For weeks, a wildfire has been raging across Budj Bim National Park, part of the blazing inferno that has much of Australia in its grasp. Finally, after a long reign of terror, the flames begin to subside. But when elders return to the scorched lands of their ancestors, they discover that the disaster has uncovered an unexpected sight.
Located in southwest Victoria near the town of Macarthur, Budj Bim is an extinct volcano that towers almost 600 feet above sea level. And for thousands of years, its surrounding lands have been home to the Gunditjmara people. However, life has not always been easy in this corner of Australia, and the fires are just the latest hardship that the indigenous residents have had to ensure.
Today, a small population of Gunditjmara still lives in this part of southern Victoria. But before the arrival of the Europeans, the region was a thriving community. Now the devastation wrought by the wildfires has revealed a fascinating relic from this ancient civilization. Older than the pyramids of Egypt, it offers an incredible insight into a forgotten past.
With summer temperatures known to top 127 °F, Australia is one of the hottest places on Earth. And every year, this heat – combined with dry and windy conditions – sparks a fire season that typically lasts for months. However, in 2019 this annual phenomenon was preceded by a long stretch of extreme weather.
Because of the already volatile conditions in much of Australia, 2019’s wildfires ended up being some of the worst that the country has ever seen. According to reports, the first incident occurred towards the end of October, in the New South Wales town of Gospers Mountain. Initially sparked by a lightning strike, the blaze soon became difficult to contain.
Ultimately, this first fire became a vast inferno and destroyed more than one million acres of land. And over the following days and months, many more blazes broke out across the state. Meanwhile, communities across Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria struggled against fires of their own.
By mid-January, the fires had devastated more than 46 million acres of land across Australia. For context, that’s an area bigger than the whole of North Dakota. Throughout the country, meanwhile, thousands of families were made homeless, while a staggering one billion animals perished in the neverending flames.
Tragically, the wildfires also claimed a number of human lives, with more than 30 people believed to have been killed. In many parts of the country, citizens snapped photographs of a blood red sky as the blazes continued to burn. Elsewhere, families were forced to flee their houses with just the clothes on their backs.
Eventually, in the second week of February, the heavens opened. And as torrential rain fell down on New South Wales, the state that had suffered the most in the fires, the flames began to go out. But as the emergency services breathed sighs of relief, the rains continued. Before long, it had turned into the biggest deluge in 30 years, bringing another set of problems to the stricken state.
While much of the world’s media focused on New South Wales, however, other parts of Australia were suffering too. And for weeks, a fascinating historical landscape hundreds of miles away was also at risk. Located near the southwestern coast of the state of Victoria, the Budj Bim National Park has been an important location for thousands of years.
Centered on an extinct volcano, the region first formed over 30,000 years ago, when an eruption drastically altered the landscape. Today, it consists of a peak surrounded by craters and a formation known as a shield volcano. According to experts, these are created when currents of lava flow out across the land.
Even today, the landscape of Budj Bim remains impressive. But to the Gunditjmara people, it is nothing less than sacred. According to their legends, it was an eruption of this volcano 30,000 years ago that spawned their creator god. And as such, the indigenous people of this region have always felt a strong connection to the place.
Up until the 1800s, experts believe, the area around Budj Bim was likely home to thousands of Gunditjmara people. However, the arrival of the European settlers soon changed that. Decimated by the conflict and disease brought by these new arrivals, the local population plummeted. Meanwhile, those that remained were forced to relocate to reservations on their ancestral lands.
As time has passed, however, the Gunditjamara people have slowly been regaining a hold over Budj Bim. And today they are recognized as traditional owners – an indigenous group that retains certain rights over a designated region. Moreover, in 2019 the area was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO.
Known as the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, the region now enjoys a status equal to treasures such as Machu Picchu in Peru and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But it isn’t just its long history and significance to the Gunditjamara people that helped it find a place on the list. Apparently, the area around this extinct volcano also has another fascinating claim to fame.
Apparently, when the volcano last erupted, it left behind a landscape known as the Tyrendarra lava flow. Disrupting the existing drainage pattern in the region, it transformed Budj Bim into a region of wetlands and swamps. However, it was precisely this sodden environment that allowed the Gunditjmara to thrive.
Beginning more than 6,000 years ago, the Gunditjmara people began developing Budj Bim into a complex aquaculture system. By manipulating the landscape, it seems, they were able to engineer the capture of large amounts of kooyang, or short-finned eels. Essentially, they forged elaborate traps that enabled them to harvest the local marine life.
Today, experts believe that these eel traps represent one of the oldest and most substantial aquaculture systems in the entire world. Using the landscape created by the Tyrendarra lava flow as a starting point, the Gunditjmara created a complex network of dams, channels and weirs stretching across the Budj Bim region.
As a result, when eels and other marine life attempted to migrate through the waters, they found themselves trapped in the network. There the Gunditjmara people could easily store and ultimately harvest the creatures. And for around six millennia, this system was the cornerstone of society for those living in Budj Bim.
Today, this aquaculture system is often used to highlight the incredible relationship that the Gunditjmara people have had with the natural environment for thousands of years. Moreover, it also suggests that they were far from the primitive hunter-gatherers of popular belief. Instead, they appear to have been farmers and cultivators, capable of using incredibly advanced techniques.
“The Budj Bim cultural landscape provides an outstanding example on the world stage of the scale, complexity and antiquity of a well-preserved Aboriginal fishery that continues into the present,” indigenous archeologist Ian J. McNiven wrote in a piece for The Conversation website in 2017. “And it is an exceptional example of Aboriginal environmental manipulation and management that blurs the distinction between foragers and farmers.”
With the arrival of the Europeans in the region, however, everything changed. And after severe flooding in 1946, a plan was hatched to drain Budj Bim’s Lake Condah and the surrounding wetlands. By 1954 the process was complete – and the aquaculture system of the Gunditjmara dried up for the first time in thousands of years.
But as the world around them changed beyond all recognition, the region’s indigenous people did not give up. And in 1993, they founded the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, or GMTOAC. Through this organization, they hoped to ensure that their traditional lands were cared for in line with their beliefs and customs.
In 2002 the GMTOAC launched a project aimed at protecting the region known as the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape. And finally, five years later, campaigners succeeded in gaining legal recognition of the Gunditjmara’s rights to the land. Finally, in 2010 a weir was built, and the ancient aquaculture system was restored.
For the Gunditjmara people, the recognition of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 was the icing on the cake. However, later that year, the ancient system would find itself at risk from forces that could not be controlled. In late December, sources report, a bolt of lightning struck the shores of Lake Condah.
As a result, a fire broke out across the region – just one of the many blazes stalking the Australian countryside at the time. And soon, it had merged with another inferno, ultimately destroying more than 17,000 acres of land. But as firefighters attempted to put them out, the flames crept ever closer to the historic site at Budj Bim.
As the blaze approached, however, the traditional owners remained unconcerned. In fact, according to Denis Rose of GMTOAC, it was a risk that they had weathered many times before. “There have certainly been many fires here in the thousands of years prior,” he told ABC News in January 2020.
At the time, it seems, GMTOAC was mostly worried about what might happen to the landscape after the fires were put out. “We were concerned about the trees,” Rose continued, “particularly those taller trees that are growing in and around some of those fish trap systems and also our associated stone house sites, of [the trees] being weakened and damaged and potentially falling over and the roots upending some of these ancient stone structures.”
When the fire finally abated in the second week of January, Rose and his fellow traditional owners visited Budj Bim to assess the damage. But instead of a devastated site, they discovered something quite extraordinary. Apparently, as the flames had burned their way through the landscape, they had revealed sections of ancient waterways that had never been recorded before.
“When we returned to the area, we found a channel hidden in the grass and other vegetation,” Rose told news network CNN in January 2020. “It was about 25 meters (82 feet) in length, which was a fairly substantial size.” And alongside this feature, they also saw a number of additional newly-uncovered structures scattered across the landscape.
“It was a surprise continually finding new ones that the fires revealed,” Rose continued. And now he believes that the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is actually much more extensive than was previously believed. However, he also acknowledges that the traditional owners have been lucky in the face of such devastating fires.
“We’ve had relatively cool burns – certainly nothing like the damage and devastation over the eastern parts of Australia,” Rose told Australian broadcaster ABC News. “[These fires] have burnt the undergrowth rather than scorching the forest the whole way through.” Moreover, GMTOAC also has local firefighters to thank for the preservation of this ancient site.
Apparently, a typical approach to controlling wildfires often involves the use of substantial earthmoving machines. However, in the case of Budj Bim, firefighters knew that they would have to tread with a little more caution. And as the flames spread across the historic landscape, they used low-impact techniques to control the blaze.
Using light aircraft, firefighters collected water from Lake Condah and dumped it on the fires as they raged across Budj Bim. Meanwhile, on the ground, crews used canvas hoses to tackle the flames. And thanks to these less intrusive techniques, they were able to get the situation under control without causing damage to the ancient site.
“These actions prevented the fire spreading beyond containment lines even on an extreme fire day and protected the sites from cultural damage,” Forest Fire Management Victoria’s Mark Mellington told CNN. Meanwhile, Rose thanked the crews for their effort in preserving Budj Bim – and inadvertently revealing even more historical treasures.
“We certainly acknowledge the wonderful work that they have done in protecting the lava flow and cultural features on here,” Rose told ABC News. Now, moving forwards, GMTOAC hopes to lead a cultural heritage survey of the newly revealed features. In time, it’s hoped that this work could lead to an even better understanding of the landscape of Budj Bim.
Using a combination of specialized software and aerial photography, GMTOAC will build up a clear overview of the region – including the features recently uncovered by the fires. And as well as their own resources, they will also rely on both indigenous rangers and experienced archaeologists to complete the survey.
“Over the next few weeks, we are hoping to conduct a comprehensive cultural heritage survey to check areas that were not previously recorded,” Rose told CNN. “It’s important because it provided a rich, sustainable life for the traditional people and has continued to be an important part of our cultural life.”
Sadly, however, not all of Australia’s cultural heritage has fared so well in the wake of the recent wildfires. And as the flames finally subsided, experts estimated that the country’s vital tourist industry had been damaged to the tune of $1 billion. Meanwhile, some have predicted that the landscape will continue to change as climate chaos ramps up around the world.
To provide some relief, the Australian government has offered financial support for tourism sector businesses in regions affected by the fires. But with ancient treasures like Budj Bim, their value is without a price. Luckily, this time the flames have helped rather than hindered the preservation of this fascinating site. However, nobody can say what the future might bring.