Narrandera’s newest tourism attraction is taking shape on the site of the old Sandhills Mission where Wiradjuri families once lived in bush humpies.
It is the Wiradjuri Cultural Centre, brainchild of Wiradjuri elder and noted craftsman Michael Lyons. Michael plans to officially open the Centre opposite his Sandhills Artefacts workshop in Bamblett Street in December.
For years he has hosted busloads of travellers and Riverina school children on workshop tours. He said lack of space prompted him to invest in a purpose-built facility to promote Wiradjuri’s rich culture.
Lined inside and built of green Colorbond to blend in with the gumtrees, the Centre features a gallery to display Sandhills craft and original Wiradjuri artefacts, including stone axes pre-dating European settlement.
“I built the gallery because the workshop is not tourism friendly,” he said. “There is not enough room to display paintings and craft. There will be a mix of old and new artefacts on show.”
Michael said the site is significant to the Wiradjuri people.
“There were 60 humpies here in the ’60s and ’70s, lived in by families who the authorities relocated from Cudgel to Narrandera. My uncle Leo had his humpy where the Centre is now,” he said.
Like the recently-erected signs directing visitors to Sandhills Artefacts, Michael has financed the development from his own pocket. He is hoping to gain a grant from the Office of Environment and Heritage to help offset costs.
“I have to build a toilet block outside and I will put in a kitchen at the end of the building so I can cook for visitors,” Michael said.
A bush tucker meal, presently prepared in his workshop with the aid of a couple of helpers, is part of some tours. Michael recently catered for five busloads of school teachers from Catholic schools in the Riverina.
Having set an opening target date, he is now chasing up the builder for the toilet block, outfitting the Centre and sourcing display cabinets for the growing number of Wiradjuri artefacts handed in to him.
There could be more on the way if attempts to return Wiradjuri artefacts in private collections and museums overseas are successful. Michael said similar attempts closer to home are underway, with representatives of the Canberra Museum travelling around country towns to check local museums for Wiradjuri items of interest.
“Farmers have given me artefacts they have found on their land, including grinding stones to grind wattle seeds, quandong nuts, wild tomato seeds and mardo seeds for cooking,” he said.
Among the treasures Michael has collected himself is a boomerang made by his great, great grandfather and a section of a very old burial tree.
Besides showcasing Wiradjuri culture to interested tourists he is keen to introduce Wiradjuri youngsters to their heritage and cited the high Wiradjuri enrolment at a local school as one good reason to do so.
“The principal told me 60 percent of the students at Narrandera Public School in 2015 were Wiradjuri,” he said.
While school parties are frequent visitors to Sandhills Artefacts, they have yet to try out a new drawcard, exhibition humpies in the Centre grounds built by Michael in the traditional style from native vegetation. The simple structures have no nails and feature branches interwoven with foliage and weather-proofed with kangaroo pelts. Visitors put them to the test in recent rain and pronounced them water-tight.
For added appeal Michael has designed an Aboriginal-themed fire-pit. A modern take on the traditional camp fire, it is being made by steel craftsman Michael Whipps of Mt Beauty, Victoria.
“He liked my design and is going to make them for sale and pay me a commission. His fire-pits are spectacular,” he said.
This is an unexpected bonus for Michael, providing another source of income to help finance the Centre.