No matter whether this is your first or twentieth visit, you'll soon discover that Australia is a nation with a long and turbulent history. Today non-Aboriginal Australians are also beginning to realise there is much they do not understand about the many Aboriginal cultures that the colonial era almost destroyed. As a traveller to Australia, do not leave without having your worldview challenged and your knowledge of this ancient and spiritual country transformed through an Aboriginal cultural tour.
Sunset and spinifex grasses at Uluru NP
But before you begin, your first lesson will be: how to be both sensitive and courteous here – a lesson that will put you on the path to being a more ethical traveller, everywhere. There are many other ways you can be a responsible traveller in Aboriginal Australia, by demonstrating your respect, by learning as much as you are permitted to learn, and by being patient – your constructs of time and urgency are not always shared by others. In other words: it's not all about you.
In the rush of excitement to see some of Australia’s iconic sights travellers have at times ignored the sanctity of these places for their traditional custodians. This has certainly been the case in Australia’s Red Centre where for decades travellers have visited with a mission 'to conquer the rock’. This is despite the locals requesting people not to climb Uluru (Ayers Rock) and to stay on the designated walking paths available to people at Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). After many years of debate – and due to dwindling numbers of climbers as more people open their hearts to the significance of this politely made request from the Anangu community – the debate on whether to climb or not will soon be put to rest.
Serenaded at sunset Uluru
Go on tour
In Central Australia the number of tour operators that focus on Aboriginal culture, or work with Aboriginal communities is improving all the time as more outfits get ‘international traveller’ ready. We recommend many in our guidebooks as does Professor Marcia Langton in her excellent 2018 book ‘Welcome to Country: A Travel guide to Indigenous Australia’ a highly recommended read, but there are new operators starting up all the time so do some local research and hunt out small, ethical operators, not all will have websites or email addresses to pre-book so ask around.
Doing a tour provides a good opportunity to support Aboriginal owned-and-run initiatives, with profits going back to local communities and many cater to specific interests. For example, RT Tours Australia in Alice Springs offers Aboriginal-led experiences with a focus on bush foods; Jungala Entreprises does cultural walks and bike rides with an Aboriginal guide; and Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours organises visits to Rainbow Valley south of Alice with a traditional custodian.
At Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park many of tours are either led by Aboriginal people or consult with the traditional owners, which will enrich your experience of this amazing landscape and deepen your appreciation of Uluru. Even if you don’t have the funds to get out on one of the longer tours available, you should give yourself at least half a day to learn as much as you can here before exploring the park at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre and join one of the free ranger-guided walking tours like the Mala Walk.
If you don’t have the time to get out on a guided tour, the design of the unforgettable and instructive Alice Springs Desert Park, located on traditional land just outside of town, was inspired by the Arrernte worldview that unites desert plants, animals, people and land. A visit here will teach you something you will not have considered before.
Respect for privacy
Understanding and respecting privacy is a basic ethical travel requirement. Aboriginal land is private land and permission is required to visit. Many communities in Central Australia require a permit to enter even if you’re just transiting through. This system helps ensure the privacy and protection of communities. Permits need to be organised in advance (permits are usually free and rarely refused) from the Central Land Council (clc.org.au) in Alice Springs. All permits can be applied for online.
If you visit an Aboriginal community, wait until asked before approaching homes or people. And remember that funerals and cultural ceremonies are times where privacy is particularly important (that just goes without saying, doesn’t it?). On a recent walking tour in Central Australia I asked my Aboriginal guide if I could take his photo, his very humorous and disarming response: “as long as you put a good filter on it before you post it”.
Even when visiting popular tourist sites some areas may be closed or have restricted access, please respect this, and always ask if you are unsure. When you’re outdoors, just imagine you’re in a place of worship like a church, and there is a sign on a door that says: Private, do not enter. Ypu wouldn’t stick your nose around that door, and you shouldn’t on significant Aboriginal sites either. Stick to the designated tracks and follow the advice of local guides.
interpretative sign Uluru National Park
Caring about the environment
Indigenous people have a unique relationship with the land and water of their country which entails the care and protection of the environment. There are many ways you can respect this spiritual relationship to country.
- Never remove rocks or other objects from Aboriginal lands or waters without permission of the traditional owners.
- Drive with care to avoid hitting hitting wildlife, especially at night and remember ride sharing helps minimise your impact on the environment.
- Never casually kick ant beds, or stones; break twigs from, or carve initials into, trees.
- Rock art sites are particularly fragile, sites can be sensitive to dust from cars. Don’t clamber over rocks for a photo opportunity. Your Instagram feed is not as important as these sites.
- The simple act of enquiring about whose traditional lands you are visiting, is a mark of respect in itself. A small gesture but important.
Viewing and buying artworks
Art is probably the most visible manifestation of Aboriginal Australian culture. This country has the longest continuing artistic traditions in the world and it is an economic mainstay of Aboriginal communities.
When buying Aboriginal art a bit of research will help you make informed and ethical decisions. For helpful information about purchasing Aboriginal art, check out the Indigenous Art Code, a system to preserve and promote ethical trading in indigenous art. Fair and transparent galleries and stories will have for the black-over-red Indigenous Art Code on display. Also take a moment to read the short Purchasing Australian Aboriginal Art, A Consumer Guide from ankaaa.org.au.
All art centres welcome visitors, but it is always best to call ahead for planning and out of respect for culture. Most are also represented in Alice Springs by Talapi, a central gallery that promotes the artists and artworks of Desart members.
After any time spent in Aboriginal Australia you’ll understand the oft-quoted slogan of survival and resistance here: ‘Australia has been, always will be Aboriginal land’. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn about the many Aboriginal nations of this vast and ancient land while you’re there – even in Australia’s major cities there are ample opportunities to engage with Aboriginal culture and knowledge, and learn about their histories. You will return home a better person for it.
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