Reflecting on Kamay

Capturing the contested landscape for our exhibition Eight Days in Kamay was eye-opening for a Library photographer.

 

‘Hey are you OK to schedule a couple of days’ shoot at Kamay National Park next week?’, asked Jennifer, our creative producer. ‘We’re working on an exhibition telling the story of Cook’s landing.’

‘Yep, sure,’ was my unblinking reply. I’d heard that the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Botany Bay (Kamay) was coming up, but only later did I find out that this exhibition was to be a very different re-telling of the 250-year-old ‘discovery’. Refreshingly, it would shine a light from the Gweagal perspective, exploring how the landing of the Endeavour’s crew in 1770 changed the fate of Aboriginal people forever.

A week after Jennifer’s request we set out well before dawn. I was determined to be in position at the right time to capture an immersive panorama. The view from Cape Solander Lookout at first light would serve as the nine-metre gateway to our exhibition, Eight Days in Kamay.

Like many Sydneysiders, I’d never visited Kamay National Park in Kurnell before. The approach to the park took us through Sydney’s southern suburbia, tracing the bones of an old tramline, past super stores and industrial parks, an alley of car yards and kebab kiosks. Cook was heralded on our route by the names of streets, landmarks, and two high schools. Meanwhile, I pondered the ever-present legacy of his crew’s eight-day expedition versus the everyday visibility of a 65,000-year-old culture.

Our early start was rewarded with an iconic summer sunrise, clear shards of light, white cockatoos swooping, circling, feathers glinting against blue skies. Waves crashed many feet below, vast tumbles of rock appearing to have been recently placed by an artist’s hand.

Reflecting on Kamay

Captain Cook's Landing place, looking towards an industrial La Perouse horizon
Captain Cook's Landing place, looking towards an industrial La Perouse horizon
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First light, looking towards Potter's Point, site to the clifftop sewage outlet
First light, looking towards Potter's Point, site to the clifftop sewage outlet
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Majestic views from Cape Solander
Majestic views from Cape Solander
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Cockatoos amongst cabbage palms, Kamay National Park
Cockatoos amongst cabbage palms, Kamay National Park
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Sarsaparilla leaf grows abundant and wild, Kamay National Park

Sarsaparilla leaf grows abundant and wild, Kamay National Park

My panorama, successfully captured, was unable to do this vista justice. No amount of camera technology could capture its entirety, but I hoped it would encourage others to visit and experience the majesty first-hand.

As the sun continued its speedy ascent, I set about photographing details that would form each section of the exhibition. My brain whirred in overdrive, juggling the grandiose and the granular detail. The hypnotic pulse of water sparkling. Shell fragments on the surface of an ancient midden. Lace-edged leaves creeping along a sandstone fracture. Light raking across an expansive cliff face. Ominous shadows of infinite depth. Waves pounding. Universal. Timeless.

I thought about my little home in Sydney and how attuned I’ve become to the fleeting light of seasons. I reflected on the original keepers of this vast place, in tune with each nuance of their environment, and how their complex knowledge systems went unrecognised when Cook claimed this shoreline.

I imagined the Endeavour growing on the horizon with its ghostly sails of billowing pantaloons, while Gweagal people (a clan of the Dharawal nation) along the coast signalled its arrival in coded smoke. The cockatoos (nabi) would've witnessed this, too.

‘We discovered them before they even set foot on the land!’ Uncle Shayne exclaimed later that day. ‘Aboriginal people knew they were on their way, they were waiting for them, they were prepared … people say they discovered us when it was the other way round.’

Dr Shayne Williams, senior Gweagal clan knowledge holder and educator, didn’t fit my typical view of an ‘Uncle’. Tea loving, Adidas wearing, his serious face broke into an easy smile. We learnt what life was like on Country before the settlers’ impact and well before the incongruous obelisk bearing Cook’s name was planted on the shore of Kamay.

Beautiful detail of bracken fern, Kamay National Park

Beautiful details, Kamay National Park

Before Cook, the soil was fertile and many fish flooded the waters, including stingray (daringyan). The newcomers even called this place ‘Stingray Bay’ before its enduring name of Botany Bay was inked onto colonial maps.

We learnt about banksia (kuritjah) pods, which Uncle Shayne called ‘Barbeque beads — forget Bunnings!’ He also showed us sarsaparilla (warraburra) leaves. When steeped in warm water, they became a soothing tea for both white and Aboriginal folk. Known as a cure-all treatment, warraburra relieved coughs, colds, flu, stomach cramps and other ailments.

Clusters of cabbage tree palms (dtharowal) remain at Kamay today. They were planted purposefully by Gweagal ancestors, serving as food, medicine, shelter and building material. They’re the spiritual totem for all clan groups who belong to and speak Dharawal. They also play an important role in transcendence: a bridge for Aboriginal spirits, a highway to the afterlife.

We spent many hours, over several days, at Kamay National Park. The abundance of natural beauty combined with the ever-present drone of industry remains a constant tension, an obvious result of that pivotal day in 1770. I came to appreciate the contrasts and remain fascinated with its complexity.

Kamay is a place for new ways of seeing, and for seeing new ways. Inspired by Uncle Shayne, and cheered on by the cockatoos, I hope that my images will help us explore new perspectives together.

Joy Lai
Imaging Specialist, Digitisation & Imaging 

Eight Days in Kamay is a free exhibition online and in the Library's galleries until 28 February.