Going Native in the Australian Outback

Cowboys, Indians, and Noble Savages
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 8 2007 7:31 AM

Going Native in the Australian Outback

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One night, while sipping beers in an Alice Springs tourist pub called Bojangles, I befriended a florid-faced, 55-year-old marketing rep named Richard, who had just flown in from Adelaide. Richard proved a happy-go-lucky drinking companion until I mentioned that I'd come to Australia to experience aboriginal culture.

"Aboriginal culture?" he scoffed. "You mean going bush and eating bugs? Throwing spears, that kinda rot?"

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"Maybe," I offered.

"Bollocks, mate. A bunch of Disneyland bollocks, that is. You wanna experience real aboriginal culture? Try cashing a welfare check and going on the piss for two weeks. Get into a punch up, huff some petrol, pass out in the Todd River. Maybe steal a car and drive it bush, use it as a house until your next welfare check arrives. That's aboriginal culture, mate, not some spear-chucking, Garden of Eden horseshit."

At the time, I found Richard's rant off-putting, but the next morning I learned to appreciate its honesty when I met an auburn-haired 27-year-old named Cynthia in an Internet cafe. A Sydneysider visiting Alice Springs for the first time, Cynthia made my acquaintance when she overheard me using the word "tribe" to describe the Arrernte people.

"We don't use the word 'tribe'," she said. "Aboriginals don't consider themselves 'tribes.' So, when you use that word, you're just showcasing your ignorance."

Since any journey to a new land is an ongoing encounter with one's own ignorance, I could only agree with her. "So, what word am I supposed to use?" I asked.

Cynthia never did tell me exactly. "Western ideas and assumptions have poisoned indigenous culture," she said. "Look around. There's a bloody KFC up the street, and it's full of aboriginals. How is that supposed to make their lives better? These people lived in perfect harmony with nature for thousands of years, and now we have them drinking bloody Pepsi and eating fat-fried chicken wings."

"Well, nobody's forcing anyone to—"

"Fifty years ago, aboriginals weren't even considered citizens," she said, holding up her palm as if to shush me. "All we've taught them since is how to love junk food and drink themselves to death. Most of them don't even have ownership rights to their traditional land, so they're stuck in shantytowns instead of living next to nature. Did you know that for 150 years white Australians could kill aboriginals without fear of justice? That the state could take their children away and force them to speak English? That we've destroyed the very environment that gave aboriginals their livelihood?"

I was indeed aware of this information—a brief reading of modern aboriginal history forces one to ponder such sobering facts—but the more Cynthia talked about the destruction of aboriginal culture, the less I was convinced she had much interest in real-life aboriginals. Though I'm sure she meant well, Cynthia had never spent much time in aboriginal communities, nor had she studied any indigenous languages. She'd never witnessed any initiation ceremonies, and her knowledge of "dreamtime" (another incorrect word, she informed me) seemed suspiciously limited to what a tourist might learn after a couple of days at Uluru.

Moreover, Cynthia seemed to be less interested in realistic solutions than in spreading the blame for aboriginal woes as broadly as possible. (Apparently, I'm part of the problem, since I hail from the nation that invented Kentucky Fried Chicken.) By implying that Aborigines won't be happy until they've reverted to munching witchety grubs and wearing loincloths—by assuming that indigenous Australians are little more than simpering victims under the heel of white oppression—Cynthia's bleeding-heart paternalism felt as racist as Richard's bile.

After a week of informal chats with Australians of all political stripes, in fact, I was left with the sense that Aborigines themselves are the only ones with any realistic chance of solving aboriginal problems. Considering that indigenous societies spent 40,000 years demonstrating an innate brilliance for adaptation in harsh settings, I'm optimistic that they will, in time, find ways of better integrating a globalized worldview into their culture.

In saying this, I realize I'm contradicting the very impulse that brought me here. I did not, after all, come to the outback to hang with latte-sipping, Xbox-playing aboriginal accountants who've uploaded their dreamtime songs to iTunes; I've journeyed here with the specific hope of witnessing a way of life that is utterly foreign to me. Such is the irony of indigenous tourism: In seeking out a culture based on its difference from our own, we risk confusing "authenticity" with our idealized expectations of what that authenticity is supposed to look like. This could be why the self-ghettoizing brand of tour-bus-and-dinner-show tourism is so popular: It offers visitors a seamless product—didgeridoo performances, dot paintings, gift-shop boomerangs—that flatters expectations without raising any complicated questions.

In a way, travel anywhere can easily turn into an exercise in fantasy, as I learned when I made an afternoon journey to Ooraminna Homestead, an old cattle station 20 miles south of Alice Springs.

Ooraminna has no aboriginal connection—quite the opposite: It celebrates the heritage of white Australian settlers in the outback—but I hope a visit here will earn me a useful perspective. First settled by William and Mary Hayes in 1884 (and still owned by their descendants), the Ooraminna operation consists of 5,000 head of Hereford cattle scattered across 450,000 acres of outback. A decade ago, when droughts were taking a heavy toll on the cattle industry, the Hayes family introduced tourist farm-stays as a way of diversifying their income. After a film-production company built a replica pioneer township on the property in 1998, the family incorporated the new buildings into their tourism venture. The scenic cattle station now hosts weddings, corporate events, and a steady stream of overnight tourists yearning to experience the Australian outback.

Sal Hurn, a barrel-chested Hayes son-in-law, takes me around the Ooraminna property in his Ford F-250. As we drive across the cattle station checking windmills and water tanks, I can see why this setting caught the attention of movie producers: Sprawling and craggy, with sandy red soil and kangaroos lounging in the shadows, the landscape seems lifted from a postcard. When I marvel at the setting, Sal tells me that hosting visitors has helped him appreciate the beauty of his own land but that he's still getting used to balancing his calling as a rancher with his duties as a tour guide. "I know how to chase cattle," he tells me. "I don't always know how to chase people."

In attempting to sustain a traditional way of living by letting tourists experience it in small doses, Sal shares many similarities with the indigenous tour guides I've met. Since cattlemen and Aborigines would seem to be at odds over land issues, however, I ask Sal how he gets along with his indigenous neighbors. "We have mutual respect for each other," he says. "Blackfellas have worked with us as trackers for over a hundred years. They've always lived close to the land; they appreciate it the same as we do."

"What about the people who'd say that cattle stations have destroyed the indigenous way of life?"

"Some of the most successful aboriginals in Australia own cattle stations," he says. "There's a lot of sad history in this country that can't be taken back, but you have to spend time out here before you make judgments about what goes on. Australia is the most urbanized country in the world; 95 percent of the population lives in cities of the coast. The loudest opinions on aboriginal issues usually come from people who haven't spent much time outside the city."

"Do they change their minds when they come here to visit?"

"I couldn't say, but I hope they at least come to appreciate how we live. When you've spent your whole life in the city, you can learn a lot from a few days in the outback. I've lost count of how many guests have told me they were happy to finally experience the 'real' Australia."

Of course, the "real" Australia can be a slippery concept, as I discover when Sal drives me back to the homestead, where a conference group of 60 Australian travel agents are several cocktails into a noisy al-fresco banquet. Most of the celebrants, I note, have dressed up for the occasion in pioneer costumes—broad-brimmed hats, blue jeans, pointy-toed boots—but something seems a little off-kilter about the whole affair. It isn't until I'm forking a kangaroo steak onto my buffet plate that I realize what's wrong: In addition to cowboys and saloon wenches, a number of the celebrants have come dressed as Plains Indians and serape-draped Mexicans.

By all appearances, these travel agents have chosen to throw a banquet at Ooraminna not because it reminds them of their Australian heritage, but because it reminds them of a Hollywood Western set.

"You think this is odd, you shoulda been here last month," Sal tells me. "We had a Mad Max party and a Priscilla Queen of the Desert party at the same time. What can you say? Some people come here to learn our history and see how we live. Others just want to have a good time."

Rolf Potts is the author of two travel books, Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There.

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