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Early History of Galari 


Written by David Marsh of 'Allandale', Boorowa

In keeping with the ethos of Grazing Down the Lachlan to include Aboriginal culture as part of their annual event, I was asked to write a story about the Galari / Lachlan prior to 1815. Grazing Down The Lachlan organisers sought advice from respected Wiradjuri man, Lloyd Dolan, who was happy for me to write something. I wish to acknowledge the generosity shown to me by the various Wiradjuri people I spoke to. They were unfailingly helpful and without their trust I could not have done this as I am not a Wiradjuri man and at times I have felt presumptuous. I have tried to write in a spirit of empathy and if this leads to any coming together of us all as humans, that would be a good thing.

Over geological time-frames the course of the Lachlan river has changed as the Australian landmass broke away from the supercontinent of Gondwana. This happened over millions of years, approximately forty-five million years ago.

Following the separation from Gondwana the continental plate upon which Australia sits began to drift north at about six centimetres per year. This gradual movement north continues to this day.


The Wiradjuri know this river as Galari. Their people lived their lives as part of the living and physical world. It has been their lifeblood for many thousands of years.

The Wiradjuri, the peoples of the three rivers are one of the largest and most numerous of the Aboriginal nations and have occupied the land between Galari/Lachlan; Wambuul / Macquarie and Marrambidya / Murrumbidgee for a very long time. It is estimated that the Wiradjuri nation numbered about 12,000 when the first Europeans arrived on the banks of the Galari in 1815.The Galari / Lachlan river is 1400 kilometres from its source near Gunning to where it loses itself in the reed beds and red gum forests of the Cumbung swamp (20,000 to 30,000ha), near Oxley, New South Wales.

Like most rivers it is steeped in human history and the Wiradjuri lived their lives in harmony with the food it gave them. As far as we know the Wiradjuri have been living with this river for between 40,000 and 65,000 years, the longest human society known.

Songlines and Dreaming tracks traced the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created the land, the lore for living and caring for country and all life. There is an obligation to care for and keep country healthy. To achieve this, people have a responsibility to care for their totem; either an animal, plant or place. Dreaming tracks are part of the oral history of the dreamtime that have been passed down over thousands of years. Some songlines traverse vast distances, from the east of Australia, right out to the deserts of western Australia. The songs were sung as a memory code so that even when a long way from their own country, travellers would not become lost. These memory codes were also used when trading goods in exchange for scarce local items, for example, wood for weapons and skins for warmth.

Songlines were followed when large inter-tribal gatherings took place for ceremonies, rituals, dancing and song. At certain times when there was an abundance of food, large gatherings of the scattered bands would come together on the Galari for ceremonies, rituals, story-telling, singing and dancing. Up to 5000 met at the fish traps on the Barwon at Brewarrina.


Photos courtesy of SCID STUDIO

The Wiradjuri, the peoples of the three rivers are one of the largest and most numerous of the Aboriginal nations and have occupied the land between Galari / Lachlan; Wambuul / Macquarie and Marrambidya / Murrumbidgee for a very long time. It is estimated that the Wiradjuri nation numbered about 12,000 when the first Europeans arrived on the banks of the Galari in 1815.

The Galari / Lachlan river is 1400 kilometres from its source near Gunning to where it loses itself in the reed beds and red gum forests of the Cumbung swamp (20,000 to 30,000ha), near Oxley, New South Wales.

In Mary Gilmores book, Old Days, Old Ways,she describes how fish stocks were controlled by using stone or branch fish control structures to separate the big fish from the young ones so they would not eat the growing fish-stock. Planning for large gatherings was a two-year process.

The Wiradjuri have been observing the night sky for thousands of years and the position in the sky at certain times of the year, of some of the constellations. This knowledge had several purposes; sometimes indicating when certain foods were available, or when certain foods were not to be harvested. Stars were also used as guides when travelling.

When the Wiradjuri managed this land the river was abundant with many species of native fish, trout cod, yellow-belly, silver perch, Macquarie perch, Murray cod, catfish and others. It was easy to catch fish up to thirty pounds. The river ran clean, there were lots of aquatic plants such as beds of ribbon-weed and you could see fish suspended in the clear water.

The upper reaches near the river’s source were undulating uplands and the landscape in many places had a patchwork of open country lightly timbered, interspersed with open grassy woodland. There were up to one hundred species of native trees, shrubs, grasses, orchids and many flowering herbaceous plants (forbs), per hectare.





The arrangement of the vegetation was influenced by mosaic burning to keep country open and to provide grassy areas interspersed with timber, where it was easier to hunt game such as kangaroo, wallaby, goanna, lizards, snakes, tortoises and wildfowl. Black swans, brolgas, plains turkeys and emus roamed all over these lands.

To tread lightly on country they observed strict codes regarding when and how much or how often food was to be harvested. These rules had been developed over thousands of years to ensure that the diversity of life, of which they were an indivisible part, would always be renewed.

The river was a constant and important source of food, certainly the Wiradjuri’s most important resource, fish and freshwater clams were abundant.



In the higher rainfall areas to the east, the murrnong (yam daisy) was harvested and replanted to assure future food. Heading west into the drier areas, seeds of grasses, the fleshy parts of the cumbungi and seed from the increasingly abundant acacias gave variety.

Mitchell, Sturt and others wrote about large areas, several miles long where grass had been cut and put into stooks to dry before threshing and grinding the seed to make a paste.



The seed of the Nardoo also was ground to make a sort of bread. Like all humans they had a love for honey and were adept at sticking a small piece of white feather to a bee and following it to its hive in a hollow tree.


Image courtesy of the STATE LIBRARY OF VICTORIA

Tribal boundaries and language groups had fuzzy edges and passage through neighbouring tribal lands, was possible with permission.

The severe drought of 1813 had threatened the food supply of the small British colony of New South Wales, many of the livestock died from lack of grass, and surface waters failed. This prompted the expedition of Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson to try and find a route over the hitherto impassable Blue Mountains. Their quest was successful, Governor Macquarie instigated the building of a road and the site was chosen for Bathurst which was surveyed after the road was completed in 1815.

For the Wiradjuri whose lives were so closely woven into the rhythms of the landscapes and waters of Galari, everything changed when the first white people arrived on its banks in 1815.

Like other aboriginal cultures that came in touch with people from Europe, the Wiradjuri had no immunity to the diseases they brought with them and their populations were decimated by infectious diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza, common colds, tuberculosis, whooping cough and venereal diseases.

It was estimated that as many as sixty percent of the Wiradjuri and other aboriginal nations succumbed to these diseases. This must have been deeply shocking to these people who had lived healthy lives on their country for so long.

Assistant surveyor George Evans re-named the Galari the Lachlan in 1815, in honour of Lachlan Macquarie the Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales. Evans led an exploration party despatched by Governor Macquarie to explore the area to the south-west of Bathurst in 1815. The party was away for a month. They came to the river a few miles west of Cowra.   They followed it downstream till they were stopped by the Mandagery creek.

For his efforts, George Evans was granted 1,000 acres of land near Richmond in Van Diemen’s Land but was recalled in 1817 to assume the position of second in command of Surveyor General John Oxley’s expedition.

The aim of Oxley’s expedition was to try and work out what happened to the waters of the westward flowing rivers like the Lachlan and the Macquarie. There was a strong feeling among people close to Governor Macquarie that the waters of the Galari / Lachlan and Macquarie rivers must discharge into an inland sea, or empty into the Southern Ocean, somewhere between Cape Northumberland in South Australia and Cape Otway in Victoria.

The Governor established a depot on the Galari / Lachlan for stores and provisions in the weeks leading up to Oxley’s exploration journey which commenced from this depot near Cowra on 25thApril 1817. Oxley’s party of thirteen men, fifteen horses and drays, had two boats which were launched and followed the river downstream, camping together. The boats were frequently delayed by having to cut their way through fallen timber to make headway. It seems that timber falling into the river is not just a recent feature.

In Oxley’s journal there are several references to one man catching eighteen fish in an hour, the largest was a Murray cod weighing seventy pounds and the other seventeen weighed between fifteen and thirty pounds each.

Going downstream as the country flattened out west of Cowra, the vegetation was thinly scattered box and gum with casuarinas and river red gums on the river banks.

The Galari / Lachlan is mostly a terminal river which flows into the huge reed beds of the Cumbung swamp at Oxley. Only in times of flood do the waters of the Galari / Lachlan overflow these swamps and flood across into the Murrumbidgee.

The Galari / Lachlan has few tributaries, the only significant sources are the Abercrombie river, the Belubula river, the Boorowa river, the Mandagery creek and the Goobang creek.

There are several large lakes associated with theriver, Lake Cowal is the largest. When Lake Cowal fills it connects with Lake Nerang Cowal and is 16,000 hectares is extent.

‘The Wiradjuri name for Lake Cowal’, recalled Dame Mary Gilmore, ‘could be translated almost as “the garden of Eden” it was such a place of singing birds and flowers.’ As an elderly woman she remembered ‘the flowers like a carpet, the wading and swimming birds in thousands, the bittern booming in the night.’ (Used with permission, Dr George Main from the Waterhole Project, National Museum of Australia).

In the lower reaches of the Galari / Lachlan, the landscape is so flat that what appear to be tributary creeks are actually flood-out creeks that take waters away from the river. The Booligal wetlands (Upper Gum Swamp, Lower Gum Swamp), is another large area of intermittent swamps comprising the floodplains of the Merrowie, Merrimajeel, Murrumbidgil and Muggabah creeks (15,000ha).

There are many references in Oxley’s journal to the scattered nature of the trees, and as they travelled with the sinuous, winding river, the vegetation changed. The eucalypts grew shorter and the Acacia Pendula began to increase as the climate became more arid as they continued westward. The vegetation changed again and the Cypress pine and Belar (Casuarina Cristata), became more prevalent.

The most common feature remarked upon by Oxley was the extreme flatness of the country and the observation that much of the landscape at times must be inundated when the river overflows its banks. Although the weather was dry, the river was full and eventually the explorers realised that the Aboriginal peoples had moved away from the river and their fires could only be seen on the rising ground of the few eminences available to take refuge in a flood. There had obviously been rain in the headwaters of the catchment that was making the river rise.

The wetlands of the Galari / Lachlan are more extensive than those of the Macquarie. In fact, as Oxley remarked from the top of the northern side of the Jemalong gap, the whole area towards the west was a vast floodplain.The abundance of life in the river and also in the extensive wetlands was frequently referred to in Oxley’s journal and also in the journal of Allan Cunningham the expedition’s botanist and collector.

The rising water was clear and the clear water in the swamps also carried huge flocks of black swans, duck, teal and many other species. The native companions or Brolgas and Plains Turkey, or Bustard as well as Emus, were abundant on the open ground.

Once they travelled west of the present site of Condobolin, the river began to break up into a maze of braided watercourses. The river was still rising, and Oxley was understandably alarmed for the safety of his party and their provisions. The ground conditions were becoming boggy and the horses were sinking in to their fetlocks, the watercourses had broken up into a maze of channels and so the boats were hauled up and Oxley made a decision to leave the river after unsuccessfully following two channels, one in a northerly direction and one heading more southerly. When trying these two channels they became lost in a maze of lignum scrub and had to retreat.

Oxley had reasoned that by moving south west away from the Galari / Lachlan he would be likely to intersect the river again if it was falling into the Southern Ocean somewhere between Cape Northumberland (South Australia) and Cape Otway (Victoria).

As they moved further from the river it became increasingly hard to find water. In fact, they and their dogs and horses were without water for thirty-six hours.

Their track took them past what is now Yalgogrin north and Weethalle. They rounded the southern end of the Cocoparra range, turned north to get back to the Lachlan and the ground was so rotten, that they called a halt near the site of Booligal. They retraced their steps upstream coming onto the Galari / Lachlan near Merri Merrigal after passing to the east of Lake Brewster.


Oxley made a decision to travel east north east to intersect the Macquarie and follow it back to Bathurst. Oxley was not impressed with a lot of the country they traversed, he saw it in a wet year and was hampered by the boggy ground in the flat landscapes of the west. When they eventually managed to cross the river and tried to find the Macquarie they had trouble getting through the almost impenetrable mallee scrub near what is now Griffith.

On this exploratory trip the party had almost no success in making contact with the Wiradjuri people.

A fortnight later they crossed the Bogan, and as they were now north of Bathurst and had not come to the Macquarie they turned more to the east when the country improved into land “resembling diversified pleasure grounds irregularly laid out and planted.” This was a common description recorded by many early settlers and also the explorer’s journals.

They crossed the Little river and the Bell and came to the Macquarie in the Wellington Valley, arriving back in Bathurst on 29thAugust 1817. After the Blue mountains were crossed the Governor realized it was futile to try and contain the land-hungry settlers and there was a rapid spread to all districts.

Whilst there were settlers who developed good relations with the Wiradjuri people, it was inevitable that they, the long-term occupants of the lands and waters of the Galari / Lachlan, would feel compelled to defend their rights to food resources which they had sustainably managed for over two thousand generations. A period of violence followed after which this most ancient civilization was almost completely erased from the land and water of their dreaming. However, those who remain still retain the stories and songlines that connect them to their country.

We have inherited a silence about those times. It is what 1930s anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner has called, the Great Australian Silence. What adds to this silence is the disturbing feeling that if we had been there in the same circumstances, perhaps we may have behaved the same way. This is not about present people shouldering a burden of guilt, it is more acknowledging the past with empathy.

Within two decades most of the land along the Galari / Lachlan had been taken up by squatters and settlers. Because of the general lack of surface waters the blocks were long and narrow all with access to the river. Settlers and squatters were assigned convicts to shepherd and herd the growing numbers of sheep and cattle for the developing stations. The Crown donated the services of the convicts at no charge.

In those early days there was no land tenure and so it was deemed very risky to spend money on capital items such as fencing and water.

The Robertson Land Acts of 1861 were put in place to try and break the squatter’s domination of land tenure. After this Act it became possible for anyone to apply for land title in un-surveyed areas from 40 to 320 acre lots for a fee of on pound per acre, on a deposit of five shillings per acre, the balance to be paid within three years.

When gold was discovered near Bathurst in 1851 there was a great exodus from the land as many shepherds and other pastoral workers went to the diggings to try and make their fortunes.

The price of all goods skyrocketed, including food. Sheep were fetching up to 40 shillings per head which was almost four times a man’s weekly wage. For those with established runs, large fortunes were made.

A lot of land was cleared in the eastern part of the Galari / Lachlan as Chinese workers formed ring-barking gangs and cleared large areas, after the Lambing Flat gold rush ended.

Wire fencing also became an economic method of enclosing land after 1850, when compared with the labour-intensive post and rail fencing it replaced.

Successive droughts and rabbits in the 1890s plus a collapse in wool prices caused many land businesses to fail as the English broking houses demanded repayment of loans and banks foreclosed on many rural businesses. The Federation drought of 1885-1903 also caused incredible hardship. In these big droughts, with no transport, millions of sheep and cattle died as surface waters failed. Dust storms devastated huge areas of the west and carrying capacity has never recovered. Dust storms in the big droughts of the 1890s and 1930s carried topsoil as far as New Zealand’s glaciers.

After World War I the government resumed large areas of land from many of the big stations to offer land to returned soldiers. There was an obligation on the part of the new owners to clear and fence their farms. Some of these farms were not of a viable area which led to hardship in the variable climate of the Galari / Lachlan.

The railway came to Forbes and Parkes in 1893 after which wheat growing increased. The invention of disc ploughs that required less power to pull and then tractors of increasing power meant more and more land could be cultivated. As farms and towns gradually developed, there were calls for dams on the Galari / Lachlan to mitigate intermittent flooding and for the impoundment of water for the fledgling irrigation industry. These calls were heard by Government and the Wyangala and Jemalong Wyldes Plains projects became a reality.


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