Glimpses from the past

THE PEOPLE OF THE PLAIN SURFACE – The Awabakals at Sugarloaf

Mount Sugarloaf was named by Captain James Cook on the 10th May 1770, when his ship, the Endeavour, sailed northward along the east coast of Australia. This mountain is 1349 foot high (314 metres). The mountain was sacred to the Aborigines. There they held their initiation rites for the transition of young aborigines from boyhood to adult manhood. Game was plentiful and the clean, pebble-free sandstone was ideal to use as an armoury to rub their axes and tools to sharpen them. Evidence can still be seen of these axe-grinding grooves.. The Awabakal’s, when making their yearly walkabout down to the lake, used to make an overnight camp on land later owned by Joe Notley of West Wallsend, before trekking down to the lake. There were a number of waterholes and creeks in Notley’s forty acres and there were wild fowl available for food.

There are some reference books dealing with the early Aboriginal tribes in the local histories of the towns around this area. One good reference on this subject is the book “Youngy, Then and Now” The Story of Young Wallsend/Edgeworth by Sue Sokoloff (1991).

We are indebted to the Rev. Lancelot Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines, who came to Lake Macquarie in 1824 and remained in the area until 1859. From his papers, we have the best record of the Awabakal people to be found; Rev Threlkeld has also left us the results of his work on translating the aboriginal language. His main advisor in his work was the Awabakal native, Biraban (meaning Eaglehawk) who had learnt to speak English fluently when taken as a lad to Sydney to be brought up at the Military barracks. Biraban was also known by the English name of Johnny McGill. McGill gave Threlkeld much help and encouragement in his work in the mission and was his chief adviser regarding the aboriginals..

“The Awabakal people, people of the ‘plain surface’, had carefully defined boundaries. They were bordered by three main tribes, the Worimi to the north, the Wanarua and the Darkinung to the west. The Awabakals perhaps are most closely related to the Wanarua or the Hunter River people”.

Reverend Samuel Leigh tells us in an account written in 1821 that “The natives of NSW are far from being a stout people; they are very slender of middle stature, with limbs small and thin through food deficiency. Also that the reverence and respect they pay to the aged and infirm is worthy of imitation by every Christian. If an old man or woman be blind no person is permit ted to stand before them, and when rowed in a canoe, the rowers are obliged to sit behind them.”

The Awabakal are believed to be the only Aboriginal tribe to include coal in their legends; they appeared to be aware of its combustibility and are thought to have used lumps of it in their fires.

There is one legend of the monster on Mount Sugarloaf. In the Mount Sugarloaf ranges lived a monster called Puttikan. Puttikan was like a very tall man whose head and body were covered in long hair and whose feet pointed backwards, presumably to make him hard to track. Some say he bounded like a kangaroo, making a noise like a rifle-shot when his feet touched the ground and calling out: ‘Pirralong, Pirralong! as he advanced on his prey. His usual victims were uninitiated young men. His name means ‘biter’…

There may still be some platypus to be found in the winding creeks off Lake Macquarie. In the old days the Awabakal called them Purraimaibam, which means ‘eater of cockles’. According to legend, the platypus came into being when a young female black duck, though warned by her mother not to go alone to the edge of the water, ignored this good advice. One day a water rat saw the pretty young duck from the rushes and attacked and raped her. The duck told no one of the assault but eventually laid an egg. When it hatched, instead of a duckling there was a strange creature with a duck’s bill and webbed feet and a rat’s furry body. To this day the platypus lays eggs like a duck and suckles its young like a rat.

There is some evidence of Aboriginal life remaining in the Sugarloaf area. Axe-grinding grooves are found on exposed sections of suitable sandstone in creek beds often associated with rock pools or high in their courses where siltation has not occurred. These are found at West Wallsend along Slatey Creek, and on a tributary of Cockle Creek and Burnt Creek 4km west of Minmi. There are shell middens to the west at Great Sugarloaf and north along a ridge east of George Booth Drive. Few stone arrangements have been found in the vicinity. The closest is a site consisting of rows of flat stones at Great Sugarloaf some 6km to the west. Stone arrangements are made by the deliberate placement of stone cobbles in geometric or linear patterns or in mounds.

The Awabakal would have utilised the Eucalyptus for shield or canoe manufacture, honey would have been harvested and the plethora of under scrub species would have been eaten, or used for medicines… Pambalong and Sugarloaf tribes used to meet at corroboree grounds in the current town of Wallsend.

Rev. Threlkeld tells us that “temporary structures were seen during wet weather. He noted that the ‘natives’ went into the bush for shelter and made erections of boughs, of trees, or sheets of bark placed upright and supported by stakes. Rock overhangs and rock shelters were also used for shelter”. Rev. Threlkeld also described the “use of fire signals to notify distant tribes, or the selection of delegates from the Awabakal to request personally for them to meet. Messengers were often armed warriors, painted with red designs and adorned with bird down”. Threlkeld also stated that it was “a common Aboriginal law to enquire into the event of every death, and to punish the relatives if proper care had not been taken of the deceased person”.

The Aborigines covered a fairly wide territory in their travels. The Maitland Mercury in 1843 ran a lengthy article on an outbreak of conflict between tribes on the Hunter River at Maitland in April. The Sugarloaf tribe was mentioned by name. Then in May of the same year, the Sugarloaf Tribe formed part of a 100 men women and children who passed through Maitland to Campbell’s Hill for the purpose of holding a corroboree. Some hostility and suspicion between the tribes were obvious to the onlookers and fights eventuated Some other tribes represented at this time were the Wollombi, Glendon, Paterson, Port Stephens and Maitland tribes.

Some food sources were comprised of Kanga roos, wallaby, fish which was thrown on the fire, the fur and skin of the animals were thoroughly scorched, black as charcoal, the carcass was carved with a small hatchet into small portions cockles were the everyday dish on the lake at all seasons as they were easily obtained, these were roasted and eaten … The fem root was roasted and beat with a stone upon a larger one, when they use it for bread. There was a pineapple looking cone which although pretty to look at needed long soaking to make them edible, these were roasted… They roasted and ate the flower stems of the gigantic lily when they were about 45 cm high also the bulbs were first roasted then pounded into a sort of cake.

Extract from “Holmesville – One Man’s Vision” By Lillian Price
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