Bombala: 'A place where the waters meet’

In this series we will be showcasing some hidden small town gems, ancestral dreaming sites and beautiful getaway destinations. The posts will investigate the Indigenous occupation and history of the regions featured, as well as the Dreaming stories and songlines throughout the particular Country. We’ll also talk about the things to see and do in these travel destinations.

 The Bombala River in Autumn, 2021. Courtesy of Yarn Marketplace, 2021. 

Let’s start with Bombala, a small rural town in south-eastern NSW, 487km south-west of Sydney and 88km south of Cooma. The town’s name - deriving from the Ngarigo peoples’ language who occupied the area prior to European settlement - can be translated as ‘a place where the waters meet’ (aussietowns.com.au, 2021). The quiet town, with a small population of 1,387 (2016 Census), was established in the 1840s and has a stunning streetscape of historical buildings. Enjoy picturesque walks along the Bombala River, lined with deciduous trees showing off their gorgeous colours in Autumn. The town is also a convenient less than two hour’s drive away from the Thredbo and Perisher snowfields (High Country Online, 2021).

Snow dumps in Bombala’s main street, 2020. Courtesy of Bega District News, 2020. 

 

Perisher snowfields. Courtesy of Qantas, 2021.

 

First Nations Heritage in the Snowy Monaro Region

Bombala is a part of the Snowy Monaro region which has been occupied by First Nations communities for thousands of years. Archaeological surveys have revealed that Aboriginal people had been living in the Snowy Monaro region for as long as 20,000 years before European settlers arrived. Europeans originally thought that the Monaro Aboriginal peoples “only resided in the high country during the warmer months [heading to the south coast district during winter],” however it is now understood that “some groups lived on Monaro year-round” (ACT Government, 2004). One of the largest tribes, the Ngarigo, lived permanently on the Monaro, but they travelled to other areas for trade and ceremonial purposes. Their northern tribal boundaries approximated from the Cooma-Monaro Shire to Thredbo, down to Bombala and across the NSW Victorian border to Suggan Buggan (Environment & Conservation NSW, 2005). 

A Ngarigo ceremony, unique to the area, was the annual Bogong moth hunt. Bogong moths were found in summer hiding in rock crevices and caves in the ‘high country’ (the Australian Alps in Victoria and Mount Bogong) where they remained dormant and lived off their fat reserves. Aboriginal groups from the far south coast, such as the Wallendgar, Walbunja and Brinja peoples, travelled great distances through the Monaro to ‘high country’ (the Victorian Alps and Mount Bogong) to join in the hunt and feasting of the Bogong moth. These tribes friendly with the Ngarigo were only allowed to participate in the hunt after certain ceremonies and rites were performed first (Environment & Conservation NSW, 2005). You could say that the Bogong moths were a staple summer food because they could be cooked in a wide variety of ways, from cooking them in a fire, to grinding them into cakes or making them into a paste to be smoked and preserved for weeks on end. More importantly, these moths were an ample food source due to their high fat content and large numbers (Monash University, 2021). 

 

Fig A - Bogong moth, Fig B - Bogong moth-covered cave wall in the foothills of the Australian Alps in Victoria. Courtesy of Monash University, 2021. 

The communities still thriving in the Monaro region include the Wolgalu people in the west of the region (high country), the Bidhawal people in the south-eastern parts of the region around Delegate, and the southern Ngunnawal people in the far north-east of the region. The Snowy Monaro Regional Council recognises the Ngarigo people (of the Tablelands) as the Traditional Custodians of the majority of the Snowy Monaro region. Today, the Ngarigo culture continues to be celebrated and shared, both on Country and by people living outside the region (Snowy Monaro Regional Council, 2021).

European colonisation of the Monaro region began in the 1800s, following exploration by Captain Mark John Currie and Brigade-Major Ovens. Captain Currie wrote in his ‘Journal of An Excursion to the Southward of Lake George in New South Wales, 1823’ that his party came across an Aboriginal tribe in the Billilingra area who assisted them to find their way south (Cooma-Monaro Shire, 2007). An excerpt from Currie’s latter journal details an encounter with a local tribe, dating June 4th, 1823:

“...Passed through a chain of clear downs [three consecutive open, undulating plains of the Michelago, Colinton and Bredbo valleys] to some very extensive ones, where we met a tribe of natives, who fled at our approach, never (as we learned afterwards) having seen Europeans before; however, we soon by tokens of kindness, offering them biscuits...together with the assistance of a domesticated native of our party, induced them to come nearer and nearer, till by degrees we ultimately became very good friends...From these natives we learned that the clear country before us was called Monaroo, which they described as very extensive.” 

This excerpt is the first recording of the name Monaro, which has been spelt in numerous ways over several decades. If you would like to read Captain Currie’s ‘Journal of An Excursion to the Southward of Lake George in New South Wales, 1823,’ available via the National Library of Australia, click here.

Circa 1890, portrait of an Aboriginal man from the Monaro district of the Snowy Mountains wearing a bridda bridda (apron-like cloth over the genitalia), Photo no.1304 by Henry King, (20th century photographer) from the Tyrrell Collection. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, 2021. 

 

By the late 1800s, towns and settlements had been established, including that of Bombala. Disputes with settlers over ceremonial grounds and occupation of their traditional lands resulted in a large number of Traditional Custodians and Indigenous groups being forced from their Country. However, in some instances, the tribesmen were employed on stations or as hunting trackers, but many preferred their nomadic lifestyle. Many members of the Ngarigo tribe moved out of the area to places such as the south coast where they integrated with clans around Bermagui and Bega (Hancock, 1972). 

Settlement also resulted in the death of many Ngarigo peoples due to diseases introduced through their association with the intruding settlers. These diseases included Syphilis, Influenza, Measles, Tuberculosis and Smallpox (Cooma-Monaro Shire, 2007).

Industry 

From the 1830s, industry in and around Bombala has been primarily a pastoral region, relying on beef cattle and sheep (fine wool). The agricultural history is still very evident across the region with many farming communities dating back to the late 19th century. In Bombala, the town is full of historic homes, hotels, machinery and land holdings, telling the story of the ongoing connection to the farming industry (Snowy Monaro Regional Council, 2021).

Historic tractor along Bombala River. Courtesy of Yarn Marketplace, 2021.
 

Platypus Country - Bombala Platypus Reserve

Platypus spotting at the Bombala Platypus Reserve. Courtesy of Bega District News, 2017.

 

The local pristine lakes and rivers are home to a substantial population of platypus, hence the Bombala being called ‘Platypus Country.’ Platypus are a challenging creature to spot as they are capable of staying underwater for 14 minutes at a time, and are usually only visible at dawn or late afternoon. At the Bombala Platypus Reserve, there is a viewing platform, located 4.5km out of town on Delegate Road. Look for a V shape in the water to spot one, but you’ll need to be very quiet and patient as platypus scare easily.

 

Bombala Platypus Reserve. Courtesy of Visit NSW, 2021.

 

Things to See and Do

Check out the Snowy Monaro Regional Council website for more information about Bombala’s attractions here.