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Getting in touch with Australia’s First People

by Catherine Marshall

The most memorable of Australian journeys are those that put the traveller in touch with the country’s First People.


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.”

Tiwi Design artists Mario Munkara and his wife Therese Munkara

Rock art of West Arnhem Land.

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 underpinning this land.

Though pickings were slim in the past, Australians and foreign visitors alike are now spoiled for choice with Indigenous tours. Welcome to Country is a repository for a broad range of nationwide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tours that take guests to the very heart of Indigenous culture. Non-Indigenous-owned companies like Intrepid have partnered with Aboriginal communities so that visitors can enter their sacred spaces and experience an educational immersion in Aboriginal culture. Intrepid and World Expeditions are now incorporating traditional Indigenous food – bush tucker – into some of their itineraries.

And nor do you have to go Outback to experience Australia’s most enduring culture: Australian cities are increasingly revealing their Aboriginal heritage with tours such as Dreamtime Southern X‘s exploration of The Rocks in Sydney; Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden and Melbourne Gardens‘ native garden tours; and Perth’s Go Cultural immersion which tells the story of the Noongar people in that region. In the regional NSW city of Bathurst visitors can sample bush tucker on a tour with Indigenous Cultural Adventures and Country Food Trails.

The opportunities to get to the ancient heart of Australia are endless. If you haven’t arrived there yet, it’s okay; this culture is older than the hills, and it will be waiting for you when you’re ready. TTW

 For more information on Aboriginal tourism visit Tourism Australia and Visit NSW.  Photos © Catherine Marshall.

See also

The secrets of the trees, seen through Raymond Timbery’s eyes
Preserving the world’s oldest living culture
Good vibes with didjeridus, the voice of Aboriginal Australia
Feeling Australia’s ancient heartbeat
Bush tucker hits the high streets of Orange NSW

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