Home » Aboriginal elder slams ‘disrespectful’ festival-goers on Wave Rock

Aboriginal elder slams ‘disrespectful’ festival-goers on Wave Rock

Dressed in fluoro and bohemian-styled harem pants, a group of festival-goers drink and party on a 2.7-billion-year-old sacred Australian rock that is frozen in the shape of a wave. 

They are seemingly oblivious to the “disrespect” they are showing Australia’s Aboriginal people and the country’s history.

The Wave Rock Weekender crowd.(Facebook: Wave Rock Weekender)

The Wave Rock Weekender is an annual alternative music event that was held between September 22 and 25 in the West Australian Wheatbelt town of Hyden, about 300 kilometres east of Perth.

Featuring acts such as Spacey Jane, Stella Donnelly, and San Cisco over the years, the festival is held in the caravan park but seeps out of the official event area onto the 15-metre-high granite formation, adjacent to significant Aboriginal rock art, artefacts, and ancient caves.

Katter Kich, as the rock is known to Aboriginal Australians, is considered sacred because of the Dreaming stories associated with the area.

a wave rock

Wave Rock (Katter Kich) and surrounds is a sacred place. (ABC News: Briana Fiore )

It is said to have a similar spiritual significance to Uluru, where climbing was closed off to the public in 2019, after a hand-back to traditional owners.

But now a Ballardong elder has criticised the Hyden festival crowds for drinking, partying on, and “disrespecting” the sacred rock and has called on authorities for more protection of the area.

hand on rock paint

Aboriginal rock art near Hyden.(ABC News: Briana Fiore )

‘Chaos’ in the night

Senior Ballardong elder Farley Garlett, the chair of the Ballardong Cultural Heritage Committee that oversees the Hyden area, was in town when this year’s Wave Rock Weekender was held, and wasn’t happy with what he saw.

“I saw [festival-goers] all running around there drinking and carrying on … I was thinking to myself then that this was going to be chaos later in the night and it was,” Mr Garlett told the ABC.

While the festival’s licensed area and official concert is not held on Wave Rock (Katter Kich), the festival endorses people congregating outside of this area for the “sunset experience”, where people drink on top of the rock and watch a light show underneath it.

people under Wave Rock

The actions have upset a Ballardong elder.(Facebook: Wave Rock Weekender)

It is those actions that have upset and deeply hurt Mr Garlett. 

“You could see what was going to happen, the numbers were there,” he said.

“The security guards were standing around, they were just watching for people not parking right, fighting, probably important to white fellas but not blackfellas.”

Uncle Farley Garlett at the launch

Farley Garlett has labelled the actions of some festival attendees disrespectful.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

He said Wave Rock (Katter Kich) and the surrounding art needed to be protected.

“This belongs to not only us Aboriginal people, and it is significant, but it’s also part of the white race too, that’s their ownership too, so they need to protect this stuff and show some respect as well,” he said.

“We don’t go climbing on their churches, we show respect and we ask for them to do the same thing.”

Wave Rock patrons on top of the rock. / Wave Rock Weekender crowd parties inside the festival grounds.

Festival organisers defend event

Paul Sloan, managing director of Supersonic Australasia, which oversees the Wave Rock Weekender, told the ABC his company had been consulting with the Collard family over Indigenous cultural issues for the past 18 years.

The Collards are traditional owners in the area. 

“In addition to the Welcome to Country and smoke ceremony, the Collards stay at the festival for many hours after the festival each year to talk to patrons and share knowledge and stories,” Mr Sloan said.

Festival goers head to wave rock as the sun sets

Taking in the view at The Wave Rock Weekender. (Flint Duxfield: ABC Rural)

Mr Sloan — who in 2015 was inducted into the WA Music Hall of Fame and whose company is also the event producer for the Falls Festival in Fremantle — said the Wave Rock Weekender audience was “more respectful” than the average tourist.

“The Wave Rock audience is one the most respectful and conscious festival audiences I have worked with around the world,” he said.

But Mr Garlett said it wasn’t good enough, and a Welcome to Country didn’t equate to an endorsement of people drinking on the rock later in the evening. 

crowd dancing under rock

Wave Rock Weekender crowd at Wave Rock (Katter Kich). (Wave Rock Weekender Facebook )

Due to the age of the elders at the time, he didn’t think they’d be hanging around late into the night to witness the behaviour. 

“You know it’s just crazy, a Welcome to Country doesn’t give you the right to do all that stuff.”

The ABC has made attempts to contact the Collard family.

Mr Sloan said, given this feedback, his company would consult the Collards and make any recommended changes.

He said the festival had been consulting with other relatives because of illness in the family.

“Our festival licensed area does not include Wave Rock and we have security on exit pathways preventing alcohol from leaving the caravan park event area,” he said.

People doing aerobics

Wave Rock festival attendees participating in aerobics.(Facebook: AWOL)

Mr Sloan said general tourists and locals also drank on the rock at sunset in the same way they did at other sacred and significant sites, such as Kings Park.

“If these year-round rituals are inappropriate at this particular site and further restrictions are recommended at some point, we would of course be the first to enforce [or] comply,” he said. 

While Mr Sloan said the festival had security preventing alcohol from leaving the caravan park event area, the event’s own social media accounts show its patrons drinking outside this area.

A map showing the layout of a desert musical festival.

Some Wave Rock Weekender attendees strayed outside the boundaries.(Supplied: Wave Rock Weekender)

David Burton, chief executive officer of the Kondinin Shire, which is responsible for the management of Wave Rock (Katter Kich), said he was not aware that people were drinking on it.

He said he did not condone that behaviour.

“We will raise this issue with the organisers of the Wave Rock Weekender to ensure there is no repeat of this behaviour,” he said.

“The shire is aware of the significance of the area and we are trying to work with the local Indigenous [people] to tell the story of the history of the rock and the significance.”

Mr Burton said the area was regularly checked throughout the year to ensure the artwork was not graffitied.

For Mr Garlett, wider concerns remained including the Wave Rock Weekender’s light show.

light reflects on rock

The Wave Rock Weekender light show.(Supplied)

But Mr Sloan said images were not projected onto Wave Rock (Katter Kich) itself.

“We use textured lights and pathway lighting to illuminate the area for safe night-time use,” he said.

“Our projections around the event are onto bushland.”

Festival-goers ‘unaware’

While Mr Garlett called on festival organisers to have more cultural awareness training, festival attendees who spoke to the ABC said they were unaware that the area was sacred, and expressed regret for any offence caused.

A group of friends smile and sit on a hill at sunset.

Wave Rock Weekender attendees say they might have behaved differently if they were aware of the significance of the site.(ABC News: Elsa Silberstein)

One festival attendee, who asked to not be named out of fear of being criticised for his attendance, said festival-goers were not aware of the Indigenous significance of Wave Rock (Katter Kich). 

“I think zero per cent would know [about the significance of the area] and if they did know they would probably treat it pretty differently to how it’s being treated now, similar to Uluru,” he said.

Mr Garlett said anyone thinking of attending the festival should put in the time to get to know local landmarks and history.

“I think those young kids need to go read a bit of history. Go to the rock, read the story, go to Mulka’s Cave, read the story and they might even see it in a different light. Don’t be up there acting a fool,” he said.

Mr Garlett said meetings would be held to address how to best protect the area.

He said that could include whether to ask for Mulka’s Cave to be closed off to the public to protect the hundreds of visible hand stencils inside.

man in front of giant wave rock

Michael Ward says the rock was formed by water and erosion. (
ABC News: Briana Fiore

Located on the Gnamma Walk Trail 18 kilometres from Wave Rock (Katter Kich), the cave is tied to a significant Dreaming story.

Mr Garlett said the discussion may also include whether climbing should be permitted on Wave Rock (Katter Kich) or whether it is better observed from the ground. 

“I’m sure we’re going to have to do something like that because everything else doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.

“The number one thing I’m saying is that we don’t mind people partying and having fun.”

“But the rock is very significant to us. It is very important, not only to us, but to the white people as well. And I would think they would respect it as well.”

Hyden is a special place

Noongar man and local tour guide Michael Ward grew up in Hyden and has previously told the ABC about the site’s significance.

A bearded, older man stands in front of a rock shaped like a wave.

Mr Ward stands in front of the iconic Wave Rock formation in Western Australia.(ABC Great Southern: Briana Fiore)

Mr Ward said the Aboriginal Dreaming story behind the rock incorporated a giant waugal (snake) that left its imprint in and shaped the rock.

He said there was also a song that joined Katter Kich to Uluru, which he believed showed its significance.

“It’s very unique and it’s sacred; a lot of things are, and there are some more sacred areas around here,” Mr Ward said.

Tense time in Australia 

The calls for more respect come after a tumultuous time for Australia.

In August, the WA government, under new Labor leader Roger Cook, committed to scrap legislation relating to Aboriginal cultural heritage.

WA Premier Roger Cook speaking at a media conference with Corrective Services Minister Paul Papalia behind him.

Roger Cook had to roll back Aboriginal cultural heritage laws.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The new laws had been heavily criticised by miners and farmers, who were concerned about how the legislation would affect their ability to carry out activities on land they owned or leased if that land was a sacred site for Aboriginal people.

The new rules were labelled too confusing and unclear.

The laws were designed with the intention of protecting sites like Wave Rock (Katter Kich) and Mulka’s Cave.

Niamh Collins, from the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, told the ABC that a review concluded that Wave Rock Wildlife Park intersected with Aboriginal cultural heritage.

That included the Wave Rock Scarred Tree, Hyden Rock, Wave Rock Rockholes and Wave Rock Isolated Find, and Wave Rock.

She said any activities conducted from July 1, 2023 needed to be compliant with the 2021 Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.

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