Tom Parry

This story contains the names of Indigenous people who have died. Both are respectfully used with the permission of the family of the deceased.

EAST of Lakes Entrance and off the Princes Highway is the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust.

It’s a place of many names – Tyers, the station, the mission, Bung Yarnda – but to Gunaikurnai elder John Gorrie, it’s known simply as Home.

The Gunaikurnai people have a storied connection with Lake Tyers which, of course, existed long before whitefullas came to Australia.

The Trust’s history can be traced back to 1863, when it was founded as an Anglican Mission for First Nations peoples by English clergyman John Bulmer.

In 1908, control of the settlement was handed to the state government, which severely limited the freedoms and opportunities of residents.

Mr Gorrie lived at Bung Yarnda for seven years of his childhood.

While he is unable to recall his earliest memory living there, he does recollect being tub-bathed under a watchful eye.

“Mrs Rule, the manager’s wife, used to walk around … (and) make sure that we had a bath,” he said.

“Used to come and make sure the mother was doing it right, cleaning the kids up and all that stuff.”

Though he adds: “Apart from that, it was great fun living there.”

Uncle John Gorrie outside the entrance to Lake Tyers.
All photos: Tom Parry

Mr Gorrie was born to a single mother, Linda – herself a Gunaikurnai woman – on March 10, 1950. Being the child of an unwed parent, he was removed from his mother and placed in an orphanage in Melbourne.

This practice, known as “forced adoption”, was common in Victoria at the time, with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous single mothers having their children taken from them.

Three years later, Linda wrote to the secretary of the Children’s Welfare Department, informing of her marriage to Carl Turner and requesting custody of her son.

The next year, a four-year-old John Gorrie was returned to his mother to live on Lake Tyers Aboriginal Station.

But even then, the fear of separation remained.

“Mum was still frightened of the welfare people, taking me off (her) again,” Mr Gorrie said.

“She used to hear the cars come down along the dirt track, used to race me into the bushes…”

Though he was never taken again, Mr Gorrie did witness other children being forcibly removed.

Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust overlooks Lake Tyers Beach, as seen on the right.

In 1961, the government announced its intention to close the station, purportedly at the behest of a certain aviation magnate.

“Old Reg Ansett was going to buy the property and turn it into a resort area,” Mr Gorrie said.

As a result, residents were “shipped out” and moved to towns such as Bruthen, Orbost, Newborough and Warragul; the Gorrie family were relocated to Moe.

“You had no say about the place at all; you just got moved out, and that’s it,” Mr Gorrie said.

“I’d never heard of Moe until I got to Moe. All I knew was Lake Tyers…”

Due to the protests of older residents, the closure never came to fruition; instead, the settlement became a self-governing community in 1971, and has remained under the control of the Trust to this day.

John Gorrie would go on to be employed as an Aboriginal Liaison and Advocacy officer with the Department of Health and Human Services, where he had a long and distinguished career.

In recognition of his efforts, in 2005 he became the first Indigenous Australian to be awarded the Public Service Medal.

An old mission building at Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust. It’s here where local residents would queue for their food rations.

Nowadays a resident of Sale, he visits Lake Tyers when he can, and recently invited the Gippsland Times on a tour of the area.

As a general rule, whitefullas (such as this author) aren’t allowed onto the property, but a special exemption has been granted for this occasion.

There are no signs directing people to the Trust; the only indication of its existence is a bus shelter painted with First Nations artwork along the highway.

From here, motorists turn and follow a hilly, winding road through bushland, where they are greeted by a large wooden gateway and billboards instructing non-residents not to enter.

After a short drive beyond the gates, the bushland turns to farmland, with cows grazing in the fields.

Another few-hundred metres down the road, and signs of a township at last become visible.

Mr Gorrie will always stop by the New Cemetery first whenever he visits Bung Yarnda; this occasion is no different.

It’s here where his mother and father are buried; it’s also where he wishes to be buried once he passes.

Mr Gorrie at the grave of his late parents.

After saying our greetings and paying our respects, it’s time for a brief tour of the area.

Mr Gorrie identifies the various sites of interest, including the old abattoir, a dam, and the remains of the old bathhouse – it’s here where local children were required to wash every morning, regardless of weather.

In winter, the children would walk from their homes through the cold mud and then clean themselves, only to get mud on themselves again as they walked back home.

Next to be driven past is the church. Built in 1878 by architect Leonard Terry, the building is one of the oldest, and few remaining, timber churches in Australia.

It’s also where Mr Gorrie’s parents were married.

The church has seen many weddings over its lifetime – and many more funerals.

During latter events, a large bell in the tower would toll as mourners followed the caskets of loved ones to their resting place. The bell has since been removed from the church.

The Lake Tyers Anglican Church is one of the oldest timber churches in Australia.

Nearby is a modern health centre, and an old mission building where residents, in the past, would queue to receive their food rations.

Just beyond this building is the Old Cemetery, surrounded by white post-and-rail fencing and sheltered by large evergreen trees.

Unlike the New Cemetery, there are no tombstones or marked graves; instead, a single freestanding wall lists the names of the deceased.

Further down the road, Mr Gorrie points out what was the first – and for a time, the only – lamp-post at Bung Yarnda.

He recalls the children hanging around the pole after dark, trying to hit its bulb with stones.

After a drive past the local residences, it’s back into town for a quick visit to the main hall and information centre for a cuppa, a yarn and a glance at old photos.

Then, it’s back in the car for the return journey, with Mr Gorrie waving as he passes the New Cemetery.

The Old Cemetery at Lake Tyers, as viewed from the road.

Upon return to Sale, he admitted to feeling emotional whenever he thinks about his childhood.

“It brings back a lot of memories … sometimes I get teary about it,” he said.

It’s mostly positive memories that spring to mind – picture nights, swimming in the lake and playing with friends.

For those reason, Mr Gorrie says: “Lake Tyers will always be home.”

This article was made possible through the assistance of Mr Gorrie’s local sponsors, Tidy Toes and Toys Galore And More.