Aboriginal shingle cutters c.1870s

Flat Rock Gully – an Aboriginal History

This place is special and has many stories to tell.

Caring for Badu: An Aboriginal history of the Flat Rock, Tunks Park and Middle Harbour area*

Download the full history PDF here.

In the Sydney language, badu means water. This is a story of a catchment in one part of northern Sydney. Yet it is also a hint at the likelihood that every place, regardless of the extent of past impacts, has much more to offer than the sum of its hardships. We invite you to take a deeper look at this particular patch of Sydney and see what can be revealed.

Flat Rock creek with historic retaining walls and trees aligning its route
Flat Rock Creek today

There is a sense of circularity to this story given the 20th-century battle to save the Flat Rock catchment from a proposed incinerator perched on one side and the disposal of waste as landfill to fill the valley. The battle to stop the development was lost by 1934, but in the end the new incinerator was itself stopped in 1967. Dumping also ceased in the 1980s, and the landscape has been slowly rehabilitated. This fight shows a growing attachment to and respect for the land by the new residents that, ironically perhaps, reflects Aboriginal peoples’ deep attachment to Country and the fight they have had since 1788 to maintain their place and to fulfil their responsibility to manage Country over the long term. Consider too that the incinerator, designed by famous architect Walter Burley Griffin, is now heritage listed and contains a restaurant. The story shows that there will always be a new challenge to the landscape: whether the Warringah Freeway in the 1960s or now with the impacts of climate change.

Map of area between Sydney and Middle Harbours
Map of area between Sydney and Middle Harbours

Flat Rock Gully is a pocket of history on urban Sydney’s North Shore. A walk in its depths provides not only an experience of the native bush but also provides connections to other continents in the geological past and to an ongoing Aboriginal culture.

1860s stereoscope photo of Flat Rock Falls. Mitchell Library
1860s stereoscope photo of Flat Rock Falls


Considering the concept of Country,

Country – all plants, animals, ecosystems and humans – is alive with collective agency. First Nations people recognise that nothing happens in isolation from everything else, and everything that happens comes from Country first. Through forces like weather, geology, hydrology and animal movements, Country can make or break a conversation, a recording, an excavation, the preservation of a fossil, or whether or not we will have electrical power during a thunderstorm. Our food, fibres, phones, cars, computers, buildings and energy supply all come from Country.

Everything and everyone is Country, woven together in collective agency that makes life happen. (Judge 2022)

Wattle flowers in Sandstone Country
Wattle flowers in Sandstone Country

Deep Time

The history begins with the origin of the rocks beneath the valley – deposited during the Age of Dinosaurs – and the movement of plates on the Earth’s surface affecting the climate and the biota in Australia. As we move into an era of human-induced climate change it is worth remembering that the climate in Flat Rock Gully has changed dramatically over the period Aboriginal people have lived here.

Close up of Hawkesbury Sandstone
Hawkesbury Sandstone

Imagine a time when today’s continents had drifted together to form a single landmass – a supercontinent we call Pangea. Antarctica was joined to Australia along today’s southern margin. It formed a land bridge to the other southern landmasses: India, Africa and South America. This group would also be known as Gondwana. Australia was much closer to the South Pole, with Tasmania and south-eastern Australia the furthest south.

Most of the valley cuts through the Triassic Hawkesbury Sandstone. It was deposited by a major river system that rose from the mountains of Antarctica and flowed across south-eastern Australia. Beginning in the Permian and carrying on through the Triassic period it provided the alluvial sediments that now form the Sydney Basin. To walk along the creekline between the sandstone walls is to be embedded in that vast drainage basin at a time when cycads (burrawangs) were first evolving.

Burrawang plant (Macrozamia)
A burrawang

Humans Take to the Stage

Moving closer to the present, the history focuses on the period when humans first evolved and spread out across the globe. This was in the Pleistocene Epoch, a time of dramatic climate cycles – the ice ages with their warm interglacials. Australia is in its current location but with large fluctuations in sea level affecting how close it is to the islands of Southeast Asia. In the last Ice Age, modern humans crossed to the expanded continent. This was not a static landscape and Aboriginal people had to adapt to the increasingly cold and dry climate. Rivers and lakes dried up; the forest retreated; ice accumulated on the highest mountains. The sea continued to drop and Australia’s coastline expanded further.

Aboriginal people have been living in the Sydney area for at least 30,000 years. We can see this in the archaeological record. That is over 1,000 generations in which to understand your local environment. The history discusses both the types of material culture that remain preserved in the valley and the tools acquired from the local environment for daily life. In addition to food, the bush provided wood and fibre.

Nawi (canoes) on Sydney harbour
Nawi (canoes) on Sydney Harbour

Gamaragal Culture

In the clifflines, overhangs provided shelter and a place to record art and stories; sandstone surfaces also became canvasses on which to carve figures and symbols. When the sea filled Middle Harbour, it was a source of abundant fish and shellfish and the discarded bones and shells accumulated as middens along the shoreline and in rock shelters. Rock shelters and middens are the most abundant form of archaeological site in the valley. The sandstone holds pebbles which were made into stone tools, although the best material was traded from outside the area. 

Video 1 Flat Rock Gully

At Flat Rock Gully the creek initially flowed on across the drained Middle Harbour valley to join the Parramatta River, not reaching the sea for kilometres beyond the Heads at the glacial maximum around 18,000 years ago. The area was more like the Blue Mountains of today. But with the end of the Ice Age the sea level rose over 120 metres, flooding back to a height a metre or two above present levels. In a short period, those people who had been living out on the new coastal plains for generations were forced to migrate inland, encountering and intruding upon Country belonging to other groups. Some form of reconciliation took place; space was made available, and the groups adapted to the new conditions. Again Aboriginal people showed a capacity to adapt to change.

Aerial image of Long Bay (now Tunks Park) ca. 1900
Long Bay (now Tunks Park) circa 1900

Over the generations, local Aboriginal groups gained an intimate knowledge of the ecosystem and environment of Flat Rock Creek. They knew what resources existed and how to harvest them sustainably. But they practised an active form of land use and land management, particularly through the use of fire. At the time of British invasion the land and harbour had long supplied a diverse range of foods at close hand, freshwater was available in permanent waterholes along Flat Rock Creek and there was shelter. Beyond the accumulation of middens, however, their use of land did not result in significant ‘pollution’.

Video 2 Adapting to Survive

Aboriginal woman Abaroo showing body ornaments
Abaroo showing body ornaments

Resistance and Adaptation

The year 1788 marked the latest major change for Aboriginal people and their culture. Finding that the newcomers were here to stay, they fought back. Disease killed many and disrupted the social structure. Land-use changes reduced the availability of previous food resources, but the new crops and stock raised on freshly cleared paddocks were not shared. Once again Aboriginal people’s ability to adapt to change was key – for example, they immediately saw the qualities of glass and steel for longer-lasting tools and their cutting edges. They learnt the language of the newcomers. Their traditional bush skills and knowledge of the region put them at an advantage when defending their land. As the weight of numbers told they tried to communicate their point of view with the higher authority of British royalty. In 1868, Prince Alfred’s visit was seen as an opportunity, with Aboriginal people gathered near Neutral Bay to practise for a corroboree which he could attend and learn from.

Video 3 A Hidden History

As Sydney developed and the frontier moved beyond the horizon that Aboriginal presence was both ignored and forgotten. But they remained in plain sight, employed for their bush skills, keeping themselves on Country as much as possible. The history notes how in the 19th century Aboriginal people moved into and out of Sydney utilising the new transport options of steamer and railway as the network spread. An Aboriginal community was present along Flat Rock Creek in the 1870s (see Struggle Town).

Painting of Sydney from north shore, showing changed landscape
Sydney from North Shore
Aboriginal shingle cutters, Middle Harbour, circa 1870s
Aboriginal shingle cutters, Middle Harbour, circa 1870s

The governing bodies of the colony of New South Wales and the city of Sydney had a different view of Flat Rock Gully to Aboriginal people – it was rocky and steep, had no significant mineral deposits and was thus considered of limited value. The sandstone in its slopes was quarried for building stone; the shale on the upper ridgelines quarried for brickmaking; the Long Bay partly infilled to provide open space. In the end as the scale of the industrial and urban development increased its lack of significance made it a suitable location for the disposal of the growing quantities of waste being generated. The large-scale dumping or incineration of waste has ceased but rubbish enters the catchment in the increased stormwater flows and by illegal dumping. Plants from gardens and old plantation and feral animals (including domestic pets) have become established and are detrimental to the original vegetation and fauna.

From Trash to Treasure

But over the years local residents became increasingly active in stopping those destructive industries. Interest increased in the native bush and preserving areas of the city that retained their natural features. State legislation in the second half of the 20th century gave greater protection to Aboriginal heritage.

Willoughby Falls?, North Shore
Willoughby Falls ?, North Shore

Video 5 From Trash to Treasure

The 1967 referendum was a milestone for Aboriginal peoples’ rights. However, as shown by the no vote in the 2024 Voice to Parliament referendum and their continued fight for recognition there is a long way to go.

AHO Manager David Watts monitoring rock art
AHO Manager David Watts monitoring rock art

With no known descendants of the local area it would be easy to think Aboriginal history ceased, yet its continuation can be seen even in the current project. Flat Rock Gully has been a place of Aboriginal heritage guided walks from at least the late 1990s with David Watts representing the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and then in his role with the Aboriginal Heritage Office. Karen Smith, Education Officer with the AHO, continues to take groups on walks and talks in the area.

AHO Education Officer Karen Smith in Flat Rock Gully
AHO Education Officer Karen Smith in Flat Rock Gully

Video 4  Site Monitoring

The annual Aboriginal education festival initiated by Susan Moylan-Coombs, previously known as the Guringai Festival, has been running across the region since 2001 and Flat Rock Ck has been the setting for guided walks. Aboriginal artist Jess Birk completed public artwork in the wider area on a number of occasions. Indigenous artwork by Carl Simpson commissioned in 1998 still exists in Artarmon upstream from Flat Rock. The mural is made up of three sections, each refers to the past, present and future relationship of the Indigenous people with the landscape of Flat Rock Gully.

1998 mural at Artarmon by Carl Simpson
1998 mural at Artarmon by Carl Simpson

The history concludes with the natural landscape and its cycles and the ongoing Aboriginal connection to Country:

For the many locals and visitors who walk along the paths and tracks of Flat Rock Ck, Tunks Park and beyond it is clear that the many historically recent impacts to the area have not erased its scenic values. The Council staff, residents and volunteers who have worked so hard over decades to restore and nurture the environmental landscape are also aware of what natural values exist here. The Aboriginal story is perhaps the least understood and appreciated. It too has been subject to intensive impact and neglect. Yet it is still here. Perhaps like the creek itself, which has found ways around obstacles, over modified beds and along routes restricted by walls and channels, Aboriginal people are still actively involved in this place, adapting and adjusting to new circumstances. Aboriginal history continues, as it has for such a span of time that it is difficult to even begin to comprehend. This place is special and has many stories to tell. It is up to each of us in our own way to find a seat and be part of the audience.

Video 6 Struggle Town

Download the full history PDF here.

Learn more about Struggle Town.

Heritage NSW officer removes graffiti
Heritage NSW officer removes graffiti
Rock art in shelter dated to 6000 BP
Rock art in shelter dated to 6000 BP
Flat Rock Creek today
Flat Rock Creek today

*The historical research report Caring for Badu: An Aboriginal history of the Flat Rock, Tunks Park and Middle Harbour area is a component of a project carried out by the Aboriginal Heritage Office (AHO) for Sydney Water as an enforceable undertaking as a result of an overflow incident at Naremburn, New South Wales (NSW).