Charleville (population 3,700) lies on the Warrego River, 750 km by road west of Brisbane where the Mitchell and Warrego Highways meet. It has a rich Indigenous and non-Indigenous history: artefacts from early Aboriginal camp sites along the riverbanks lie next to the ruins of old timber bridges that took the Cobb & Co stagecoach across the waterways in the 19th century. The site of the first Yumba, the Aboriginal fringe camp, lies across the road from the remains of a top secret wartime airbase built by American servicemen.
The Warrego River that runs through Charleville, regularly floods and since the 2011 flood, the town has been protected by a levee. Along the north side of the river is a beautiful 1.4 kilometre walking track designed by local Aboriginal people: the ‘Wadyanana Pathway’. Wadyanana means, in Bidjara language ‘I’ll be walking around somewhere else when he comes’. Along the pathway is a sign that tells the visitor about Mundagudda, the Rainbow Serpent, and its meaning for the Bidjara people.
The Wadyanana Pathway beside the Warrego River, Charleville
Visitors arriving in Charleville from the south, along the Mitchell Highway, will see the Graham Andrews Parkland as they enter the town. This parkland has a lagoon, a small hill topped with rain-making machines, and a variety of pretty trees that constitute an ‘Outback Native Timber Walk’. It also has an adventure playground, picnic shelters and free BBQs. However, older Aboriginal people living in Charleville remember this piece of land as completely flat, and as the place where their parents built homes for their families: tin huts, and humpies made of kerosene tins and lined with cloth from wool bales. This parkland was the first of the Yumbas or fringe camps where Aboriginal people lived, up until the 1960s. In contrast with the variety of trees visible in the parkland today, one senior Aboriginal community leader remembers mainly cypress pines, and the scent of them drifting through the camp.
Mundagudda (the Rainbow Serpent) & the Bidjara People sign along the Wadyanana Pathway, Charleville
View of the Warrego River from the Wadyanana Pathway, Charleville
Although the Yumbas were further from the river than in many other towns on the Trail, it was still a source of food and play. Others recall that it was “too hot to walk there in summer and too cold in winter.” In the bushland around the Yumba they had access to a range of bush foods that they still enjoy today, including porcupine (barrbirda in Bidjara language), a rich meat that “tastes like pork”, and emu (gulbari), which, whether meat or eggs, “goes straight through you like epsom salts!”
There is a vibrant and active Aboriginal community in Charleville, which has given the town and the wider region an acclaimed Aboriginal health service, a highly successful radio station, a housing company, an employment service, and an important cultural education area at Mt Tabor with unique rock art and sacred sites. The Aboriginal people in Charleville and its region are determined to see that their culture and traditions form a part of school education, and that their activities contribute to the cultural education of the wider public, including visitors. They are also active in land management in the region to protect natural and cultural heritage, including the conservation of the bilby – South-West Queensland is one of the few areas where populations of bilbies can still be found in their natural habitat.
As well as Bidjara people, there are many other Aboriginal groups represented in the Charleville area, including Kamilaroi, Kunja and Gunggari. The Boards of local Aboriginal organisations include representatives of these different peoples in the areas that they service.
As in many communities, Aboriginal people in Charleville still work to overcome barriers but the community comes together in NAIDOC week, a celebration that involves schools and the wider community either in the NAIDOC march itself or waving enthusiastically from the sidelines.