I pulled into a roadside clearing surrounded by tall grass. A stark tree stood near some old stockyards and a locked gate which read “Cubawee, authorised entry only”. This was the place, I had found it. A place once home to many stories – of plentiful turtles and fish, night-time adventures and swings over summertime streams – which today are little more than fond memories.
Formerly known as Tuncester Reserve, Cubawee, which is located roughly 7 kilometres outside of Lismore in northern NSW, was a self-managed Aboriginal settlement from 1932 until 1965. It was a time when segregation was still widely practiced in Australia.
The reserve was renamed Cubawee in 1947 by Frank Roberts – a pastor who was the leader of the community. Cubawee means ‘a place of full and plenty’ in the Bundjalung language and here Aborigines lived a relatively peaceful existence away from white authorities.
While living conditions were meagre, with whole families cuddled up on one bed to keep warm, the people of Cubawee were happy. Former resident Lillian King remembers life was good. There were plenty of turtles, possums, goanna and fish to catch and a big swimming hole she and her family frequented in the summertime. “On the weekends we’d walk along the riverbank collecting lemons and go to the farms and get fruit – the farmers never minded”, she says.
Murray John Roberts Senior, who also grew up in Cubawee says “it was a hard place to live but we swam and hunted and spear-fished and walked to the mountains at night.”
It was a sad time for Cubawee’s 100-plus residents when, in the 1960s, they were told to move on, as floods had allegedly impeded the six-acre area which runs along Leycester Creek. Former resident June Gordon recalls, “our childhoods were spent here and they were the happiest memories of our life.”
I didn’t enter the reserve, as I didn’t have permission from the Ngulingah Local Aboriginal Land Council, which now owns the land. However I did walk a way down the old abandoned Casino-Murwillumbah railway line, which runs along the western side of the reserve. Here I took in the land that was once a sanctuary from racism.
Utility poles lay bent, rusted, the railway overgrown. Although the fields and hills looked inviting and I bet the river – where the people of Cubawee once fished and swam in relative harmony – is a pleasant place to explore.