University of Western Australia History seminar

11am, Wednesday 17th October, Philippa Maddern Seminar Room (Arts 1.33)

Helena Aurora or Bungalbin Hill: An environmental history of naming, knowing, and belonging

Alexandra Vlachos, SNSF Postdoctoral Fellow

This work-in-progress paper examines the environmental history of Bungalbin hill (Helena and Aurora range), located approx. 100kms north of Southern Cross. At the intersection of the Western Australian wheatbelt and the Eastern Goldfields, Bungalbin hill is marked by a long history of Aboriginal use and a more recent, but critical, settler impact: Helena and Aurora and the surrounding ranges hold large deposits of iron ore and are thus threatened by ongoing large-style open pit mining.

Historically, the area has mainly been interpreted along two major storylines: either as part of Yilgarn shire local histories, which are focussed on the tales of agricultural and mining development in the 19th and 20th Century, or, more recently, as a pristine part of natural Western Australia. Especially in the past twenty years, conservationists have fought to protect Helena Aurora’s endemic flora, granite outcrops, and natural beauty as a future national park.

This paper aims at a holistic historical perspective on Bungalbin: instead of portraying the range as a place from which to extract iron ore in order to generate jobs in Southern Cross and fuel the WA economy, the focus lies on the complex story of how people related to the place and how they produced their knowledge about its specific natural features. While being rather isolated in terms of modern human geography, Helena and Aurora is part of a truly ancient landscape with banded ironstone formations formed underwater during the Precambrian era 2,000 to 3,000 million years ago. For most of human history, it has been known as Kaprun country, and is located now at the north-western corner of the Great Western Woodlands, which represent one of the largest and largely intact Mediterranean woodlands on earth.

The story of how this remote range in Western Australia was discovered, named, and interpreted by and for Europeans in the 19th Century also reveals the early settler’s striking dependence on Aboriginal presence and knowledge of this extraordinary dry country. The sense of Indigenous belonging and land management interlinked with early settler interests in “productive” agricultural land, minerals, and rare flowers, created a place rich in human-place interactions and diverging concepts of belonging and ownership.

Alexandra Vlachos is an environmental historian particularly interested in human-place relations and conflicts over land ownership as well as management with Indigenous involvement in the Commonwealth settler societies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand; joint-management of heritage sites; forest history; birds and birding history; narrative-networks; the role of stories, memories, oral history, and alternative knowledge in contested environments. She is currently a visiting research fellow at UWA.

Image: by Alexandra Vlachos