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Experience Aboriginal culture in Australia: fantastic Indigenous-owned tour companies to try | Insight Guides Blog

Experience Aboriginal culture in Australia: fantastic Indigenous-owned tour companies to try

Visiting Uluru, (photo by Glyn Genin)
Visiting Uluru


Australia is home to the oldest living culture in the world – that of Indigenous Australians (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples). These First Australians have a complex and mutually supportive relationship with the landscape and a rich social, cultural and linguistic heritage. For the visitor, gaining an understanding – however superficial – of this heritage is extraordinarily rewarding.

For too long, the culture and rights of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander peoples were suppressed by the white majority. That they have survived is in many ways a miracle – the First Australians have endured the appropriation of their land, innumerable massacres and the removal of their children by the Church and state, but still their cultures and spirits flourish.

 

Dreamtime

Aboriginal culture is underpinned by ‘the Dreamtime’, a belief system that puts Aboriginal history, traditions and culture under a single mythological roof. Dreamtime stories recount how ancestral heroes created the stars, the earth and all creatures. They explain the origins of Australia’s unique animals and plants, and how humans can live in harmony with nature.

The land plays a crucial part in Dreamtime lore, and responsibility for protecting significant sites is central to Aboriginal spiritual life. This is one of the reasons why land rights have always been a top political priority for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, and why the 1992 decision by Australia’s High Court to award Eddie Mabo, a representative of the Meriam people, native title to the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait was greeted with elation and a sense of vindication by the Indigenous population. The Mabo judgement led to the Native Title Act 1993, and many subsequent claims have been awarded. Others are still to be negotiated and agreed, but a number of the country’s national parks and Aboriginal sacred sites are now under Indigenous ownership and management, bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures closer than ever before to visitors. Today, the cultures and traditions of Indigenous Australians are integral to Australian society and identity, even though citizens of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent make up less than three percent of the national population.

 

Didgeridoo player in Sydney

 Aboriginal vase

 


Understanding the Culture: Contemporary Encounters

More than half of Australia’s Indigenous population lives in either New South Wales or Queensland. Although actual numbers are nowhere near as high in the Northern Territory as they are in these two larger states, the Territory’s population has the largest proportion of Indigenous people (almost 30 percent). This means that visitors are far more likely to encounter Aboriginal culture in these states than they are in the south or west of the country.

Indigenous Australians are also more likely to live in rural or remote areas than the rest of the population, meaning Outback trips offer more chances to gain an understanding of Indigenous culture than do city sojourns.


National Parks and Reserves 

One of the most satisfying experiences that visitors can have while in Australia is to spend time in an Indigenous-owned or -run national park or reserve. By supporting these enterprises, you will learn about and contribute materially to Indigenous culture and heritage.

Northern Territory

A number of remote Aboriginal reserves require visitors to obtain a permit before entering. Arnhemland, near Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, is one of these. Here, in a vast and mysterious landscape, Aboriginal people live a semi-traditional existence. To visit, you will probably need to take an organised tour; operators include Lord’s Kakadu and Arnhemland Safaris, Nomad, Magela Cultural and Heritage Tours and Arnhemlander.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is owned by the Anangu people, and is managed in association with Parks Australia. The park’s Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre has fascinating exhibits on Aboriginal law, tradition and customs.

Nitmuluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park is jointly managed by the Jawoyn people and the Northern Territory’s Parks & Wildlife Service. Nitmiluk Tours, an Indigenous-owned and operated tour company, organises camping, canoeing and walking tours, as well as helicopter flights, rock art tours and bush tucker walks. 

 

The Olgas

 

Visiting a Cultural Centre

Many Outback towns and national parks have impressive, Indigenous-run cultural centres that welcome visitors and give an insight into Indigenous culture.

Northern Territory

The Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in Tennant Creek features multimedia and other displays that offer a great introduction to the local Warumungu culture. The centre also runs tours of its indigenous garden and of surrounding bushland, focusing on bush tucker. 

Victoria

The stunning Brambuk Cultural Centre in Victoria’s Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park is run by five local Indigenous groups in association with Parks Victoria. The displays offer an insight into local culture and history through stories, art, dance and objects. The centre also runs tours of nearby rock art and sacred sites. 

 

Cultural Tours

There are more cultural tourism operators working in the Australian Outback than there are flies – and that’s saying a lot. Choosing the right one can be a challenge, but there’s a lot to be said for taking an Indigenous-owned and/or-run tour such as those listed below.

Northern Territory

Alice Springs–based Anangu Tours offers camel tours in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park as well as dot-painting workshops and a cultural walking tour of Uluru led by an Anangu guide.

The Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation runs cultural heritage tours in its community of Manyallaluk, approximately 100km (62 miles) from Katherine. These interactive, hands-on tours, which leave from Katherine, include a bush-tucker and bush-medicine walk, traditional bark painting, fire lighting, spear throwing and basket weaving. 

The Tiwi Land Council leases the rights to run tours of Bathurst Island to Aussie Adventure Holidays. The tours include a smoking ceremony, morning tea with members of the local community and an exhibition of traditional dancing. They can be extended to include wildlife spotting and participation in traditional food hunting and gathering.

 

Kakadu

 

Queensland

Tjapukai Cultural Park, near Cairns, offers full- and half-day tours showcasing Indigenous culture. Guests watch theatrical performances and engage in interactive activities to learn the traditional customs of the Tjapukai people.

The Kuku-Yalanji, traditional owners of the Mossman Gorge outside Port Douglas, operate daily ‘Dreamtime Guided Rainforest Walks’ demonstrating traditional plant use, identifying bush tucker sources, sharing Dreamtime legends and explaining the history of cave paintings.

South Australia

Small company Arabunna Tours offers one- to seven-day tours of the Flinders Ranges, Marree, Oodnadatta Track and Lake Eyre.

Bookabee Tours runs ‘Dreamtime tours’ focusing on storytelling, Aboriginal cultural experiences and visits to unique and culturally rich locations. These cover the Northern Flinders Ranges, Southern Flinders ranges and the Outback. It also runs a five-day ‘Australia – the Movie’ tour.

 

Indigenous Art

Artists such as Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Cifford Possum Tjapaltjarri gave Australian Indigenous art an international profile in the 1980s and 1990s that it continues to enjoy today. Its various forms – including bark painting, dot painting, rock painting, rock engravings, body painting and weaving – are being practised in communities throughout the country, and art is a major source of Indigenous income, particularly in the Outback. 

Key Aboriginal rock art sites include Nganalang in Keep River National Park, the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Carnavon Gorge in Queensland, the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Sacred Canyon in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, the town of Laura in Queensland, and the Ubirr and Nourlangie Rocks in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park.

 

Aboriginal art

 Aboriginal art

 

 

 

Aboriginal art

 Aboriginal art

Northern Territory

Tiwi Art operates small tours from Darwin to the three main art centres on the Tiwi islands. Participants meet local Torres Straits Islander artists while they work, and are offered the opportunity to make purchases. 

The Araluen Cultural Precinct in Alice Springs is home to the Araluen Arts Centre and the Central Craft studio and shop. Its guided cultural art tours focus on the connection between the Dreaming, contemporary Aboriginal art and the land of Mparntwe (Alice Springs).

Queensland

Aboriginal-owned and -operated company Indij-n-Arts runs workshops aimed at promoting the local indigenous artists of southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales. Choose from traditional weaving, making didgeridoos and making boomerangs.

 

Bush Tucker Tours

Edible native foods and plants (‘bush tucker’) are slowly building a culinary profile in Australia. It is increasingly common to see ingredients like lemon myrtle, pepper leaf, quandong, wild honey, wild lime and Kakadu plum on restaurant menus, and bush tucker tours are becoming popular activities.

Northern Territory

Aboriginal-guided full-day tours combining a wildlife safari with bush tucker-gathering and a campfire cook-up at sunset are offered by Kakadu Animal Tracks.

New South Wales

In Sydney, learn about the Aboriginal heritage of the Royal Botanic Gardens and sample indigenous bush foods in an Aboriginal Heritage Tour.

Victoria

Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens offers an Aboriginal Heritage Walk around the gardens with Indigenous guides, in which you can experience a traditional smoking ceremony and discover traditional uses of plants for food, tools and medicine. 

 

We're exploring Australia this month. Searching for things to do on your trip Down Under? Take a look at our articles on the country's world-famous wine, unique wildlife and fantastic beaches.