KIERAN NOONAN. Respecting Sacred Spaces

Aug 9, 2019

Can you imagine the uproar if, with the convenient burning of the roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the French Minister for Transport approved a plan to build a freeway through the Cathedral? Through the main transept to be precise. Four lanes, dual carriageway. ‘We suppose it will be a bit of an obstacle between the baptismal font and the main altar, but it will dramatically improve traffic movement in the city’.

Imagine the stunned response from the French people, and indeed from people around the World, if the French President had no objection. ‘Oui, pourquoi pas?’

Then you understand our dismay. Welcome to Gelorup, in the south-west corner of Western Australia. ‘Gelorup’ is the Noongar name for this area. It means ‘the grassy plain in springtime’. The traditional owners are the Wardandi people, who are part of the Noongar language group. Indigenous people have lived here for over 45,000 years. This is their home; a land of giants, of fresh water springs and secrets. A land threatened with destruction.

Old plans, older secrets

Forty years ago, the special rural community of Gelorup did not exist. The area was covered with bushland, a mixture of jarrah, tuart, banksia, peppermint and paperbark trees. The soil is sandy, part of an ancient dune system. Too hilly for broadacre farming. While parts of it were logged, it was never cleared. It seemed like a reasonable place for a future bypass for Bunbury, the second largest city in Western Australia. There was no money or need for such a road at the time, and so a line was drawn on the maps and largely forgotten. Over subsequent years, the community of Gelorup was approved for development. Bush blocks of one, two and five acres were created. Residents have to provide their own water from rainwater tanks and bores. Subdivisions were approved on either side of the planned road reserve, and queries about it from concerned prospective buyers were often allayed with reassurances from estate agents and Main Roads WA that while the road reserve was there, there were no imminent plans to build it. ‘By the time we get the money, it will be time to build it further east’, away from Gelorup. Because you see, this road was only ever a temporary measure until the ultimate ring road was required. So the community grew.

In some ways Gelorup flourishes today as it did for tens of thousands of years until European occupation in the late 1830s. Gelorup was a place of births and deaths, of meetings and ceremonial celebrations. Much of the evidence for this has only recently been revealed, because let’s face it, the best way to keep a secret is to keep it secret.

Giants, Scars and the Icon

The most obvious evidence is the giant ceremonial tuart tree. He is the biggest of his species in the World, with National heritage listing. Standing over 50 metres tall, with a girth of 8.83 metres and aged over 600 years. He stands 20 metres into the road corridor, on a sloping hill facing eastwards to the rising sun. At the bottom of the hill a brook meanders north and westward. The giant tuart is joined by other giants; jarrahs, marris and paperbarks. However, as if to confirm his majesty, in his crown is an eagle’s eyrie.

Just over a kilometre downstream, a giant swamp paper bark looks back at the giant tuart. She is in the process of being heritage listed also. Mature paper barks usually grow to a height of 10 metres and have a trunk circumference of about half a metre. With her height of over 30 metres and her girth of 4.90 metres, it seems impertinent to speculate her age. She is the Mother tree, the guardian of the brook, the fresh water springs and other secrets. Her velvet bark has swaddled infants and shroud the deceased for generations.

Indigenous Elders reverently acknowledge these are the same trees that were looked upon by our ancestors. On the opposite side of the road corridor from the giant tuart, there is a series of ‘scar trees’, which indicate a history of significant and sustained Indigenous occupation. One has a scar the length of a canoe. There are other cultural secrets here that cannot be shared.

However, one remarkable item that remained hidden for many decades revealed itself last year. It is a ceremonial message stick, which was carried hundreds of kilometres by an Indigenous envoy from communities beyond the Goldfields to the Wardandi people by the coast. The route of his journey was intricately carved and ochred on this icon. Had he completed his mission, it should have returned with him to the central desert country. But it was found in the middle of the corridor between the giant tuart and the scar trees. How had it survived so long, and why was it there?

It is speculated that it had been securely hidden in the branches or among the roots of another tree that fell over a year earlier. So why hadn’t he taken it back? What happened to the Indigenous envoy? And if this was such an important place for the local Wardandi people, where did they all go?

The answer is one that resonates in so many places that were subject to colonial conquest. In 1841, terrible events shattered the peaceful Indigenous community here. After a white man was speared to death in a dispute over food further south, the early European settlers exacted a severe punishment on the entire Wardandi people, pursuing them relentlessly for weeks throughout the region. The final massacre occurred 15km downstream from Gelorup. The number killed is not known. On the part of the settlers there was a deliberate ‘collective forgetting’. The local magistrate who lead the settlers on their reprisals had learnt from the Pinjarra Massacre of 1834 that reporting too much information only invites awkward questions.

Where details were recorded, they were often destroyed. To find out more about these events, look up Jessica White’s excellent article titled ‘Paper Talk,’ Testimony and Forgetting in South-West Western Australia.Now, in what can only be characterised as a final act of colonial warfare, come plans to bury much of the remaining evidence of Indigenous occupation under a road. A temporary one at that. It will facilitate the disingenuous claim ‘what people? Where is the evidence they lived here?’

Light and Life

Few people who move to Gelorup ever want to leave. There is a tangible sense that this is a special place of life and happiness, and that we are privileged to be here. So it was no surprise for people of Gelorup to learn the significance of this area. One of the greatest changes to radiate from Vatican II is the awakening that other religious traditions are also reflections of the greatness of God. What is good and true in them must be honoured. It is sad that it has taken over two hundred years for so many Australians to realise that for true peace, we must reconcile with our Indigenous heritage. It is the history of all of us. It is sadder still that some bureaucrats give lip service to reconciliation, but have not yet genuinely understood what it is.

Between the giants, the scar trees and the ceremonial icon, there is simply no path here for a road. This is a sacred place. Indeed, this is the ancient Gelorup Cathedral. It is much older than any other cathedral in Australia or around the World. When the roof burnt off Notre Dame, people from every nation and creed felt the agony of loss. Places of such sanctity are gifts of God to all humanity, not just to one faith. It was so reassuring to hear the immediate and confident declarations that it would be restored. This should also be done in Gelorup. This cathedral has existed for thousands of years and it must continue to be protected for thousands more. It should be returned to the care of the Indigenous community. The last 168 years should not discount the previous 45,000.

I’m sure the French can find alternative plans for addressing the traffic problems of Paris. So too, Main Roads and the WA government must come up with a better transport solution. There are other viable, cheaper and less destructive and routes available. Together, we need the people of Australia and the World to demand, ‘This way is sacred; it is closed. You must find another path!’

If you would like to know more, please look up the ‘Friends of the Gelorup Corridor’ to see many more images from the road reserve, and to find out more about the campaign to save this area. If you feel inclined, please write an email to the WA Premier and Minister of Transport. They cannot hear the voices of the past, but they might just hear yours.

Kieran Noonan is a Humanities Teacher at Bunbury Catholic College and part-time Chaplain at Bunbury Regional Prison.

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