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The Ngaro People of the Whitsundays

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Tom Linkins
Updated Thu 06 Apr 2023

Ngaro cave paintings

Here at Sailing Whitsundays, we recognise that we work, live, play and profit off of Aboriginal lands and waters. This land is stolen and sovereignty was never ceded. We acknowledge elders past and present and strive to connect you with experiences that forefront education around the rich First Nations heritage of so-called Australia. Always was, always will be.

Ngaro land, culture and technology

south whitehaven beach, whitsundays

The islands and coastline of what we now call the Whitsundays are the traditional home of the Ngaro people, also known as the ‘canoe people’ for their seafaring ways. Despite displacement and dispossession of their land, the Ngaro have deep connections to the islands and Sea Country. Evidence of their life in the region can be traced as far back as 9,000 years through archaeological sites like rock shelters, cave paintings, stone quarries and multitudes of advanced technologies scattered across the islands. In fact, these are the oldest archaeological sites in the Great Barrier Reef, and some of the oldest sites in Eastern Australia!

Extracts from colonial European diary entries describe the Ngaro people using fishing spears, lines and hooks cut out of tortoiseshell and incredibly sophisticated canoes. Such utilisations are great examples of the innovative and advanced approaches the Ngaro people developed over many thousands of years.

Whilst archaeological evidence shows that the Ngaro called some 520 square kilometres of the coastal bays and islands home for more than 9,000 years, archaeologists and descendants recognise that their history with the land goes back even further. However, due to melting ice caps and changes in sea levels over the passing millennia, much of this land and evidence has been lost to the ocean and transformed into reefs and seabed. 

Ngaro and the sea

turtles, whitsundays

Much like the nautical lifestyles of residents and tourists enjoy in the area today, the Ngaro people made their living from the bays and ocean. The reefs, mangroves and sea were their domain, and archaeological sites show that from as far as 3,000 years back the Ngaro used canoes made of three ironbark panels sewn together with a fibrous root to hunt large sea animals like dugongs, sea turtles and small whales. The same canoes could be used to cover the long ocean distances between the islands and the mainland, where the Ngaro would trade the advanced tools and weapons (stone axes, juan knives, detachable harpoons) required for their seafaring hunting.

In the Dreaming

Ngaro cave paintings

Stories from the Dreaming have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation through song and dance. However, due to the colonial oppression, decimation and displacement of the Ngaro people, many of these stories have been lost, along with the rituals, languages and dialects that were once used to tell them.

Ngaro elder, Aunty Sue, tells the Dreaming of the islands like this:

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.


Bay of the Whitsundays

By the 1930s, the Ngaro population had been predominantly decimated by European invaders. Massacred, forcibly removed to mission camps, and discriminated against, much of the blame for the loss of history can be pinned on colonial settlers. The few Ngaro who remained in the region were employed by white settlers.

The aftermath of erasure and discrimination of Indigenous people and their culture are evident and ongoing today. Australia’s history of violence and segregation has disproportionately impacted Indigenous people and their descendants. While the reality of Ngaro history is both sombre and harrowing, learning, acknowledging and reflecting is the best way Whitsundays visitors can appreciate the culture and legacy of the Traditional Owners.

Experience the rich history of the Ngaro people for yourself on a walk through Hook Island’s cultural site, where ancient caves with some of the oldest paintings in Eastern Australia await.

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