Crossing the Ngunitiji: Clarence clear water

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)
Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

On the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range, near the border between NSW and Queensland, a small stream quickly gathers pace as it slithers down the mountains. In an area of good rains it picks up tributaries in the Dorrigo Plateau. By the time it reaches the valleys, it is large and broad, the widest Australian river to enter the Pacific.

At its estuary the river is a majestic kilometre wide. The ferry from Yamba in the south to Iluka in the north takes 30 minutes to negotiate the dangerous channels, islands and sandbars. Most Australians know it as the Clarence but to the Yaegl and Bundjalung people (collectively the Yaygirr) that lived in this valley the river was called the Ngunitiji.

The Yaygirr had a good lifestyle for 6000 years, and could afford to set up roots and live in bark huts with woven vines. At nighttime they gathered around to tell the story of the old woman Dirrangan swept down the river during a flood clutching a fig tree. The Yaygirr were eventually swept away when newcomers coveted the river and its fertile land.

These ghostly whites were initially slow to see the river’s significance. Cook missed it in 1770.  Matthew Flinders found bark huts when he landed at the mouth of the Ngunitiji during his second voyage in 1799. He called the area Shoal Bay but was unimpressed by the shifting sandbars and failed to see the mouth of a major flow, calling it “a small opening like a river”.

For 40 years, the river remained invisible to white eyes. John Oxley missed it in his discovery of the Tweed River in 1823 as did Henry Rous in the same area five years later. Rous called Oxley’s Tweed the ‘Clarance’ but that name didn’t stick. In the decade after Oxley, rumours persisted of a Big River in northern NSW especially after convicts escaped south from Moreton Bay penal colony.

In 1830 one escapee “Sheik” Jack Brown made it to Yaygirr country where he lived with locals for two years. When he returned to Moreton Bay he told of a great river which “abounds with fish”. Its land was abundant in “emus, kangaroos, and wild fowl in all directions” and “pine, oak, gum and other trees of use” were growing. Brown excited the imagination of settlers looking for easy pickings among apparently friendly natives.

Captain Alexander Butcher took the Eliza into the estuary and mapped 200km up river. His report got Sydney’s attention. Explorer Joseph Hickey Grose verified Butcher’s findings the following year and he reported to deputy-surveyor Samuel Perry about “the future opening of the country on the banks of the river”.

The schooner Susan also left Sydney in 1838 with a party of sawyers looking for cedar. It was not a good wood for building houses or boats so the men lived in tent-huts, surviving on beef, flour, tea and sugar. Three times a year they went to the new settlement at Grafton where there were complaints about drunken behaviour. Though the cedar was quickly exhausted, many stayed to try their hand at farming.

By now the Ngunitiji had a white name. The master of the ship King William, Captain Francis Griffin urged Governor Gipps in Sydney to name it “with a title somewhat more clear than the Big River.” Perhaps it was the name of Griffin’s ship as well as loyalty to the crown that caused Gipps to go with Rous’s name for the Tweed in honour of the recently deceased King William IV, formerly the Duke of Clarence.

As word spread in Sydney, there was a rush of cedar-cutters, squatters and selectors into the Clarence’s fertile valley. The Yaygirr watched apprehensively as strangers poured into their territory. Initially there was cautious co-existence but the trickle of Europeans became a flood and took black lands and waterholes.

Once they started locking up land for cane growing, the Yaygirr had to steal back to survive. They killed white stock and attacked isolated settlements. In 1847 Thomas Coutts took revenge as he poisoned 23 Gumbaynggir people with strychnine in their flour. Five died in agony but Coutts avoided prosecution with not enough evidence.

There were two documented massacres, one at Green Hills near Red Rock where mounted native police drove natives off the headland, the other at Station Creek. Oral histories also tell of killings at Minnie Waters, Cassons Creek and Tyndale in the early 1840s. By the 1900s massacres and disease had weakened the black population and land dispossession was complete. There were few left who could speak Yaygirr language. Their journey back from the precipice of non-peoplehood began with the 1967 Referendum. They were then remembered in the naming of the Yuraygir National Park in 1977.

Though widely dispersed today, the area’s traditional owners still proudly call out links to the region. The Bundjalong gave their name to the national park north of the Clarence. To the south, the Yaegl and the Gumbaingirr trace common descent through the female line. Their land councils and totems are important. The Bundjalong won the first Aboriginal land grant in NSW in 1985 at Evans Head. But the mighty Clarence, the Big River, the Ngunitiji still speaks loudest. The Europeans have moulded it in their own industrious image with breakwaters and ports. But the ghost of Dirrangan still haunts its wide waters.


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