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Lake Condah, VIC

UNESCO World Heritage site with Aboriginal fish traps dating over 6,600 years

Lake Condah is a shallow basin measuring approximately 4 km by 1 km. The lake and the surrounding area contain evidence of a large eel and fish farming system that was built about 6,600 years ago. The Gunditjmara people used volcanic rock from nearby Budj Bim (Mt Eccles) to construct fish traps, weirs and ponds where they farmed and smoked eels for food and trading. On 6 July, 2019, an area 9,935 ha of Lake Condah and surrounds was officially placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with the following citation: "Located within the Country of the Gunditjmara, an Aboriginal nation in the southwest of Australia, the property includes the Budj Bim Volcano and Tae Rak (Lake Condah), as well as the Kurtonitj component, characterised by wetland swamps, and Tyrendarra in the south, an area of rocky ridges and large marshes. The Budj Bim lava flows, which connect these three components, have enabled the Gunditjmara to develop one of the largest and oldest aquaculture networks in the world. Composed of channels, dams and weirs, they are used to contain floodwaters and create basins to trap, store and harvest the kooyang eel (Anguilla australis), which has provided the population with an economic and social base for six millennia." See https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1577 for details.


Lake Condah is located 324 km west of Melbourne via Geelong and 20 km north-east of Heywood.


Origin of Name

In 1841 the first Europeans saw the lake and named it Lake Condon. A pastoral licence was issued in 1843. A subsequent licensee, C.P. Cooke, renamed it Lake Condah as he mistakenly thought this was the Gunditjmara term for the black swan which was plentiful on the lake.


Things to See and Do

Budj Bim Tours
The best way to experience Lake Condah and to understand the complex relationship the Gunditjmara people have with the area is to take a Budj Bim Tour. Their guided tours through the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape have been operating since 1999. They offer three tour packages:

* Tyrendarra Tour - is a 2.5 hour tour looking at different types of fish and eel traps at Tyrendarra.

* Lake Condah Tour - is a 4 hour tour looking at the waters of the Gunditjmara country, the animals that inhabit the lake and stone huts at Lake Condah.

* Budj Bim Tour -  a full six (6) hour trip to a variety of Gunditjmara sites where you experience the culture, landscapes and food

The tours offer an opportunity to experience the history of the Gunditjmara people through the eyes of an expert local indigenous guide. Visitors see the remains of a settled lifestyle including circular stone dwellings and the remains of Australia's first and largest freshwater stone aquaculture system. For details and bookings check out https://www.budjbimtours.net. The tours operate from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm Monday to Friday. Contact can be made either by phone at 0458 999 315 or by email leighboyer@windamara.com.
To appreciate the importance of Lake Condah, read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe which makes a persuasive case for Aborigines being far more settled than the traditional image of them as hunter-gatherers. The fish traps at Lake Condah are an important part of Pascoe's argument.
For further background information, before visiting the site, check out https://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/budj-bim. Here is a brief summary of its main arguments:
"Sacred to the Gunditjmara people, the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape provides evidence of a system of channels and weirs constructed from the abundant local volcanic rock to manage water flows from nearby Lake Condah to exploit eels as a food source.
"An eel trap system at Lake Condah in south-west Victoria, one of five around the lake’s edge, has been carbon dated to 6,600 years old. The area had a permanent supply of freshwater and abundant eels, fish and water plants. The Gunditjmara people used ingenious methods of channelling water flows and systematically husbanded and harvested eels to ensure a year round supply.
"Historical and archaeological evidence demonstrates that a large, settled Aboriginal community farmed and smoked eels for food and trade at what is considered to be one of Australia’s earliest and largest aquaculture systems.
"The Gunditjmara people managed the area by engineering channels to bring water and young eels from Darlots Creek to low lying areas. They created ponds and wetlands linked by channels containing weirs. Woven baskets were placed in the weir to harvest mature eels. These engineered wetlands provided the economic basis to sustain large groups of people living in the vicinity of Lake Condah.

The Budj Bim creation story
More than 30,000 years ago the Gunditjmara witnessed the ancestral creation-being, Budj Bim, reveal himself in the landscape. Known today as Mount Eccles, the now dormant volcano is the source of the Tyrendarra lava flow, which, as it flowed to the sea, changed the drainage pattern in this part of western Victoria and created large wetlands.
Europeans started to settle the area in the 1830s and, like in many other frontier areas, conflict between Europeans and Aboriginal people was common.  The Gunditjmara fought for their land during the Eumerella wars, which lasted more than 20 years until the 1860s. When this conflict drew to an end many Aboriginal people were displaced and the Victorian Government began to develop reserves to house them.
Some Aboriginal people refused to move from their ancestral land and eventually the government agreed to build a mission at Lake Condah, close to some of the eel traps and within sight of Budj Bim.
The Gunditjmara manage the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape through the Windamara Aboriginal Corporation and other Aboriginal organisations. A large part of the area is the Mount Eccles National Park, managed by the Gunditjmara and Parks Victoria. National Heritage listing means this important Indigenous heritage place is protected and conserved for future generations.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Gunditjmara Aboriginal people lived on the shores of Lake Condah for at least 6,600 years as it proved a reliable source of food and, of course, water. Kangaroos frequented the shores and the lake was rich with waterbirds, eels and fish.

* White pastoralists moved into the district in the late 1830s and 1840s and took over the land and the water access sites, depriving the indigenous people of their hunting and foraging grounds and their access to water. As cattle and sheep displaced native animals, Aborigines were deprived of their traditional food sources so they began spearing the introduced species.

* Europeans first reached the lake in 1841.

* It was named Lake Condon and the first pastoral licence was issued in 1843.

* The first Aboriginal missions were established in 1851.

* By 1858 a select committee had been formed to investigate the problems facing the nation's indigenous peoples. It recommended the formation of reserves on former hunting grounds to isolate them from alcohol and other deleterious European influences. Missionaries were to superintend the reserves. They were funded from both church and government sources and given a brief of 'civilising through Christianising'. This scheme was managed through the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines.

* In 1867 the pastoral license connected to the lake was revoked and the Anglican mission was established on high ground 3 km from the shore.

* In 1869 about 70 people were living on the mission which covered 2043 acres. 14 acres had been cleared and fenced and the land was holding 220 sheep and 19 cattle. A report noted 'four huts, in which a few of the blacks reside. The remainder live in mia-mias. There is a storehouse and a missionary's hut'.

* By the end of 1870 there were 24 buildings completed or nearing completion. 16 were slab-cottage domiciles with bark roofs. There was a bluestone missionary's house, slab kitchen, school room, teacher's residence, a 'substantial storehouse', cart shed, stables and harness room, together with 'two 15-acre paddocks'.

* By November, 1871 28 children were attending the school at the mission.

* In 1872 a visitor wrote 'The settlement is situated at the top of a gentle rise, about two or three miles from the lake itself, which cannot be seen from the station. The latter consists of about two dozen cottages ... belonging to the blacks, a substantially-built stone school-house and large cottage for Mr Shaw (the manager) and another cottage for Mr Hogan. They are all built in a sort of large hollow square. The blacks' houses are of slabs of bark [sic], very neatly put up, and some of them have verandahs in the front, and three or four have little fenced-in gardens ... The houses consist of two rooms and a huge fireplace; several of them also have boarded floors ... We saw white window-blinds and grapevines'. At the schoolhouse they found that 'the children's copybooks ... were so clean, and the copies carefully written ... I was particularly struck with the neat and comfortable appearance of the place, and the happy contented look of the people'.

* By February, 1873 there were 170 cattle, 6 horses, 26 buildings, 78 Aborigines (27 male, 21 female, 30 children) and the reserve was fenced and divided into five paddocks: three for grazing and two for agriculture.

* An 1874 report noted most of the children could read and write.

* From 1875 to 1913 the mission was managed by Reverend Stahle.

* An 1876 report recorded that some of the mission's residents were working for European settlers off the mission. Efforts were made to regulate the activity to prevent exploitation.

* An 1877 Royal Commission asserted that the mission Aborigines were not ready to be assimilated into European society.

* The years 1879 and 1880 saw old huts replaced by new timber, bluestone or limestone cottages with galvanised roofs and verandas and the extension of pasturage through swamp drainage.

* In 1880 the Aboriginal community rebelled against Stahle's harsh discipline and his decision to have rations stopped for non-attendance at church. Resentment about receiving only shelter, rations and pocket money in return for labour led to riots and police intervention.

* In 1882 there were 82 Aborigines at the mission. 52 were full-blood.

* By 1882 work had begun on St Mary's Church which was built of bluestone quarried locally and carried by the mission residents on their shoulders. It opened in 1885.

* In 1883 more homes were built and a stone bridge built across Darlots Creek.

* In 1886 the Aborigines Protection Law Amendment Act redefined 'Aborigine' and excluded those of mixed racial origin who were aged under 35. These people were forced to leave the missions.

* At Lake Condah in 1887 the Mission Board sold the cattle, taking the money both for this and for the sale of wool. There was anger because the livestock had been largely donated by local farmers to the Aborigines who had worked at the mission.

* The mission's Aboriginal population peaked at 117 in 1889 but the newly defined half-castes were forced to leave that year, leaving 'chiefly old people'.

* Stahle strongly urged the Board to grant some of the reserve's land to the now impoverished and culturally deracinated part-Aborigines but the request was refused and revoked 2050 acres in the 1890s.

* By 1905 the number of permanent residents had declined to an average of 34 full-blood people who expected the closure of the mission to signal their extinction.

* A 1910 amendment to the Act recognised that assimilation of most mixed-blood Aborigines had failed and authorised assistance to these people from the missions and stations.

* By 1916 the reserve was severely dilapidated and there were only four elderly Aborigines left.

* Despite the protests of Aborigines and local residents, the mission was closed in 1919. The four were allowed to remain under a guardian but the land was leased for grazing.

* Local Aborigines continued to reside in the few remaining structures.

* By 1945 the remainder of the mission reserve was revoked. The remaining 2000 acres were leased to veterans returning from World War II, though none went to local Aboriginal veterans.

* The church continued to be used until it was demolished in 1957.

* In 1987 part of the mission was purchased and the land was finally granted to the traditional owners.


Visitor Information

There is no Visitor Centre at Lake Condah and the Budj Bim website provides most of the important information. Visitors wanting more information should check the Portland Visitor Information Centre, Lee Breakwater Road, Portland, tel: 1800 035 567. Open 9.00 am - 5.00 pm seven days a week.


Useful Websites

The most useful website is http://www.budjbimtours.com - which offers guided tours of the Budj Bim National Heritage. There is also an excellent overview from the Heritage Council of Victoria at https://heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/research-projects/framework-of-historical-themes/case-study-4-lake-condah-budj-bim-national-heritage-landscape.

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