Lynne Thomas opens a large-format book to a photo of two mountains nestled together, tracing her hand along their ridgelines.
DISCLAIMER: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of deceased persons.
The book she holds helped pave the way for one of the first land rights victories in New South Wales.
“When you look at the coast, you will see Gulaga and you will see Biamanga lying next to her,” said Ms. Thomas, a Yuin-Biripi cultural knowledge holder.
The two mountains, between Bega and Bermagui on the south coast of New South Wales, are sacred to the Yuin people.
“When one mountain is destroyed, the other is also affected because we no longer have that visual view of our songs,” she said.
Lynne’s father, Yuin tribe elder Ted Thomas, was known as Guboo or “good friend”. He was an activist at the forefront of the Aboriginal land rights movement in New South Wales.
Ms. Thomas has given permission to use her late father’s image in this story.
In 1978, the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal community registered a claim to title to the Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Reserve.
The campaign for land rights took on new urgency when intensive logging threatened sacred sites on nearby Biamanga Mountain in 1979.
“It was clear that the woodchips, along with a system of roads, stream crossings and timber dumps, were impacting Indigenous sites,” said archaeologist and anthropologist Brian Egloff.
Dr Egloff was given four months to prepare a report for the state government on the cultural significance of the Biamanga mountain, record interviews with the Aboriginal community and settler families, visit sites and browse historical documents at the search for evidence.
“The community was telling us it was a very important place,” Dr. Egloff said.
“It was Jack Mumbulla’s dream place, his tribal name was Biamanga. And we were told that was where the initiation ceremonies took place.”
In 1979, a select NSW parliamentary committee traveled to Wallaga Lake for what was effectively the state’s first land rights hearing.
Meanwhile, an advisory committee set up by the Wran government was urgently investigating the impact of wood chipping on the five state forests between Bega and Bermagui.
“Opposition to the Forestry Commission’s control of Bega was very, very strong,” said Jack Miller, who represented conservation interests on the Ashton committee.
Guboo Ted Thomas, Percy Mumbulla and other elders not only faced hostility and fierce resistance from the local community and the logging industry. They were up against the more conservative members of the state government.
“A cabinet minister said he wouldn’t notice a black guy who just clapped a few sticks together,” said Terry Fox, who worked closely with Guboo Ted Thomas on the campaign.
“Some ministers completely denied that there were any sites on Biamanga Mountain.”
Photographs help win the battle for hearts and minds
Wesley Stacey was a respected photographer when he bought land with a few friends on the South Coast in the mid-1970s.
“I tried to settle here on the coast, right next to where the Forestry Commission was operating,” Mr Stacey said.
Mr. Stacey and Eleanor Williams have teamed up with Mr. Thomas to document the cultural sites of Biamanga in a series of images evoking the spiritual power of the site and its desecration through logging.
Mr. Thomas would choose the sites for Mr. Stacey to photograph, often without mentioning their significance, and introduce Mr. Stacey to a new way of seeing the landscape.
“Ted taught me how to photograph the bush better,” Mr Stacey said.
“I had to really try to get in tune with what he was talking about, the character and the mystery of the bush.
One of the lasting legacies of the collaboration of MM. Stacey and Thomas is the book Mumbulla Spritual Contact, which Mr Stacey describes as a “propaganda gimmick”, a photo essay printed in large format to “put it in the faces of politicians and it would take most of their point of view, so they should take a look”.
In 1980 parts of the Biamanga Mountain were declared an Aboriginal Place and a Protected Archaeological Area. But the fight to protect the coastal forests between Biamanga and Gulaga has continued for decades.
Biamanga and Gulaga National Parks were proclaimed in 1994 and 2001 respectively.
In 2016, the five state forests surrounding the two mountains were reclassified as flora reserves, in recognition of a resident population of koalas – seen as the protective guardians of the Gulaga-Biamanga cultural area.
Guboo Ted Thomas died in 2002, four years before Biamanga and Gulaga National Parks were returned to traditional owners in a moving ceremony.
“That vision they had continued,” Lynne Thomas said.
“It’s like a continuation, like everything we see in this landscape, it continues.