Aboriginal heritage in the Blue Mountains: honouring the culture

The enduring custodianship First Nations people have with the land
The enduring custodianship First Nations people have with the land

When I started working as an outdoor adventure guide in the Blue Mountains, the famous Six Foot Track – a three-day, 45km bushwalk between Katoomba and Jenolan Caves – was my first paid gig. 

Guiding that historic walk and wanting to do justice to its Indigenous heritage led me to a book called Cullenbenbong, written by Bernard O’Reilly, whose family lived at Cullenbenbong in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

This Kanimbla Valley community of pioneering white settlers was also home to Indigenous people like the Gundungurra leader Billy Lynch (c1839-1913). 

Lynch, whose tribal name was Mawiak, would walk the Six Foot Track to Katoomba to sell bush honey, rabbits and possum-skin rugs to tourists.
The book 'Cullenbenbong' by Bernard O’Reilly

He later led Blue Mountains Aborigines to settle in The Gully community on the outskirts of Katoomba, where the last fluent speakers of Gundungurra probably died about the time of WWII. 

Hiking the Six Foot Track |  <i>Rob McFarland</i>

Majestic thunder

The O’Reillys had the privilege of hearing Lynch and others speak in Gundungurra and this is what Bernard wrote of that experience: 

“If you listened to the Aborigines speaking together you didn’t hear a jumble of foreign words, you heard the sighing of trees, the voice of birds, the sounds of storm and flood and wind, the rolling of rocks in a landslide… It is with regret then and some shame that the name Cullenbenbong must be written here; how cold and lifeless it looks in white man’s type, yet to hear it pronounced by the black warriors of the old Kanimbla tribe was to hear majestic thunder re-echoing amongst the granite mountains of their hunting grounds. What did Cullenbenbong mean? My father, Peter O’Reilly, probably knew, but that knowledge has gone with him, as have ten thousand other things I’d give my right hand to know.” 

I love retelling this story on Blue Mountains Adventure Company (BMAC) and World Expeditions adventures. It's a powerful reminder of the tragic loss of a language shaped by thousands of years of life in the Blue Mountains. 

Like O’Reilly, I’d give my right hand to be able to speak Gundungurra and know another ten thousand things about the Aboriginal heritage of the Blue Mountains. 

O’Reilly’s book also happily reminds us that, despite all we have lost, there is still plenty that is preserved about the Blue Mountains Aboriginal heritage that BMAC and World Expeditions guides can share on our adventures. 

Wonderful books have been written by the likes of Jim Smith, Grace Karskens, Jim Barrett and Eugene Stockton that shed light on Aboriginal life here. There are also fantastic resources on the Internet such as Trove, where you can look up the astonishing 1896 interview Billy Lynch gave to the Sydney Mail newspaper about what life was once like for Aboriginal people in the Blue Mountains. 

EXCLUSIVE CULTURAL WALK: Celebrate NAIDOC Week with an Immersive Cultural Bushwalk on Saturday, 13 July 2024. Limited places. Find out more →

Uncle David & Uncle Lex

An even better source of knowledge is to rub shoulders with current local Indigenous elders such as Uncle Lex Dadd (Dharug) and Uncle David King (Gundungurra), pictured below. 


A post shared by David King (@dingo_darbo)

Some non-Indigenous guides feel uncomfortable talking about Indigenous issues, but I believe it is appropriate as long as it is done with integrity. Using language is crucial to this integrity. We still know about 1200 Gundungurra words and can use those words when we tell the stories of the Gundungurra. 

As we hike out of Empress Canyon, a highly popular canyoning adventure in the Blue Mountains, I love to stop at a lookout with a stunning vista to the south, over Gundungurra country, and tell of the gunyungalung – the Dreamtime of the Gundungurra – when this epic landscape was created by a series of battles between Mirragan (a giant tiger quoll) and Gurangatch (a part-fish, part-reptile creature). 

Exploring Empress Falls Canyon |  <i>Dean Sewell</i> Straight down the middle for maximum thrills |  <i>Jake Anderson</i> Sliding is one of the many thrills in Empress Falls Canyon |  <i>Karleigh Honeybrook</i>

Resurrecting Indigenous Language

Work is ongoing to resurrect the Dharug language of the Blue Mountains and we can still count to 10 in the language of the Dharug: 

  1. Wagul 
  2. Bulla 
  3. Bulla wagul 
  4. Bulla bulla 
  5. Dhamara (hand) 
  6. Dhamara wagul 
  7. Dhamara bulla 
  8. Dhamara bulla wagul 
  9. Dhamara bulla bulla 
  10. Dhamara dhamara

We can remind people that Blue Mountains place names such as Katoomba, Megalong and Kanangra are Aboriginal and everyday words like waratah, koala and billabong come from the Indigenous languages of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. 

We can tell our clients that the village of Mt Victoria might be named after a British queen, but Billy Lynch said this place was called Kinderan. 

The Coxs River might be named after the man who supervised the convict team that built the first road over the Blue Mountains, but to the Gundungurra it was Therabulat. 

Welcoming friends to country: 'Warami Mittigar'

Bimbiigang” (greetings) and “Warami mittigar” (welcome friends) to the “Ngurra” (country) of the Gundungurra and Dharug people: That’s how I love to greet people as they walk through the door of BMAC in Katoomba. 

The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is blessed to be home to six Aboriginal language nations and, as you walk into the BMAC Katoomba office, there’s a prominent sign to remind us all that this corner of the Blue Mountains “Always was, always will be Dharug and Gundungurra Country”. 

The enduring custodianship First Nations people have with the land

BMAC's commitment to Indigenous cultural respect

I’ve been blessed to live here nearly all my life and am double-blessed to have worked as a guide for more than a decade at Blue Mountains Adventure Company, an organisation that genuinely strives for reconciliation and honours Indigenous culture. 

This commitment is reflected in so many ways. There are posters, maps and signs on the office walls and information on the BMAC website that celebrate Indigenous culture.

There’s the connection BMAC has with Uncle Lex’s The Ganya Shed at Wentworth Falls, where BMAC guides are paid to do odd jobs and learn from Uncle Lex about Dharug culture.

The Ganya Shed at Wentworth Falls is run by Dharug elder Uncle Lex Dadd

There’s the encouragement for guides to learn as much as possible about Indigenous culture and make that knowledge a key part of every adventure. 

There’s the triple eco-certification BMAC worked hard to achieve from Ecotourism Australia, which recognises BMAC for “helping to preserve and respect Australian indigenous cultures”. 

BMAC also has ROC (Respecting Our Culture) certification from Ecotourism Australia. The Ecotourism Australia website explains that ROC-certified tourism operators “are committed to protecting cultural authenticity and integrity, developing sound business practices, environmental protection and acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ spiritual connection to the land and water”. 

The World Expeditions Travel Group, which BMAC is part of, has its own ratified Reconciliation Action Plan. BMAC manager Andy Mein was a champion of this plan and Gundungurra elder Uncle David King worked on it as an Aboriginal community representative. 


In recent years, historian Grace Karskens and a team of Dharug researchers discovered an 1829 list of Indigenous names that included Colomatta (phonetically pronounced Gu-lum-ada), 'Place of the Koala' - for the Blue Mountains. The Geographical Names Board of NSW is now considering this as an official alternative name for the Blue Mountains. 

Nearly 200 years after that list was written, I’m looking forward to wearing a shirt that says I work for Colomatta Adventure Company. And as the Dharug like to say: Yanama budyari gumada – may we all walk together with good spirit! 

Words by Dan Lewis, a guide at Blue Mountains Adventure Company 

Join an exclusive NAIDOC Week Cultural Bushwalk on Saturday, 13 July 2024. Limited places. Book now →

Indigenous heritage, Blue Mountains, Dharug, Darkinjung, Dharawal, Gundungurra, Wanaruah, Wiradjuri, Ecotourism, Aboriginal culture, Aboriginal history, dreamtime, Aboriginal language, Australian Indigenous culture, Reconciliation Action Plan, Aboriginal community

Comment (0)

Your comment will be visible after the administrator's approval.

b i u quote

Save Comment

We respectfully acknowledge the Dharug, Darkinjung, Dharawal, Gundungurra, Wanaruah, and Wiradjuri language groups as the traditional custodians of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and thank them for sharing this beautiful land with us. Our Reconciliation Action Plan outlines our commitment to building respectful relationships, creating meaningful opportunities, and addressing inequalities that have historically existed.

Join Newsletter
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/ADS.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Adventures South"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Adventure South</div>
Adventure South NZ is unrivalled in their geographic coverage, originality and overall quality of adventures holidays in New Zealand. Choose from walking, cycling, winter or multi-activity holidays, on either the North or South Island.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/AWH.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Australian Walking Holidays"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Australian Walking Holidays</div>
Australian Walking Holidays specialises in small group guided walking adventures. Since 1982 we have been guiding small groups of travellers on Australia's finest walks across our tropical, coastal or red centre landscapes.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/GCT.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Great Canadian Trails"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Great Canadian Trails</div>
Great Canadian Trails specialises in active holidays in Canada. With both guided and supported self-guided options available, our unique itineraries draw upon some of Canada's most inspiring parks, trails and landscapes from coast to coast.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/HUM.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Humac Challenge"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Huma Charity Challenge</div>
Huma enables those with adventurous spirits to challenge themselves and make a difference for a cause close to their heart. Travel, fundraise and meet life-long friends on one of Huma's meaningful and unique challenges around the world.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/WB.jpg?v2' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Walkers’ Britain"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Walkers' Britain</div>
Walkers' Britain (formerly Sherpa Expeditions) have specialised in walking and cycling trips in the United Kingdom and Europe since 1973. Explore iconic trails and destinations on a self guided or small group active holiday with Walkers' Britain.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/WB.jpg?v2' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Walkers’ Britain"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Walkers' Britain</div>
Walkers' Britain (formerly Sherpa Expeditions) have specialised in walking and cycling trips in the United Kingdom and Europe since 1973. Explore iconic trails and destinations on a self guided or small group active holiday with Walkers' Britain.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/TAS.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Tasmania Expeditions"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Tasmanian Expeditions</div>
Tasmanian Expeditions is the most experienced operator of treks and adventure travel holidays in Tasmania. We own and operate the most comprehensive range of adventure holidays available across Tasmania's varied landscapes.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/UTX-new.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Utracks"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>UTracks</div>
UTracks are the active European holiday specialists. Whether you prefer cycling or walking, 2-star or 4-star, small groups or self guided, land, river or sea – UTracks can help you to explore Europe exactly the way you want.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/WYA.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="World Expeditions Schools"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>World Expeditions Schools</div>
World Expeditions Schools is our specialist division dedicated to organising tailor made overseas school group adventures. Specialists in Service Learning projects, choose from more destinations than any other school group provider.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/YOM.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Yomads"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Yomads</div>
Yomads offers adventures for the 20s and 30s on six continents. Designed as a way to bring young and likeminded travellers together, Yomads caters to those interested in lightly structured and active trips that allow freedom to roam and explore.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/ACT.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Australian Cycle Tours"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Australian Cycle Tours</div>
Australian Cycle Tours specialises in high quality self guided and guided cycling experiences in a selection of the most beautiful regions in Australia.
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/WEX.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="World Expeditions"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>World Expeditions</div>
The pioneers of original, worldwide adventure travel holidays since 1975
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/TJX.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Trail Journeys"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Trail Journeys</div>
Self-guided cycling experts on New Zealand's Otago Rail Trail and more
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/BMAC.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Blue Mountains Adventure Company"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Blue Mountains Adventure Company</div>
The original Blue Mountains canyoning, hiking, climbing and abseiling experts
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/GWNZ.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="Great Walks of New Zealand"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>Great Walks of New Zealand</div>
Explore New Zealand's most spectacular wilderness regions with the self-guided hiking experts
<img src='/portals/World%20Expeditions/Icons/brands/small/NAA.jpg' class='brandPopoverIcon' alt="North America Active"> <div class='brandPopoverBrandName'>North America Active</div>
USA Canada hiking & cycling tour specialists, choose from self-guided or guided trips