activity can be traced back to more than 120,000 years ago. This takes Australia's Aboriginal human history back twice as far as originally thought.

Aboriginal cultural sites on the Great Ocean Road

Make sure you travel with a responsible tour group who don’t gloss over Aboriginal ancestry. Your guides might not be of Aboriginal descent themselves, but they should still be able to address topics sensitively and with honesty. Visit indigenous cultural centers exhibiting ancient archaeological artefacts as well as honest information about how Aboriginal people have been treated.

There’s a traditional Aboriginal talking hut, for example, which is located at the Cape Otway Lighthouse. Here you can meet and chat to indigenous guides who are happy to share their personal and ancestral stories and knowledge of the land as well as teaching kids about bush tucker.

Ask questions and do your research beforehand so you’re equipped with facts. Build visits to indigenous cultural centers into a tailor made itinerary or join a small guided group which have these sorts of sites already included as part of a tour.

Some areas, such as Budj Bim Heritage Landscape near Portland, can only be experienced in the company of an Aboriginal guide. Make sure you travel with tour guides who respect this. Not only will you be providing employment for Aboriginal people, as well as local guides, but you’ll also be contributing to rural economies in remote regions away from the tourist hot spots.
The Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre, in Geelong, encourages travelers to listen and learn about Aboriginal Dream tales as well as expanding on the importance of the natural landscapes that you’ll find further west along the coast. From interactive educational exhibits to authentic Aboriginal art and handmade cultural souvenirs, a visit to Narana, prior to heading out, is always an education.

Tower Hill State Game Reserve is another important Aboriginal site to visit if you’re close to the Great Ocean Road. The information center is managed by the Worn Gundidj Aboriginal Cooperative, which aims to empower Aboriginal people through employment. The surrounding area has also been repopulated with native flora and supports native animals including emu, echidna and possums.

Jeremy Redmond from Australian Natural Treasures shares another Aboriginal cultural center to visit whilst on the Great Ocean Road: “Brambuk is a great non-government funded cultural center in Grampians National Park. They tell the Aboriginal creation story via video and also have wonderful displays of boomerangs, shields and artwork, alongside confronting information about the historical mistreatment of indigenous local people. The travelers we introduce to Brambuk are generally enlightened and touched by the deeper understanding about the people, history and issues.”

Our top Great Ocean Road Vacation

Great Ocean Road 2 day tour, Australia

Great Ocean Road 2 day tour, Australia

Spectacular, diverse and thorough micro group tour

From AU $875 2 days ex flights
Small group travel:
This trip departs every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday throughout the year
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What you can do

Visit the Great Ocean Road with smaller, locally-owned tour specialists who support, understand and respect Aboriginal communities and put profits back into initiatives based upon continuing to promote and preserve the rights of Aboriginal Australians. Walk with an Aussie tour guide who understands and empathises with Aboriginal cultural heritage and wants to share the history of the area, as well as preserving the natural environment. Buy authentic art and wood carvings from Aboriginal cultural centers and learn more about Dreamtime and the Aboriginals' relationship with the land and wildlife. Respect privacy when visiting Aboriginal communities and respect cultural traditions when attending a ceremonial event or visiting a sacred site. Pay heed to signs asking you not to photograph, climb or deface important Aboriginal landmarks. Consider the outdoors as a cathedral or temple, you wouldn't clamber all over an altar to get a good photo or bath in holy water to cool off, so don't do it when you're visiting sacred sites on the Great Ocean Road. Ask questions about the importance of Aboriginal cultural heritage before you book a tour. Find out how your visit will benefit local Aboriginal communities and help to provide employment for local people. Education may not be a vacation tick box for some, but it ought to be for travelers looking for an authentic and respectful experience.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ewen Bell / Visit Victoria] [Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre: Ewen Bell / Visit Victoria] [Budj Bim Heritage Landscape: Artra Sartracom / Visit Victoria] [What you can do: Mark Chew / Visit Victoria]
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