Exploring Australia's Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, A UNESCO World Heritage Site

At the country's latest UNESCO World Heritage Site, learn how the Gunditjmara Aboriginal community of Australia built a sophisticated aquaculture system to trap eels and create sustainable lifestyles
Australia's Budj Bim Cultural Landscape
Lake Condah is an integral part of Budj Bim Cultural LandscapeVisit Victoria

It takes a few minutes for it to sink in that I'm standing at a site older than the Egyptian pyramids, the Greek Acropolis, and England's Stonehenge. I get goosebumps. At this 6,600-year-old land, I am about to glimpse the ancient Indigenous culture of the original Aboriginal people, Gunditjmara, who inhabited southwest Australia aeons before settlers arrived.

Set amid rugged countryside at the end of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape opened to tourists just a few years ago. In 2019, it became the latest place in Australia to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is Australia's newsest UNESCO World Heritage Site
Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is Australia's newsest UNESCO World Heritage SiteVisit Victoria

Lying about 300 kilometres from Melbourne, this ancient volcanic site in Victoria was one of my last stops during the drive along the picturesque road. As I take in the vast panoramic sweep that stretches for miles around me, my imagination tries to envisage how communities lived here thousands of years ago.

Well, they were not nomadic hunters, as many may believe. I am about to be surprised to learn that they developed the world's oldest and perhaps most sophisticated aquaculture system much before the Romans created the celebrated aqueducts to supply their cities with water.     

Understanding about the aquaculture system at Budj Bim Cultural Landscape
Understanding about the aquaculture system at Budj Bim Cultural LandscapeVisit Victoria

The Importance Of Lake Condah

My journey starts at the Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre close to Lake Condah, where I meet my guide, Reuben Smith, who belongs to the Gunditjmara community. He explains how the Aboriginal people lived in permanent stone homes around the ancient lake until European settlers colonised Victoria and began farming the area. Recognising it is a heritage site, in 1987, the Australian government awarded this land back to the community, which has now painstakingly restored its proud heritage.

A guide talking about Lake Condah
A guide talking about Lake CondahVisit Victoria

"When we got this land back, there was no water in Lake Condah, so we fought long and hard to get it filled up. In 2010, a weir was constructed, and water started to flow back, and so we have a lake again," Smith told us, standing on a platform built inside its sparkling, blue waters. Budj Bim, which means 'Big Head' in Gunditjmara, was a volcano that erupted about 38,000 years ago and created extensive wetlands. "That means the story I am relating is the oldest creation story in the world," says Smith.

I realised how important the lake was for them when the guide narrated that one of his favourite uncles has been making nostalgic visits regularly to see something intrinsic to his heritage, which he had missed seeing all these years.

As I walk to a Kooyang (eel) display tank with him, he briefly details eels' habitat and migration patterns. At first, I wondered why he was giving me a National Geographic-type lesson on these snake-like creatures.

A guide explains about the life cycle of eels at the kooyang display tank
A guide explains about the life cycle of eels at the kooyang display tankVisit Victoria

All About Eels

Then I realised that eels lay at the heart of their lifestyle as these enterprising Aboriginals built an intricate system of interconnected water channels and ponds from the volcanic rocks to trap and harvest the slippery fish that would not only sustain them all year round but also used for trading with neighbouring villages.     

Over the next few hours, we explore eel traps, stone channels, house sites, and eel-smoking trees to understand how the Gunditjmara people used their innovative skills to build sustainable lifestyles.

They carved the water channels at a time when tools did not exist. "Fire and water created these channels 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. The oldest fish traps date back 6,500 to 7,000 years, making this the world's oldest farming system," Smith explains. They placed baskets to catch eels, harvesting up to 25 a day, keeping some and releasing others to continue their journey.

He asked our group how many people one eel could feed daily. We come up with figures like one or two people. To our utter shock, we are told that depending on the size, one eel can feed 20 to 40 people, so in one day, they can catch enough food to last three to five days.

What should we do with the extra ones that have been trapped? For you and me, the answer is obvious—walk over to the fridge. The Gunditjmara stored them in natural refrigerators made from Phragmites, a tall reed grass that holds water and allows the eels to survive. This grass is again peeping out from the ground as the old ecosystem is slowly restored.  

They also smoked the eels with cherry wood for 14 to 48 hours—this is the world's oldest preservation technique for fish. They can last for two months and be used for trading with other communities. "My cousin Luke and I also call these bank vaults because you're keeping your currency safe by storing it in these reeds," says Smith.

We walk a little ahead with him to see the remains of a fisherman's house. The structure is long gone; just stones are strewn on the grass. My mind conjures pictures of men and women harvesting and cooking the eels.

Then we returned to where we started our tour—Tae Rak Aquaculture Centre, which is also home to a charming café near Lake Condah. As we made our way to the café, I saw a rainbow. I couldn't have asked for a better ending to this visit. 

For lunch, we are served a platter containing kangaroo meat and, of course, eel. As I taste the smoked eel and arancini balls, I wonder if I just bit into a piece of history. Perhaps I did.

The Information

Walking Tours

There are various cultural tours of BudjBim varying from two hours to a full day. It's recommended that you book in advance. The details can be seen here: www.budjbim.com.au/visit/cultural-tours/

Getting There

The closest town is Port Fairy (56km), at the end of the Great Ocean Road. Melbourne is 326km away, about a four-hour drive. There are direct flights to Melbourne from New Delhi via Qantas and Air India. From other cities in India, various airlines fly to Melbourne. They include one-stop flights, and the popular ones are Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Scoot, Sri Lankan Airlines, and Malaysia Airlines.

Visas: You need a visitor visa to enter Australia. This can be applied online here.

Stay: The Oak & Anchor Hotel at Port Fairy is a charming boutique hotel.

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