The Aboriginal fish traps in the Barwon River at Brewarrina are extraordinary, and well worth seeing if you’re in the area.

We stopped there on our way back to Brisbane after kayaking down the Darling River for six days and dropping into Gundabooka National Park.

We wanted to buy a tour ($10 a head) run by the local Ngemba people, but we arrived late in the day, and there was no-one about, so we had to rely on what information we could find on the riverbank (and later on the internet).

The fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are extraordinary for several reasons. The Ngemba people, who made them, had sophisticated understanding of drystone wall construction, river hydrology and of the habits of local fish species. The traps are arranged in a loose net pattern along 500 m of the river. Each one has a narrow opening, which was easy to close when fish swam into it.

1906 scale drawing of fish traps, Brewarrina, NSW

A copy of a 1906 scale drawing of fish traps at the site gives an idea of their extent and shows the net shape clearly

The Ngemba built the traps, and were their custodians, but they were maintained by several Aboriginal nations in the area. This stretch of the Barwon was an international meeting place, with some second-hand reports of thousands of people from up to 20 nations coming together for important social occasions and trade and, no doubt, diplomacy.

The Ngemba claim the fish traps are 40,000 years old, the oldest human structure on the planet, but this is contentious.

They were officially inscribed on the National Heritage register in 2005, and noted as being ‘exceptional’ and the largest recorded. An important aspect of the official citation is the strong social, cultural and spiritual connection Aboriginal peoples have with this place. It seems odd, then, that official recognition came only so recently.

Ngunnhu are extraordinary for other reasons, too: they have survived the usual sort of white-Australian contempt for Indigenous culture. That began hereabouts in about 1839, when Europeans hauled up on the banks of the Barwon. Within 10 years, they had massacred about 400 Aboriginal people at nearby Hospital Creek. The survivors were later rounded up and forced to live at the Brewarrina mission, which meant that they couldn’t maintain the traps, let alone use them. In the meantime, the European population removed many of the stones for their own uses. And then a weir was put across the river, just upstream of the fish traps, changing the flow of the river and affecting fish movement.

How lucky we are that so much of the fish traps remain, and that the local Aboriginal community is there to keep knowledge of them alive.

Fish traps across stretch of Barwon River, Brewarrina

The fish traps in a shady bend of the Barwon … it’s extraordinary that they have survived at all


Note: This post was updated in May 2016 with new web links.