They are thought to be the oldest structures made by humans found anywhere in the world, so you would think that there would be plenty of visitors to the fish traps in Brewarrina on the Barwon River in northern New South Wales.
But when we visited we had only pelicans for company, and they were far more interested in whatever they could find in the water. Too wary for me to photograph, but back in Walgett they feature in the beautiful mural painted by local young people and artist Frank Wright.
It is hard to get my head around the timescale involved. This has been a meeting place for thousands of years. In the years BC, i.e. ‘before cotton’ (‘before carp’?), the water ran clear, and the stones were maintained in shapes which would catch and store the fish swimming upstream. A picture on the wall beside the river gives an idea of how they worked.
The fish traps are called Baiame’s Ngunnhu, reflecting the Creator God Baiame’s formation of this resource to be shared among the eight or so groups of people in the area. Each group spoke a different language, and in previous times people spoke their neighbouring languages as well as their own. Sitting beside the river, watching the pelicans, I imagined some sort of invisible time travelling capsule with microphones to hear and record the languages being spoken and sung in the gatherings here. Those voices have been quiet for a long time, and some may never be heard again. Another wall panel explains:
The Ngemba, Murriwarra, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Ualari, and Kamilaroi people also would like to take the opportunity to remember the Barranbinya people who were massacred by Europeans approximately 20 kms north of Brewarrina on the Goodooga Rd near Hospital Creek in the 1860s.
It has been suggested that only two members of this clan of over 100 survived.
But I left with good news, after a visit to a preschool a few streets away. Head teacher Frayne Barker is keen for the children to use more of the Ngemba (Ngiyampaa) language again.
I am hopeful that the period of language loss will be just a small blip on the long timeline of Brewarrina’s history.