Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Robyn Coffey was asked to speak about Bellevue Hill Lookout/Billy Goat Hill primarily, which is location number three on the app.


This audio interview with Robyn Coffey was recorded on 18 September 2018 in Cowra by Nikkei Australia’s Mayu Kanamori and Masako Fukui. This interview was recorded for the Cowra Voices geolocative storytelling app, created in 2019, and launched to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. For more information, please refer to the Overview in this archive.

Robyn Coffey  00:30

My name is Robyn Coffey, and I’m a local Wiradjuri Elder from Cowra. I work at Cowra High School as the Community Liaison Officer.

Robyn Coffey  00:40

So, I welcome you all to the Traditional Land of the Wiradjuri people. I pay my respects to our Elders, both past and present, for laying a strong foundation for our people’s future. And I also extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Robyn Coffey  01:03

The Wiradjuri people from Cowra have been here for a long, long time. My grandparents and my great grandparents are Wiradjuri descendents from Cowra that lived on Erambie Mission. My great grandmother lived on Erambie Mission in the 1930s to 40s. I grew up here in Cowra. I’m well known in Cowra and I know a lot of the family members, which is – really helps me at school here when you know all the families in my role.

Mayu Kanamori  01:44

Thank you. We understand from everything we read that Cowra means rock in Wiradjuri and there’s a lot of rocks in many of the areas that we are covering, including near the Cemetery and Sakura Avenue, Bellevue Hill, Billy Goat Hill. Can you tell us a little bit about – can you tell me that it – tell me what in Wiradjuri Cowra means, and then tell me a little bit about that.

Robyn Coffey  02:18

In Wiradjuri, Cowra means rock. And a lot of the landscape is a lot of rock. In particularly, (sic) Bellevue Hill or Billy Goat Hill. At the lookout, it’s very steep. The reason it is called Billy Goat Hill is because it was home to roaming goats for many years. And there are rocks everywhere because there’s a lot of traditional areas, where a lot of our ancestors lived, camped and lived right around Billy Goat Hill and further down towards the POW section.

Mayu Kanamori  03:02

Were those rocks – what sort of meaning do those rocks have to the Wiradjuri people?

Robyn Coffey  03:12

The rocks are very significant in a lot of areas. Particularly in camp–camping areas. A story that I was told by my Aunties was that in some of the rocked areas, there were birthing areas, where a lot of our people gave birth to their babies. And there’s also camp areas that have had lots of rock areas. And there was also a lookout area that had lots of rocks where the men would look out over the plains to see if there were tribes coming, they could see from a distance with the dust that was kicked up if there were other tribes coming for either celebration, or I guess for fighting, corroborees, that type of thing.

Masako Fukui  04:10

So sorry, so were the rocks supposed to be like a protective thing?

Robyn Coffey  04:19

I guess they were used for like shelter, you know, from elements of the weather, or maybe –  I’m not really sure to be honest with you. I can only just sort of imagine that that would have been the reason for them. Where their camp areas had lots of rocks, I imagine it was for weather elements. But also, I guess for, like I said, the birthing areas, and also where they did the men’s business, where they did a lot of men’s business, which we’re not privy to.

Masako Fukui  05:00

Sorry. I’m just interested. The women and the birthing. Did you hear any other stories about birthing in the rocks when you were growing up?

Robyn Coffey  05:09

Well, I know where the areas are, obviously, because my Aunts and my older Elders have showed us as children. We used to know all the significant areas where there was scar trees and, and things like the birthing areas for the women and, and segregated spots. So there would be men’s business and women’s business.

Mayu Kanamori  05:31

You did mention the scar trees on Billy Goat Hill –

Robyn Coffey  05:33


Mayu Kanamori  05:33

So can you tells us a little bit – can you just imagine that we are actually at Billy Goat Hill now. And just –  you don’t have to say exactly where or whatever –  but just tell us what we could find in that area.

Robyn Coffey  05:52

Yeah. Well at Billy Goat Hill and a lot of the area around it, had scar trees –  that are still there. Unfortunately, there are some that have been destroyed, which was very sad. Because they have a very important part of Aboriginal culture and heritage. And very significant to the people. But scar trees are –  there are a lot of scar trees in evidence here in Cowra.

Robyn Coffey  06:27

So scar trees were, the name came because they were trees that Aboriginal people would cut out. If they were near the water, they would cut out of the bark and use that for things, for instance, like canoes. There’s also wood cut out for things called Coolamons. Now a Coolamon is a sort of a – something that was used to carry food, that women would gather food and place it in a Coolamon. There’re also Coolamons that they used to carry their babies in, a larger, like a vessel. And shields, shields, the men would also cut out shields to use for –  if you know, if they were hunting or for I guess, for fighting other tribes. There are a lot of scar trees on Billy Goat Hill and that surrounding area.

Masako Fukui  07:36

Could you describe a scar tree, is that possible? What do they look like?

Robyn Coffey  07:41

Well, the majority of the ones that I’ve seen, the trunk of the tree has a teardrop shape, which sort of is the shape of a shield or a Coolamon.

Mayu Kanamori  07:59

You know, you call it Billy Goat Hill.

Robyn Coffey  08:01

I do.

Mayu Kanamori  08:02

Now it’s called Bellevue Hill. One, do you know why they changed the name? And also, do you know if there was an Indigenous name before it was called Billy Goat Hill?

Robyn Coffey  08:14

I’m not aware of it having another name. Having been well, born in Cowra, I was born in Cowra and I grew up here. And as a child we always –  lots of families, we would all just play up on Billy Goat Hill. So for me, it’s always been called Billy Goat Hill, and I’ve never heard or I don’t know of any other name.

Mayu Kanamori  08:37

Do you know why they changed it to Bellevue Hill?

Robyn Coffey  08:39

No idea. I have no idea why they would do that. And I would really like it to go back to Billy Goat Hill because it is way more significant. And a lot of the town’s people would know that as Billy Goat Hill rather than Bellevue.

Robyn Coffey  08:55

I’ve always known the area here as Billy Goat Hill, and not Bellevue Hill. And it would be, I think, great if it was gone back to – if the name went back to Billy Goat Hill. A lot of people that have lived here, and particularly the elder people, older people would relate to it as being Billy Goat Hill.

Robyn Coffey  09:21

Bellevue Hill was called Billy Goat Hill when I was a child.

Mayu Kanamori  09:26

So can you tell me about the goats? Were they –

Robyn Coffey  09:29

Just wild goats, used to be lots of wild goats were at Billy Goat Hill when we were children. They’d just roam around because it’s a very steep incline.

Mayu Kanamori  09:40

Can you describe to us – remember yourself as a child, and what you did there? You know, you said you went there with lots of families but what kind of play did you do? What do you remember? Did you picnic there with Aunties – you know just can you just describe –

Masako Fukui  09:57

Just hold on a sec. Those kids – okay, they’ve moved away.

Robyn Coffey  10:04

As a child, we had, there was another family that lived in a house up on Billy Goat Hill. And we used to go up and play with that – with those other families. And we’d all just run around on the hill and play hide and seek. And because it was great, there was a big view over Cowra, we’d have little picnics, on the rocks up there, we’d take sandwiches up and sit down and have a picnic. It was just a beautiful place, a peaceful place. And we – I spent most of my childhood, either at the river or at Billy Goat Hill.

(children talking in corridors)

Robyn Coffey 10:49

So there was a family that used to live up on Billy Goat Hill, they had an old house up there. So myself and my siblings used to go up all the time. And we play with them. We spent a lot of time up on Billy Goat Hill. So we’d all play silly games like running around and hiding from each other. We’d just climb around them – the Hill we’d have a little picnics up on Billy Goat Hill, take our sandwiches up there and sit down have a little picnics. It was such a great vantage point because she could see all over Cowa. So it was, I spent most of my childhood I think, either at –  down at the river, down at the low level, or at Billy Goat Hill. Some of my fondest memories.

Robyn Coffey  11:46

You can identify a scar tree easily. You will see that the shape of it. A lot of the scar trees were used for cutting out of the bark, they cut the bark to make things like shields, the men for hunting. They were also the shape of the teardrop, which would have been used for cutting out Coolamons. And Coolamons were used as a carrying vessel for either food, when the women were gathering food or it could be the larger ones were also used for carrying their babies. At the river, you would –  on the trees at the rivers you would see a bigger teardrop, because that would have been cut out for the canoes for them to fish with on the river.

Mayu Kanamori  12:42

When you sit up on Billy Goat Hill, you see everything.

Robyn Coffey  12:49


Mayu Kanamori  12:50

So I’m just imagining a tourist there. And they’re seeing everything. Would you like to guide them through what they might see?

Robyn Coffey  13:01

When you’re on Billy Goat Hill, it’s very expansive view, you can see all of the towns – township, you can see right out over the plains, and you can see all the different farming landscape. It’s a beautiful place to sit and just relax, a wonderful place to relax and just – I believe it’s the best vantage point in Cowra to have a good look at the town and in the surroundings of the town. And you can see for a long way.

Mayu Kanamori  13:46

Perhaps, could you –  so the tourist is sitting there, and they’re relaxing and they see a long way, they see a lot of things. From the point of view of the Indigenous way of knowing, what does it mean? I’m thinking specifically because I read an article about you and the Dadirri Place that you built up the school?

Robyn Coffey  14:14

Dadirri? Yeah.

Mayu Kanamori  14:15

Dadirri, and how it promotes deep listening.

Robyn Coffey  14:18


Mayu Kanamori  14:19

And I’m wondering if Bellevue Hill is one of those places where deep listening could be done? Maybe, can it be a Dadirri Place? Is it is it somehow sacred in that sort of way, for tourists to sit there, I wasn’t quite sure but –

Robyn Coffey  14:35

I don’t think it’s a place of deep listening. I think it’s a place more of, of just – enjoy, like really enjoying the view in front of you and reflecting on it. And just – I think just absorbing the landscape. Dadirri is different. Deep listening is a more – like we have an area here at the school called Dadirri. And the reason it is here and within the school is because when our students or our teachers or anybody within the school, visitors, need some time out, it’s a place to go and just sit down and calm your spirits. And just reflect. And then because there are really good spirits in Dadirri, because we had a smoking ceremony there. So only good spirits reside there. And you always feel really good when you go in there, sit down, and come back out. Our students have found it really beneficial, in particular when they’re doing exams, because it really does calm you, by going into areas like that. It’s very traditional, deep listening areas. For thousands of years, lots of Aboriginal people would go to places like caves or even billabongs and sit and reflect and – it would be a way of just feeling the calm, and being able to, you know, feel better.

Mayu Kanamori  16:21

Is there a Dadirri Place other than in the school in Cowra?

Robyn Coffey  16:28

I believe down on the river. I think a lot of Dadirri Places are places that, like on the river, I always find it very therapeutic down on the river.

Mayu Kanamori  16:45

So can you tell us about the river. We had not thought of the river as necessarily a place on this app. But I’m feeling that I need to be more – we need to be open in a sense that perhaps because we were thinking peace, reconciliation, maybe this is about peace and reconciliation and the river is. So can you tell us?

Robyn Coffey  17:17

The river particularly where the low level bridge is, it’s very significant to Aboriginal people and a lot of other people here in Cowra. It’s been a place where a lot of a lot of families have gathered and just sat around and chatted and the children swam. And a lot of visitors that come to Cowra as well tend to go down to the river because the pylons down at the river have a lot of Indigenous paintings on them by Aboriginal people and students and community people that have come. And they go down to the river to have a look at these pylons and have a look at the work that happened down there.

Robyn Coffey  18:08

It’s always been a gathering place at the river. You will –  or anytime you drive over to Lachlan, the low level bridge, particularly in summer, you will see lots of kids all playing in the river and up on the banks, and families as well.

(children talking in corridors)

Robyn Coffey  18:33

They’re changing classes.

Robyn Coffey  18:39

It was in my childhood that I mainly was at Billy Goat Hill. I still go up there now because it’s a lovely area to visit. It’s beautiful barbecue area, you see lots of people up there particularly in the nice weather. And I know that it’s frequented a lot by visitors. You’ll always see lots of caravans and people that are visiting Cowra go and barbecue or picnic up there, and have a good –  are up at the lookout as well. It’s just a great, it’s a great area. It’s a great part of Cowra.

Robyn Coffey  19:17

I just love – I love the river. And I particularly love the low level. Fondest memories, because I come from a very large family and extended family that we would be down at the river all the time in summer. Just spend days, you know, over the school holidays, just all swimming and you know, jumping around in the river and we’d jump off the low level bridge. And yeah, there’s so much fun. We had the best time. It was just a meeting place pretty much. Just everybody. Lots of people.

Masako Fukui  19:58

Are there any sort of histories associated with the river?

Robyn Coffey  20:02

There is. When my grandfather and my grandma, grandmother told me that when my mum was young, and her older sister – wait a minute, I’ll start again, because this is a story that’s really interesting. Hang on. Gotta think I’ll start from the beginning. My great grandparents used to live up at Erambie Mission. And my grandfather, when he married my nan, because a white manager had come into Erambie, he would not stay there. He decided that he would take his family and not be under the, you know, the direction of the white manager at the Mission. So my grandfather and other families moved down to the river and they built humpies on the river. And my mum was only a child, and her older sister so, these families lived in the humpies down on the river. So my nan cooked and they washed in the river, and wash their clothes in the river and everything. And my grandma, my Nan would always talk about how great it was living down in these humpies on the river. So yep, came from very humble beginnings. And very proud of the fact that my grandfather had done that. And they stayed there until my grandfather was a really a seasonal worker, and eventually they got a house in Cowra. But he would not go back up onto the Mission. He was a very proud Aboriginal man.

Masako Fukui  21:51

It is a good story.

Mayu Kanamori   21:52

That’s fantastic. Thank you for sharing that.

Robyn Coffey  21:54

It’s in a book, it’s actually – shows the humpies and everything. I think it’s called Down with me on the Lachlan River*, or something similar. Peter Read, I think, was the author. And it shows the humpies. There’s quite a few families that actually had done that, that refused to stay up on Erambie Mission and be told by somebody, so they just left.

Masako Fukui  22:20

Do you remember any stories your Mum or your Auntie told about their time, when they were little and living in the humpies?

Robyn Coffey  22:30

No. I know that they were –  you know, a lot of – my grandfather would used to fish a lot in the river. And the kid – Mum and my Aunt used to throw hand lines in. Their childhoods were very simple, but everybody was close knit. A lot of the families, just they were extended families.

Robyn Coffey  23:08

I don’t know if this is significant or not, but my grandfather used to – there’s an area on the river called Second Sands. It’s like a water hole section. And my grandfather used to say, don’t go to Second – you know, don’t go to Second Sands without an adult because there’s a bunyip lives there. And if you go there without an adult, or without somebody older, and you swim there, the bunyip will get you and you won’t be coming back home. And we all believed that the bunyip was a real thing that would happen to you if you went there. But I found out later on that it was just a safety thing. He didn’t want us to go without an older sibling or an older friend, you know, in case of drowning or – So yeah, the bunyip story was something that we truly believed as children. The bunyip would get you if you went to the, swimming in the waterhole without an adult or somebody older. And we didn’t go, we certainly didn’t go because we were too afraid.

Mayu Kanamori  24:23

Do you know if there are any stories, Indigenous stories surrounding the POWs, Japanese Gardens area and the Bellevue Hill and the cemetery area?

Robyn Coffey  24:37

I don’t. Probably the only thing I know about the POW Camp is when the Breakout happened, my grandfather was actually working on – it was called County Council then, but it was like Energy Australia now. And he got called out to go up there because all the power had gone out. He was a linesman for the County Council. He always talked about how he got called up there, and he had to go up there when it was actually, you know, happening, and tried to restore some power. He said it was horrible, horrible experience, having to go up there, but he didn’t really have a choice. He was scared, it was, you know, just violent. And he just said, you know, there was a lot of bodies, and yeah, he just said it was an awful time. And, but he just said that was his job, and he had to go.

Mayu Kanamori  25:42

That leads us to the reconciliation thereon after between Japan and Australia. Whether it’s through your Indigenous community, or through the school, you’ve probably had experiences with Japanese students, for example, the Seikei people come here. Do they – can you tell us your experiences with the postwar Japanese people that come to town? Or do you know any Indigenous people who have gone there as an exchange student?

Robyn Coffey  23:24

I’m not aware of any Indigenous students that have done the exchange with our Seikei students. I know that when a groups of students came over from Japan, that we did a smoking ceremony out the front of our school at Cowra High School, to welcome them. And they found that totally amazing, that if they walked through the smoke, that it would, you know, be in good spirits. They were very, I think, blown away by it really. But that was a lovely experience when they all came to have a smoking ceremony done by traditional Aboriginal man out the front of the school, the school grounds.

Mayu Kanamori  27:17

Who does the smoking ceremonies?

Robyn Coffey  27:22

The smoking ceremony is always done by men and it’s usually older men or can be Elders or it can be – not well, it is done by Aboriginal men, yeah.

Masako Fukui  27:41

Is there anything else about Billy Goat Hill, anything that you wanted to talk about? Anything you want to tell someone like me, who’s a visitor to Cowra?

Robyn Coffey  27:49

I just think if you come to Cowra, you have to go to Billy Goat Hill. It’s the best view I believe of Cowra. It gives you an overall picture of Cowra. And it’s something I think that stays in your memory. Because it is –  it’s childhood memories. It’s a wonderful place and to me it’s home.

Masako Fukui  28:19

You know, is there anything that you might want to say to like a visitor, someone who doesn’t know Cowra at all?

Robyn Coffey  28:28

I think if you visit Cowra there’s so many – I think Cowra for a country town has just got so many different elements to it. A lot of heritage significance. A lot of true country appeal. There’s a lot of attraction in Cowra for different reasons.

Robyn Coffey  28:59

A lot of people visit the Japanese Gardens at Cowra because it’s so beautiful. The Gardens and just everything about it is lovely. It’s just so peaceful. Because of the POW Camp and what happened here and how significant it was, the Japanese Garden is – it’s sort of like I guess, a bit symbolic. Because a lot of people will come to see the cemetery– you know where – and you just see so many people, bus loads of people and people pulling up in caravans and going to see the Japanese Gardens. It’s truly beautiful. It really is the loveliest gardens I think, that I’ve ever seen. It’s just lovely.

Masako Fukui  29:53

What is it for you as a Cowra – you grew up here. What’s the significance –

Robyn Coffey  30:00

It’s a sense of belonging. Cowra for me, having been born here, to me it just brings a whole sense of belonging.

Masako Fukui  30:12

And how do you feel about this sort of the Japanese Gardens and the Japanese people coming, and that whole, the whole Japanese thing which as you say your grandfather found was so horrible and brutal –  how do you kind of piece all those things together?

Robyn Coffey  30:27

I think it was a very sad, sad time. And –  but for me, I think memories are wonderful for anybody. We have our significant areas. There’s plenty of room for lots of significant areas here and Cowra. Embrace every culture. And yeah, that’s all I can say really?

Masako Fukui  30:57

Thank you very much.

Mayu Kanamori  30:58

We may or may not –  do you know a guy called Jeffrey Ryan? So he told me many, many years ago he said he was Wiradjuri, I don’t think he was from Cowra, but he was from nearby and he said to me that, this thing about when the Breakout happened, some POWs escapees was looked after by Indigenous peoples and I have never been able to confirm that, do you know that story?

Robyn Coffey  31:27

Vaguely I remember that there was a story of a Japanese man I think that took shelter with an Aboriginal family. They pretty much hid him, I think. And he was with them. I don’t know a great deal about it. But I think, yeah there is some truth to that, definitely. I just can’t remember about it though.

Masako Fukui  31:59

Did you read Anita Heiss’s book?

Robyn Coffey  32:02

Cherry Blossoms and Barbed wire**? Yes, Anita. Yep. Anita actually came to our school, Anita Heiss and spoke to our students about it. And yeah, she –

Masako Fukui  32:13

That’s the story, about an Aboriginal girl who falls in love with a –

Robyn Coffey  32:16

Yes, yeah –

Masako Fukui  32:19

So there’s some truth to that?

Robyn Coffey  32:21

Yes. Yes there is.

Mayu Kanamori  32: 23

Well can you then start – because you’re responding to my question. Can you just tell us – you can start off with, there’s a story, whether it’s true or not, you can just say that if you want, like, well, you can say this.

Robyn Coffey  32:38

I haven’t read that book though.

Mayu Kanamori  32:40

But can you tell us about this Japanese POW who was supposed to have been hidden by an Aboriginal?

Robyn Coffey  32:48

Yeah, there is a story of a POW prisoner that escaped and found refuge, I think with a Indigenous family – yeah, I don’t really know the details to be honest. So I just don’t want to make it up.

Mayu Kanamori  33:11

I understand – it seems to be an urban myth. No one seems to be able to confirm it. But that story keeps coming up.

Robyn Coffey  33:22

Yeah, it more than likely what’s true. Because for things like that to be said, there has to be some truth in it.

Masako Fukui  33:29

But Anita, do you remember when she came to school, did she sort of say that she –  because she heard the rumour that says she constructed the story, do you know if she –

Robyn Coffey  33:38

Well, I guess Anita must have got the information from somebody here in Cowra. She doesn’t usually just, you know, fabricate stuff. It’s usually from truth.  (school bell)

Maybe in that book it says where she got her research from, I’m not sure, where her material came from.

Mayu Kanamori  34:05


*Down There with Me on the Cowra Mission: An Oral History of Erambie Aboriginal Reserve, Cowra, New South Wales, edited by Peter Read, Pergamon Press, 1984.


** Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss, Simon and Schuster, 2016.


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