Expect to have your stereotypes challenged if you travel to Australia. My daughter Maria and I recently traveled to the so-called land “down-under” and had many surprises.
The mention of Australia usually makes me nervous. The country’s history of relations between aboriginals and British settlers has been rocky. Forced assimilation, segregation in the early 1920s and a “reserve” system were severe. The “Stolen Generation” is another sad chapter, aboriginal children removed from their homes and placed them either in government homes or they were adopted. But it is no worse than what Native Americans of this country endured.
Australia is a huge country with a magnificent landscape. Its land mass is 2,941,300 sq. miles. Australia is diverse with rain forests, dry inland deserts and endless coastline.
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Lindsey Neal-Rozga, an agent specializing in Australian travel, helped us plan our travel in search of an authentic aboriginal experience. Some of our experiences were typical, for instance, a tour of the Sydney Opera House. But the experience with the aboriginal people in their communities was the most welcoming highlight of our trip.
Australia has a developing aboriginal travel sector. These are usually small, individually run operations in all areas of the country. Helped by small government grants from the Australian Travel Bureau, the tour operators receive technical support and advice. Enthusiastic guides, deeply knowledgeable of their history and culture, humorous and hard working, led the three aboriginal tours.
Rocks Dreaming in Sydney-Robert, of the Gadigal people, showed us native medicines from bushes and plants that kept the ancient aboriginals healthy for centuries. He marked our hands with light gray ochre as an “acknowledgement of country” and also showing its protective use as a sunscreen. Spears, baskets, kangaroo pelts were placed in our hands to illustrate hunting and gathering practices.
The tour concluded with a legend of the sea creature, the long neck turtle. Robert spoke of the importance of storytelling as a way of understanding the land formations, and as a lesson of appropriate behavior. Storytelling is also a way of knowing of a places’ location and how to get there.
Walkabout Cultural Adventures–Juan Walker, from the Kiku Yalanji aboriginal group in northeast Australia, is a dynamic and enthusiastic guide. After arriving at the beach, Juan gave us spears. We followed closely through the shallow waters in the mangroves near to the shore searching for mud crabs. Juan pointed out stingrays and kept them away with his spear.
Later, at his parent’s home, he prepared delicious barramundi for lunch. Juan suggested we go downstairs and listen to his father’s band. Who would have guessed we’d join in singing Margaritaville off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef?
At the end of the day, walked through the rainforest of the Kiku Yalanji Aboriginal community. The trail led to a river with a perfect swimming hole. It was a refreshing end to a great day.
Coorong’s Wilderness Lodge—Margie Long-Alleyn is the manager of the Lodge in South Australia’s Coorong Lakes area. The Ngarrindjeri, “Water People” make this water rich environment their home. Their totem is the Australian Pelican.
The lodge is along a salt inlet where Lake Coorong, the Great Southern Ocean and river systems meets. Water fowl, abundant plant life, and lengthy shoreline makes the Lodge a place that provides rest and serenity.
We were taught basket making in the afternoon. According to Margie, basket weaving is a way of communication and essential to Ngarrindjeri culture. Weaving brings the families and people together keeping the bonds of the mi:wi (inner spirit) strong. It is a time of knowledge, teaching, discussing ideas and making plans. The rushes used as the basket material are collected from the shores of the wetlands.
Margie is passionate about helping her people progress, move on, and heal from past injustices. In the Wilderness Lodge, the “Apology to the Aboriginal People” is prominently displayed. Australia’s Parliament passed the official statement in February 2008.
“…today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
“We reflect on their past mistreatment.
“We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history……
“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
“We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry…..”
The advantage to using Aboriginal guides is that their connection to land, culture, history and spirit is authentic. In Australia, the aboriginal people continue to face challenges similar to ours. When you visit an aboriginal community, you will feel at home.
This story was originally published October 20, 2013.