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Fremantle: Dreamtime tales

Greg picks a leaf from the ti tree. But it’s not the oil so beloved by beauticians that he’s interested in. “You see how dense the branches are?” he asks. “The Wadjuk people used them for fishing – up to 70 people would co-ordinate, create a wall of branches and march forward until the mullet were herded into the shore.”

Fremantle: Dreamtime tales

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He then picks up a seed pod. It’s from the red-eyed wattle. “These days, people are using the wattle seeds as a nutty-tasting, caffeine-free coffee substitute. But the Wadjuk ground them into flour to make a damper bread.”

We’re by the Indian Ocean at Fremantle, Western Australia’s great port turned beer and cappuccino hang-out. Greg Nannup from Indigenous Tours WA is attempting to explain the area’s history from an Aboriginal perspective. He tells truncated versions of the Dreamtime tales that, for thousands of years, have helped map the landscape for the local indigenous people. The stars are spirit children, notable rock formations across WA are the ones that have come back to earth as shooting stars.

He tells of how children were taught to map the area. Looking out to the ocean, there are five islands. Greg extends his right palm, face up – the fingers correspond to those islands. Rottnest is the thumb, Garden Island the fourth finger, Penguin Island the pinky. The blue vein along the arm is the Swan River.

It’s a gripping look at one of the most appealing parts of modern Australia from an ancient perspective.

We walk up to the Roundhouse, the oldest public building still standing in WA. It was once the prison – and not just for settlers getting on the wrong side of the law. In the early colonial days, Aboriginal men would be rounded up from across the state for crimes they didn’t know were crimes, such as taking sheep from land that had always been traditional hunting territory. “It collapsed some family groups,” says Greg.

The Roundhouse would be the first point of call, before being sent to the prison on Rottnest Island. Rottnest is now a place of leisure and pleasure, but to the Noongar it’s a place of bad spirits and an appalling history that has been persistently brushed over.

He tells a blackly comic tale of what would happen when illiterate men from different tribal groups would find themselves next to each other at the Roundhouse. Custom dictated an exchange of gifts, yet the only thing available to exchange would be the name signs hanging around their necks. Such identity swaps would see men locked away for two years instead of the two months they’d been sentenced to.

The Roundhouse is now a tourist attraction, the old storehouses nearby are now flats and offices, and the vegetation is used for different purposes. But not everything has changed.

“Once a year, the Swan River would become a Dreaming trail,” Greg explains. “There would be an annual festival in what is now Fremantle. Boys would undergo rite of passage journeys, women would weep for departed spirits by the water’s edge.

“This was a place of gathering. And things have come full circle – it is again today.”