Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

Sommersby Falls with the blog post title overlaid: Charming Central Coast - Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

I’ve previously mentioned that I’d been away on secondment for six weeks at the end of last year. I was part of a national program that matches professionals from policy and corporate sectors with Aboriginal-controlled community organisations. I worked with Barang Regional Alliance (Barang) on the Central Coast, on their Empower Youth Summit, which was held last weekend, on 23-24 February 2019. Barang looks after the interests of 12,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on Darkinjung land. It was a pleasure to work on this meaningful project and to learn more about Barang and its partners, whom I touch on below. You can see the Barang team and my fellow secondees below.

Next time, I’ll talk a little on my project, and some photos from the weekend, attended by 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.  Today, I’m going to focus more on my broader experience on the Central Coast, especially the Aboriginal-Controlled organisations with whom we collaborated, as well as the cultural walks and sights. I’ll share with you a visual sociology of our visit to Finchley Campground, the beautiful rock art at Baiame Cave and Bulgandry, the Koori Art Exhibition, various national parks and festivals, plus much more!


Our first week of secondment (as part of the Yawun program) included a series of cultural immersion activities, beginning with camping, visits to Aboriginal-controlled organisations and cultural walks with local Elders.

Finchley Campground

My swag, which I did not set up myself, with treacherous spider in tow

Our experience at Finchley Campground began with setting up our swags on this public camp site. I’ve never slept in one before. It is both an ingenious invention, with a mattress and mosquito net big enough for your body, and a death trap from Hades if you’re unlucky like me. If you look closely in the photos below, you can see a vengeful, gigantic, bright-yellow spider stealing into my swag, waiting to pounce on my head as I went to sleep. I’d like to say that I was highly dignified when I glanced up and saw it dangling above my eye. But I can’t say that, so I won’t.

With Darkinjung Land Council’s Culture and Heritage experts guiding us (Anthony and Amanda), we were incredibly fortunate to be taken to see various Aboriginal engravings in the area. We were told about how different sites are for men and women (part of men’s business and women’s business) and community areas for adults of all genders and their children. The rock art depicts laws of the Darkinjung people, as well as outlining issues of morality, where to find resources and other useful information that have helped travellers in the area for at least 10,000 years.

We were told about the damaging environmental laws that prohibit Aboriginal people from continuing to look after the engraving sites as they have done for centuries. This means that several sites are buried in shrubs, while others are starting to wear away. Other culturally significant artworks were bulldozed and destroyed since colonisation.

We went to the Finchley Trig, a lookout that oversees the entire Park. Dreaming stories tell of Baiame, the creator, whose steps on Earth created Mount Yengo, the sacred mountain with a flat top, and the other mountains, before creating other life. Baiame is a direct ancestor and lawmaker appearing in Dreaming of multiple First Nations, including Wonnarua, Kamilaroi, Eora, Darkinjung, and Wiradjuri people. Other mountains seen in the distance include Toyan Pic, Boonbourwa, Bin Ben, Mt Coricudgy, Kindarun, Mt Monundilla and Mt Wareng.

At night, we visited more beautiful rock art that are not open to the public, but the Aborginal Cultural and Heritage Experts who look after the land were able to take us to gender-neutral places. We lay under the stars and were told Dreaming stories about the stars, depicting the formation of the Mirrabooka (Milky Way) and the Seven Sisters (also known as the Pleiades constallation). One engraving area meticulously maps the entire Yengo National Park to scale.

Later on, yarns around the campfire focused on Aboriginal people in the Central Coast, who shared with us their personal and family stories of forced removal and the impact of intercultural trauma and the ongoing effects of colonisation. Their lived experiences were impactful to hear, guiding their community service and professional work.

We returned to the lookout at sunrise. It was beautiful, even though I slept only three hours in the car after barely escaping the gigantic spider’s death grip. (I told you last time, cultural fear of spiders is uneven and I’m one of the irrational actors afraid of their webbing ways!)

In between the inspiring camp, we also visited local Aboriginal-controlled organisations. All of them, except two, are controlled by Aboriginal women! But if women are not the CEO, then they are Directors, and their Boards often have greater representation from women. Aboriginal cultures are traditionally gender balanced, with women holding important roles of power, uplifting their families and communities, plus managing services like those below.

Some Aboriginal-Controlled Organisations on the Central Coast

Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council is located in the Central Coast of New South Wales. They own the most extensive Aboriginal-controlled land in the area after the Government. They use sophisticated technologies to take care of their land, while also running a comprehensive cultural education program. We saw the latter first hand during our camping experience. Their offices, like other Aboriginal organisations in the area, are decorated with beautiful paintings by local artists. Their front entrance is designed by artist and Board member Jenni McEwen.

Gudjagang Ngara li-dhi Aboriginal Corporation (GNL) (meaning, ‘listen to the children’) provide services and programs for youth and families in the Central Coast. They’ve launched this hub to provide Aboriginal youth a safe space to seek entertainment and education on community issues. The large warehouse has been converted into a bright and happy place with visitors’ Polaroid photographs up on a red screen by the door, beautiful paintings by local Aboriginal artists on the walls, and youth artworks decorating other areas. Elders and young people alike are welcome to drop in.

Bungree delivers disability, aged care and family services to the diverse Aboriginal communities across the Central Coast of New South Wales. This visit was illuminating, as Bungree workers meet a wide array of needs, from bodily health to reducing social isolation.

Yerin Eleanor Duncan Aboriginal Health Centre provides services for Aboriginal communities in the Central Coast region of New South Wales. They deliver culturally safe programs, community education and support that addresses intergenerational trauma and minimises ongoing removals of Aboriginal children from their families. During my second visit, a colleague (Gary) took us to their recently opened flashy dental services. Below is the beautiful mural by community Elder, Kevin ‘Gavi’ Duncan. The two wall ornaments are by Kylie Nichols, Dental Coordinator. The room is decorated with a picture book written by Aboriginal school children from Foster Primary School.

The National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) is a dance college founded in 1975 by Black American dancer Carole Johnson following a series of workshops she ran for Indigenous dancers. At the time there were no elite dance training academies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It has moved locations twice since its first home in Redfern, but found its permanent home a decade ago here in Mount Penang Gardens of Gosford, on the Central Coast of New South Wales. We had the opportunity to watch the dancers warm up with proud Torres Strait Islander woman Deborah Brown leading them. She is the former senior dancer for Bangarra and is one of the choreographers for NAISDA’s 2018 end of year performance in Sydney’s Carriageworks (below). The front foyer has beautiful unique artworks and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Also, we got to see the mother duck who sits on her eggs by the front door of NAISDA!

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Mingaletta Aboriginal Corporation is a volunteer-run community organisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Umina. They run various training workshops for community, from safe sex for older people to bicycle riding to job skills. They also host sports and recreational sessions, such as boxing for youth as well as arts and crafts, alongside other services, like a flourishing mums and bubs group, mentoring and fishing. Mingaletta is a drop-in centre that will offer a cuppa, a kind ear and life-changing support to everyone in their community. The photos below give a taste of the welcoming decor inside, featuring retro trinkets and beautiful artworks by Aboriginal artists. The front outside area is a beautiful community garden, with all the plants available to purchase as community fund-raising. The flower pots are decorated by volunteers, some created from towels dipped in cement and then painted brightly (see the photo of one featuring the Aboriginal flag). In the back is a children’s playground (photo below).

Photo of Dianne O’Brien in Shepparton, standing beside the statue dedicated to her grandfather William Cooper, who led the Cummeragunja Mission walk-off in 1939

On a second visit to Mingaletta, we were invited to listen to their Chairperson, Dianne O’Brien (Aunty Di), who told her life story. Dianne is a dedicated activist and health expert. She was removed from her mother as part of the Stolen Generations, and faced tremendous adversity and hardship as a young mother. She worked her way up from cleaner to legal advocate in a legal organisation in Redfern and then becoming an alcohol and other drugs counsellor. Later, after moving to the Central Coast, Dianne became a qualified health expert and continues to work in this field.

As the granddaughter of one of Australia’s greatest human rights advocates, William Cooper (photo right), Dianne was a fearless activist for Aboriginal people in the 1970s and 80s, even breaking through rough-handling security at Parliament House. Named NSW Grandmother of the Year in 2017, Dianne remains on the boards of some of the most important Central Coast organisations. We were very honoured to hear her yarns and to have time with such an intelligent, funny and respected Elder.

Baiame Cave

The Baiame Cave in Milbrodale is a public site that is curiously located within private property.  Baiame appears in multiple sacred sites across New South Wales and south-east Australia. We were told by the Darkinjung cultural experts that Baiame always appears with his arms extended (see more depictions below), with a belt and his hair pointing up to the sun. His life force energy radiates from his stomach up his torso to his heart, then out from his head to the sun and stars. (Two notable exceptions are depictions of Baiame with his arms down and elsewhere with his arms folded out like an emu.)

Baiame was married to the emu Birrahgnooloo and had a son,  Daramulum. The boomerang signifies how Baiame kept the law.

The artwork you see below is in ancient style of spray art, where mixed pigment is meticulously sprayed through the artists’ mouths. Another style includes using tools to dig into sandstone. Various forms of preservation have been tried on this site in the past. While the colours are vibrant, the site is carbon dated around 1,500-2,000 years ago, even though there is evidence that the Hunter Valley region was home to Aboriginal groups at least in the 18,000 years ago, or according to Aboriginal knowledge, since the beginning of time.


Kevin ‘Gavi’ Duncan (known as ‘Uncle Gavi’ to mob), Cultural Services Manager with Bara Barang, and Darkinjung Elder, led us on a walk through Bulgandry’s Aboriginal engravings. He began with a discussion of colonisation in the region. The site is located within the luscious Brisbane Water National Park, near Kariong.

Gavi then discussed differences between the way traditional custodians look after the land and the way in which the government  manages the site. The walkway built around the rock art is a relatively new addition and distracts from the carvings etched on the ground. There are multiple plaques placed by the state, which are wildly inaccurate. I will never view these signs at Aboriginal sites in the same way.

First, we were told they misidentified the figures (for example, a spider is misattributed as an octopus). Second, their meanings are also wrongly documented (a woman is said to be holding a kangaroo, when she is actually pointing to a woman’s sacred site).

Baiame is pictured with his boomerang beside a kangaroo, denoting his role as creator and lawmaker. The art is beautiful. I returned again a couple of weeks later to further take in the magnificence.

Another disturbing aspect of the area’s management is that the government uses Western firefighter techniques to do burnings. This means forming a line and burning trees in the vicinity. But does little to stem growth in the area and it burns trees up to their tops. This can be more dangerous to control during summer. Aboriginal people have taken care of the land for thousands of years by choosing optimum spots and lighting smaller fires that spread evenly in circles, allowing animals to move out of the area, and return safely, while burning low to the ground.

As a result of my visit to the park, I became obsessed with the xanthorrhoea plant, also known as Balga Grass, and colloquially as ‘black boys.’ The Darkinjung cultural experts previously told us these plants grow very tall over the decades, and Aboriginal people would hide their spears behind them. The plants are also fast burning and important to maintenance of the land. They are everywhere in the Central Coast national parks.

Executive visit

On our third week, Executives from the Jawun program’s partner agencies visited Barang Regional Alliance. Kate Kelleher, Chair of Barang, spoke first about the importance of having an alliance of Aboriginal-controlled organisations in the Central Coast. She used an allegory of how canoes are built: you need to find the right tree, or foundation; you need permission from Elders to use the tree to build your canoe; and then you build it as a community so you can all travel together on your river.

Corinne Hodson, Community Engagement Manager, painted the evolution of Barang. Corinne sits on three boards of Aboriginal community organisations, one of these was Barang in its early establishment in 2013. She then accepted a paid role as Barang’s sole employee, surveying the community on the issues important to both youth and adults. Since then, Barang has grown to a bigger organisation, running a successful youth healing forum in the Central Coast region in November 2017.

Gary Field, Youth Leadership Manager, spoke about the need to decolonise our minds in the way we collectively think about Aboriginal people. He discussed Barang’s priority on young people, as the Central Coast has a proportionally large Aboriginal population, with a median age of 21, while the non-Aboriginal population median age is 42. He introduced the forthcoming Youth Summit, which we collaborated on together.

On the second day of executive visits, we were invited to NAISDA for a delicious meal and beautiful performances. A group of young developing artists danced to a specially commissioned piece by a Maori choreographer, which featured at their end of year performance. We had an opportunity to chat with one of the young artists, Neville, who has since graduated and is headed for big things.

Aunty Lila told a heart wrenching personal story of her town. Human services showed up one day and forcefully removed all the Aboriginal children, including all her cousins. She was home from school that day, and her mother told her to stay quiet so they wouldn’t take her. They returned twice and threatened one of her uncles with a gun.

She then introduced Bob Randall’s song, Brown Skin Baby, written in 1964 about the Stolen Generations. Aunty Lila has special permission from Randall to sing his song and one of the young developing artists danced. We were all deeply moved by the performance as Anty Lila strummed her guitar and sang:

‘My brown skin baby they take him away The child grew up and had to go, from a mission home that he loved so, to find his mother he tried in vain. Upon this earth they never met again…’

Later, we were taught a dance from the Torres Strait. I loved the experience!

Life at The Entrance

Our home away from home for six weeks was the gorgeous beach town of The Entrance. If you follow my Instagram Stories, you’d know I was obsessed with the three gugandi (Darkinjung for kookaburra) that would come to laugh at us from across the street each morning.

The beach was a five-minute walk from home, but we didn’t get as much beach time as we wanted, as the weather was not great during our stay. Having said that, the beach was still amenable to getting our feet wet, and we were lucky that one of our colleagues, Charles, is an environmental expert and we learnt a little about some of the sea creatures in the waters. I was awestruck by the pelicans. The Entrance is famous for them. They hung out at the beach near us in large numbers. They are humongous birds!

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We had some nice meals at Long Jetty, nearby The Entrance. It has lots of beautiful street art and public art.

The secondees agreed to run a ‘Master Chef’ competition. We were put into randomly assigned pairs. Each week, one team would cook a communal meal. The first week was a Christmas meal that was tasty and outdid itself on presentation.

We went second. We cooked – what else – Peruvian food! We made some of my favourite recipes given to me by my Ma: papas rellenas (potatoes filled with beef, below), empanadas (pastries),  ají de pollo (chicken), ha la huancaina sauce, and also dessert (no pictures) – arroz con leche (decadent rice pudding) and budin (honey-based bread pudding). We also made a recipe not given by my Mum—chilli prawns—but still in Peruvian style. It took four hours of preparation the day before and 2.5 hours cooking on the day. I was exhausted. In typical Peruvian fashion, we started with a dance and played with a piñata. Fun!

The next two teams faced hurdles finding a good time to cook because work became more hectic and their schedules didn’t align. So in the end, four people cooked together on our sixth and final week. Some people were taking the competition a little seriously and the rest of us didn’t care, so we voted to rip up the competition (literally – the scores were ripped up, so we’d never see the outcome). The stand out disch was sop sop, a Torres Strait Islander dish that Charles made. He was generous to share the recipe and I cooked it for my mum at Christmas. It went down a treat! We didn’t take any photos of our final meal because by this stage, we were just focused on having fun and a little tired. So enjoy photos from my Peruvian delights!

My room mates and I did a lot of communal cooking, as well as self-cooking, so the few places we went to eat out were stand outs. Some of the highlights were Frank’s Pizza and Cafe, Gotham Cafe (below), which was decorated in early Batman memorabilia (and check out the random V. C. Andrews books), plus Green Tangerine. The latter easily does the best breakfast in the region. (You might remember my favourite part of my weekends with a sociologist series is finding all day breakfast!)

Community events

Mingaletta Market

On our second weekend, we went to Mingaletta Aboriginal Corporation’s fundraising market to support the community. There was yummy handmade food, hand painted goods and clothes by Aboriginal women Elders and volunteers, and secondhand goods all supporting a wonderful, grassroots, Aboriginal-controlled organisation. Dianne O’Brien (‘Aunty Di’ to mob) was there, passionate about her organisation and community.

Central Coast Koori Art Exhibition and Christmas Cultural Market Day

We volunteered at the Koori Art Exhibition at the Gosford Regional Gallery, at the Barang stand, raising money for The Pelicans. They are a volunteer Aboriginal youth group helping to shape the future of their community. The beautiful bags we sold are made by Aboriginal women from Alice Springs. The Pelicans provided a free sausage sizzle. There were lots of stands by local organisations and artists selling original jewellery, belts, crafts and weaving, plus there’s free face painting and rock painting for kids.  Young Aboriginal cultural dancers and live musicians are kept everyone entertained. Black Santa handed out lollies.

Artists: Donella Waters, Dal Walters, Garry Purchase, Jo-Anne Johnson, Wendy Pawley and JD Delaney.

The Wildlife Arc Society hosted a free interactive Reptile and Animal display. I got to pet this gorgeous turtle (below). She’s been nursed back to health by the Society. If you look closely at the top of her shell, you’ll see a large crack from being run over by a car. The shell is alive, much like our human skin, and it is capable of healing over with the right care. The Society clipped together the tear and the wound did indeed repair itself. She was beautiful and well-behaved. Her handler clearly loved her. There was also a python, a bat, and a magpie.

What a great day!

A white man holds a large turtle. It has a noticeable scar on its shell

‘Tree of Life.’ I bought this piece by Donella Waters, proud Gomeroi woman of the Kamilaroi Nation. She has won many awards, including Reconciliation Art Prize at Gosford Regional Gallery and Art Centre. She’s just wonderful!

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This is the second painting I bought at the Central Coast Koori Art Exhibition, by Jenni McEwen. The bigger white and orange circles represent community ceremonial grounds, with the larger mixed orange/white circles being larger gatherings that the other people are converging toward for ceremony. As I mentioned, Jenni is a Board member of Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, which owns and looks after traditional lands around the Central Coast of New South Wales. Her art appears on their logo, offices, and many other public spaces and community sporting groups’ uniforms.

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Storyplace by NAISDA

The NAISDA performance was wondrous, beginning with warm ups before the audience. Was I thrilled they danced to Despacito? Yes. Yes, I was.

The sights

Our weekends were usually full with community events or other commitments. Much of the final activities below we packed into our final weekend!

Tony Doyle Track, Warrah Lookout

Located at the Brisbane Waters National Park, Warrah Lookout (Warrah Trigg) is breathtaking. Our colleague told us this is the spot where the book The Secret River is set.

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A bit further up from the beautiful beach town of Umina, Captain Cook first tried to invade Australia, but he had to leave as it was marshland. All these islands are now very expensive real estate.

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Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

The Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is enormous and well-worth the visit, even if we did not achieve one iota of what we wanted by going there! We wanted to see the Aboriginal engraving sites. At the gates, the attendant looked sheepish and said they only had a couple and we should ask at reception visitors’ centre. When we got there, we were told we’d have to drive 40 minutes to West Head. Having already driven an hour to get there, we declined the extra travel.

Instead, the park had a short trail where we’d see two replicas of Aboriginal engravings, which we weren’t thrilled about as it seemed culturally inappropriate. We did see a cranky giant lizard and another aggressive brush turkey (there are so many of them around the Coast!). The trees were distinct, with many of them folded into themselves on the ground or hollowed out as you see from my photos below. We also noted the patriarchal influence on the naming convention for she oaks (‘because their timber resembled a weaker timber of oaks’). A good day nevertheless!

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Australian Reptile Park

We went to the Australian Reptile Park! The American alligators were eyeing us off, the birds were vibrant, the koalas and their babies were snoozing and the lizards were unimpressed with the likes of us humans.

I fell in love with the echidnas. One was trying to crawl upwards and tore my heart out. They were in an enclosure with the quokkas and got along like great mates.

Bonus: there were dinosaurs all over the park.

Escape room

A few of the secondees did an escape room together and sufficed to say: we lost the plot. While we solved all but the last two puzzles in record time, we devolved during the last two, running out of time. My career as a pirate is foiled. A sociologist I stand.

Lakes Festival

The Lakes Festival, at the Long Jetty Foreshore, had live music, stalls and food trucks by the water. It was a lot of fun and I bought a few pairs of cute shoes from a local woman maker. I ate gözleme, a flat pastry filled with good things. I ordered my favourite, spinach and minced beef, sans evil cheese, which would have otherwise ruined the meal.

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Soldier’s Beach

Nothing more is needed to say except that Soldier’s Beach is beautiful, with clear waters and few people. All of this equals bliss!

Beautiful clear beach on a clear day. People are walking in the background

Norah Head Lighthouse

This historic and functioning lighthouse was a hoot to visit. It has approximately 100 narrow stairs that tourists can climb, as a knowledgeable volunteer guides you up. As a sociologist of gender, I got a kick out of seeing the historical advertisement recruiting for lighthouse keepers, who had to be male and short (and goes without saying: White). They were expected to absail down the exterior of the lighthouse quarterly to prove they were fit for the job in case of a fire. They had to be small enough to climb inside the top light to clean it regularly, which took many hours (see third photo below). The beach at Norah Head was beautiful and clear, with very few people around.

Kincumba Mountain

Breathtaking Kincumba Mountain lured us to the Kanning Cave. We took Kanning Walk toward the Cave, which is shamefully defaced with lots of boring people’s names who don’t respect the environment. The Cave itself is gigantic on the outside, but with a surprisingly small, dark entrance. It was the perfect setting for an adventure story or a horror film, with the hole large enough for us to crawl into one by one. It was impossible to see inside without our inadequate phone torches. We didn’t go in, but robust discussion was had about ‘what if…‘ Having said that, there was actually a large entrance on the other side, I’ve since found out, but a little crawling would have still been required to get through the other side!

We continued up the Mountain toward Nyari Lookout. The trees were massive and the views spectacular. We kept walking, despite my injured foot, and continued because the sights and conversation were so good. Three hours later, we had not made it even halfway round the Mountain and realised our foolish plan, so we turned back, content but exhausted.

Famished in between your many walks? Visit Higher Grounds, Kincumber, for a coffee and feed. Aside from a delectable menu, you can bask in the gorgeous sights out the window into the national park!

Terrigal Beach

Terrigal Beach is a lovely but overcrowded place, which is not unexpected on the 35° day we visited. Lots of happy families built sand castles and groups of friends set up their large tents. Did we get asked to move along after plonking ourselves in the middle of a children’s surf competition? Yes. Yes, we did. Apparently our uninformed sports commentary is not in high demand.

Recommended eatery is Sit by the Corner Cafe in Ettalong Beach, which was less than 30 minutes to our next location, Sommersby Falls. It has a mixed menu, from salads to fish n’ chips to various Asian plates, plus lots of refreshing drinks.

Sommersby Falls

A set of two magical waterfalls in Somersby is only a brief walk down the mountain. You’ll hear the crisp laughter of delighted wanderers well before the sound of rushing natural water beckons you. Babies, children, couples, friends, all squealing, while others snap momentos on their phones at the Middle Falls.

The Lower Falls was equally spectacular. Climbing down was a challenge. The rock steps are much narrower than the Middle Falls. Yet intrepid people happily climbed down with their babies, even as I concentrated on exiling premonitions of my own death. Climbing back to the top on a 36° day was exactly as harrowing as it sounds.

There is a lovely picnic area at the top if you’re keen to make an entire day out of it, otherwise, swimming or spritzing the water is a great relief.

That’s it for this Weekends with a Sociologist post! I hope to bring you a second post on my secondment and the youth event soon.