Between 300 and 500 million years ago, the land that is now called Australia underwent a dramatic geological transformation. Once covered by the great prehistoric Ordovician and Silurian Seas, vast masses of land were thrown to the surface as powerful forces fractured, collapsed and folded the earth upon itself. This land became part of Gondwana, a giant continent of mountains, rivers and explosive volcanoes. As part of this transaction, hot water circulated amongst fissures of rock and reef, which, in turn, produced veins of gold in the bedded rock.

After millions of years of erosion and earth movement, most of this hard rock weathered into clay, allowing streams to form through gullies in the highlands. As the land continued to form, gold was carried down into streams and riverbeds that sometimes hardened into hillsides.

First Contact


This section was contributed by Deanne Gilson and Tammy Gilson, Wadawurrung Traditional Custodians.

Marlene Gilson, stone houses and eel trapping, 2020. Acrylic on linen. Courtesy to the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.

“The symbiotic relationships held by Wadawurrung people and the natural environment were affected by arrivals from different countries, who brought with them diseases, and introduced flora and fauna.

Deanne Gilson, Karringalabil Bundjil Murrup, Manna Gum Tree (The Creation Tree of Knowledge) White ceremonial ochre, acrylic on linen, 2020.

Wadawurrung believed Country spoke for itself, ‘the big old grandfather tree that grew along the Yaramlok…connected the roots under the ground through to the leaves reaching up to the sky, dancing in the wind’. Bundjil the kardingalabil (creator spirit) gave Country food and medicine plants that were compatible with the fertile soils. Wadawurrung knew the right time to harvest. For example, the flowering of buno (tea-tree) meant the murrnong (yam daisy) were ripe for digging.

This Wadawurrung Creation Story began at a place known as Black Hill in Gordon, Victoria. The story is of a man known as Karringalabil, the creator spirit, who created the first man and woman out of paapul (clay). He took bark and leaves from the great birthing tree known today as the manna gum tree, a sacred tree that housed the spirits of creation. Karringalabil turned the tree spirits into the birds that represent our ancestral totems.

Wadawurrung had sophisticated farming practices such as applying fire to Country; this was referred to as fire stick farming, today we refer to this as cultural burning. Many land management practices were not adopted by early settlers. The continuation of Cultural practices today has disproved any misconceptions of First Nations peoples living a primitive, nomadic lifestyle.

The landscape provided an abundance of resources as kawirr (the emu) once flourished through Country, connecting the emu dreaming story for Wadawurrung people. Kawirr are no longer seen here, but the impacts of gold mining are; so much so that we call this ‘upside down Country’”

“Upside Down


Features of the land millions of years in the making were damaged in just a few decades; the advent of the gold rush disrupted entire ecosystems.

In a 2015 interview, Wadawarrung Elder Bryon Powell stated:

“…the time of first contact to the time when their traditional ways were changed forever, was only about 10 to 15 years. In that time, Wadawurrung people had gone from living in a landscape where they made all their own tools, and used all the resources, to their traditional way of life being gone forever; 15 years… People find it hard to deal with change today. Imagine what my old people went through, to have that change, not of their choice, but thrust upon them. To be moved off their land, to be in an area where you have been living, and your family has been living for thousands of years."

Deforestation and


Even in its early stages, when mining involved panning, cradling and sifting, natural ecosystems were being permanently altered.

Listen: Soundscape of the goldfields created by SBS Cantonese Producer Tracy Lo (approx. 2 mins).
New Gold Mountain Production Image SBS

As mining towns developed, land had to be cleared to accommodate the roads, telegraphs and railways that were a sign of progress. To meet growing demand, woodcutters pushed further and further into Australian forests to support the burgeoning mining communities.

As these communities evolved into small towns, water supplies were needed to support the sanitary requirements of their inhabitants. As such, local creeks and river systems were sometimes diverted, dammed and irreparably changed.

At the time, these particularly devastating methods of mining caused murmurs of protest from farmers and pastoralists who could see for themselves the damage that was being inflicted upon their local ecology. Eventually, these mining methods were outlawed by governments, but not before vast areas of natural forest had disintegrated into wasteland.



By the late 1850s, there was a sentiment that most of the gold hidden close to the earth’s surface had already been discovered by early prospectors. Shaft mining enterprises now needed to be developed in order to extract gold from quartz deposits hidden far beneath the earth’s surface.

New technologies demanded more sophisticated washing procedures to extract gold from quartz. Steam engines were being harnessed as a popular form of power, and, in some cases, water wheels were being driven. All these technologies required a water supply far greater than the dams and channels that had been previously used for sanitation.

The task of supplying enough water in areas of erratic rainfall was not simple. Drought was a problem that carried real financial consequences. Artificial sources of water were created, and a great number of Australia’s water systems became laced with channels and sluices, diverting water into mining catchments and dams.

Tammy Gilson, Buniya Binhak Eel Basket, 2020, Murmbal (flax), hand woven by Tammy. Photographer Luke Keys.

Towards the end of the 19th century, hydraulic mining (otherwise known as sluicing) technologies devastated local ecosystems to such an extent that the first murmurs of environmental protest began to emerge. Vast quantities of high-pressured water were blasted into hills and along creek beds in an attempt to wash gold and soil into catchment areas. Once isolated, the silt could then be filtered for gold, whilst the extract sludge was dumped back into the blasted creek or riverbed.


Another popular mining technique that was used at this time was dredging. Find out what this means; what steps were involved; and how this impacted the environment.

The Future


“As questions about the sustainability of human systems and natural environments become the key challenges globally, the realisation has dawned on environmental thinkers that Indigenous populations lived in parts of this continent for at least 65,000 years, adapting and innovating as they witnessed an Ice Age, the disappearance of the megafauna, the rising of the seas, the drying-up of the continent.”

— Marcia Langton.

For many years, there were no requirements for rehabilitation of mining sites, even on land so devastated that weeds would not grow back. The rapidity with which the mining industry consumed forests contributed to the first efforts at conservation from the 1860s onwards.

In 1861, the first legislation enabling government to proclaim reserves for preservation and growth of timber was passed. In 1865, a Special Report to the President of the Board of Lands in Victoria on "The Advisableness of Establishing State Forests" was presented, followed by an 1897 Royal Commission into forest conservation in Victoria.

The damage from mining and dredging caused outcry amongst farmers as their water supplies became polluted and creek frontage occupied. Local communities also began to protest, and groups such as the Ovens Valley Farmers Protection League and the Anti-Dredging League were established.

Revival of millennia-old environmentally protective practices, like cultural burning, are occurring across Australia and helping heal Country. There is growing recognition of First Nations plant medicine and complex sustainable agriculture and aquaculture systems.

However, ongoing exploratory drilling and extractive mining are impacting on First Nations peoples, and delicate ecosystems, in Australia and beyond.


You can read these articles about the impacts of mining projects on First Nations peoples and Country, from The Guardian, and from NITV.

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