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A holy place in jeopardy

Kieran Noonan  |  08 August 2019

A teacher from Bunbury writes about a campaign to save a sacred Aboriginal site from becoming a highway.

Can you imagine the uproar if, with the convenient burning of the roof of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the French Minister for Transport approved a plan to build a freeway through the Cathedral? Through the main transept to be precise. Four lanes, dual carriageway. ‘We suppose it will be a bit of an obstacle between the baptismal font and the main altar, but it will dramatically improve the movement of traffic for the city.’

Imagine the stunned response from the French people, and indeed from people around the world, if the French President had no objection.

Then you understand our dismay. Welcome to Gelorup, which is Noongar for ‘The Grassy Plain in Springtime’. Home of permanent fresh water springs, the seasonal Five Mile Brook and a land of giants and secrets.

Old plans and older secrets

Forty years ago the special rural community of Gelorup did not exist.The area was covered with bushland, a mixture of jarrah, tuart, banksia, peppermint and paperbark trees. The soil is sandy, part of an ancient dune system. Too hilly for broadacre farming. While parts of it were logged, it was never cleared.

It seemed like a reasonable place to draw a future bypass for Bunbury, the second largest city in Western Australia. There was no money or need for such a bypass at the time, and so a line was drawn on the maps and largely forgotten.

Over the subsequent years, the community of Gelorup was approved for development. Residents provide their own water from rainwater tanks and bores. Subdivisions were approved on either side of the planned road reserve, and queries about it from concerned prospective buyers were often allayed with reassurances from estate agents, the Shire and Main Roads that while the road reserve was there, there were no imminent plans to build it.

It flourishes today as it did for thousands of years until European occupation in the late 1830s. Gelorup was a place of births and deaths, of meetings and ceremonial celebrations. The evidence for this has only recently been revealed, because let’s face it, the best way to keep a secret is to keep it secret. 

The scars and the icon

The most obvious evidence is the giant Tuart. The biggest in the world in fact, with National Heritage listing, a girth of 8.83cm and aged over 600 years. It sits 20m into the road corridor. It is joined by giant jarrahs, marris and paperbarks. As Indigenous Elders reverently acknowledge, these are the same trees that were looked upon by our ancestors. On the opposite side of the corridor there is a series of scar trees, which indicate a history of significant and sustained Indigenous occupation. There are other cultural secrets about this area that cannot be shared.       

However, one remarkable item that had remained hidden for many decades revealed itself last year. It is a ceremonial artefact, an icon, found in the middle of the corridor between the giant tuart and the scar trees. It too is ancient. How had it survived so long? It is speculated that it had been securely hidden in the branches of another tree that fell over a year earlier. If ever there was a message declaring ‘you shall not pass’, this is surely it.

But if this was such an important place for the local Wardandi people, where did they all go? Why was Gelorup abandoned?

The answer is that in 1841 terrible events shattered the peaceful community here. After a white man was speared to death further south, the settlers exacted a severe punishment on the entire tribe, pursuing them relentlessly for weeks throughout the region. The final massacre occurred 15km downstream from the Five Mile Brook. The number killed is not known; on the part of the settlers there was a deliberate ‘collective forgetting’. Where details were recorded, they were often destroyed.

Light, life, celebration and happiness

The vast majority of people who move to Gelorup never want to leave. There is a tangible sense that this is a special place of life and happiness, and that we are privileged to be here. So it was no surprise to the people of Gelorup to learn the significance of this area. 

One of the great changes to come from Vatican II was the appreciation that other religious traditions are also reflections of the greatness of God, and that what is good and true in them must be honoured. It is sad that it has taken more than 200 years for us to realise that in order for true peace, we must reconcile with our Indigenous heritage. It is part of all of our history.   

Between the giants, the scar trees and the ceremonial icon, there is simply no path for a road. This is a sacred place. Indeed, this is the ancient Gelorup Cathedral, much older than any other Cathedral in Australia or around the world. When the roof burnt off Notre Dame, people from every nation and creed felt the agony of loss. Places of such sanctity are gifts of God to all humanity, not just to one faith. It was so reassuring to hear the immediate and confident declarations that it would be restored. This is what must be done now in Gelorup. This Cathedral has existed for thousands of years and it must continue to be protected for thousands more. It should be returned to the care of the Indigenous community. 

I’m sure the French have alternative plans for addressing the traffic problems of Paris. So too, Main Roads must come up with a better solution for Bunbury’s traffic. There are other viable, less destructive routes available. Together, we need the people of Australia and the world to demand, ‘This way is sacred; you must find another path!’ 

Kieran Noonan is a happily married father of four children; a Humanities and Religious Education Teacher at Bunbury Catholic College, an Acolyte and part-time Prison Chaplain.

Images: Terri Sharp


Topic tags: valuesandmoraldecision-making, spiritualityandtheenvironment, indigenousaustralians

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