I didn’t get the chance to finish these posts whilst I was away and on my return home, a virus prevented their completion. Now I’m on the way to recovery, I’d like to complete them. Here is Day Three.
Saturday was a good reminder as to why Aboriginal people in the North East feared snow and would make their way towards the plains and the Murray during the cooler months. Although the day was clear and perfect for viewing Mount Bogong, it was chilly and snowfall great enough for the ski season to commence a week early. Mount Bogong is Victoria’s highest mountain and forms part of the Australian Alps. There is a walking track that advises that those of reasonable fitness can achieve a summit in a day- this visit started with Mountain Creek picnic ground, which has essentially served as the base camp for those who which to climb for centuries. This was the second time I have visited this spot. The first time was during a workshop with other Dhudhuroa and Waywurru people in Spring and even then, I had a possum skin cloak to keep me warm. It would have come in handy today!
My personal knowledge is not substantial in regards to this end of the Keiwa Valley. I am unaware of who the Honorary Aboriginal protectors were- or even if there was any- I can only surmise when the Aboriginal people of the North East were this far up the Valley their main objective was moth feasting.
Before heading up to the Bogong Alpine Village, we made a stop at the Mt Beauty Visitor center where the Kiewa Valley Historical Society has 4 permanent displays, one of them being The First Peoples of the Kiewa Valley and the Bogong High Plains. Although there didn’t seem to be anyone around from the Historical Society, I did see some familiar names and faces on their display panels- a friend, Ruth Lawrence’s photograph of a cluster of moths on a cave wall was included in the display and Neddy Wheeler’s Washbourne portrait is included amongst the information panels.
One thing I learned from my visit here was that catching moths was men’s business- I was unaware the women stayed on the lower slopes.
What I have learned from Elders and local historians is that the peaks of the Australian Alps were annually rotated as the hosting location for moth gathering. Queen Mary and King Billy’s Grandson, George Nelson, recollected that his parents, Maggie Stone Macdonald and Henry Harmony Nelson first met at Mount Beauty during the Bogong Moth Harvest in 1872: this was a year before she was taken to Coranderrk. King Billy was seen by squatters carrying his wives, Emily and Mary over hills on the way to Youngal Station – base camp before the ascension to the Munyangs ( Snowy Mountains) – when the women were too old to walk. One year, a baby girl was left behind at the base camp at Youngal station- the Scammel family kept the child and apparently brought her up as their own. She died tragically at the age of 5 when she fell off a dray and was crushed by the wheels.
According to Josephine flood, English-born Australian archaeologist, mountaineer, and author, moth hunting expeditions were confined to the upland tribes that had moths in their own territories:
‘all the ethnographic accounts suggest that because of their large numbers, ease of capture pleasant flavor, high nutritive value and availability in Spring after a lean winter, moths played a major role in the hunting and gathering cycle of the Uplanders.’
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why this cultural practice continued long after the advent of colonialism – it was a food source that could not be sullied or polluted by hooved animals or doled out by the paternalistic Honorary Protectors.
Sociologist RF Payten asked early European Families in the high country what they recalled about the moth hunts. According to the squatters, tribes would meet on corroboree grounds, at the foot of the uplands. There was an exchange of greetings while everyone waited for the scouts to arrive from the mountain with news that moths were hanging in clusters in the caves. Then, to the accompaniment of Bullroarers and much shouting, a smoke signal was put up and only then, and never before, the tribes assembled on the corroboree grounds and broke up into their own separate groups and independently proceeded to the tops of the moth feast.
Richard Helms, a German scientist who migrated to Australia in 1858 made several insect collecting trips to the Alps, considered the most popular meeting place for moth eating walkabouts to be the Snowy Mountains, where ‘500-600 Aborigines from different friendly tribes gathered on the highest summits- there were great gatherings at Christmas’.
Perhaps Helms failed to realize this custom was practiced by highland tribes thousands of years before Christ was born.
Robert Brough Smyth, Australian geologist, author, and social commentator, provided a description of Moth feasting in the 19th century:
The Bogong moths collect on the surfaces of granite rocks on the Bogong Mountains of New South Wales and in such a manner as to admit of their being caught in great numbers. Mr. G Bennett says ‘ to procure them with greater facility, the natives make smothered fires underneath these rocks about where they are collected and suffocate them with smoke at the same time sweeping them off at bushels at a time. After they have collected a large quantity they proceed to prepare them which is done in the following way-a circular space is cleared upon the ground of a size proportioned to the number of insects to be prepared: on it a fire is lighted and kept burning until the ground is considered to be sufficiently heated when the fire being removed, and ashes cleared away, the moths are placed on the heated ground and stirred about until all the down and wings are removed from them: they are placed on pieces of bark and winnowed to separate the dust and wings mixed with the bodies; they are eaten and placed on a wooden vessel called walbum or calibum and pounded by a piece of wood into masses or cakes resembling lumps of fat and may be compared in color and consistence with dough made from smutty wheat mixed with fat. The bodies of the moths are large and filled with a yellowish oil, resembling in taste to a sweet nut. These masses will not keep longer than a week and seldom for even that time, but by smoking they are able to preserve them for a longer period. The first time this diet is tried by native tribes violent vomiting and other violent debilitating effects are produced, but after a few days they become accustomed to its use and then thrive exceedingly upon it.. it is not only the native blacks that resort in the Bongong, but the crows congregate for the same purpose. The natives attack the crows, kill them, eat them and like them very much after they have been fattened on moths. Eyre mentions this moth. Not only the Natives but their dogs are fattened on it’.
We made our way to The Alpine Bogong Village which is the furthest point we could safely go before hitting the snowfields of Falls Creek.
This little village of 29 apartments was originally created for workers for the Kiewa Hydro-Electric Scheme but are available for a holiday stay. This place is so idyllic, with its dappled light and wintery Lake Guy. I hope to return here soon. In the interim, a Kergunya sunset and B’s chooks beckon.
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