The Rise of Aboriginal Cultural Tourism in Sydney

From ancient Dreamtime stories to native bush medicines and tucker, Aboriginal cultural tourism in Australia’s largest city is bigger than ever, giving visitors a whole different way to appreciate Sydney.

Photographs by Craig Proudford

A wooden bridge connects Bare Island—home to a colonial-era fort that once guarded the entrance to Botany Bay—with La Perouse Point, where aboriginal people have lived for countless millennia.

It’s about five minutes into my Aboriginal heritage tour at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden when I realize I’ve repeated the phrase “I don’t know” more times than I care to admit. My young guides, Kalkani Choolburra and Mikasa Donald, laugh every time I do. They should probably be offended that my knowledge of Australia’s indigenous culture—their culture—is so paltry. But as they tell me repeatedly, they’re here to educate, not judge. It’s a sentiment I hear from almost all of the Aboriginal tourism operators I speak to while researching this story: Why get mad about the past, they ask, when there is so much that can be done when it comes to informing the future?

Choolburra and Donald are two of 10 indigenous leaders at the Royal Botanic Garden who offer a glimpse into Sydney’s long Aboriginal history and the oldest continuous culture in the world—a fact few visitors have any awareness of. For two hours we wander together along the harbor foreshore, the pair pointing out ancient totems (natural objects, plants, and animals that are inherited by members of a clan as their spiritual emblem) including carvings of whales thought to be tens of thousands of years old—they appear all over Sydney. They then take me into the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters, a display garden planted with dozens of species of native flora, some medicinal, most edible. There’s lomandra, which Choolburra describes as “the corner store of plants” because it has so many applications, alongside warrigal greens, lemon myrtle, and mountain devil, the latter of which produces an abundance of sweet nectar that Sydney’s traditional landowners, the Cadigal (also spelled Gadigal) people, would suck from the flowers for a natural hit of energy.

“In recent years there has been a huge shift in consciousness,” says Choolburra as we stroll around a massive grass tree. “People are trying to get back to basics and want to know more about native plants and indigenous culture. They want to know how we survived on the land for more than 80,000 years.”

Aboriginal guide Terry Olsen aboard the Mari Nawi.

The experience ends with a showcase of Aboriginal artifacts and educational tools, including a map that highlights just how diverse Australia’s indigenous community really is; at one time, the continent was home to more than 250 tribes speaking 500 languages. Today, indigenous Australians make up around three percent of the country’s population, and less than 120 indigenous dialects have survived. “There were dark years when you could have your kids taken off you for speaking your native tongue,” Choolburra says. “Many languages have been lost as a result. But it’s positive to see that some are being revived, with more schools now teaching various dialects.”

“People are blown away by just how ancient and diffused the culture is,” Donald continues. “Most have associated Aboriginal people with red dirt and desert in the past. There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes still out there. We’re trying to change this. We need to change this.”

The Royal Botanic Garden’s heritage tour is just one of an estimated 50 Aboriginal-owned or operated cultural tourism experiences now available in Sydney and the state of New South Wales, which is home to Australia’s largest indigenous population and is also the place with the longest continuous contact between Europeans and Aborigines. Tourism Research Australia’s latest statistics show that in 2017, more than 476,000 visitors participated in an Aboriginal cultural experience across the state, an increase of 30 percent over the previous year, making New South Wales the most important region in the country for these kinds of activities. The statistics also show that international interest still outstrips local awareness. “We get a lot of foreign tourists who know much more about our history than domestic tourists do,” confirms Donald. “International groups are more accepting than locals in many ways. People who live here often find it hard to unlearn their prejudices.”

A traditional weaving demonstration on the same boat as it cruises Sydney Harbour.

Much of the growth in Aboriginal cultural tourism has happened in the 18 years since Sydney hosted the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, and many credit Margret Campbell with spearheading the movement. An elder from New South Wales’s Dunghutti-Jerrinja Nation, the 65-year-old has seen a huge shift in awareness over the last two decades. “My mother had to give birth to me on the streets with my aunties because she wasn’t allowed into the hospital’s maternity ward,” she tells me. “I didn’t go to school until I was 12. I could go on the warpath about it, but I’m over that now.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—her experiences of racial injustice and inequality during some of Australia’s most politically turbulent decades, Campbell chooses to now focus on the revolutionary initiatives that evolved as a result of these years. In the 1960s, she participated in Aboriginal youth programs such as the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, and benefited from mentoring provided by indigenous politicians and campaigners such as Charles Perkins, Esther Carroll, and Elizabeth “Trixie” Rowe.

It’s this that inspired her to become the state’s—indeed, the country’s—first Aboriginal-owned tourism operator in the late 1990s, when the world’s sporting spotlight shone brightly on Sydney’s indigenous affairs. Back then, she took tourists on a “whale dreaming” cruise, decoding how traditional landowners lived in and around Sydney Harbour. Today, her Aboriginal Dreaming tours explore the foreshore around The Rocks neighborhood, a place where the Cadigal had established campsites when the First Fleet arrived in 1788. But this is not something Campbell or her six guides choose to focus on during her company’s two-hour interpretive walks.

Kalkani Choolburra, a guide at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden.

“I don’t want to dwell on the invasion,” she tells me. “I just want to talk about my lived experience. I’m positive and upbeat. People are not expecting that—they expect me to be bitter. Many of my guests are embarrassed to ask questions at the start, as they think they should know about our country’s history. I make them feel comfortable, and tell them they can ask the silliest or most serious questions. There are no wrong questions. I’m not going to judge.”

Campbell’s tours vary daily, depending on the guide’s particular field of expertise, and can also be tailored to specific group interests. “We’ve had mobs of doctors who want to learn about native medicines, as well as artists keen to know more about the link between nature and indigenous painting,” she says.
My walk is led by Dalara Williams, Campbell’s niece and a performing arts student. Our group of 20 consists mostly of high school students from Singapore, who are fascinated by her Dreamtime creation stories and songlines, which she describes as “a type of musical poetry to recount and keep alive our history and traditions.”

“The hardest thing for me is relaying the fact that it’s impossible to give a complete picture of indigenous culture here,” Williams tells me while we walk. “How do you fit 80,000 years of Aboriginal history into a couple of hours? I can’t even give a glimpse in that time.”

A large part of the tour focuses on her ancestors’ “good manners” practices when it comes to the environment. “Aboriginal people are the world’s earliest conservationists,” Williams says. “From the beginning we knew about the importance of rotating the land and not overfishing. We’d use middens [piles of discarded shells and bones] as a sign to show what had been consumed at a particular campsite. If there were oyster shells, the next mob would know to eat scallops instead, to make sure the oysters could regenerate. We’d never take more than we needed.”

A view of Sydney Harbour from the gardens.

She adds, “In the 230 years since colonization there has been such a disconnection from the land. Over the last decade we’ve really seen the impact this is having on Australia’s environment. I think this has sparked renewed interest in our age-old conservation techniques. People are shocked that something so simple and effective is no longer in practice.”

We stroll past the Harbour Bridge and along the foreshore, stopping under a huge Port Jackson fig tree that casts dappled light over the grass. While Williams passes around various indigenous artifacts, I ask Riya, a 15-year old Singaporean-Indian student, about her impressions of the tour. “It’s sooooo interesting!” she enthuses. “We’ve been studying Australia’s history as told by white colonizers, so it’s great to see things from an indigenous perspective.” Her teacher tells me that their school sends students to Sydney every year, and Campbell’s interpretive walks are always on the itinerary. “Yes, it’s important to learn about Asian culture. But Australia is one of our closest neighbors, and this is one of the richest cultures in the world. Of course the students should know,” she says.

Campbell agrees. “Most Australian kids are taught about Chinese or European history before they’re taught about what happened in their own backyard. I’m thankful there’s a shift happening—there are a lot of truths coming out now.

Bush tucker foraged on an aboriginal heritage tour of the Royal Botanic Garden.

“There’s been a huge increase in interest. Australia’s identity has changed immensely over the last decade. It’s about demystifying and showing that our culture is not just about the outback and corroborees [Dreamtime dances]. Domestic tourists come to us with a lot of stereotypes. People tell us the stories we share are a real awakening. Many people automatically have a guilt reaction. I say: ‘You’ve been with me for a couple of hours. Let’s talk about what you can do now.’ I don’t want to build another generation of guilt. That’s not what this is about.”

Campbell is on a number of advisory boards for indigenous employment and fair work, including NATOC (NSW Aboriginal Tourism Operators Council), which was established to provide funds and training for Aboriginal-owned start-ups in partnership with other government bodies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Destination NSW, and Tourism Australia, whose Discover Aboriginal Experiences collective helps promote outstanding operators in the industry. The former were instrumental in the establishment of Kadoo Tours, co-managed by Yuin elder Tim Ella and his childhood friend Grant Hyde.

Five years ago they began mapping out interpretive trails around La Perouse, the only Sydney suburb where Aboriginal people have held on to their territory from settlement until the present day. Perhaps ironically, the area is located on the northern headland of Botany Bay, across the water from where Captain Cook landed in 1770, spending eight days ashore and changing Australian history—and the fate of the indigenous communities—forever.

Dunghutti-Jerrinja elder Margret Campbell.

“The goal was to create an experience that allows us to teach as much as possible in a short amount of time,” Hyde says of his two-hour “First Contact” walking tours, which trace a path through native bush and coastline. “We want to give visitors both perspectives of Australia’s history, from an indigenous person and a white person, while bringing the bush to life. You stop and look around and learn about what you can eat. Most people just walk past without noticing the small things. We get visitors to try wattleseed, lilly pilly, and Port Jackson figs. I get people saying to me, ‘We never knew this existed—the bush is alive and full of food.’ ”

Back in Sydney Harbour, environmental educator and Mindjingbal clan member Clarence Slockee contributes his own knowledge of native plants during the freshly minted Aboriginal Cultural Tours around Barangaroo Reserve. A former industrial site, the six-hectare headland has been transformed over the last year into the city’s largest garden of indigenous flora, home to more than 75,000 Australian trees and shrubs. You get to touch, smell, and taste many of them on the walking tour, while Slockee tells stories of how this land was once an important hunting and fishing ground for the Cadigal, as documented in the 6,000-year-old carvings and middens that have been discovered here.

Bush tucker—perhaps a lunch of kangaroo, emu, and damper bread—is a focus on Guringai Aboriginal Tours in northern Sydney’s World Heritage–listed Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Laurie Bimson’s people have been traditional landowners here for more than 40,000 years, making him the ideal person to decode the environment. Bimson begins his tours with a “Welcome to Country” ritual, which highlights the cultural significance of the area to his clan, followed by a smoking ceremony that sees native plants burned to ward off bad spirits and acknowledge ancestors. He points out rock carvings on an overhang: “Oh, these are young—only about 30,000 years old,” he grins. Before visitors can explore the area, Laurie performs an ocher ritual. “I put ocher on your hands, head, and legs, so you can see, touch, and walk in my country,” he explains.

Yuin elder Tim Ella of Kadoo Tours, which runs walks around the coastal suburb of La Perouse.

Ocher is also passed around on the top deck of the Mari Nawi (“Big Canoe”), a tour boat operated by the nonprofit Tribal Warrior Association to showcase indigenous culture on and around Sydney Harbour. Our guide, Terry Olsen, not only regales us with songlines as we bob between bays on a sunny day, but also performs Dreamtime stories when we step ashore at tiny Clark Island—he’s dressed in a yellow loincloth with a white-clay “two rivers” design from north Queensland painted on his body. “All islands on the harbor were considered neutral territory. No one lived on them, but they were often used for meetings or picnics,” he tells me, pointing out middens.

The youngest guide leading tours through the First Australians Galleries at the Australian Museum, Charleen Williams elaborates on the role middens played in sustainability. “The goal of the galleries is to break away from typecasts and tokenistic artifacts,” she says while we wander through the Garrigarrang (“Sea Country”) exhibition, curated by Wailwan elder Laura McBride to showcase the deep connection between indigenous Australians and the coast. “People only know what they’ve been told, and many have been told that we’re primitive. But Aboriginal people are the oldest architects in the world. We’re engineers, and conservationists, and agriculturalists … we’re highly advanced. I love sharing my culture on these tours, breaking labels,” she smiles.

Inside the First Australians galleries at the Australian Museum.

“Tourism has really been the trigger for us to be able to get back appreciation for our culture,” agrees Campbell. “It’s a means to bring us all together. There’s a quiet revolution going on, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

An ancient ocher hand stencil at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

The Details

Australian Museum
Indigenous Tours held every day from 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.; from A$34 per person.

Barangaroo Cultural Tours
Daily; AU$36.50 per person.

Guringai Aboriginal Tours
10 a.m.–1.30 p.m. daily; AU$50.00 per adult, $35 per child.

La Perouse First Contact Tour
Kadoo Tours; AU$44 per adult, $20 per children aged 5–12.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney
Aboriginal Heritage Tours held every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 10–11.30 a.m.; AU$41 per person (free for children under seven).

The Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour 
Daily from 10:30 a.m.; AU$44 per person (free for children under three).

Tribal Warrior Harbour Cruise
Cruise dates subject to availability and minimum numbers; AU$60 per adult, $40 per child.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Sydney’s Songlines”).

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