The most memorable of Australian journeys are those that put the traveller in touch with the country’s first people. As the country celebrates NAIDOC week 2017, Catherine Marshall recalls some of her favourite encounters.
On the banks of the East Alligator River, which separates Kakadu in the Northern Territory and West Arnhem Land, I watched a man launch a spear as his ancestors had done for tens of thousands of years before him. The misnamed river – it’s full of crocodiles, of course, not alligators, but the American who named it couldn’t tell the difference – churned southwards through a landscape replete with the bush tucker that has kept the first people nourished for millennia.
In a printing studio on the Tiwi Islands I learned how to transfer an Aboriginal pattern carved from a wood block onto cloth. But first, it was necessary that I be cleansed in a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony. Some of the creatures inhabiting the turquoise waters here were evoked as the smoke curled from the ironwood leaves: saltwater crocodiles, venomous box and irukandji jellyfish, sharks. I had bathed in the smoulder, and my evil spirit companions had been chased away. “Now you have a good spirit,” Tiwi man Kev Baxter had told me. “It will guide you and help you to have an open mind.”
On a beach in East Arnhem Land I was taught by an elder to weave a dilly bag. We’d gone into the bush and torn down pandanus leaves; back at the homestead, we’d stripped them and dyed them and left them to dry. Clumsily, I’d knitted together the fibres to grow my dilly bag, and the elder had helped me to finish it off. Today it sits on my desk, filled with pens, and each time I look at it I’m reminded of the rich cultures that underpin this land.
Though pickings were slim in the past, Australians and foreign visitors alike are now spoiled for choice with Indigenous tours. Australian companies like Intrepid have partnered with Aboriginal communities so that visitors can enter their sacred space and experience an educational immersion in Aboriginal culture. Intrepid and World Expeditions are now incorporating traditional Indigenous food – bush tucker – into some of their local itineraries. But most importantly, many Aboriginal-owned companies are launching their own tours, and taking guests to the very heart of what it is to be an Indigenous person.
And nor do you have to go Outback to experience Aboriginal culture: you can search for plants used by Aboriginal people during a guided tour in the Royal Botanic Garden in the very heart of Sydney, or find out about the rich coastal history of Australia’s Indigenous people while paddle boarding in Coffs Harbour.
If you haven’t yet explored Australia’s Indigenous history, that’s okay. It’s older than the hills, and will be waiting for you when you’re ready. TTW
NAIDOC, an annual event celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, runs from July 2-9, 2017. For more information on Aboriginal tourism visit Tourism Australia and Visit NSW. Photos © Catherine Marshall. Featured in the main image are Tiwi Design artists Mario Munkara and his wife Therese Munkara.