Experiencing Aboriginal Culture in Australia

Extraordinary cultures, arts and technologies offer amazing opportunities for travelers to experience Indigenous culture around Australia, first-hand. Bruce Hammond of the Western Arrernte/Tanganekald, Meintangk, Boandik Nations tells us where to find authentic experiences around Australia.

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The essence of Australia’s Indigenous cultural treasures lies in the complex relationship between Indigenous people, their connection to Country (Aboriginal wording for land), and kindred species embraced in totems and spiritual beliefs. Totems can be natural objects, plants or animals, and are inherited by members of a clan group as their spiritual emblem. Totems define roles and responsibilities within the clan, and their relationships with each other and creation.

Often called “the Dreaming” these complex spiritual belief systems are the laws Indigenous people live by and the basis for their ability to thrive in a diverse and often harsh environment.

Aboriginal Australia has suffered greatly from the impacts of colonization. Understanding some of this history is important for any traveler who wants to understand real Aboriginal Australia. Visitors should learn about the massacres, the policy of assimilation, the internment on missions, the removal of Indigenous children from their families, and the work conditions that occurred on pastoral leases and in domestic service.

Acknowledging Aboriginal people as the Traditional Custodians of Australia demonstrates a positive understanding and opens doors to an even more valued Indigenous cultural experience.

While traveling in Australia, visitors should make ethical choices; only buy indigenous experiences and products produced by Aboriginal people and from Aboriginal-owned enterprises to ensure the authenticity of information shared and knowledge gained.

In regional Australia, especially where cultural practices are strong, visitors should ask where they can go and what they can photograph. In Arnhem Land, the Lirrwi Guiding Principles were developed by the Yolŋu people to provide a framework for responsible travel in the region. These include respecting culture, the land, and Country.

In 2017, the traditional owners of Uluru decided to stop all climbing on Uluru (previously known as Ayer's Rock), with a ban coming into effect in October 2019. Visitors are welcome to appreciate Uluru as a cultural site, and come ready to listen and learn about ancient wisdom, and connections that go deep into this ancient land.

Removal of rocks and artefacts from this sacred region is taboo and considered a great insult to Traditional Custodians and a breach of cultural lore.

Authentic Aboriginal Tours

Authentic Aboriginal experiences can be found throughout Australia, from coastal cities to regional towns and the Outback.

Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours operate in Far North Queensland, offering authentic insights into traditional fishing grounds on a walk through the mangroves. You can also learn how to identify plants used for bush tucker (food) and medicine, and the daily local traditions of the local people.

In Broome, Western Australia, Bart Pigram runs Narlijia Cultural Tours, and tells travelers the fascinating stories of life around Roebuck Bay, from his unique perspective.

In South Australia, Quenten Agius of Aboriginal Cultural Tours will walk you across the beautiful country of the Yorke Peninsula and Outback South Australia, sharing Dreaming stories that bring the landscape to life, and demonstrate his people's occupation of Country for thousands of years.

Lirrwi Tourism in northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory offers adventures in culture, including a day tour to the Bawaka Homeland with a Traditional Owner, or a Yidaki (didjeridu) masterclass as part of a small group tour.

In Victoria, look for Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural Centre located in the Grampians National Park (Gariwerd). You can book an Aboriginal rock art tour and try native foods at the café, all while learning about Aboriginal culture.

Book a tour with Wukalina Walk, offered by Palawa Enterprises, to walk alongside a Palawa Aboriginal guide while exploring the spectacular Bay of Fires in Tasmania.

Indigenous Culture in Major Cities

Aboriginal cultural experiences are also available in Australia’s major cities. There are guided walks through Sydney’s Botanic Gardens with Aboriginal Bush Food Experience, and, at Barangaroo, see how Aboriginal history, culture and connections survive despite urban development.

On Queensland’s Gold Coast, travelers can experience the interactive Dreamworld Corroboree. In Cairns, Tjapukai Cultural Park has been the largest employer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in tourism, and its performances and dance have been seen by millions of visitors.

Languages and Diversity

Seek out a range of diverse experiences to help you understand just how rich and diverse Aboriginal cultures and language are. Unique lifestyles developed over millennia across hundreds of Aboriginal Nations. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land uniquely developed the yidaki (also known as the didjeridu), the Gunditjmara of Western Victoria had a sophisticated eel trade pre-invasion (the term used to describe the arrival of the European settlers), and Aboriginal Australia had its own Leonardi da Vinci creative type in David Unaipon of the Ngarrindjeri Nation of South Australia (who is depicted on the AU $50 banknote).

Connection with the Land

First Nations people of Australia have a strong connection to the land. Our ancestors developed land management principles that have provided food, water and sustainable environments for our communities over thousands of years. These principles are driven by a seasonal calendar, which determines the landscape, water flows, and revegetation of species. 

While traveling in Australia you may come across co-managed National Parks. These areas have been identified as culturally significant, and are managed National Parks in partnership with the Traditional Custodians.

Participating in a Welcome to Country is a great way to identify and acknowledge the Traditional Custodians. This may include a smoking ceremony where the smoke from local native plants is used to welcome visitors and cleanse the soul as they pass through Country 

Seek out Aboriginal tour guides, as many Indigenous Nations resent their stories and songlines being retold by non-Aboriginal people and businesses. The knowledge of Country should be passed on by Traditional Owners, just as it has been for thousands of years. Many cultural tours have been developed to include bush walking, native bush tucker, and sharing of knowledge of the “Dreamtime”.

There are many tours available around the country that offer detailed insights into the valued connection with the land.

Ikara, the Meeting Place in the Flinders Ranges: this region has immense cultural significance for the Adnyamathanha people. See an award-winning public art space that shares an important story of the Adnyamathanha people.

Kati Thanda, Lake Eyre National Park: this is a particularly special place for the Arabunna and Dieri people. Aboriginal people have been living around Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre for thousands of years, and it plays a central role in many of their stories and songs. As Australia's largest salt lake, Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is usually dry but occasionally fills with water, transforming into a desert oasis, with thousands of water birds flocking to the area. One of the Dreaming stories describes a ghostly spirit, Warrena, that emerged from the lake. Warrena is the spiritual keeper of the lake.

Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal fine art now features in Paris at the Musee du Quai Branly and in temporary exhibits travel the world, but one of the best opportunities is to visit an Aboriginal-owned arts center. Look for authenticity labels and information on the artist to ensure your purchase benefits Aboriginal producers and businesses.

Art is also shared through festivals. In Adelaide, the Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art is a month-long celebration. The Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, hosted by Yonlgu, is held in August and becoming a must see event on Australia’s events calendar.

Aboriginal rock art at Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland. Photo credit: Getty Images/SheraleeS

Music and Dance

indigenous Australians have performed dance and ceremonies for thousands of years as part of their spiritual practices and custodianship of Country. Based in Sydney, performances by Bangarra Dance Theatre blend traditional themes with contemporary dance in local and touring productions.

Aboriginal music is the sound of Australia, and maintains its traditional sound while also embracing new and innovative music trends, ranging from Yothu Yindi’s rock, to Briggs’ rap, the Last Kinection’s hip-hop and Jessica Mauboy’s pop. The haunting music of Gurrumul has recently taken the world by storm, and spread Yolngu Aboriginal language and culture far and wide.

Aboriginal Food

Native foods are also gaining attention for their high nutritional value and unique flavors, with celebrity chefs capitalizing on their exotic and nutritional profiles. Indigenous chefs such as Mark Olive, Clayton Donovan, Rayleen Brown and Josh Whiteland ensure Aboriginal expertise stays front and center of the native foods phenomenon. Check out Kungkas Can Cook in Alice Springs, Koomal Dreaming in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, and Charcoal Lane Restaurant in Melbourne.

Unique fruits, vegetables and spices that have been harvested and traded for thousands of years are now becoming available to wider markets. While these are seasonal and generally in limited supply, items such as lemon myrtle, saltbush, quandongs and bush limes are in high demand.

In my Country, in the southeast of South Australia, muntries are highly regarded. Known as emu apples or native cranberries, muntries are a low-growing shrub found on the south coast. When ripe, the berries are green with a red tinge and have the flavor of spicy apples. These tasty little berries are high in antioxidants, (four times that of blueberries), and can be eaten fresh or used in many sweet and savory dishes.

Something Wild in Adelaide’s Central Markets, sells a full range of sustainably managed native meats such as kangaroo, emu, crocodile, wild boar and magpie goose, and stocks a wide variety of native spices.

Rene Redzepi food foraging in South Australia with an Indigenous guide. Photo credit: Getty Images/Lisa Maree Williams

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