The Ngaro People of the Whitsundays

Ngaro Cave Paintings

The Whitsundays may be known for its islands, beaches and reefs, but first and foremost are known to be the home of the Ngaro, the traditional owners of the land and original inhabitants.

The Ngaro have lived in what we now know as the Whitsundays for over 8,000 years. They originally occupied about 520 square kilometres, including some of the islands and part of the mainland. Even with changing landscapes, the Ngaro were always a sea-faring people spending their time in and around the ocean. Due to the fact that they have lived in the Whitsundays for so long, it will never truly be known what their original territory was, as the landscape has changed over the millennia. The Whitsundays once looked much different than they do today, where much of the ocean floor was dry land and many of the islands were part of the mainland. With glacier shifts and changes in ocean levels, much of what used to be Ngaro territory is now long underwater and home to reefs and the depths of the ocean.

Traditionally, since the beginning, the Ngaro were dependent on the ocean. They made the reefs, mangroves and sea their domain, using it to fit their lifestyle and suit their needs. They hunted marine animals from large steady canoes, such as those spotted by Captain James Cook in 1788, using ocean life as their main food source to feed their families. Archaeological sites show that from as long as 3,000 years ago, the Ngaro were hunting small whales, dugongs and large sea turtles in these canoes, which were made of ironbark and could be used to cover long ocean distances between the islands.

The Ngaro were first encountered by the outside world when the Endeavour saw several people in these outriggers, and as it made its way through the Whitsunday Islands, they spotted them from a distance as they crossed paths. Since this time, the Ngaro people have been a documented part of Australia's history, with much of what we know about them coming from their own traditional stories as well as from the marks they left behind over the past few thousand years. These beautiful historical sites allow us to understand what life was like for them before European settlement.

The Whitsundays are full of archaeological sites that detail the kind of lives that were historically lived by the Ngaro. One particular site lies in Nara Inlet on Hook Island and dates back to almost 9,000 years ago. This is one of the oldest sites discovered so far on the East Coast of Australia, meaning the Ngaro people have been living in the Whitsundays for many thousands of years before it was discovered by Europeans. The original landowners of Australia are said to be the oldest living culture in the world, and the Ngaro people are no exception.  

The Whitsunday Islands were part of a Dreamtime legend in their culture, and you can find signs around the region with some of their many stories. One, located on Whitsunday Island itself, shares the story of how the Whitsunday Islands came to be:

"Long ago, there were no islands, only the vast blue of the sea. One day, the Rainbow Serpent passed through the water, laying her eggs as she went. Ancient observers of rising suns and setting moons, her eggs remain - they are the islands where you stand today." 

The sign is located in front of the iconic Hill Inlet Lookout, and almost paints a picture of a giant rainbow snake, slithering up the white sands and blue water of the inlet, leaving behind the beautiful swirling pattern... Have you seen this sign on Whitsunday Island?

You can imagine a peaceful and magical way of life was pure bliss for the Ngaro for years before the first settlers arrived. Even after they arrived, relationships between European settlers and the Ngaro people were mostly without conflict until about 1861 when the area of Bowen began to be settled. This is when major conflict began, and unfortunately by 1870 many of the Ngaro we forcibly removed from their lands and many of their traditional ways of life were lost. Many were forced to move to mills or colonies where they were made to work for colonists and disassociate from their traditions, bringing the end of the life they had previously known in the Whitsundays.

While the Ngaro have had to change their way of life from how it once was, they are still very much present in the Whitsundays and maintain a deep connection to the islands and ocean. They remain as the traditional owners, passing their traditions on through the generations, keeping the Ngaro culture alive in the Whitsundays. Many of the elders of the tribe can still be found residing in the Whitsundays and Mackay, and the Great Barrier Reef National Marine Park and government regularly consult them regarding changes to policy, legislature, and zoning, and any tenders for development must be approved by the tribe. 

With a rich and colourful history, many of the Ngaro tribe and their lives are still a mystery, but one thing sure isn't-Why they decided to call the Whitsundays home! 

Read more on the history of the Whitsundays here

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