From Sydney to Melbourne to Perth, urban tours are challenging the perception that the country’s Aboriginal history can only be experienced in the desert.

It was story time in Perth’s Kings Park. Greg Nannup, owner of Indigenous Tours WA, was embarking on a swirling, multi-strand tale of whale beachings, child spirits and rainbow serpents. The full version, which would take hours to tell, described how the actions of the spirit ancestors created the landscape of southwestern Australia.

But Nannup’s tale was more than just old-fashioned story spinning. As with all the epic Dreamtime tales among Australia’s Aboriginal groups, the legend has passed down through hundreds of generations, kept alive as a way of mapping the land and life itself.

All across Australia, urban excursions like Indigenous Tours WA are challenging the perception that the country’s Aboriginal history can only be experienced in the desert. From Sydney to Melbourne to Perth, travellers can now step into a world that is often assumed lost among the shopping streets and sprawling suburbs of Australia’s cities.

Nannup, the son of a Noongar elder, comes from a long line of experienced outdoorsmen. The traditional Noongar lands stretch across much of southwestern Australia, encompassing the urban sprawl of Perth. His tours focus on well-known Perth landmarks, such as the Swan River and the Old Swan Brewery, and explains what their role was before 18th-century Europeans arrived in Australia.

 “All land has a purpose, and it will always find a way to be used for that purpose,” Nannup said, adding that Kings Park, the glorious thousand-acre green space that overlooks central Perth, has always been a gathering place. “Traditionally, it is where Noongar wedding ceremonies have been held,” he explained.

Kings Park is also a superb place to see Perth in an indigenous context. It is full of the plants that the Noongar people have used for thousands of years. The resin from the marri tree is used to stop bleeding; the grass plant works as both snack and fire-starter when it is raining; boab trees are an excellent water source.

Perhaps more importantly, Kings Park is the most visited place in Western Australia. It is a lot easier to share an Aboriginal perspective when there are people to share it with.

In Melbourne, the Koorie Heritage Trust runs walking tours along the Yarra River in an effort to highlight the impact of European colonisation upon the area’s traditional Kulin people, their culture and the land. “The cultural tour starts in the spot where the first Europeans put up their first tent [in Melbourne] and never left,” said Dean Stewart, the creator of the tours. “It is in effect ‘ground zero’ for a human civilization that had [already] existed on the site for 50,000 years.”

The tour focuses on peeling back the layers of history to illustrate what has and has not changed. The route traverses what used to be abundant wetlands, including spots such as the Queens Bridge, which crosses a now-destroyed waterfall.

“I wanted to show that you don’t have to go to the bush or the Red Centre to find deep cultural connections and equally deep cultural people,” Stewart said.  “As a proud Aboriginal man, I feel there is a real need to share our cultural connections, break down the stereotypes and nurture an understanding. From that comes real respect for our culture.”    

In Sydney, too, attempts are being made to put an indigenous spin on the most popular parts of the city. Taronga Zoo has launched a Nura Diya tour, in which Aboriginal guides explain the traditional relationships between Australia’s native animals and the people living in the area. For example, certain individuals will not eat their “totem” animal, such as goanna or kangaroo.

The Tribal Warrior Association, meanwhile, runs cruises in Sydney Harbour. The company combines cultural performances with explorations of the harbour, pointing out what the different parts have historically been called and used for. The large flat stones at Dawes Point, for instance, are said to have been used for baking fish.

But in addition to Aboriginal history, Sydney is also emphasising the present and future of its indigenous inhabitants. A chunky booklet called Barani Barrabugu (Yesterday Tomorrow): Sydney’s Aboriginal Journey aims to stimulate independent exploration. It maps out and tells the story behind numerous sites of Aboriginal significance across Sydney, such as the now-covered over Tank Stream, a hugely important fresh water source. Some sights hark back to before European settlement in 1788, but the vast majority are tied to arts, education and the fight for indigenous rights. This includes Martin Place, where annual protest Aborigines Day protest events took place from 1938 to 1955.

The sites marked on the Barani Barrabugu map form a trail, which passes through some of Sydney’s less heralded suburbs, including Redfern. It marks the Oval, the stadium where Aboriginal rugby league teams battle it out annually for the Koori Cup. There are also community centres and schools which mostly cater for Redfern’s large indigenous population. Numerous buildings are adorned with murals and a sun on a red and black background -- the markings of the Aboriginal flag.

This is not the expected world of bush tucker and dot paintings. It is Aboriginal Australia in a contemporary, urban setting -- and there are more than just Dreamtime stories to tell.