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There is a valuable lesson we can learn from the First Peoples known for their love and care for country in the aftermath of recent fire catastrophes. Adding “walking on country” onto your bucket list might help you better understand the meaning of “country” by engaging its traditional custodians.
Walking on country is often a special experience for those fortunate enough to be accompanied by an elder or a respected Indigenous guide of the area they visit.
After all, according to the 2016 Australian reconciliation barometer, only 33% of the general population ever socialise with Indigenous people, whether occasionally or frequently.
Central Queensland-based Gooreng Gooreng elder Uncle Richard Johnson says engaging a local custodian for your expedition enables you to connect more deeply to country.
When you’re walking on country, you have to read the landscape, get a feel, sit quietly for a while. You’ll find that the land will speak to you, give you information that will tell you whether 'I can go here', and maybe ‘nah, I don’t think I should go that way.’
That is the very reason Goolarabooloo man Daniel Roe’s great-grandfather Paddy Roestarted the Lurujarri Heritage Trails north of Broome in Western Australia during the dry season of Barrgana over thirty years ago.
Cultural and environmental awareness
Daniel Roe explains that "it was a form of coming together that people could walk together and share the land, the story and heritage of the area." He added that this is a way of raising awareness about the importance of the land and what it means to the Aboriginal people.
The Lurujarri Trails first began as educational tours for university students interested to learn about the Aboriginal relationship with land and approach to land management.
The Roe family have since walked with over 6000 visitors of different ages and cultural backgrounds.
Roe says the nine-day walk follows the traditional song cycle within the family’s area of responsibility; “where we operate is one part of it because it’s probably pretty much near the centre of the song cycle which starts ups on the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome and stretches down south of Broome as far Bidyadanga Community.”
Prepare and train
Daniel Roe says it’s not unusual for older visitors up to their eighties to join the physically demanding trail.
However, he advises travellers with existing injuries or chronic conditions to be prepared and start training for the walk as early as possible.
“Some have been through big operations with knee constructions, hip constructions. Gives them some sense of achievement and willingness to know more about Indigenous culture of Australia - of course this is but one small part of it. It drives to know that people out there do care and are interested.”
North East Arnhem Land-based Lirrwi Tourism has also seen an increase in grandparents travelling with grandchildren on day trips and multiple-day walks.
Yolŋu man, Arian Pearson, is the Chairman of the Lirrwi Yolŋu Aboriginal Tourism Corporation. He says; “a lot of the time it’s people who have retired and they want to experience something different that they’ve never really experienced and a lot of the elderly that come want to learn about our culture because they never really had an opportunity to connect with Indigenous peoples before or to learn about their culture."
Cultural tourism creates opportunities for locals
Pearson says the cultural ecological tourism business provides opportunities for local Yolŋu to share their stories and make a living. Therefore he thinks it is very important for many locals:
"It’s establishing something beneficial that the future generations can continue on so planting the seed for a sustainable future through tourism but teaching others about our culture.”
Respecting culture and protocols
University of South Australia’s senior lecturer in tourism management Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles says visitors must respect the traditional culture and protocols of the country they visit. She draws on the example of the recent closing of the Uluru climb due to a lack of respect for Anangu values.
“Non-Indigenous people, in general, do not seem to understand the idea of ‘no’."
She explains, that there are places that visitors cannot access, and some areas will have restrictions,"...for instance, men’s sites versus women’s sites. That is an ongoing push to make visitors aware that being a tourist doesn’t mean that you get everything that you want that money can’t buy you everything.”
Immerse in the land and culture
Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says that while Indigenous ecotourism is gaining popularity among mostly international and some domestic travellers interested to immerse themselves in the land and culture of our traditional custodians, there are other ways of engaging with Aboriginal people on country near you.
“There is another thing that doesn’t get as much attention because it’s not about the commercial side of things. There are Aboriginal cultural educators who offer experiences of walking on country that would be less visible and those are offered to schools groups or interest groups and they are not promoted by Tourism Australia. They are more locally known and found through the educational system.”
Uncle Richard Johnson says your local Indigenous organisations are a good starting point to find a respected Aboriginal guide you can walk on country with.
Dr Higgins-Desbiolles believes that in the aftermath of unprecedented bushfires, there is a lot that the rest of Australia can learn from our First Nations people.
“Aboriginal experiences of loving the country and understanding how this country’s gonna change and by ‘country’, I mean ‘landscape’. That will be one of the great gifts that Aboriginal people can offer.”
The federal government is urging visitors to help rebuild fire-ravaged communities by supporting their tourism businesses. To find out if your intended destination is affected by fire, visit the Bureau of Meteorology website for latest updates.