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Velo-City: Perth » Nyoongar History Ride: Perth – Fremantle (about 19kms)

Nyoongar History Ride: Perth – Fremantle (about 19kms)

The Swan River dominates the coastal settlement around Perth, as it has since time in memoriam, and when you cycle the familiar variations of the River Ride, it’s hard not to be mindful of the traditional land owners and the impact colonial settlement has had on them. Growing up playing in, on and around the Swan River, we were always aware of particular places of significance, and given the rich cultural history of the area, this ride touches on only a few.


The Swan River is, of course, inextricably tied in with the Waugal or Rainbow Serpent, a creative totemic being and protector of the environment. It’s not my place to discuss the spiritual aspect of the Waugal, but it’s worth noting the environmental impact of behaviour based on belief in the Waugal.

Although kangaroo, emu and large game were hunted, historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the staple protein of the indigenous people of the Swan Coastal Plain was obtained predominantly from fish, aquatic reptiles and crustaceans found in the rivers, lakes, wetlands and coastal estuaries  stretching from Moore River to Mandurah, which were said to have been created in the Dreaming by the Waugal. The water landscape was crucial to the survival of the Nyoongar, and every spring and gnamma hole was named and protected from draining, and the spiritual journey of the Waugal as it moved throughout the coastal plain towards the ocean was mirrored by an understanding of the system of underground streams connecting the wetlands to the rivers and ocean.

Although this ride follows the Waugal’s journey to some extent, it focuses on more recent events.

Windan Bridge

Our journey starts at Windan Bridge, which can easily be accessed along the PSP from Claisebrook railway station.  At the base of the north eastern foot of the bridge, you will find a mosaic created in 1999 by members of the contemporary Nyoongar community. The mosaic sits in the middle of a traditional camp site, which has wonderful views of the Swan River, or Derbarl Yerrigan, as it is often known now. Derbarl Yerrigan refers to the fresh water turtle Dreaming along the river, whereas as Narlak (Swan) Beeliar (River) is the literal translation of the English name. As well as providing an enchanting public art piece, this site is where Windan, the wife of Yellagonga, head of the Mooro Nyoongar, was buried. You can also find a plaque on the bridge that tells the story of Yellagonga and Windan.

Mosaic at Windan Bridge















Nyoongar means “people” and  the Nyoongar of Whadjuck, the area surrounding Perth, consisted of a number of groups, including Yellagonga’s Mooro and Midgegooroo of the Beeliar group, among others.

Heirisson Island

From Windan Bridge, ride along the shared path that follows the eastern side of the river, past the Burswood resort. After about 2.5 kilometres you will find yourself at the Causeway, which bridges the river. Instead of going right over, take the path to your left once you are on the island. You will see a crushed limestone path following the river along the edge of the island and soon this will bring you to a double gate in a cyclone fence. This is to protect the western grey kangaroos that live on the island. Go through the gate and follow the path  around the island’s north western edge (facing the city of Perth).

Heirisson Island was originally a series of mudflat islands, and the current configuration of a single island is man made. It was also the birthplace of  Balbuk (aka Fanny Balbuk),  a descendant of Yellagonga, and daughter of Doodyep and Coondebung ,who almost starved to death after their traditional food supplies were cut off due to the fencing off of traditional lands. In 1840, the year that Balbuk was born, Coondebung stole food from settlers and was sentenced to seven years gaol at Rottnest Island. He died seven months later.

Balbuk was renowned for protesting about the occupation of her traditional lands, and Daisy Bates recorded her memories of Balbuk, writing that: “To the end of her life she raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground . . . a straight track led to the place where once she had gathered jilgies and vegetable food with the women, in the swamp where Perth railway station now stands. Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence-palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms.”

Statue of Yagan on Heirisson Island


Heirisson Island is also famous for its statue of Yagan, the Nyoongar warrior, which stands facing the city across the water. Yagan was the son of Midgegooroo, leader of a Whadjuk group of Aboriginal people living south of the Swan and Canning Rivers in a region known as Beeliar. He was a young man when Governor Stirling established the Swan River Colony in 1829 and as the Colony expanded , conflict arose over land and resources. Yagan was involved in retribution when members of his family were killed after taking food. He was charged with murder and sentenced to death, but Robert Lyon, a settler, intervened on his behalf, arguing that he was defending his homeland and should be treated as a prisoner of war, not a criminal. Yagan was subsequently sent into exile on Carnac Island, but soon escaped.

After that the government let him be, and he was able to move around freely, and performed corroborees with Aboriginals visiting from the Albany region at Lake Monger and at the site of the Post Office Garden in Perth city. It was about this time that George Fletcher Moore famously reported a conversation with Yagan:

Yagan stepped forward and leaning with his left hand on my shoulder while he gesticulated with the right, delivered a sort of recitation, looking earnestly in my face. I regret I could not understand it, I thought from the tone and manner that the purport was this:- “You came to our country – you have driven us from our haunts, and disturbed us in our occupations. As we walk in our own country we are fired upon by the white men; why should the white men treat us so?”

Shortly afterwards Yagan’s brother Domjun was fatally shot as he tried to steal flour from a Fremantle store. The next day in what was considered a revenge attack, Yagan, Midgegooroo and another Whadjuk leader, Munday, were implicated in the deaths of two settlers. They were declared outlaws, with a reward of £30 posted for the capture of Yagan. Midgegooroo was apprehended, and executed without trial. Munday successfully appealed his charge.

Yagan remained elusive until 11 July when he encountered brothers William and James Keates, with whom he had been friends, and spent the morning hunting with them. The brothers had reportedly wanted the reward for a passage back to England and when they reached the Swan River, near what is now the intersection of West Swan Road and Great Northern Highway, Yagan refused to go any further with the group and William took this opportunity to shoot Yagan through the head. Yagan was decapitated and the skin on his back, which bore his tribal markings, removed. His body was buried near where it fell, but his head was sent to England for display. In the 1980s his descendants began the long process of tracking down the head and getting it returned to WA so it could be buried near his body, in order for his spirit to be free. The burial finally took place in July 2010.



After you leave Heirisson Island, take the path along the river towards the city. The path will continue right along the river banks, so Perth will appear on your right as you head west. After about 4.5 kilometres you will have Mount Eliza and King’s Park on your right and Goonininup, the old Swan Brewery site, on your left. About 100 metres before the brewery site, on the opposite side of the road, is a freshwater spring, now known as Kennedy Fountain. Goonininup was a campsite of Yellagonga, leader of the Mooro Nyoongar, and it was from here that he first saw the arrival of the colonists, as they sailed up the river in 1829. Yellagonga is said to have greeted the newcomers hospitably, as they were believed to be the returning spirits of ancestors. The reasons for this misunderstanding are said to be a combination of the white skin, which resembled the deathly pallor; the bad odour, as a result of poor dental care and washing habits; and the fact that the white strangers came from the west, which was the direction where the departed were believed to go.


Kennedy Fountain at the foot of Mt Eliza

The newcomers took possession of the campsite and the spring, and Yellagonga and his family moved to Goobabbilup (Lake Monger) and didn’t ever return to the river campsite.


From Kennedy Fountain you get an idea of the view Yellagonga would have had of the arrival of the British ships

Matilda Bay

If you continue along the river path, you will come to Matilda Bay, and you can follow the path along Hackett Drive. Matilda Bay was a site for corroboree and also, as you’d expect, a good fishing area. The remains of a fish trap can still be seen at Pelican Point, on the southern tip of Matilda Bay. Continue following the river and you will ride through Dalkeith and arrive at Christ Church School. At this point, you need to take Stirling Highway for a couple of blocks, then turn left into Richardson Avenue.


Osborne Parade Spring

Richardson Avenue intersects with Osborne Parade at a roundabout – a common re-grouping point for cyclists. Just below the road, on the limestone cliff face is a fresh water spring – and a magnificent view of the river. Follow the river around, taking Bindaring Parade and the Esplanade. You can continue to follow the river, or cut through Mosman Park, until you reach Rocky Bay. There is a great cycle path that follows the river through Ricky Bay, and which will take you to Garangup, one of the most significant of the Waugal sites on the Swan River.


Looking towards the Rainbow Snake Cave from Garanup






If you stay on the bike path all the way around Rocky Bay towards Fremantle, it will lead you into Rule Street and you will see a small car park on your left. Just next to this you’ll find a path leading down the limestone cliff to the river – it’s only about a 100 metre walk, if that. About halfway down is a cave and it is here that the Waugal is believed to have crawled into the limestone cliffs to sleep after causing a great flood that submerged the land between Rottnest Island (Wadjimup) and Fremantle (Walyalup).

Looking towards the Rainbow Snake Cave from Garanup

The large limestone cave has a central pillar supporting the roof and it is around this pillar that the Waugal is said to have curled while sleeping. This cave was used by lime burners from 1890 to 1914.
















Dingo Flour

If you head from Garangup along Edwards Parade you will find yourself on McCabe Street, which takes you to Stirling Highway. To the right, is the giant red Dingo Flour painting on the side of a large building. Not explicitly a site of Nyoongar significance, but coincidentally the dingo is associated with the north Fremantle area. Continue south along Stirling Highway towards Fremantle.

Cantonment Hill.

This limestone hill was originally known as Dwerda Weeardinup, place of the Dingo Spirit, and is in the process of being transformed from a military site to a public reserve. It is an interesting pocket of bushland, as it has been virtually untouched since colonial days and contains the last remaining stand of the Rottnest Island Pine (Callitris preissii) on the mainland.

Just Memorial

From Cantonment Hill, turn right towards the harbour, and at the first set of lights take another right, which will take you down onto a quiet street called Beach Street which becomes Elder Place and then Phillimore Street. Take a left turn into Henry Street, and this will take you to the Esplanade park where you’ll find a rare example of a memorial which tells both sides of a story. It has two plates, one tells of “treacherous natives” who murdered three men, who were avenged by a “punitive party”. The other plate was erected by people who found the monument offensive because it didn’t mention the Aboriginals’ right to defend their land and the “history of provocation which led to the explorers’ deaths. The ‘punitive party’ … ended in the deaths of somewhere around twenty Aboriginal people.” The Baldja Network, a group of local Fremantle Aboriginal people, fought for the recognition of the Aboriginal viewpoint which led to the erection of the plaque in April 1994.

This is the end of the ride – right in the heart of Fremantle.

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