On a hot summer’s day we watch the Mari Nawi pull into Circular Quay wharf and walk on board, not knowing what to expect.
We’ve just embarked on the Tribal Warrior’s Aboriginal cultural cruise of Sydney Harbour, an experience recommended by Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia.
It’s something not many Sydneysiders have thought to do. Living in a busy metropolitan city you don’t always expect to be able to connect to traditional Aboriginal culture — unless you count watching a didgeridoo being played in Circular Quay.
But as Professor Langton explains in her book, even in Australia’s largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne, Aboriginal people have retained their customs.
“Many Aboriginal cultures and traditions are still strong and still practised but so few non-Aboriginal people know anything about it,” Prof Langton told news.com.au.
“If more people learn about Aboriginal culture available in their city, they may have a very different view of the city they live in.
“Everybody has a history so like everybody else, Aboriginal people want people to know their history.”
Prof Langton’s book suggests cultural experiences that can help Aussies learn more about Aboriginal culture and offers insights into language, customs, storytelling and etiquette for visitors.
The travel guide has been a surprise hit, according to publishers Hardie Grant.
“Sales have certainly exceeded our expectations,” a Hardie Grant spokeswoman told news.com.au.
The book has been reprinted several times and the first print run was sold out within a few weeks. More than 16,000 digital copies have also been sold on Bookscan in the nine months since it was published.
“I think it goes to show that Australians, as much as tourists, have realised their knowledge on our First Nations peoples is severely lacking and it’s about time we understood and celebrated them more,” the spokeswoman said.
Most of the fellow passengers on the Tribal Warrior tour are tourists from countries like the US and Denmark. We are one of a small handful of Sydneysiders on the boat. From what we could tell, the others won their trip via a competition and as we waited at the wharf for our boat, one of the men told me he was sceptical about whether the cruise would be worthwhile for someone who has lived in Sydney all his life.
Afterwards he described the experience as fantastic.
The Tribal Warrior’s boat arrives at Clark Island.Source:Supplied
Our guide revealed how Aboriginal people could use one plant as a source of water, food and shelter. It’s a plant I’m sure I’ve seen everywhere around Sydney and hearing the guide talk about its uses helps you to appreciate the deep understanding and knowledge Aboriginal people have for the ancient land they have lived on for 50,000 years and which we now call home.
There’s a lot more hidden under our noses, as the cruise and Welcome to Country reveal. Here are some interesting facts about Aboriginal culture in Australia.
THE BABYSITTING TREE
Back when there were no mobile phones to track your kids, Aboriginal parents used a tree to help find lost children.
Kids were told to find a casuarina tree if they got lost and wait there for their parents to turn up. This is partly because spotting a tree in the bush was easier than searching for a small child but also because of the tree’s spindly leaves, which snakes don’t like. So the little ones were safe.
A member of Tribal Warrior talks about bush tucker and the ‘babysitting tree’.Source:Supplied
THE DINGO IS NOT A NATIVE AUSTRALIAN ANIMAL
It’s so much part of our Australian identity but the dingo actually came from Malaysia about 7500 years ago. Asian seafarers brought the dog to our shores and it’s well and truly made itself at home.
Dingoes are not native animals. Picture: Kingfisher Bay ResortSource:Supplied
IT’S NOT ACTUALLY CALLED A DIDGERIDOO
As crazy as this sounds, the word didgeridoo was the English name given to the musical instrument. In the Aboriginal language it’s actually called Yidaki by some, although there are at least 45 different names for it due to the many different dialects spoken.
YOU’RE SPEAKING IN ABORIGINAL
Every time you say the word “kangaroo” you are speaking an Aboriginal language. Others you may say without realising it are koala, coo-ee, kookaburra, wallaby, billabong, dingo and wombat.
RELATED: What life was like for Aboriginal people during colonisation
The word didgeridoo is not actually Aboriginal explains a member of the Tribal Warrior team.Source:Supplied
THERE ARE STILL MANY ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES BEING SPOKEN
Sadly many of the more than 250 Indigenous languages have been lost but there are still 120 being spoken even now.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DIE
Many Aboriginal people believe that ancestral spiritual beings, the “Old People” remain in the landscape. But there are many different beliefs about what happens to people when they die. For example, the Yolnu people in northeast Arnhem Land hold a funeral ceremony to send people’s spirits to the island of the dead.
“Aboriginal people believe in a spiritual world, not so much an afterlife,” Prof Langton said.
Namarali is a Wandjina, a cloud and rain spirit, that belongs to the Woroora tribe. He is pictured with his wife Jarlarloyn in a painting by Robyn Mungulu. Picture: Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture CentreSource:Supplied
WHY IS A WELCOME TO COUNTRY PERFORMED?
According to Langton’s book the Aboriginal people believed spiritual beings who played a part in the creation of the world during The Dreamtime were sources of great power that could sometimes be dangerous.
The Aboriginal people believe the past can resonate in certain places so when visitors enter their land, Indigenous owners perform smoking or water blessing rituals to give them safe passage.
While we are used to seeing smoking ceremonies, others can involve throwing water on visitors or having the sweat of the Elder wiped on your face.
LOOKING AFTER GUESTS IS VERY IMPORTANT
Aboriginal people become very upset if people are injured or become sick while visiting their land because they feel responsible for them. They may believe they haven’t done their job to reassure the spirits of the land about their visitors.
This is partly why they don’t like people to climb Uluru. At least 37 people have died while climbing the rock since 1958.
The author travelled as a guest of the Tribal Warrior Aboriginal cultural cruise.
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