Stories and spectacle: climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge for a First Nations view

Matty Webb, a Burrawa guide, shares words, lore and stories as participants climb the Harbour Bridge
Matty Webb, a Burrawa guide, shares words, lore and stories as participants climb Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/BridgeClimb
Matty Webb, a Burrawa guide, shares words, lore and stories as participants climb Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/BridgeClimb

Tourist attraction BridgeClimb has been reimagined from a First Nations perspective as part of Sydney festival

Last modified on Wed 6 Jan 2021 11.33 EST

Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, we are a small group of grown men and women finally learning some original language of place, plugging gaps in our Indigenous cultural ignorance.

We are taking part in Burrawa, which means “above” or “upwards”, a special Sydney festival event that imparts the words and lore of Indigenous peoples whose country this has always been, in a whole new take on the popular tourist attraction BridgeClimb.

Usually, participants soak in the 360-degree spectacle of Sydney without challenge to a westernised perspective of this land and harbour. For this inaugural Burrawa climb, however, we learn legendary stories as we walk atop the steel span of the bridge, which some 250,000 Australians walked across more than 20 years ago in a march for reconciliation.

All dressed in jumpsuits and harnesses, our guides teach us “putawá”, which according to the slim diaries kept by the first fleet engineer and astronomer Lieutenant William Dawes in 1790-91 means “to warm ones [sic] hand by the fire & then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person”.

A Cammeraygal teenager, Patyegarang, taught Dawes, then in his late 20s, many words of the Sydney language when she visited his hut at what became Dawes Point. She also taught him “toana”, which he translated as “To court. To make love to.” Some speculate theirs was a love affair.

If only mutual understanding had become commonplace.

Portrait of Bennelong from the early 1800s
Portrait of Bennelong from the early 1800s. Photograph: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

There were other early efforts. We have just heard a modern recording of a song that Wangal man Bennelong is said to have played on hardwood sticks for an audience in London in 1793. He was the first Aboriginal man to visit Europe and return.

Burrawa has been developed in consultation with not-for-profit group Tribal Warrior and the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. Mia Makin, a young performer in her HSC year, is one of our guides, and tells us in researching her role she has learned how dominant women were in pre-colonisation times.

Makin, whose heritage is Wiradjuri and country is west of the Blue Mountains, tells us a sad story about the fierce Cammeraygal woman Barangaroo, who was married to Bennelong. “Barangaroo was the leader of her clan, she was very strong,” she says.

“So when she was going to give birth to Bennelong’s child, Governor Arthur Phillip was trying to get her to come to the hospital, because he thought that would be a safer way to give birth. Barangaroo thought a hospital was death, and she wanted to stick to the tradition of giving birth on country.

“But unfortunately the baby died due to complications.”

The Indigenous women dominated the fishing, using bark canoes, says our Kamilaroi guide Matty Webb, who has worked in television production on Indigenous station NITV. Some infant females had fishing wire wrapped around their little finger to eventually sever the “pinky” to be thrown in the water as both a spiritual gesture and to practically make fishing easier, he says.

Taking a steady climbing pace in the humidity, we accumulate a vocabulary including “warami” (welcome or hello), Warrane (Sydney Cove), and Tallawaladah, the place we know as The Rocks. We spot Goat Island to the west, known to Indigenous peoples as the eye of the eel, who journey through the harbour. We learn “burra”, which means eel.

Kamilaroi guide Matty Webb and Wiradjuri guide Mia Makin teach Burrawa participants the eel dance.
Kamilaroi guide Matty Webb (far left) and Wiradjuri guide Mia Makin (second from left) teach Burrawa participants the eel dance. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/BridgeClimb

As we reach the summit, 134 metres above sea level, Webb teaches us an eel dance. We awkwardly shift our harnessed, jump-suited bodies from right to left and sway our arms. It is the only time most of us will ever dance atop the Harbour Bridge.

Once we have absorbed the visual context into which we can now slot Indigenous clans, places and words, it seems odd there are just two flags flying: the Australian and New South Wales state flags.

The Aboriginal flag only flies here on the bridge on 26 January, Naidoc and Reconciliation weeks. “There is talk of a third flagpole going up,” says the Sydney festival director, Wesley Enoch. “That would be amazing. The more we talk about it, the more it becomes a reality.”

Enoch, a Noonuccal Nuugi man, says the recent change to Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, substituting “one” for “young” in “For we are young and free”, is a positive small step.

“The thinking behind the word change is actually more important than the word change itself,” he says. “I want that thinking to start influencing a whole lot of conversations, especially about an [Indigenous] voice to parliament.

“In many ways, we’re moving beyond reconciliation and talking more about sovereignty and Treaty, and ways of looking at sovereignty are things like Burrawa: understand the story, understand where First Nations people come from.”

Burrawa is part of Sydney festival from 8 to 24 January