… We pull ourselves up, hand over hand to the top. This time the notice boards, barricades and backpackers cannot detract from the unfolding panorama. We wander around the viewing platforms, mesmerised by familiar landmarks almost flickering through the atmosphere. The Gold Coast beckons like a fool’s paradise to the north and Cape Byron stretches far out to sea. There is an almost anti-climactic quiet. We sit and watch day-trippers trying to take in the view. They appear unsure where to look – finally resorting to cameras – as if it can all be comprehended at a later time … Perhaps it cannot be comprehended this way.
Perhaps Wollumbin cannot be climbed this easily. Perhaps we have only half the story… (Feain 2003, p 18) When I proposed these questions last year I had just climbed Mt. Warning and was still digesting the experience. Since then my thoughts on the place have remained unsettled and unresolved. Just weeks after my climb, wet weather caused a landslip effecting temporary closure of the trail (NPWS 12/02/03) and prompting debate on its re-opening in relation to the appropriateness and possible cultural insensitivity of the climb. This debate resulted in the Bundjalung Elders requesting visitors to consider not climbing (NPWS 16/12/03) (1).
My agenda at the time, though simple and un-sinister, had lacked any ethical forethought. I had wanted to accomplish the climb, spend a day in the bush and get a story. What I returned with was more far more complex and, dare I say, culturally traumatising. By examining the multiple social and cultural meanings invested in Wollumbin / Mt. Warning, I intend to map the space between my expectations and experience, attempting to understand what caused this gap and hopefully resolve the personal trauma (culture shock) caused by the climb.
When establishing the mental and physical state of a trauma victim, a paramedic will ask them who they are and where they are. Perhaps a cultural trauma requires the same starting point. Imagine a “cultural paramedic” examining my vitals – my sense of place and identity. How would I have answered those questions? In short, I had considered myself (in the context of the climb) little more than a recreational bushwalker-come-journalist climbing a mountain. It is this one-dimensional location of self and place, I suspect, that left me ill-equipped to process the subjective spatial actualities of Wollumbin / Mt.
Warning (and the ungainly slash between them). In hindsight, what caused and continues to cause me diconcertion is that I was actually visiting two sites, attempting to climb two mountains and only consciously acknowledging one, Mt. Warning. All the while the other, Wollumbin, was eroding the edges of that consciousness. I was aware of the name Wollumbin, though it was little more than a “foreign” word attached to a distant (unknowable) mythology. Mt. Warning on the other hand was where I was going, it was written on the map and the road signs.
It is at the juxtaposition of these names that I will begin, as it epitomises the juxtaposition of these two sites, and probably that of two cultures. Captain James Cook, in his quest to discover and chart the fabled Terra Australias Incognita, named this place Mt. Warning (European Discovery, 2003) – an indicator to mariners of the treacherous reefs along the coast – whereas the Aboriginal name Wollumbin means many things (depending on the tribe or people from where the meaning comes (2)), most common amongst them being warrior chief, cloud-catcher, rain-maker, storm gatherer and bush turkey (Nayutah et al 1988 pp.20-21).
As both names reflect valid cultural perspectives, neither is necessarily less correct than the other, rather, the tension between them lies in the power one name exerts over the other. Michel de Certeau said that names “make habitable or believable the place that they clothe with a word” (de Certeau 1984 p. 105). Spatial historian Paul Carter takes this idea further in his landmark text, The Road to Botany Bay, where he describes European colonial naming as a way of claiming territory and denoting ownership (Carter 1987 p. 2).
Such practice seeks to impose meaning upon a place and can be viewed in direct contrast to Indigenous naming that can be seen to draw meaning from a place. When analysing the semiotics of Indigenous and European production and interpretations of space, Bob Hodge in White Australia and the Aboriginal Invention of Space supports this notion by suggesting that Aborigines incorporate the form and function of landscape into their knowledge by “reading the environment”, whereas Europeans “are more inclined to write their meanings into [it] in large mechanical script” (Hodge in Barcan et al 1999 p.63).
Therefore, in effect, Indigenous naming actually has space for the European whereas European colonial naming seeks simply to overwrite Aboriginality – white it out so to speak – as if it didn’t / doesn’t exist. Carter suggests by ignoring the presence of another culture and history, “we” are deprive ourselves of a contestable historical space that may contain multiple histories, and subsequently see only a “historical fact” that relegates Indigenous culture to the prehistoric and the mythical (Carter1987 pp.2 & xiv), effectively positioning it outside the realm of historical knowledge – what historian, writer and poet Tony Birch describes as “meta-historical myths” (Birch 1996 p. 177).