Situated in a wooded area of a great floodplain is the campsite where the Combarngo and other Aboriginal families lived for much of the twentieth century. The camp is not far from the Balonne River which spreads for many kilometres north when it breaks its banks during floods. Like the Mundy/Cleven families living in the camp opposite, the river provided a place for fishing and swimming, and was an important source of food and water. The families lived in humpies made from pieces of tin and other materials found either lying around or at the dump. One humpy survived the forced removal of the families into the town, and has been carefully restored by the Manns family under the supervision of Aboriginal Elders. It is now protected by fencing, but can be seen clearly by visitors, along with a storyboard featuring members of the Combarngo family. The Combarngo family are part of the Mandandanji people, the Traditional Owners of the areas around Surat.
Combarngo Family Storyboard, Surat
Along with the Manns, the Hazzards and others, the whole Combarngo family – mother May, father Henry, five sons and three daughters lived here until their relocation to the town of Surat. Living conditions in the humpies were basic, and during summer the families lived in lean-tos made of boughs to keep them cool. A kerosene fridge was a small piece of luxury. People caught large yellow belly fish and kids gathered mussels from the rocks, although these were often used as bait. The river water in the time of the camp ran clear, but is now muddied from land use changes upstream and the introduction of carp that disturb the muddy banks as they feed.
Despite the tough living conditions, this camp was home to the families who lived here. While all of the family worked, often for large property owners far from home, they would always return to the camp and lived there for most of their lives. They were close family units that weathered illness, loss and absence, creating strong memories and attachments. Like the Aboriginal people on the south side of the river, the families who lived here were eventually relocated to the town centre.
The camp remains an important part of local Aboriginal memory. The storyboard at the site shows four of the Combarngo brothers; Ranald (Rannie), Cedric (Ceddie), Claude and Vincent. All of the Combarngo brothers worked hard, often away from camp; none of them ever married or had children. It was a hard and lonely life in many ways, although the brothers played sport, and were valued members of the community in Surat. They always returned from their times working away to be with their family at the camp. Ranald walked with a shuffle - when he was eight years old, and his mother was away working as a cleaner in town, he had lost his toes walking across hot coals in a fire pit. Nevertheless he participated in rodeos, and when he lived for a while in Roma he used to cycle home to the camp to visit his family. As he became older and sicker, he wanted to return to live at the camp, but by then there was little left that was habitable, and he died in hospital in Surat. His brother Vincent was the victim of a vicious attack in the camp that left him in great pain in hospital, but he always walked home on the weekends to be with his family. One day his boots and hat were found on the bridge over the Balonne, though his body was never found. His brother Claude, a cricketer and scholar renowned for his beautiful handwriting, also made timber nulla nullas and woomeras; he suffered a stroke in 1993 and spent 17 years in the local hospital until his death. Cedric was a handsome and elegant man, who, like his brothers, spent long periods away from the camp working on properties for little more than tea and tobacco, never married and returned home to family in between these periods of work; he died of liver cancer. A fifth brother, Colin, was a tracker with the local Native Mounted Police, and not much is known about him.
The Combarngo camp is part of the living memory of the Mandandanji people. A visit to the site is an opportunity to learn more about both the family and the Mandandanji – not only about their survival in the face of great odds, but about their pride in their family and community as sources of strength and comfort. The restoration of the humpy, the only one extant in the area, and the storyboards alongside it, are a claim on our memory: this camp and the extraordinary lives of the people who lived here, represent the strong culture and traditions of the Aboriginal people of Surat.
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Combarngo Humpy, Surat