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
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
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
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.
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.