The big picture ... up close with a witchetty grub on Jungala's tour.
No more ho-hum tours. Traditional owners are taking the lead and exposing all comers to their timeless view of Australia, writes Sam de Brito.
Be suspicious of an Aboriginal man who says somewhere is "close". I discover this on my final day in Alice Springs, when Aboriginal tour operator Jungala Kriss takes me for a sunrise trek along the vertiginous Larapinta Trail in the MacDonnell Ranges, which run west and east of our most famous outback town.
An hour into the walk, Jungala plonks down on an outcrop of red quartzite and offers the comforting information that "we're close" to our destination.
Four hours and some 20 kilometres later, having clambered across the spines of a dozen prehistoric ridges, I'm beginning to understand the Aboriginal concept of distance.
Tim Hill, a local archaeologist who's joined us, puts it this way: "An Aboriginal bloke once came up to me at Uluru and told me his 4WD was stuck in a river and could I give him a tow? I asked how far it was and he said 'ila' (close). It was in South Australia (100 kilometres away)."
In many ways this difference in perception says a lot about how indigenous Australia views its country, a land so much of the world sees as vast, unforgiving and empty.
Where a Sydneysider sees a gun-barrel highway blurring into a wasteland, a Warlpiri man sees a backyard stroll; where we see a lonely waterhole, a Luritja elder sees a resting spot for a phantom army of spirits; and where you and I see a rusting mountain range, an Arrernte man sees a monstrous caterpillar, a living page from the Aboriginal "bible".
Hours after landing in Alice Springs, I'm picked up by Bob Taylor, who is descended from the Arrernte tribe that traditionally calls the lands around town home. Bob specialises in Aboriginal chef tours of the local big-ticket landmarks like Rainbow Valley and King's Canyon and is part of a small number of indigenous tour operators giving visitors a radically different experience of the Aussie bush.
Bob is in his 40s and watchful but within minutes he tells me he was "removed" from his parents as a child. Despite having read hundreds of articles about our Stolen Generation, I realise Bob is the first of their number I've met. He laughs when I tell him I'm here to have an "authentic" Aboriginal experience.
"Which one?" he says, "I can give you authentic Bob Taylor but it's not any more or less authentically Aboriginal than what people like Jungala are doing."
Bob's a modern Aboriginal man, who's worked as a chef in Holland and travelled the world. As he drives out of Alice I scribble notes, which he later admits worried him, thinking I'd miss what he'd brought me to understand in the bush.
It's not until we reach Atherreke, or Jessie Gap as it's known to whites, that I holster my biro and inhale the landscape. It's cooling to sunset and Bob and I stand alone at the small creek that runs between the "gap" in the Heavitree Range. "A lot of people have been through here, physically and spiritually. I see a lot more than just the land," says Bob and I wonder what I'm missing.
While he sets up for dinner, I traverse the creek and pad up the untracked river bed, taking in the twisted fists of spinifex uprooted by recent flood waters. For a moment, I imagine what it must have been like to approach this place after scalding days on foot, knowing water was so close.
The word ancient doesn't approach describing the scenery - the rocks are clumps of time, the setting sun a primordial light show and while the human eye searches for human forms, your brain slowly realises they're just the pawns on the chessboard. Bob's poking Mulga wood into a small fire when I emerge, shoeless from the creek.
He chuckles at my new-born eyes. "You get it now, don't ya?"
Bob's "million-star restaurant" doesn't have much in the way of a wine list (he doesn't serve alcohol on his tours) but the view is celestial.
"I always feel like I'm looking down on the stars, not looking up," says Bob and I again wonder at the subtle shifts in perspective that separate our cultures, before I lose myself in the rush of outback flavours; dried bush tomatoes, yam fritters and a sweet wattle seed syrup vinaigrette.
"Everyone should come through here some time," says Bob as he grills wild barramundi and kangaroo. "For foreign tourists it's almost a given - they seem to know that this is Australia: it's not Bondi, it's not sitting in a pub in Cairns; they have to come to the heart, central Australia."
Like Bob, Jungala was removed from his parents and raised by a white family. And like Bob, Jungala's Painted Mountain Bike Experience is part of a growing push to have indigenous Australians run and own the tours that expose the outside world to their culture.
"When I lived in Europe people were saying they were sick of the ho hum, 'bums on seats tours' with no meaningful interaction with Aboriginal people," Jungala says.
"What I offer is not a coach dumping you at Uluru to watch painted dancers who are actually from Queensland."
Jungala pulls out a map of Aboriginal Australia, every inch of our landmass covered with the territories of different nations - names like Kokatha, Antakarinja and Danggali. He puts his thumb on the plastic covering the five language groups that overlap around Alice Springs.
"That's 376,000 square kilometres," he says. "We don't fit into the one bottle. There's as many types of Aboriginal culture as there are Aborigines."
On the surface, Jungala's bike tour is a cruisey but predictable guided glimpse of Alice Springs' inanimate cultural landmarks. What could never be predicted, however, are the people we meet as we ride; Jungala's cousins, friends and elders who stop to chat.
"It's a living culture tour," says Jungala.
At the Irrkerlantye Community Arts Centre, we ride into a compound burbling with Aboriginal children, the walls crowded with the artists' work, many of whom are elderly women bent over long tables with brushes.
"It's hard to access the indigenous community if you don't know them," says one of the centre's managers, Genevieve O'Loughlin. "This place is as much about passing on tradition, telling stories and engaging with the mainstream as it is selling paintings. We're certainly not the pointy end of the art market."
An hour later we visit the "pointy" end of Alice Springs' art scene, the Araluen Cultural Precinct, devoted to the works of Australia's most famous Aboriginal painter and Jungala's great, great uncle, Albert Namatjira.
Looking at his exquisite watercolours, I again wonder about the map Jungala showed me, why we never saw it in school, why Aussie kids memorise US states instead of Aboriginal nations and why a Sydney teen can point out a Van Gogh but not a Namatjira.
The next day, I drive out to Rainbow Valley with one of the area's traditional owners, Ricky Orr. The soil is impossibly red, heavy from the unseasonal rains, the land's forgotten watercourses revealing themselves among new emerald undergrowth.
"It's the green centre now," cackles Ricky.
Ninety minutes later, he leads me into the Rainbow Valley Art Site, a sacred Aboriginal rock art area 100 kilometres south-west of Alice, recently opened to the public. He points out a flat rock with a worn indentation, a grinding stone sitting where its user left it perhaps a hundred years before.
"We shot a kangaroo once and didn't have a knife," says Ricky "and one of the old blokes went up the hill and came back with one of these." He passes me a tiny, razor-edged rock chip.
"He used that to cut open the entire kangaroo's stomach, so we could gut it." He points at the hundreds of similar rock chips scattered under our feet. "A lot of people used to live here."
We climb into a rocky gorge, usually dry but now filled with bubbling waterholes.
As we pass a certain bush or flower, Ricky explains its uses and once again I feel my perception shift, the anonymous trees and shrubs suddenly edible, used for sunscreen, for chest complaints or headaches. Where I saw a gulch I now see a pharmacy and pantry.
The walls of the gorge rise and Ricky walks ahead, speaking his own language, asking his ancestors for permission before we enter. "This is the gallery. The university," he says.
Everywhere I look there's petroglyphs of emu tracks, kangaroo prints, concentric circles and wagon wheel-like shapes. "A lot of teaching went on here," says Ricky and I can't help but conjure the thousands of men who dreamed and carved and sang their stories here over millennia.
Walking back to our 4WD, I'm overwhelmed by what I've seen, how I'd have just bumbled by it if it hadn't been for Ricky's knowing eyes.
"Our spiritual world is a lot bigger out here," says Jungala the next morning as we stand atop the Larapinta Trail. "Our old people, they see through things, they see what's actually there, it's stuff you guys can't fathom because it's not part of your culture."
Coming from Jungala's mouth, staring out over the quilt of his country, our country, it's not a cliche.
"I ask tourists do they want to come on a cultural tour and some of them will say: 'No, I already went to the cultural centre in Adelaide,"' Jungala says. "That's one type of cultural experience, this is another. It's seeing what the trees do, hearing our stories, making friends."
"That's what you're really doing when you come here. You're making friends."
The writer was a guest of Tourism NT
* Bob Taylor's Mbantua Dinner Tour, $120 a person, includes a three-course meal, featuring bush foods.
* Jungala's Painted Mountain Bike Experience is a 50-kilometre round trip that operates Wednesday to Sunday year-round. The cost of $110 a person includes morning and afternoon tea. Jungala's Larapinta Trail Experience, a five-day tour, includes all food and swags and costs $2500.
* Ricky Orr's Rainbow Valley Cultural Tour, $165 a person, includes transfers, lunch with billy tea and damper and light dinner with champagne. Departs daily at 11.30am.