At the top of the headland overlooking Sydney Harbour, Aboriginal cultural guide Timothy Gray points to a small island. “That’s where Barangaroo lived,” he says, referring to an Aboriginal woman who was a strong role model to locals and fiercely defended her community’s way of life during the British invasion. “[Aboriginal] society is matriarchal not patriarchal. That’s one of the reasons why the park is called ‘Barangaroo.’”
Gray is one of five Aboriginal cultural guides who lead Aboriginal heritage tours for Barangaroo Reserve, a 22-acre park that is part of a larger urban renewal project in development on the neighboring headland.
Next, Gray pulls out a print of a lithograph that depicts the first traditional residents of the region, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. (The 29 clans of the Eora Nation—including the Cameragal, Barangaroo’s tribe—have inhabited the Sydney basin for tens of thousands of years.) Dating to just prior to the arrival of the first British fleet in 1788, Gray’s image shows several forested islands dotting the waterfront. Gentle waves pull at the sandy beaches. Women fish from canoes and collect shells along the shore while men hunt deeper inland. It is a peaceful scene, one that demonstrates harmony between the people and their natural surroundings. It’s also a sharp contrast to the busy harbor today, where ferries and boats ply the water, helicopters buzz overhead, and the machines and tools at the new Barangaroo Project Precinct construction site clang nearby.
Gray defines the moment: “If the ancestors hadn’t been looking after the land for 60,000-plus years, we wouldn’t be here now.”
The rise of Aboriginal tourism in Sydney
No longer in the shadow of mainstream tourism, Aboriginal culture now enjoys a share of the spotlight. An increasing number of tours are on offer across the continent, and more visitors seek them out; since 2013, the number of international travelers who have participated in an indigenous tourism activity has increased by 40 percent. “Every part of Australia is Aboriginal country; they are the original storytellers, and every part of this country has a story to be told,” says Nicole Mitchell, Global Project executive, Experiences for Australia Tourism. “Tourism aids in the sustainability of this culture, the protection of the land, the people and the stories.”
Mitchell attributes the growth of Indigenous tourism to the rise in transformational and transformative travel. “The experiences align with people’s passion points of experiential travel and, most importantly, gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the local people—in this case the Indigenous peoples of Australia.”
While Aboriginal communities exist across the country, mostly clustered in the Northern Territory, an increasing number of people of Aboriginal descent are moving to Sydney, drawn by better opportunities in jobs and education. As of 2016, one third of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lives in New South Wales with about 11 percent in the Sydney area, according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics Report.
A turbulent history of hardship developed for the Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait peoples following the British invasion in 1788 and continued into the 21st century. The past decade has seen the launch of a number of programs designed to create a better sense of belonging. One organization, Reconciliation Australia, encourages Aboriginal communities to manage their own services and resources and to work with the federal government to have more control over their economic opportunities. An area that offers a lot of potential is the Indigenous tourism market, which empowers Aboriginal Australians to communicate their heritage in a variety of ways—while simultaneously providing new experiences for curious visitors across the country.
A traveler’s gateway to Aboriginal culture
Barangaroo is one such success story. “There was consultancy with the Aboriginal community from day one,” says Gray. The community was instrumental in assisting with plans to reinvent the western waterfront as a park honoring the legacy of the Aboriginal heroine.
The Barangaroo Delivery Authority, in charge of the park, made the decision to hire only people of Aboriginal Australian descent as guides. Gray says 50 applicants across several Australian states applied for one of the five guide jobs at the reserve. He counts himself very fortunate to be one of the chosen. “It was a great privilege and honor to be asked to work here and to share and keep the story alive of the Gadigal people and Barangaroo’s tribe, the Cameragal.”
The tour highlights the cultural history of the reserve’s location within Sydney Harbour and offers a hands-on education on traditional food, shelter, and medicine within the area and the site’s continued significance to Aboriginal Australians. Gray describes the methods ancient Aboriginal people used to sustain the natural environment and how they are still relevant today. “We have 75,000 native plants, trees, and shrubs in the park, with 83 species endemic to the Sydney basin,” he says. He stops at a tree along the path, reaches up and pulls a leaf from one of the branches, then instructs, “Take that, scrunch it up, and smell it.” It has an intense minty aroma. “That’s the peppermint gum eucalyptus tree. We call the vapor from that our natural ‘Vick’s Vapor Rub’. It will help your breathing, with colds, blocked noses, things like that,” he explains as we continue along the walkways smelling, touching, tasting our surroundings. We even smudge our skin with natural ochre paint gathered from rocks, learning that it’s part of an Aboriginal welcoming practice.
Sydney serves as a gateway into the continent, and that’s no less true when it comes to Aboriginal Australia. The city provides a contemporary starting point for delving deeper into the oldest living culture on Earth: Tour Barangaroo, enjoy a guided Aboriginal history storytelling visit to the First Australians Gallery at the Australian Museum, cruise aboard the Mari Nawi (which means “big canoe”) with Tribal Warrior to learn about coastal lifestyle and traditional fishing and food-gathering methods, or indulge in an Australian Bush Food experience at the Royal Botanic Garden. Those introductions will broaden all travelers’ understanding of the country on their further journeys into the bush and Outback on Indigenous tourism adventures or while enjoying the many other experiences Australia has on offer.
To chart your own exploration of multi-faceted Aboriginal Australia in Sydney and beyond, visit the Discover Aboriginal Experiences Collective. Each option is owned and led by Aboriginal guides. Most importantly, each member of the collective represents Aboriginal culture with integrity and authenticity.
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