Blackwood River Valley

Blackwood River ValleyGarden lover and organiser of Bridgetown’s Festival of Country Gardens Peta Townsing has been having trouble with her lemon-scented gum tree again. The red tail black cockatoos have been pruning the sweet new growth at the top so it looks, in her words, a bit bare.

“I don’t mind the noise of them,” Peta explains, “I just wish they’d leave the tree alone.”

Despite the screaming cockatoos and warbling magpies, the Blackwood River and its surrounds made early British settlers feel at home.

“It’s very European around here,” Townsing explains, “we have a lot of hills and forests which get thicker the further south you go and it can get frosty at night, which the stone fruits like.”

And evidently stone fruits aren’t the only ones. Besides the well-known wineries and apple orchards, pomegranates, chestnuts, quinces, apricots, peaches, plums, cherries and persimmons all flower or grow at different times of the year.

Townsing, a passionate gardening enthusiast, comes to life talking about the gardens of the area. Besides putting the Festival together, she plans to instigate a program to open local gardens each weekend for most of the year.

“A lot of the wineries and nurseries are open all year and have gardens attached to them.” She says.

Featured gardens are from as far afield as Balingup and Nannup, but just getting to them is pleasant. “The karri grow a bit further south ,” Townsing says, “but we have thick jarrah and marri forests around the area.”

Her favourite garden, she laughs, is her own, although she doesn’t spend as much time on it as she’d like while organising one of WA’s best-known flower festivals, one that draws tourists from interstate and overseas.

Gardeners of the region, certainly as far as the Festival is concerned, judge a garden not just on the plants or flowers featured, but the way the landscaping showcases the features. It’s testament to how seriously people care for and regard their gardens down here.

But European descendants can’t hope to have a relationship with their land like that of the Aboriginal people.

The land, like their stories, were their identity and lifeblood. The rhythm and movement of the people as they told, sang or danced their stories set them into the ground and linked them together.

Noel Nannup, Senior Aboriginal Heritage Officer at the Department of Conservation and Land Management, Perth, explains the spirit of these travelling people.

“The four season year is a northern hemisphere philosophy,” he says, “The Aboriginal people of those times had six seasons and it was very important that they could travel from their area according to the seasonal cycle.”

The reason the people had to travel wasn’t just to follow food, but because tales of their heritage were such a part of the Aboriginal belief system they had to be passed on, shared and enjoyed through story, song and dance. As Nannup explains, “The travel is about spirituality and the story is crucial. And they weren’t all serious – many were told in a happy, jovial, boisterous manner.”

Creation of the Bibbulmun track throughout the 1970s (it was conceived in 1972 and officially opened in 1979) was from the inspiration of the travels of Aboriginal people.

While the track doesn’t necessarily follow established tribal routes, it celebrates them, and by walking any of its 960km length you can begin to appreciate how important motion was to the land’s ancient custodians. Somewhere to stay, food to sustain you and contact with the outside world (by constantly pressing on) will be as crucial to your enjoyment and progress as it was to theirs.

Bibbulmun, named after one of the Aboriginal groups of the South West area, literally means ‘land of many breasts’, and as Nannup explains, the ‘breasts’ in question literally sustained travellers.

“Stony peaks and outcrops or hills of granite are all over the area, there isn’t a spot in the south west where you aren’t near one.” He says, “And each one supported a small ecosystem that sustained travellers on their way.”

How the Bibbulmun track also celebrates indigenous culture is by the Waugal (or Ngarngungudditj Walgu as it’s otherwise known) that guides your way on signposts all the way from the Perth Hills to Albany.

“The Rainbow Serpent links the network of walkways, rivers and ultimately the whole country.” Nannup says, “It was the first thing to come into being and the only spirit strong enough to hold up the sky, so the other spirits recognised that it was a natural leader and they followed it, creating the stories of formation of the land, animals and trees.”

Among the Waugal’s creations are the Bunbury Estuary and Blackwood River, and the Bibbulmun Track goes through a beautiful stretch of land not far from Balingup.

You don’t have to be a bushman, tracker or have any knowledge of Aboriginal ways to walk the Bibbulmun track, but you might recapture some of the spirit with which they travelled throughout their land.