May 31, 2024
People & Places

Welcome to Boandik Country

Uncle Ken Jones is proudly telling the stories of Boandik Country along the Limestone Coast, offering personalised tours that are guided by ocean tides, wind, sun, and an ever-changing roster of yarns.

Uncle Ken Jones photographed at Port MacDonnell, which is one of the locations on Boandik Country where he runs tours explaining First Nations culture.

“A long time ago, out into where the sea now is, there was an evergreen forest of large gum trees and banksia and billabongs…”

Standing among the otherworldly gnarled and twisted trunks of Port MacDonnell’s Enchanted Forest, Uncle Ken Jones is recalling an old family story about the sea level rise and how it slowly overcame the trees to form the Drowned Forest – a collection of petrified sandstone remnants carved by ocean tides on the shoreline.

The sites are merely five kilometres apart, but connected forever through Boandik legend; the story of the “living trees and their ancestors in the seas”.

In Boandik culture, Ken explains to his four guests, every plant, bush or tree has a purpose or place, whether edible, medicinal, craft, aromatic, cultural, weaving or spiritual, such as this place. On a tour with Uncle Ken, all five senses are opened to the natural world.

Through his Limestone Coast family company Bush Adventures, Ken takes guests on personalised tour adventures “on country”, to taste, experience and appreciate the First Nations Boandik culture.

“On country” could be anywhere from Victoria’s Glenelg River, to the Piccaninnie Ponds wetlands and up the Coorong coastline to Salt Creek, where the Boandik people lived for thousands of years, moving with the changing seasons and hunting and foraging for fish and crabs and birds’ eggs.

Each tour is different, guided by ocean tides, wind, sun, and an ever-changing roster of yarns. An author of no less than 13 books about Boandik tales, Ken’s ability to spin a story is legendary. Founding Bush Adventures three years ago, Ken views the family business as a continuation of his life’s work and purpose as a proud Boandik man.

A tour group stands at the Drowned Forest on the Port MacDonnell shoreline.

“Having been born and growing up on Boandik country means that I’ve had a lifelong immersion in our culture,” he says. “We’ve got an audience we’ve never had before and when you’re amongst like-minded people on country, it’s probably the most compelling, fulfilling attitude to have. It means that we’ve got responsibilities, we’ve got a shared connection.”

Born in 1951, as a kid growing up in Port MacDonnell with four brothers and sisters, Ken was always outdoors, hunting introduced rabbits and fishing for crayfish and sharks with his father, on the abundant land and coastline around their family home.

On a late 1960s hunting trip, a teenage Ken was out rabbit hunting when he discovered his grandfather William Westbury’s missing rabbit setter hoe, rusty and with the handle nearly completely rotted away, lodged in one of his family’s most productive warrens. Lost more than 50 years prior, it was a strong reminder of his family’s heritage and continuation of culture.

As a “survivor of racism and bullying”, Ken’s father William “Bill” Jones used his experiences to hone a take-no-prisoners attitude, which he passed down onto his son.

“He became a very tough adventurer, an individual, and he wasn’t going to stand for any (prejudice),” Ken says. “So, his resilience and his sense of adventure was what got him away from prejudice and I’m a bit the same way. I like to be alone. I go and camp on my own or I go fishing on my own.” Adventure and a life outdoors guided Ken’s career path.

In the 1980s, working across South Australia’s West Coast and Esperance in Western Australia, Ken became a crayfish and shark fisherman and skippered a commercial abalone boat before moving into a fisheries and wildlife officer role.

However, it was during a construction and maintenance role for Regional and National Parks in 2005, that Ken’s knack of connecting people to the natural landscape became noted and sought after.

Ken Jones points out a coastal fig plant growing wild along the Port MacDonnell clifftop.

“They would ask me, ‘Ken we’ve got some important people coming down from Adelaide, could you please take ‘em out, light a fire, cook the billy up and give them a low-down?’,” he says.

Returning home to South Australia from Western Australia in the 1980s, Ken says he felt “compelled” to act about the demise of the land he’d grown up on, feeling it had been “over-drained and over-cleared”.

In 2008, Ken started Bush Repair, a family environmental contract business providing advanced environmental habitat monitoring and mapping across the Limestone Coast, Victoria and Tasmania. Ken also sits on the Attorney-General Department’s Aboriginal Heritage Committee, which oversees and advises on the preservation and protection of Aboriginal sites and remains.

“Every job I’ve had has been involved with living on country and caring for country,” he says. “I think that’s probably where I’m at, I still care for country.”

Ken’s sense of humour and ability to mimic virtually any bird has made him hugely popular with school children, who he encourages to whip off their shoes, dig their bare feet into wet sand or grass and “ground themselves with Mother Earth”.

On a single day earlier this year, he conducted a tour with 880 Adelaide schoolchildren.

Ken Jones holds six different types of native plant all of which are found in the Port MacDonnell area along the Limestone Coast.

“Our wealth is in our children,” he says. “I reckon one of the greatest assets I have is to be knocking around with younger people and enlightening them.”

Surviving an extended and serious bout of pneumonia this year has made Ken think about ensuring his family’s stories and cultural history are passed on. And to that end, a special educational resources trailer will be delivered to Ken prior to the end of this year, thanks to a recent State Government grant of more than $15,000, aimed at deepening people’s connection with the region’s national parks.

With four children of his own, Ken hopes his younger boys, Flint, 12, and Lincoln, 11, will sit at the helm of Bush Adventures one day, telling the stories passed down from their aunties and uncles and grandparents.

“Our people have the ability to remember and record and repeat stories. If you repeat a story often enough, it’s embedded into our children,” he says.

However, he grins, a dash of colour or flavour is essential to keep it interesting. As his many tour guests discover, “boring one-pagers” aren’t Ken’s style.

When a guest spots a koala perched up a tree, Ken tells them the Boandik name for them is “bum in a fork”. Later, he breaks off a handful of a thick reedy bush and explains how Boandik people used to rub it between their hands to create a lanolin-type hand cream. He rattles off a lengthy scientific name, then adds, “forget it, it’s tea tree”. Later still, he explains to a guest, “bush tukka” can frequently use a bit of seasoning, whether it’s local or international. “I’ve eaten piranha,” he reveals, “needs salt.”


This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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