The transformative effect of a VOPO Campfire

There is a special kind of community which grows around a campfire.  In Indigenous culture the campfire plays an important part in the grieving process.  The family of one who has died builds a fire, and other mourners gather here to remember and grieve together.  The fire is kept burning as mourners gather and depart, gather and depart, all caring for the fire, until such time as the mourners stop coming, and it is time to extinguish the fire and move on from the time of grief.  The campfire represents a focal point for a group, requiring constant gathering of fuel, stoking, poking and feeding. It also warms (obviously!) and serves a purpose for cooking, and heating of water. Having a fire in the middle allows for a circle to grow around it, and the fire fills the space in the middle which otherwise could become a yawning and intimidating emptiness.  

Thought provoking, deep connections and valuable networking: Campfire Illaroo provided all of this and more.  Charlotte, from VOPO presented an exceptionally curated event with an almost hand-picked crew of individuals, threw it all into her cauldron and sat back to watch as her creation bubbled away and a certain kind of magic ensued.  The venue for the event – Illaroo group campground, in the Yuraygir National Park (or, more correctly, Yaegl country) provided the perfect backdrop for a weekend of spiritual and intellectual connection, inspiring conversation and deep relaxation. Activities were designed to complement the experience of simply being on this remarkable and ecological important country, and the group itself curated to facilitate the Brainmelt™ for which VOPO has become known.  Campfire conversation flowed, inspired by those in the group, and those we encountered over the weekend.  Barriers were broken down and common interests uncovered. Sharing of experience, open dreaming and collaboration was the order of the day and we all came away richer for the experience.  Nature provides us a ready opportunity for self-reflection, and it is in knowing and understanding ourselves that we become capable of knowing and understanding others. Gathering together under the melaleucas on the shoreline, opening to the classroom of Mother Earth, we are as children.  And as children we come together to play in this playground, sharing food and stories and making plans for the days, weeks and years to come.

The recent Statement from the Heart, a beautifully crafted missive from the heads of Indigenous mobs Australia wide meeting in the Central Desert – the geographic heart of this land – ended with an invitation to walk in a movement of all Australian peoples, towards a better future.  This heartfelt sentiment was shared by the Indigenous elders who sat by the campfire with us, gifting their knowledge and understanding of this place, lifting us up to walk alongside them as we do this urgent work of healing the country, healing ourselves.

"We all need to look after this country, all of us together, and this country will look after us" 
- Aunty Carmel

The Yaegl mob, in their strength, quiet wisdom and determination provide an example to us all of standing for what is right, never backing down, and protecting the earth that sustains us.  If we can all follow their example and care for our own patch, our own mob, then who knows what we can achieve?



Dr Mark Graham is an ecologist working in the fields of research and education, and living in the Bellingen area.  He has a wealth of knowledge relating to the flora and fauna that call Yaegl country home, and a relaxed and egalitarian approach to sharing this information.  Mark took us on a guided bush walk from the campground, pointing out the different plants, animals and topographical features evident along the way – ably assisted by his young son, a bush baby if ever I saw one!  The pair spent most of the day with us, chatting around the campfire and engaging with Aunty Carmel and friends when they arrived. Mark identified Yaegl country as the single most important bio system and wildlife corridor along the entire east coast, and spoke to the damage inflicted by the Pacific Highway upgrade and the woeful attempts to preserve habitat within the upgrade area.  He has personal and professional experience with hands on landscape restoration and a deep understanding of traditional Indigenous management techniques. He spoke informatively about the traditional use of fire, and explained the need for fire for germination of many native species. Mark was perfectly suited to lead this activity, and participate in the Campfire Session, his values aligning well with VOPO’s mission to empower a thriving planet through meaningful experiences.



Aunty Carmel Charlton is a senior Yaegl elder and Native Title holder for this stretch of coastline.  She is an experienced educator, running a successful ongoing program through Maclean High School, and also involved in connecting young people from the Redfern area of Sydney with their culture and ancestral ways of being.  She is warm and engaging and showed a willingness to collaborate – ‘We need to look after this country, all together, and this country will look after us’ she told me. Aunty Carmel introduced participants to a completely new and complementary way of seeing and experiencing country, one grounded in Indigenous culture and generations of living on this land.  While broader society begins to appreciate the benefits of a seasonal diet, and farmers’ markets and local produce enjoy a renaissance, Indigenous cultures have appreciated these ways of being for thousands of years. Many will recognise the distinctive colour and fragrance of the wattle tree – beautiful delicate flowers of a radiant yellow. The Yaegl people see the flowering wattle as a sign of plentiful swamp turtles ready to be harvested.  The yellow blossom is reminiscent of the yellow fat of the swamp turtle, which reaches maturity at the time of the wattle flowering. The turtle represents a complete meal, the shell providing a plate for consumption, and the fat a valuable nutrient in the Indigenous diet. The flannel flower which proliferates along this stretch of coastline also sends a message. When the blossoms open, the colour of the petals indicate the perfect time for harvesting shellfish of all types, the flesh of which share the same colour as the flannel flower petals.  The flowering coincides with the perfect time for harvesting shellfish – pippies, crabs and oysters. The campfire conversation with Aunty Carmel afforded a fascinating insight into this symbiotic way of inhabiting country. Her openness and engaging manner was so refreshing, and an invitation to step up alongside her peace-loving and wise mob and together commit to caring for this land which sustains us all.



Frances Belle Parker is a renowned Yaegl artist with an impressive list of awards after her name.  Hailing from Maclean, in the heart of Yaegl country, Frances was the youngest, and the first ever Indigenous artist, to win the Blake Prize for religious art in 2000, for her beautiful fusion piece entitled ‘The Journey’.  Frances was 18 years old and just out of high school when she was awarded this prestigious prize, and has since gone from strength to strength. She is inspired by the land of her ancestors, and particularly by Ulgundahi Island, the ancestral land of her mother.  This island was established as an Aboriginal mission in 1904 (and closing in 1961) and was never considered a place of significance before this time. With three generations of Indigenous inhabitants living, working and growing here however, this small island in the mighty Clarence River now holds a special place in the hearts and souls of the Yaegl people.  Frances never lived there, but the symbolic shape of the island appears and reappears in most of her work, sometimes taking centre stage, and at others hiding in the intricate layers she builds in all of her pieces. She is fascinated by this place, recounting her many visits there with her mother and family – ‘My mum and my aunties have such special memories of this place where they grew up.  It is so beautiful to see them there. Their faces light up and they sit around and giggle like little girls again.’ Frances warmly welcomed the Campfire Sessions participants to her country and provided us each with a canvas and hessian dilly bag, inviting a space of stillness and contemplation of what or where feels sacred to us. With the smells and sounds of the ocean surrounding us, and the breeze in our hair, the group sprawled on the grass in the dappled sun and sank into the process of painting.  With Frances’ gentle guidance, each participant was facilitated in exploring his or her own connection to country and the stories we tell about our lives. This was an awesome opportunity and invitation to drop into a different way of seeing, a different way of being, in a space of peaceful contemplation and completely free of judgement.



Uncle Ron Heron and Bob Fuller both brought engaging storytelling to the Campfire Sessions at Illaroo.  Uncle Ron is a respected and much-loved elder of the Yaegl mob, and Native Title holder for the stretch of coastline which contains Illaroo.  He is also an archeologist and anthropologist and has worked closely with researchers and academics looking to better understanding Indigenous history and lifestyle. Along with Aunty Carmel he has developed and continues to deliver educational programs to both locals from the Maclean High School, and also city dwelling young folk who may not have free and easy access to their cultural lands and teachings.  He is such a warm and engaging fellow, eager to share his knowledge, but also to impart a different way of seeing the country of his ancestors. Bob Fuller is an archeologist, anthropologist and astronomer with a particular interest in Indigenous astronomy. While the clouds scuttled his plans to conduct an astronomy session with us, they didn’t stop the stories, and we all gathered around the campfire as he talked us through the unique aspect of moral teachings available through the night sky.  While we may be accustomed to viewing constellations and naming them based on the implied connections between the visible stars, Indigenous communities see and name what is not there. It’s a kind of negative seeing which perfectly encapsulates broader cultural understandings of country and community. Next time you view the Southern Cross, see if you can instead see the emu in the sky. The emu, in Indigenous lore, is a creator spirit looking over the land. Various other constellations act as metaphor for storytelling, and many moral and ethical dilemmas, as well as cautionary tales, can be seen in the heavens on a clear night.  The same can be said for the various landforms in this, and other areas. The Clarence River forms the basis for many stories, with the multitude of small islands, the twists and bends and its entrance to the sea, forming the basis of a powerful dreaming. This tale, of an old woman named Dirrangun, became the backbone of the successful Native Title claim over this area. The impetus was a proposed development at Yamba that threatened the spiritual resting place of this creator spirit. The development never happened, and 19 years later the proud and powerful Yaegl mob finally took back possession of these Crown lands, creating another chapter in the ongoing Indigenous story of this country they are generous enough to share with us.

Rebecca Ryall
Northern NSW Correspondent

Rebecca is a full-time student, mum and writer, living in the Northern Rivers area of NSW. She bush walks at every opportunity and enjoys planning epic adventures for herself and her kids. Community and environmental engagement is a passion she explores through her writing and cultural studies at Southern Cross University, Lismore.

Editor-at-large: Charlotte Rose Mellis
Photojournalist: Wayne Griffin


Solomon Islands
9 Day Exploratory Journey
4 July - 13 Jul 2018