Sail to Clark Island for a cultural performance. Photo: Domino Postiglione
New regional and city-based Aboriginal tours and indigenous guides are allowing participants to experience familiar places through ancient eyes, writes Louise Southerden.
You don't have to go as far as Kakadu or Uluru to experience indigenous cultures. City tours and regional day walks led by Aboriginal guides have emerged on both the east and west coasts.
City dreaming — Sydney
The site of first contact between the British Empire and the Eora nation, itself comprising 29 tribes that have inhabited the Sydney Harbour region for tens of thousands of years, is the location for the new Rocks Dreaming walking tour. Tours began in October and each one takes participants beyond the city's convict tales and heritage-listed buildings to a different view of The Rocks. Gadigal guides such as Shaz Mason point out traditional uses of plants such as bracken ferns and grevillea flowers ("bush lollipops") near historic Cadman's Cottage.
At the Argyle Cut, she marks your wrist with white ochre from the rock walls - for protection, and a sign of respect for the past. Standing under the Harbour Bridge at Dawes Point, Shaz tells of her family's totems (owls, snakes, magpies and kookaburras) and about Barangaroo - not the Darling Harbour development, but the woman who was a wife of Bennelong, a senior man of the region. It's a meeting of past and present at Sydney Cove's key sites.
The Rocks Dreaming Aboriginal Heritage Tours take place from 10.30am to noon, Wednesday to Sunday, departing from Cadman's Cottage on George Street in The Rocks. Adults $42, children (eight to 16 years) $32, children under eight free. See therocks.com/dreaming.
Sacred walks — Blue Mountains
Evan Yanna Muru, fifth-generation Darug owner and guide of Blue Mountains Walkabout, is on a mission: to inspire in those who undertake his tours an appreciation of the Darug way of life so they might learn from it. "The 'old people' were healthy, wealthy and wise in mind, body and spirit," Muru says, because they were connected to the Dreamtime - "the natural, dynamic and creative spirit shared by everything in existence".
The full-day Blue Mountains bushwalk explores sacred sites and caves, includes a bark- and face-painting session, "silent walking" and invites you to use all your senses - by tasting aniseed-flavoured leaves, listening to bird calls and touching shagpile carpets of moss.
Blue Mountains Walkabout tours start at Faulconbridge railway station in the lower Blue Mountains, from 10.35am Monday to Friday, 10.45am at weekends. Daylong tours cost $95 a person; half-day tours $75. See bluemountainswalkabout.com.
Botanical storytelling — Perth
In south-west Western Australia, there once were 14 tribes of Nyoongar people, including the Wadjuk, who roamed within a 50-kilometre radius of Perth. Today, Wadjuk guide Greg Nannup of Indigenous Tours WA walks and talks his way through Kings Park, presenting "a snapshot of indigenous culture in south-western Australia".
It's the only privately licensed indigenous tour in a botanical garden in Australia and makes the most of its natural setting. You'll hear creation stories, learn about plants used for "bush food" and medicines, see kangaroo-skin cloaks and stone axes, and stroll through a forest of karri, jarrah and other giant eucalypts on a walkway at treetop height. Nannup also runs tours in Fremantle that focus on early Aboriginal history and the Aboriginal explanation for whale strandings.
Indigenous Tours WA's 90-minute Indigenous Heritage Tour in Kings Park takes place from 1.30pm Monday-Friday. Adults $25, children $15. Fremantle tours take place from 10.30am Monday-Saturday. $25/$15.
Cultural cruising — Sydney
Step aboard the Tribal Warrior, a 100-year-old gaff-rigged ketch, for Australia's first indigenous harbour cruise. Run by the Tribal Warrior Association, a non-profit organisation set up to promote Aboriginal culture, it teaches Koori people maritime skills and runs cultural cruises on Sydney Harbour - so while you're hearing indigenous names for landmarks, learning about traditional fishing and food-gathering methods and visiting Clark Island for a cultural performance, you mingle with the crew.
On New Year's Eve, Tribal Warrior and its sister ship, Mari Nawi (Big Canoe), will join the Harbour of Light Parade (tickets start at $250 but have sold out).
Tribal Warrior Association two-hour cruises depart from Circular Quay's Eastern Pontoon at 3pm (October-March) and 1pm (April-September). Adults $60, children $40. See tribalwarrior.org.
Dancing under stars — Brisbane
Sitting on logs at the base of sandstone cliffs beside the Brisbane River, a cricket ball's throw from the Gabba (Woolloongabba) stadium and with a backdrop of Brisbane's city skyline, you hear the sound of clapsticks.
Then the Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal dancers appear - men and boys from the four tribes of south-eastern Queensland (Nunukul, Yuggera, Yugimbir and Nugi) - barefoot and wearing traditional paints. They tell stories, then dance them, taking a break to teach you a few moves, or show participants how to start a fire or throw a boomerang. Evening performances take place under the stars.
Riverlife Mirrabooka runs two Aboriginal experiences at Kangaroo Point: one-hour daytime sessions on Thursdays for $49; and two-hour evening performances on Saturdays for $89, including a barbecue dinner. See riverlife.com.au/aboriginal-experiences.
Coastal learning — Darwin
Larrakia guide Robert Mills walks the walk - and takes you with him along Darwin's Esplanade, stopping at sacred sites in the central business district, sampling bush tucker from the coastal "jungle", as he calls it (plums, nuts, herbs and fruit) and visiting three Aboriginal art galleries. But it's the insight into the life and lore of Darwin's traditional owners that makes this tour complete.
Mills tells you of his lineage, which connects him to the whole of the Northern Territory; teaches you Larrakia words ("batji", for instance, means "good" as well as "hello"); and explains protocols such as not speaking your own language on someone else's land.
Because Darwin is a hub of indigenous life, you might even bump into an Aboriginal celebrity or two - David Gulpilil, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu or Jessica Mauboy, perhaps.
Batji Tours runs two-hour walking tours of Darwin at 10am and 2pm daily. Cost $50.