The eastern beaches of Sydney have been home to the Birrabirragal, Bidjigal, Gadigal and Muru-ora-dial people for thousands of years.
The sandstone coastline provided natural shelter, there was plentiful fresh water, and the ocean was a rich source of food for the Aboriginal people who lived here before European settlement. Men speared fish, while women caught them with hooks and lines. They also gathered shellfish and plant food such as native figs and fern roots. Today, our coastline is still rich with the evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal culture, such as rock art, artefacts, and archaeological sites like middens and rock shelters.
We find out more about the Aboriginal heritage of our eastern beaches.
Bondi (or Boondi) is an Aboriginal word that translates to ‘sound of water breaking over rocks’ or ‘water breaking over rocks.’ Ben Buckler Reserve and Bondi Golf Course are home to a collection of Aboriginal rock art depicting fish and other aquatic motifs. These carvings are thought to be up to 2,000 years old. The largest group of carvings is on the golf course, in an area that might have been a significant ceremonial ground. One of the carvings shows an 8-metre-long shark that appears to be attacking a male figure. Aboriginal elder, artist, teacher, performer and Bondi resident Walangari Karntawarra conducts Aboriginal walking tours of Bondi, taking in the ancient carvings and traditional bush foods and medicines that still grow locally.
Tamarama’s name is believed to have come from Gamma Gamma, an Aboriginal word thought to mean ‘storm’. A stream in Tamarama Gully provided fresh water for the area’s original inhabitants. Rock carvings along the coastal walk from Bondi at Mackenzies Bay show what’s believed to be a ray or a shark and a fish. A nearby plaque explains the traditional story behind the engraving. Tamarama’s sandstone ledges are also home to an archeologically significant Aboriginal midden, but its exact location is kept secret to ensure it remains protected.
Coogee is believed to be a Dharug word (Dharug is the language spoken by the people of the Eora nation, which covers the Sydney basin). The word ‘koojay’, ‘koojah’, ‘koo-jah’, or ‘koo-chai’ is thought to mean ‘the smell of seaweed drying’. Visitors to Coogee Beach might still be familiar with this smell when kelp or seaweed washes up on the shore and starts to dry out in the sun. Every year, the sands of Coogee Beach come alive with traditional dance and ceremony when Randwick Council hosts the Koojay Corrobboree to celebrate Coogee’s Aboriginal heritage during National Reconciliation Week.
The name Maroubra is believed to have come from ‘marubrah’, an Aboriginal word meaning lightning or thunder, inspired by the thundering sound of the surf as it hits the rocky beach. That’s why the Maroubra Surf Life Saving Club flag and uniform feature the lightning bolt symbol to this day. The Muru-ora-dial people’s long history at Maroubra is evidenced by the rock carvings on the northern headland and a stone workshop, complete with tools and implements, that was uncovered at the beach’s southern end in the early 20th century.
The Aboriginal name for La Perouse is Gooriwal. In 1885, Sydney’s only Aboriginal reserve was set up at La Perouse as a place to relocate Aboriginal people from the city. Within a decade, the reserve’s Aboriginal residents were restricted from selling fish at the market and travelling into Sydney via boat or train. Nevertheless, when the powers that be tried in 1900 and again in the 1920s to relocate the reserve and its residents, they refused to go. During the Great Depression, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people lived side-by-side alongside the reserve in camps like Happy Valley and Frog Hollow. The survival and growth of the La Perouse Aboriginal community were bolstered by the employment provided by the oil refinery at Matraville (opened in 1948) and the Coast Hospital at Little Bay. Reserve residents once again fought relocation in the 1960s until the highly-regarded La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council was eventually given the deeds to the reserve in 1984.
Today, La Perouse is home to Sydney’s longest-functioning Aboriginal community. In fact, it’s estimated that Aboriginal people have had an unbroken connection with La Perouse for more than 7,500 years since the sea levels stabilised after the last ice age. Many descendants of the families who lived on the reserve still live in La Perouse today, maintaining their cultural connection to the Sydney coast.
Part of the La Perouse area, including Congwong Beach, Little Congwong Beach, Bare Island, and the La Perouse Museum, is included in the Kamay Botany Bay National Park. More than 30 Aboriginal sites have been catalogued in the park, including engravings and rock art. Four times a year, Bare Island hosts the Blak Markets, where visitors can enjoy cultural entertainment, sample bush food, and purchase authentic Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts.
Thinking about buying or selling on Sydney’s eastern beaches? Get in touch with my Park Coast East team today.