Through Indigenous Eyes: Changing Perspectives Down Under
As Henry David Thoreau said: “It’s not what you look at that is important, it’s what you see.”
Ripples lapped the edges of the gorge as the boat made its way deeper into the heart of the ancient ravine. Cliffs of vivid ochre flanked the river, made brighter by the brilliant blue sky. A hush descended over the throng of tourists as they drank in the scene, you could almost feel the ancestors watching you, a stranger in their sacred place.
Movement on the bank drew our attention. A crocodile slithered into the water. A collective gasp escaped us as we watched the reptile glide towards us. Tension gripped the air.
I saw our guide watching with quizzical interest that gave way to a broad smile then erupted into laughter that bounced off the cliffs, surrounding us.
“He’s just a freshie!” he giggled, shaking his head. “He won’t hurt you, he’s shy that one. Gentle.”
Really? A gentle crocodile? That was my first experience of Indigenous perspective. I realized it would change my view of Australia. It was 1985 and in the intervening years of living in the Northern Territory, I’ve had the benefit of an informal Indigenous cultural education.
There is a growing interest in this ancient cultural perspective. The Queensland government has even gone so far as to proclaim 2020 the Year of Indigenous Tourism. The interest goes beyond the tourist ready corroboree dancing popular a few decades ago, to a deeper understanding of traditional culture, particularly the relationship to country, including harvesting and management techniques. The recent bush fire catastrophe has highlighted the importance of the traditional practice of burning to regenerate the bush.
This rising curiosity signals a shift in tourism trends and one that could forge greater reconciliation, even a socio-economic boom for Indigenous Australians. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the uptake of Indigenous tourism products has increased nine per cent each year since 2013. In 2018 The Australian Tourism Board launched a Discover Aboriginal Experiences campaign which has seen a flourish of Indigenous owned and operated tourism businesses enter the scene. The most popular destination for Indigenous tourism experiences is the Northern Territory.
But cultural tourism is risky. Tourists are often fed a bubble-gum version of tradition with little authenticity, while the Indigenous folk become little more than zoo exhibits and risk losing their way of life in a bid to provide a spectacle for the endless stream of voyeuristic visitors. The Karen tribe is a case in point. The hillside tribe who live just outside Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north, known for wearing multiple rings around their elongated necks, have had their lives permanently damaged by flocks of tourists hungry for culture. Villages are purpose built for tours, their nomadic patterns have vanished and with it the traditional food harvesting techniques and associated customs.
Travelers now seem to be aware of the damage this kind of tourism can cause. The mass-market cultural tourism has now given way to creative tourism. Creative tourism offers intimate bespoke experiences that often take travelers away from cities into regional or remote areas with local guides, rather than large tour operators. These experiences are immersive, educational and authentic. It is into this space that Australia’s Indigenous culture is best experienced and understood.
Australia’s Indigenous culture is hard to capture. It is not one culture, but many. It is estimated there are more than 500 Indigenous language dialects within Australia. Cultural practices are as diverse as the Australian landscape, from the crocodile infested river systems of the north, to the snowy mountain tops in the south and the vast deserts in between. However, the Northern Territory gives travelers the greatest opportunities to experience the oldest continuous culture in the world.
It was another impossibly bright day. I could feel the sun bite my skin as I followed ‘Aunty’ Kath through the bush as part of my informal education. She’s at least 60 years old but navigates with agility and purpose. She knows where she’s going. A large welt has appeared on my ankle, a sand-fly bite, the itchiest thing I’ve ever felt, but I must keep up. Abruptly she stops, rummages into the ground with dexterous speed and produces a yam from the soil. She says we’ll cook it up later. I scratch my ankle, but then she’s off again. She stops next at a tree, pulls off a small green fruit explaining it’s a Billy Goat Plum. They have the highest vitamin C content in the world. Then, at a clearing she shows me some small purple flowers, Pigface. She pulls some leaves, crushes them in her hands then presses the pulp onto my sand-fly bite. The itch eases.
When I began this journey through the eucalyptus laden bush, I saw just trees between a few scrappy weeds, but now I see food and medicine. Even the ants have purpose. Pull the back end off green ants and eat to help treat flu.
The greatest gift Indigenous creative tourism provides travellers is a new perspective, like putting on glasses that allow you to see beyond into a deeper, richer world. As Henry David Thoreau said: “It’s not what you look at that is important, it’s what you see.”
The range of experiences open to tourists is great, encompassing everything from adventurous remote journeys like touring ancient rock art in caves or tracking animals, to more sedate endeavors like dot painting or basket weaving, but all will change you a little.
This exchange of knowledge has the potential to bridge gaps of Indigenous Australians, and the country more broadly, in ways Thailand’s Karen tribe have missed out. Not only are there economic benefits, but with greater Indigenous ownership comes greater cultural sovereignty. The recent closing of Uluru to climbers is an example of a new respect of traditional cultural beliefs. It is this cultural understanding and the harmony that it builds that make Indigenous experiences a must-do, not just for visitors, but Australians too. The continued renaissance of Indigenous creative tourism will only serve to enrich Australia.
If you enjoyed my article please let me know with lots of clapping. I live for applause. For more nomadic tales and experiments come see me at Coolfooting where life is a journey not a race.