A little over three weeks isn’t nearly enough time to explore this vast country. In fact, months even years might not be enough time to see it all and gain some insight into its history and how that has shaped present day Australia.
Like most fairly new, colonised countries… for example Canada, the United States, South Africa, and South America… Australia has had and still does have its problems with establishing a culture where the first inhabitants and the newcomers are capable of living together peacefully and respectfully with a minimal amount of racism.
My first exposure to the extent of Australia’s problem appeared on my second day in Melbourne where, by accident, I ended up getting off at the tram stop where the Melbourne Museum is located. I was looking for the stop which would take me to the Victorian Market, one of those ‘must sees’ on the list of the Fodor’s guide. Lucky for me I missed it and instead had the opportunity to take in this fantastic museum.
The super nice young man at the ticket desk let me in for free when he found out I was a senior and directed me to the parts of the museum he thought I would be most interested in. There were at least ten different sections to choose from which I could never have done in the two to three hours I had given myself. His recommendation was to begin with the history section which was a perspective of Australia’s relationship with their Aboriginal people. This sounded far more interesting than the explorations of Captain Cook or the arrival of Australia’s first settlers who were prisoners from the British Isles. I was curious to discover what exactly were the problems they are facing and how different they might be from ours in Canada?
For a first time visitor like myself who has just a smidgen of knowledge about the Aborigines and how they are faring in their country, the museum’s portrayal was an honest and informative one. It certainly opened my eyes as to some of the culture of Australia’s first people, the Indigenous Australians as they preferred to be called, instead of Aborigines.
Their history before the coming of the white man portrays their remarkable connection to the land as an ancient people of hunters and wanderers who knew exactly how to use all the resources in the harsh environment of Australia’s interior for their survival. However long it has been since they first made their appearance on the continent of Australia, there is little doubt they can claim the title of the oldest existing civilisation in the world today. This fact in itself is an astounding feat for them which created an overwhelming challenge for the first settlers who were petty thieves and criminals released from the penal system in England. They began arriving in this strange land and to meet their new neighbours in the year of 1788 just about 230 years ago.
One of the best examples of the Indigenous Australians’ ability to be resourceful and adaptive to such a harsh environment is no doubt in their ability to live off the land using everything that was at their disposal which happened to be more than the plants and animals. During my tour of the museum, I learned how in later years, when the first white settlers began to infiltrate the interior to build towns in the rough and ready outback, they found an unusual way to communicate with the original inhabitants.
They discovered that the Aboriginal people had a miraculous ability to fix their old trucks and cars to keep them in good enough shape to endure the rigours of the almost non-existent roads of the outback. This picture below shows an example of their skill. Totally amazed at their skill in keeping their machines running, they became known as the bush mechanics. A series entitled “The Bush Mechanics” was created to eventually become a hit on the Australian TV networks for many years. There are now plans to revive the series with new episodes. It has apparently awakened some understanding between these two very different cultures.
It wasn’t until I flew to Alice Springs that I had the opportunity to learn more about the aboriginals’ strong connection to land and their Country, the word they use to refer to Australia. I gained a better understanding of how this connection is reflected in their art work which now sells around the world. Their art can help all of us to increase our knowledge of them which in turn will help us to understand why it’s been so difficult for the two cultures to come together. For example, I have learned that the term “Dreamtime” was the method they used to record their culture and their spiritual beliefs through stories related to every animal and plant. Since they didn’t use writing, their stories were told with drawings painted on the rocks and the bark of the trees in colours made from the ochre or red sand around them. Each story tells a moral or gives a lesson about how to live and behave which parents used to teach their children. You could say it served the same purpose as our Bible although the first white settlers wouldn’t have understood this.
Alice Springs has numerous art galleries and shops promoting Aboriginal art work of some artists who have gained world-wide fame. They are continuing to tell the stories that have been passed down to them by their ancestors by using a technique of painting with dots. This is the favoured method of a tribe located near Alice Springs. Other artists are painting with water colours which are equally as beautiful. The sellers of these works of art are quick to point out that a portion of the proceeds goes back to the communities. Unfortunately, such original works have become very expensive which has given rise to the proliferation of cheap knock offs coming from China.
Realising the need for more projects to raise money for the outlying communities around Alice and other centres, the people and the government are giving their support to creating other projects that will make their communities more sustainable and give further recognition to how the Aboriginal way of life can be of benefit to the country. This has resulted in the promotion of bushfoods or Bush Tucker which is appearing on restaurant menus and in the aisles of supermarkets. It’s all the rage for those who are always looking to try new foods. They can now indulge in kangaroo and emu meat, crocodile, bush tomatoes, and wattle seeds to name just a few popular bushfoods. Wattle is another name for the acacia tree of which Australia has over 100 varieties. The use of plants to help in health and prevention for common everyday illnesses is also catching on. Those famous eucalyptus and tea tree oils are now shipped around the world for their medicinal properties. Keep in mind that the Indigenous are very old and still surviving today because they knew how to use all their plants for healing. Unfortunately, their medicines could not prevent a large portion of their population from being wiped out by the diseases brought to them by their Europeans invaders.
Many Australians are now opening up their minds to learn more from their first inhabitants as we are in our country of Canada. It’s definitely an encouraging movement to witness.
One of the first things to hit me, which I found very distressing when I made my first sojourn into the centre of Alice…the locals preference for how they refer to their city … was the huge number of Aborigines wandering around or simply sitting in the parks and shopping malls doing not much of anything. The more lively ones seemed to be enjoying on-going conversations on their cell phones. I later found out that many of them have been banned by their communities throughout Central Australia because of their drinking problems. They have chosen to set up tent sites along the Todd River in Alice, which has a special spiritual connection for them, but in doing so have brought their alcohol problems with them. Drinking has led to parental neglect with the youth running amok attacking whites and breaking into the downtown businesses. With strong leadership from a few Aboriginals, the town council is now listening and working with them to come up with solutions for how to deal with the problem. There has been some gradual improvement as more children are encouraged to stay in school resulting in a slight increase in the number of high school graduates.
Aboriginals who can’t find work or who are without shelter do qualify for a basic allowance from the government to provide for the needs of their children. The government also put in a stipulation that the sale of alcohol would be restricted to them. Of course, this hasn’t been an answer to the problem; it has only exacerbated it. Some of the town officials are finally realising that only way it can work is if they are given more control over their own lives. Various Prime Ministers, such as Harold Holt, have tried to address the problem by enacting certain laws around land claims, but most have failed because of ingrained racism. My sense is that right now it’s an uncomfortable subject for most Aussies to talk about except for the young people who do understand the need for change in solving this huge problem.
A trip to Central Australia and the Outback wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Aluru, the Aboriginal name for what we have always called Ayer’s Rock. I quickly signed up for a one-day excursion with Emu Run Tours. The Rock is about 250 km west of Alice which meant an early start at 6 a.m. and a long day that ended at midnight back at my pick-up point near where my Airbnb place was located.
This tour was worth every dollar spent….no tours come cheaply in Australia. We were given just enough breaks to keep us watered, fed, and comfortable throughout the long bus ride. The guides and driver who took turns at keeping us informed and safe would change their roles so we got different perspectives from all three of them. They were fantastic with a sense of Aussie humour to boot. Of course, the main highlights of the day were our first sighting of the Rock sitting majestically there in the middle of nowhere.
Our close up view of the rock was led by our knowledgeable guide, Eric, who happened to be a French Canadian from Quebec who has a genuine interest in the Indigenous Australians. Not only did he present us with a balanced view to the problems between the two cultures, he was also exceptional at relating the stories and interpretations of the cave drawings he was showing us.
He also took some time to explain the present day situation of Aluru. Since it sits on the most sacred piece of land to the Aboriginals and has become a famous tourist attraction, it has morphed into the contentious issue of land reclamation. After years of debate, the government with representation from both sides, has struck a deal with the Aboriginals whereby it can remain as a tourist site but can also be closed at times when there is a sacred ceremony or some other indigenous event. The most important decision has been to ban any further climbing up to the top of the rock as of October of next year. In other words, it is to be shared for the benefit of both sides…a win/win situation we hope.
Our final event and farewell to this tour was to witness how the setting sun can change Aluru to various hues ranging from brown to pink and, finally, crimson red. To top off this sight, our team of guides fired up the ‘barbie’ to BBQ for us some good old Aussie beef and sausages accompanied by a glass of Australian red, white or sparkling wine. What a fantastic farewell to such a memorable day.
Australia is on the precipice of change which could set a wonderful example of how two very different cultures could exist and prosper. Since I arrived here, I have learned much about the problem facing her and other countries, including our own, who face the same challenge. I am leaving you with the following quote from a little known professor of one of Australia’s universities who said:
“Australia is the flattest, driest, ugliest place on earth. Only those who can be possessed by her can know what secret beauty she holds.”
* Olive Pink was a woman who devoted her entire life to fighting for the Aboriginal way of life when she saw how the rampant race for its gold and other minerals was affecting their spiritual and physical existence. She never gave up her fight and died in Alice Springs in her ’90’s. Her legacy was to leave this huge tract of land, the Olive Pink Botanical Gardens, which is run voluntarily by a group of dedicated citizens who want to keep her devotion and good works alive. It was here where I had my first up close meeting with a trio of kangaroo.