Sounds from a Disputed Territory

At a local lookout the sounds of birds, cicadas, cars, and an expanding tin roof merge under the midday sun.

At first glance the attempted removal of the Aboriginal name “Wollumbin” at this roadside lookout appeared to be motivated by white racism. The damage inflicted on the sign sparked an interest in recording the sounds found at the mountain. As I prepared to record there I discovered a story of a territorial dispute.

Mt Warning is an ancient volcanic plug that lies at the centre of an eroded caldera. It supports an immense variety of sub-tropical flora and fauna. At 1,125 metres it is the first point on the mainland to receive the morning sun. Walking to its peak is a popular activity for visitors to this region.

The halyard on a nautical flagpole flaps in strong wind at Point Danger.

Captain Cook penned the name Mt Warning as he sailed along Australia’s eastern coastline in 1770. After Cook’s ship nearly ran aground on a reef near Point Danger he charted Mt Warning as a reference point for the protection of other boats. Unwittingly the imposition of this foreign name served as a catalyst for future disputes concerning the mountain.

In the past decade a number of symbolic gestures have promoted the reconciliation of Australia’s indigenous and non-indigenous populations. These have included the recognition of Aboriginal names for some regional landmarks. Vocalising these traditional names is a reminder that a culture existed here long before colonisation. As part of this process Wollumbin was registered in 2006 as the traditional name for
Mt Warning.

Each day people walk past this sign as they begin their ascent of the mountain.

The name Wollumbin comes from the language of the local Bundjalung nation. Depending on which source you read Wollumbin refers to a great fighting chief or more simply translates as “cloud catcher”. To the majority of local non-indigenous residents the re-establishment of the name Wollumbin has been accepted.

However referring to the mountain as Wollumbin has created friction between neighbouring Aboriginal nations. There are claims that it never fell within Bundjalung territory. The Ngarakwal-Githabul nations maintain that they are the original custodians of the mountain which is known to them as Wulambiny Momoli. In their belief the mountain was once a giant scrub turkey with the surrounding caldera acting as its nest. They also assert that the name Wollumbin refers to a set of neighbouring hills which were important for funeral rites.

Proving who is right has been a slow and bitter process. Australian native-title law often requires written evidence of traditional land ownership yet Aborigines lived in oral, not literate, societies. An interesting video supporting the Ngarakwal-Githabul case can be found here.

The sounds of the mountain are in contrast with the dispute surrounding its custodianship.
On the morning of my field recording trip to the mountain hikers had already started their walk to the summit. Preferring to remain at the base I was surrounded by the sounds of frogs, birds, and mountain streams. As I wandered around the base a single scrub turkey followed me, a reminder of the dispute that lay outside.

13 thoughts on “Sounds from a Disputed Territory

  1. This post is absolutely fascinating. As I sit here in Paris on this Christmas Eve I have been transported to a completely different world on the opposite side of the globe. I am really interested in the work you are doing about native Australia. This is very valuable work and I applaud you for undertaking it.


  2. Thanks for this post. All about native Australia interest me too.
    As usual when I listen to your sound I am not sure if I am listen to “real nature sound” or “sound scape”. I guess all sounds in this post are real 🙂
    It is for sure, Australian nature sounds totally different from Iceland


  3. Hello there Sounds Like Noise. I’m a podcast maker, and I found your site while looking for recordings of the area, for a series I’m doing called At Risk in the Climate Crisis. I wondered if I could make use of your recording from the base of Wollumbin? It’s to illustrate a point a guest makes, when he talks about protesting logging in the area. That would be amazing.
    Fingers crossed that’s ok!
    Warm wishes,
    Gretchen Miller (Sydney)


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