Tag Archives: Yarra

Wurundjeri, Woi Wurrung: What’s in a name?

THE HUMAN SENSE of identity and belonging is multi-layered.
At an immediate level, we can identify our belonging to a family, a locality, and a community.
From there, it broadens to a matrix of various communities of interest, such as your membership of a profession, sports club, recreational pursuit, or religious affiliation.
At increasingly broader levels, we can identify as belonging to a region, a state, a nation and a particular cultural heritage.
Within these various layers of personal and group identity, there are often also competitive elements.
For instance, your best friend at work may barrack for a rival football team, and this might then involve some friendly banter and mock mutual derision.
The point, though, is that in-group and out-group psychology does not necessarily lead to deep alienation and antagonism between individuals or groups, even though, of course, it sometimes does.
Traditional Aboriginal society was no different in that there were many overlapping layers of personal and group identity.
These successively involved your family and totemic relationships, a shared geographic water catchment area, a language group of several catchment areas, and then an even broader federation of adjacent language groups.
However, just like Victorians might refer to West Australians as “Sand Gropers”, Queenslanders as “Banana Benders” and South Australians as “Crow Eaters”, so too did Aboriginal people have derisory nicknames for other Mobs.
This was clearly demonstrated in the early colonial period in Sydney when an Elder named Mahroot was asked what was the name of the people at Liverpool.
His reply was “Cobrakalls, same as you call the French people”.
As Cobra was the Aboriginal name for a foul-smelling mollusc that the Liverpool people ate and regarded as a delicacy, he was, of course, saying that they were snail-eaters.
More than that, though, he was probably implying that the Liverpool Mob were known as “Bad Breath People”.
Jimmy Dawson, who settled at Warrandyte in 1840 and then moved to the Western District in 1844, had a similar experience.
In recording the names of various languages in the Western District, he was told various nicknames that meant things like “Drawlers”, “Bleeding Lip”, and “Seaweed Speakers”.
These nicknames have since become institutionalised as the traditional language names in the area, because Jimmy Dawson’s is the only record, and Aboriginal humour was not accounted for in accepting the names.
There are many other instances across Australia of joke names being mistakenly adopted as traditional Aboriginal names, but I can give a couple of pertinent examples closer to home.
The Dandenong Valley catchment area of the Dandenong Creek, Cardinia Creek, and Bunyip River from Bayswater down to Kooweerup, was occupied by a Woi Wurrung clan, the Ngaruk Willam Balluk.
In context, Ngaruk refers the rocky southern slopes of the Dandenong Mountains down to Westernport Bay, whilst Willam-Balluk means “home country of these people”.
However, they were colloquially referred to by others as the Balluk-Willam and this changes the meaning to “Swamp People” or even more accurately, “Bog Dwellers”.
A very apt name for that area.
As can be seen from the preceding example, Aboriginal tribes very often take their name from the major river of their area.
The proper name for the Yarra is Birrarung, so the locals referred to themselves as the “Birrarung-Willam-Balluk”, but were commonly known by their language of Woi Wurrung.
To the surrounding tribes, however, just like the snail-eaters anecdote, the Birrarung people of the Woi Wurrung were given a nickname by their neighbours that reflected their dietary habits.
This nickname was Wurundjeri, which means “Witchetty Grub Eaters”.
However, in 1835, Batman’s surveyor John Helder Wedge, mistakenly thought that the name of the Melbourne river was “Yarra”.
The local Birrarung people therefore, quickly adapted to the Whitefella change and began referring to themselves as the “Yarra Tribe”.
This situation is tacitly confirmed by the Aboriginal Protector William Thomas, who kept a daily diary from when he started in 1839 to when he died in 1867.
In his diary, he makes about 400 references to the Woi Wurrung people but not one single reference to the name Wurundjeri.
However, just before his death in 1867, he drew a map of the Yarra Valley and Westernport area in which he marks Coranderrk, the Aboriginal Reserve, which had been established in 1863.
So, the map was obviously made at some time in the four years after that.
Then, across the map of the Yarra Valley area, he superimposed the words “Wurundjeri of the Woi Wurrung”, thereby clearly showing that the name Wurundjeri had only gained some currency after 1863.
The inescapable conclusion is that when Coranderrk was established in 1863, the non-locals there continued to refer to the locals by their nickname of Wurundjeri, and the locals simply got used to it.
The net result is that nowadays, we all routinely refer to the Wurundjeri as the traditional owners when originally it was just their nickname.

Jim Poulter is a local historian and a member of Reconciliation Manningham.
Find out more at: facebook.com/reconciliationmanningham

Image: Merri Creek,Plenty Ranges, Charles Troedel NGV

Kayakers safe after river search

Police search and rescue were called out last night when, just on dusk, a concerned citizen reported an empty kayak floating down the Yarra.

Following a flyover from the police helicopter and the investigation of some cars left at the Jumping Creek carpark after dark, Police are confident that everyone on the river yesterday have been accounted for.

Sergeant Stuart Henderson of Warrandyte Police said that the owners of the kayak have been found safe and well, however they had hit a rock and tipped out of their boat and were unable to secure the craft as it floated downstream.

This is the second time in as many months when kayakers have run into trouble in the waters of Warrandyte.

The river is central to the Warrandyte community both residents and tourists and throughout the year people can be seen enjoying themselves in and around the river.

Victoria has experienced a particularly wet Spring and early Summer, the Bureau of Meteorology reporting this September as the second wettest September on record with rainfall at 94% above average across the state, a lot of the rivers in Victoria had flood warnings issued and this pattern is continuing into the new year.

To save anxiety, Police have reminded river goers that they should always let people know where they are and when they are expected back.

“We get this every year where people underestimate the time it takes to get downstream or get into trouble, if you let someone on the shore know what you are up to then everyone can get home safely” said Sgt Henderson.

The key to remaining safe when out on the water is knowledge, preparation and communication.

After consulting with outdoor education instructor and experienced kayaker, Jean Dind, The Diary has compiled a list of general tips and advice to help people play safely when on the river.


Most sporting activities require specialist equipment, when one starts participating in adventure sports then the necessity for this equipment is paramount as it often directly related to one’s safety.

  • Transport Safety Victoria stress that A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is mandatory and if you are going to be going down any rapids then a helmet designed for white water is also advisable.
  • There are a range of different types of canoe and kayak on the market all at different prices and made for different numbers of people or water types.

If you are thinking of buying one for yourself, make sure it is appropriate for the type of water you will be mostly paddling in.


Knowledge has both practical and theoretical importance here.

For the practical side, this translates into the skills required to effectively operate your kayak as well as the skills required to play safely on the water. To obtain these skills there are a number of options available:

  • Lessons

Whitehorse canoe club  is a local organisation that offer lessons with membership, an organisation like Canoe Victoria also offer courses.

  • River Rescue

Canoe Vic and Swift Water Training Group offer a range or course in river safety and rescue techniques. A casual kayaker wouldn’t necessarily do one of these courses so that they can rescue someone if they see them in trouble but more so give them the skills and knowledge to know what to do if they themselves or one of their kayaking party get into trouble.


Regardless of one’s level of skill, knowledge of the conditions and hazards one is likely to encounter when navigating a section of river is very important.

There is a system that grades rivers and rapids on their difficulty.

This system goes from Easy which means very light condition with very few hazards to Extreme which may mean going down a waterfall.

There are a number of websites that produce maps of rivers with instructions on popular kayaking runs and information about the class of water or rapid one is likely to encounter and even information about how to ‘walk out’ if you get into trouble, these sites are:

Enjoying the river ultimately comes down to one’s ability to be comfortable in and around the water and to be mindful of hazards such as fallen trees and submerged rocks.

It is recommended that whitewater kayakers/canoeists/paddlers are comfortable swimming in moving water and familiar with defensive swimming techniques including the whitewater safety position.