LIFE AT BOTTOM CAMP (YUMBA)
Bottom Camp (Yumba) was home to families from all of the different language groups and lands around Cunnamulla. Each family had their own place in the horseshoe-shaped camp ground, facing each other across the central community space. Homes were mainly humpies, built from tin and other scraps found at the town rubbish dump that was located right next to the camp. Community members recall around 200 people living in the camp, in humpies of 6-10 people. Some families had canvas tents, and some single men would have “bush humpies” that would be used only for sleeping in. One man who worked on the railway had constructed a humpy almost two stories high, made from kerosene cans.
The rubbish dump was also the source of the potato bags that were unpicked and spread on the dirt floors of humpies to reduce dust. Brooms were made of tree branches tied together. The layout of the camp worked well, and when six houses were constructed there by the Council, some families preferred to remain in their humpies, because the houses were built too close together. The houses also proved to be too small for the families that moved into them - a three bedroom home would be required to accommodate a family of around 12 people.
The older people remember a time when the only source of drinking water was a tap at the cemetery nearby. Eventually a single tap was provided by the Council to the camp site, which brought more families to the Yumba. Everyone in a family helped carry water for washing, and children washed their own clothes. Important sources of food were the fish caught in the Warrego River, as well as young emu or kangaroo. People also remember a ‘fruit hawker’ who travelled around town in his van to sell fruit to children and their families. Sometimes the head of a family would bring home a slaughtered sheep or other food that was distributed to family members across the camp in accordance with “the old ways”.
On the weekends there were dances at the camp, accompanied by music played on the accordion and guitars, and lit by burning car tyres. While Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people went to school together and became friends, only Aboriginal people came to the dances at the camp. The local church conducted a regular twilight mass under a large coolabah tree at the centre of the camp, which was a social occasion particularly for the Elders. (Later, after people had been moved into town in the early 1970s, there would be days of dressing up to go the races - Darby McCarthy was a famous jockey born in the Cunnamulla Bottom Camp, and inducted into the Queensland Racing Hall of Fame in 2004).
Discipline for children on the camps was strict –if you played up in another family’s home, it was accepted that you would be punished by that family and then again when you arrived home. Apart from physical punishment, this could include having money for the ‘fruit van’ withheld, or missing out on dinner. However, as several Elders said, they grew up knowing right from wrong, knowing their responsibilities to family and community, and the value of hard work. According to one Elder, white people might have a Bill of Rights, but Aboriginal people had a Bill of Responsibilities, which they learnt around the camp fire from when they were four or five years old: if someone didn’t act responsibly towards others, or to animals, or to the land, they would be punished.
Sign at Bottom Camp (Yumba) in Cunnamulla
There were clay-pans at Bottom Camp that were used for corroborees and for sports such as rounders in which everyone participated. Drovers who were in from the stations would keep their horses around the camp, so that children could just “grab a horse and learn to ride”. The general rule was that kids had to be home by sundown – “there were no clocks in those days.” The ABC Four Corner’s documentary ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ produced by Peter Reid, showed children playing in front of a sewerage outlet; one community member who lived at the camp remembers playing in a sewage pond and thinking how wonderful it was to have a swimming hole to himself, before being disciplined severely by his parents.
None of the Aboriginal people in the camps owned vehicles, so children walked to school every day, sometimes returning home for lunch. Their lunch was generally a simple ‘johnnycake’ or piece of damper, but the non-Aboriginal children at school seemed surprisingly keen to trade their own lunch for that of the Aboriginal children. Elders today recall an absence of race discrimination at the school, and some believe that this arose only later in their lives. However Aboriginal children were not allowed to speak their own language at school, although Elders remember women in the camps singing and talking in language.
Another result of moving into town was that families were split up and felt isolated and lonely in their new and very unfamiliar houses. There was a great deal of sadness that families used to living closely together hardly saw each other anymore. After people left the camp, the erasure of its history continued, with rubbish, some potentially toxic, being dumped at the camp site; community members say it wouldn't be possible to live there again now. It does however have a sign “Yumba” that indicates its former use, and there are plans by some community members to document the families who lived there – who they were, where they came from, where their humpies were located and the years when they arrived and later left the camp.
Although life was tough on the Yumba, Aboriginal Elders believe that those who lived there were much luckier than those who were sent to missions or shot; those on missions were taught religion, but on the Yumba people got to learn their law and culture around the camp fire – as one Elder says, he is glad he was “chased to school”, but learning culture was also really important. Another says of the Bottom Camp: “I loved it, it was good here.”
When people were forced to move into town, they were given little support to transition into their new homes. According to one man who grew up at Bottom Camp, everything in their new homes was unfamiliar to them, but nobody showed them how to operate anything. People didn’t know about hot and cold water, they hadn’t used any of the ‘modern’ household items before - it was all foreign to them. They didn’t understand the new way of life and missed living together in a single room. One family reverted to the ‘old ways’ by tearing up the wooden floorboards for wood on the fire, where the family congregated and felt connected again. This man remembers living at the Gold Coast for a short time as a child and wondering about the milk that was delivered on the door step each day. He couldn’t work out how, every day when he opened the front door, a fresh bottle of milk would appear on the door step. He would look around and try and work it out but his parents and uncle would never tell him the answer - he remembers this clearly and offers it as an example of how different life is in other places.