As a non-Indigenous Australian with much to learn about our nation’s First People, I saw the past year (with the country's international travel ban) as an opportunity to support the travel industry while learning from its leaders.
We’re talking about people who coexisted with three-ton marsupials and lizards as big as cars. People who were baking bread 18,000 years before the Egyptians. And people who were likely to have been the world’s first astronomers. So as domestic travel restrictions began to ease in Australia, I hit the road to discover some of the secrets of the world’s oldest living culture.
Indigenous tourism rebooted
While the promotion of Indigenous tourism hasn’t always done the best job of showcasing an authentic version of Aboriginal culture, the industry has come a long way since it began to take off in the 1990s.
From discovering the Dreaming stories connected to the twinkling canopy above Uluru in the Northern Territory to bedding down at an award-winning Aboriginal-run ecolodge on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula, there are now hundreds of incredible Aboriginal-owned, run and supported tourism experiences available in every corner of the country, including more than 185 in Tourism Australia’s Discover Aboriginal Experiences collective alone.
A not-for-profit launched nationally in 2020 with a vision to enable prosperity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through tourism, booking platform Welcome to Country has made it even easier to plan memorable – and sustainable – Indigenous tourism activities.
Connecting with Country
On the New South Wales South Coast, Brinja-Yuin woman Trisha Ellis reveals why the ancient shell midden that covers Bingi Bingi Point isn’t just an indicator that this place was once the region’s most popular seafood restaurant. It’s also an early example of sustainable farming.
“When Yuin people came back to the coast after the cold season, they’d choose two or three shellfish species to eat, and leave the rest alone,” says Trisha, who offers walking tours and cultural awareness training through her business Minga Aboriginal Experiences. “When the next lot came along, they’d look at the midden to see what people had been eating, and choose a different species to eat so the others could regenerate. Instead of trying to control the environment like European farmers, we let nature do the work for us.”
On a two-hour walk on a section of the Bingi Dreaming Track – an ancient wayfaring pathway linking significant Yuin sites – Trisha reveals the myriad ways her ancestors have lived in harmony with this wild stretch of the Eurobodalla Coast, where sapphire blue seas pound deserted golden beaches, for more than 20,000 years. From the bright magenta fruiting bodies of the pigface plant that taste like a pleasantly salty kiwifruit, to the controlled burns that ensured a plentiful supply of wildlife to hunt around the calendar, there’s so much to know.
At the other end of Australia’s east coast, on the doorstep of the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland, Kuku Yalanji man Aaron Port, a guide with Walkabout Cultural Adventures, schools me in the art of using a traditional spear to catch my own mud crab – the ultimate bush tucker feast – or would have been, if the crab we found was large enough to sustainably harvest. But I soon learn that our tropical surroundings are bursting with snacks so tasty, it’s a challenge to abide by the Aboriginal custom of taking only what I need from nature.
Further north, near Cooktown, Balnggarrawarra man Vince Harrigan, a guide with Culture Connect, led me on a bushwalk to a series of beautifully persevered ancient rock art galleries few non-Indigenous people have ever clapped eyes on. Before we enter the site, Vince calls out to his ancestor spirits in language to announce our arrival – a tradition highlighting the deep connection Indigenous Australians have with their Elders that transcends the physical realm.
See Australia differently
Back home in northern New South Wales, Arakwal-Bundjalung woman Delta Kay recently launched a series of cultural and bush tucker walks. Despite being familiar with local Aboriginal culture and history, I was gobsmacked to learn during Delta’s Byron Bay walking tour that the Bundjalung word for my hometown is not Cavanbah, as it has always been known by non-Indigenous locals, but Gabanbaa, the proper pronunciation having long-been lost in translation. From Delta’s moving Welcome to Country to the evocative Dreaming stories she shares, this walking tour grounds me to this land in a way that Byron’s gamut of wellness gurus could only hope to master.
I’m currently in the midst of planning an adventure to Queensland’s northern tip to get a taste of Torres Strait Islander culture, and having just finished reading renowned Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe’s latest book, Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia, an Aboriginal-guided tour of the 40,000-year-old fish traps of Brewarrina in central-northern New South Wales is now high on my list.
At times Aboriginal guides are unable to go into more depth about particular Dreaming stories or significant sites for cultural reasons. And with English a second, third or even fourth language for some guides, particularly in remote areas, communication can sometimes be a challenge. But this is all part of the Indigenous Australian cultural experience. I’ve also been lucky to participate in some transformative non-Indigenous Australian tourism experiences in my time, but there’s something incredibly special about exploring Australia with a Traditional Custodian that every traveler should experience at least once. Now, more than ever, the takeaways are invaluable.
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