This UNESCO listed, ancient volcanic landscape is one of Australia’s most significant cultural heritage sites.
Venture inland from the Great Ocean Road to the UNESCO listed, culturally significant landscape of Budj Bim – located in the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara people. This natural wonder, including the 30,000 year-old volcano of Budj Bim (which in Gunditjmara means ‘Big Head’) is located just over 300km from Melbourne.
The unique lava flow from an ancient volcanic eruption is what created this significant landscape and connects the three main components – the long dormant Budj Bim Volcano and Tae Rak (Lake Condah), the wetland swamps of Kurtonitj and the rocky ridges and marshes of Tyrendarra. Budj Bim’s system of weirs, channels and volcanic lava flow allowed the Gunditjmara people to create the earliest living example of aquaculture in the world, their history of eel farming dates back over 6,000 years. Hence its UNESCO listing of ‘outstanding universal value’. Budj Bim is 1 of only 19 other locations in Australia that have made the list, and the only Australian World Heritage property listed exclusively for its Aboriginal cultural value.
What better way to start a great weekend than to walk as a guest on Gunditjmara country and experience a culture that is over 60,000 years old. I joined Leigh from Budj Bim Tours for an authentic, guided tour of Tyrendarra, the southern component of the landscape, situated almost entirely within the unique Budj Bim lava flow. These flows helped the Gunditjmara people create the oldest and most extensive freshwater stone aquaculture system in the world.
A Gunditjmara descendant Leigh’s 2.5h tour (available Wed, Thurs, Fri) offers a never to be forgotten opportunity to experience the history and storytelling of this awe inspiring landscape through the eyes and voice of a traditional owner. As we roamed the remnants of the circular stone dwellings Leigh explained Tyrendarra’s history as a traditional meeting place and camping area for their people. And that the land is a part of major Dreaming trails and an important ceremonial site since the deep time (a period of at least 32,000 years).
As we sat in the very place where creation and dreaming stories have been told for thousands of centuries Leigh told us the Budj Bim creation story.
Over 30,000 years ago the Gunditjmara people witnessed the ancestral Creation-Being, Budj Bim reveal himself in a giant Condah Eagle form, emerging from the volcano now known as Mt Eccles (the source of the Budj Bim lava flow). The Gunditjmara believe that ancestral Creator Beings are sent in giant form and arrive at secret, sacred locations. And that they hold special spiritual, ceremonial powers and responsibilities that their descendants are to continue to perform through generations.
As Budj Bim arrived, the (now dormant) Mt Eccles volcano erupted and lava flowed towards the sea, changing the drainage patterns of this part of western Victoria. It created the large wetlands and volcanic rock that the Gunditjmara then ingeniously used to channel the water flow from the newly made crater lake of Lake Condah (named after Budj Bim’s Creation-Being form) into a system of channels and weirs to farm eels. This gave them a year-round food source for thousands of years to come.
The Budj Bim eel traps and stone houses really challenge the long held belief that Aboriginal people were hunters and gatherers who lived a nomadic lifestyle across the land. It was fascinating to learn that they had such sophisticated farming and land management practices with strong economic and agricultural lifestyles. It’s hard enough for engineers to manage these issues in 2021 let alone over 6,000 years ago!
As we continued our guided walk of the 1,400m by 300m area of the Tyrendarra lava flow we weaved our way through the inter-connected complex of 18 stone wall dams, 7 excavated channels and numerous swampy marshes looking at the different types of ancient fish and eel traps.
It was remarkable to learn how the Gunditjmara people used the volcanic rocks and lava flow to create Australia’s first and largest freshwater stone aquaculture system. It allowed them to irrigate the winter floods into strategically placed dams and to retain not just water, but also fish and eels in holding ‘pens’ throughout the summer dry season. No wonder is this aquaculture system in recognised by Engineers Australia and is now an Engineering Heritage National Landmark.
The Gunditjmara people also crafted long eel baskets, made of river reeds and spear grass to regulate and trap the eels according to weight and size. Baskets were also used to carry the eels, which fed and sustained the lives of Gunditjmara for many generations.
The entire Budj Bim tour was so informative and enlightening and I couldn’t believe such a significant landscape is in our own backyard and I never knew.
This land is undeniably significant. You can feel it as you camp under the stars at Budj Bim National Park. Renamed in 2017, (previously known as Mt Eccles National Park) this 8000 hectare national park is the first national park co-managed by Gunditjmara Traditional Owners and Parks Victoria.
Budj Bim Campground is your home amongst the gum trees! It is so quiet, the only living beings we saw were the koalas and kangaroos. Here, you can set up camp in the forest rocks hollows and ridges formed by the lava flows from the ancient volcanic eruption. The simple campground surrounded by native bushland offers large campsites suitable for 6 people, bathroom and campfire facilities and several nature trails to explore this unique volcanic landscape.
Follow the Lake Surprise walk along the crater rim or decend to walk the crater-lake’s edge. The longer Lava Canal circuit walk will reveal a maze of lava blisters, Tunnel Cave, Natural Bridge and also a dry crater offering views of the park and into the crater itself. We’ll explore those tomorrow!
We woke with first light and set out on this 6.1km loop trail in golden hour. The Lava Canal Walk is a relatively flat, all skill level walk. It starts at the crater of Lake Surprise then follows the path set by the volcanic lava flow all those centuries ago. You’ll weave through lush bushland – the bracken ferns, broken basalt rocks and towering trees make it feel pre-historic! So many native animals call this landscape home, we lost count of the number of kangaroos and wallabies we saw.
Our favourite part of the leisurely 3h walk was following a lava canal that leads into a natural bridge. As you enter the cave it’s like entering the spiritual land itself. The whole week has been unforgettable!
Take the M1 and Hamilton Highway / B140 for the fastest route.
Learning about the significant cultural landscape of Budj Bim from a traditional owner
Challenging the belief that Aboriginal people were nomadic, hunters and gatherers – but sophisticated engineers with strong land management, economic and agricultural practices
Spending the night camping under the stars in such a spiritual landscape
Seeing some many koalas, wallabies and kangaroos
Exploring the volcanic landscape on foot on the Lava Canal Walk
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Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the Great Ocean Road region the Wadawuurung, Eastern Maar & Gunditjmara. We pay our respects to their Ancestors, past present and emerging. We recognise and respect their unique cultural heritage and the connection to their traditional lands. We commit to building genuine and lasting partnerships that recognise, embrace and support the spirit of reconciliation, working towards self-determination, equity of outcomes and an equal voice for Australia’s first people.