Next to a boardwalk winding up to the Red Rock headland in New South Wales, rests a simple memorial plaque. Easily missed in overgrown grass, it records a brutal event in Australian history unknown to many who flock to the small coastal village during holiday season.
Red Rock is located 39 km north of Coffs Harbour. It is the beginning point of the 60 km Solitary Islands Coastal Walk to the south and is the recommended endpoint of the 65 km Yuraygir Coastal Walk to the north. I’d often thought about combining these walks into a longer adventure and last winter conducted a reconnaissance trip to the region with my daughter. During our brief stay we explored south from Red Rock to Corindi Beach and also the southern tip of the Yuraygir Coastal Walk.
The Solitary Islands Coastal Walk links rocky headlands, golden beaches and lush rainforest with plenty of cafes and accommodation options along the way.
Across the estuary from Red Rock lies Yuraygir National Park, part of the traditional homelands of the Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl Nations.
I can easily see why it is described as a coastal treasure. Long sandy beaches, rocky headlands, crystal clear creeks, vast heathlands, and wildflowers attract many visitors each year.
Along with the Bundjalung and Broadwater National Parks and the Iluka Nature reserve, Yuraygir National Park makes up the largest stretch of protected coastline in New South Wales.
The headland is named after the geological rocks it is made of – Redbank River beds, which are comprised of fine-grained sedimentary rocks.
These have been folded and faulted into strongly contorted shapes. This has posed a puzzle to geologists as these formations only occur at the Red Rock headland.
It has been suggested that the Redbank River beds at the headland are so different to surrounding rocks because they have been deposited and deformed elsewhere and were broken off and dropped into deeper water where they were engulfed by sediment. Another theory is that they represent very old rocks that occur beneath surrounding rocks in the region. The red colour of this ancient headland is due to jasper, a form of quartz.
After a brief visit to Dorrigo National Park, my daughter and I arrived at Red Rock late in the afternoon and strolled up to the headland at sunset.
It was then we first discovered the memorial plaque. It was difficult to believe this peaceful setting had been the site of such an horrific event.
Gumbaynggirr people formed one of the largest coastal nations in New South Wales and have occupied the area for thousands of years. They were renowned as the “sharing people” as they frequently shared the abundant resources in the region with other nations. The Blood Rock Massacre occurred in the 1880s when Europeans chased a large group of Gumbaynggirr people from their camp at the river to the headland, where many innocent people lost their lives. You can read more about the history of how European settlement affected the Gumbaynggirr People in this Fact Sheet .
The Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre is located at Corindi Beach and includes a Bush Tucker Cafe, the regional Aboriginal Art Gallery, a function centre and hostel. Locals and visitors are invited to take part in various activities throughout the year. Their website states:
“Despite the ravages that colonialism brought, the Corindi Beach Gumbaynggirr community survived throughout the 20th century by living outside the reserve system in ‘no man’s land’, on the other side of the fence. Here they could still talk lingo, continue traditional practices and retain their relationships with the cultural landscape.”
The sharp contrast between the tranquil scenery and the dark history of the headland brought to mind Walt Whitman’s poem, This Compost, in which he describes his incredulity that the nourishing landscape surrounding him could remain visibly untarnished by past evil, corruption, disease, death and decay.
This realisation led him to write, “Something startles me where I thought I was safest, I withdraw from the still woods I loved,” and “O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?“
He finishes with fearful adoration for the transformative power of nature to turn death back into life, “Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.”
Somehow I expected there to be a stain on the Red Rock landscape – that the trees should be sagging and leaning with the burden of grief, or that the rocks should be weeping. Instead, tree roots hold fiercely to the eroding headland.
Their limbs continue to reach upward and the golden glow and sweet nectar of their blooms delight the senses.
Surely the mournful cry of curlews is a more suitable soundtrack than the chatter of rainbow lorikeets, spangled drongos and honeyeaters?
Shouldn’t the sky be a chilling steel-grey rather than a delicately cloud-laced, dazzling blue?
The cycles of the natural world continue. The sun rises and sets each day painting ephemeral masterpieces across the horizon.
The tide continues its ebb and flow. Waves soothe the soul and polish sharp edges into smooth treasures.
Warm sand particles between our toes are oblivious to the past.
And the sea, sky and shore still caress each other despite the horrors of human history.
The only visible reminders in the landscape now of this horrific event are the simple memorial plaque and the colour of the headland, symbolic of the bloodied waters. However, this act will always be remembered by Gumbaynggirr people and male Garby Elders continue to visit Red Rock Headland to pay their respects to loved ones killed at the Blood Rock Massacre.