Going Native in the Australian Outback

If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Arrernte Country
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 6 2007 11:22 AM

Going Native in the Australian Outback

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Travelers wanting to catch a glimpse of an aboriginal dance performance near the tidy Australian outback town of Alice Springs are usually pointed to the Red Centre Dreaming show, which includes a three-course buffet dinner and all the sparkling wine you can drink. Since the local Arrernte Aborigines don't feel comfortable sharing their ceremonial dances in front of a paying audience, the Red Centre Dreaming performers are brought in from the state of Queensland, hundreds of miles away. In cultural terms, watching Queensland aboriginal dances in Alice Springs is kind of like going to Denmark to watch a flamenco performance—but the tourists here don't seem to mind.

Though I'm trying my best to understand the cultural intricacies of indigenous Australian society, at times it can be hard to keep up with all the new information. Yesterday, while visiting Uluru National Park, I managed to learn a number of Pitjantjatjara aboriginal words, such as kapi, which means "water," and tjala, which means "honey ant." Today, having driven five hours to Alice Springs—a small increment on any map of Australia—I've discovered that these words are now useless. Here, in the local Arrernte language, "water" is kwatye; "honey ant" is yerrampe. For travelers hoping to learn about aboriginal culture while seeing the sights of central Australia, this can be somewhat befuddling—kind of like the "If it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" phenomenon of Western European package tourism, but without any easily identifiable frontiers.

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Before the arrival of European interlopers, indigenous Australian societies spoke around 250 languages and 700 dialects. Though all these aboriginal subcultures shared a land-based nomadic lifestyle, similar religious practices, and some forms of intertribal trade, they never developed a collective sense of "aboriginal" identity, and broad cultural variations existed across relatively short distances. British settlers in the late 18th century, for example, noted that Aborigines on the north side of Sydney Harbor spoke a different language from those living on the south side. To this day, most indigenous Australians identify more with their historical kinship group than a general "aboriginal" identity, and the closest thing to a cultural lingua franca is English (which is usually pidginized, since its vocabulary isn't well suited to expressing the nature-based indigenous worldview).

Thus, a visit to Alice Springs can be confusing, since the town functions as an administrative center that attracts people from all parts of central Australia. Tourists browsing the souvenir shops and indigenous-art galleries along the Todd Street Mall might assume that the groups of aboriginal people dozing along the walkway are all hard-luck locals—an outback variation of the urban homeless—when, in fact, there's a good chance those aboriginal folks are themselves tourists to Alice Springs. One group lounging along Todd Mall, for example, might be a family of Pintupi speakers in town for a daughter's softball tournament; another might be Kaytetye women who've hitched in for land-rights hearings; a third group might be young Alyawarr men indulging in a one-week bender, since their elders don't allow alcohol on indigenous land. And, since more than 20 percent of Alice Springs' 30,000 permanent residents are of aboriginal heritage, all these visitors might have trouble relating to indigenous locals, who are known to drive Land Cruisers, live in suburban bungalows, and feel more comfortable speaking English than their traditional languages.

My guide here in Alice Springs, a handsome, 46-year-old Arrernte man named Bob Taylor, speaks almost no Arrernte. This is because, at age 8, he was forcibly taken from his Arrernte mother and—with the approval of the Australian government—sent to a home for "half-caste" aboriginal children in South Australia, where, for the next nine years, he was allowed to speak only English. More than 100,000 indigenous children, collectively called the "Stolen Generation," suffered this practice of enforced assimilation between 1910 and 1970. Unhappily trapped between cultures as a young man, Bob eventually found his calling as a chef and wandered his way to Europe, where he landed work at various five-star hotel restaurants in Holland. Ask him about this experience, and he'll tell you about the idiosyncrasies of his Dutch ex-girlfriends with the same affection and enthusiasm he uses to describe his Arrernte cousins.

Bob started his tour operation two years ago, as a way of embracing his heritage and taking a break from the boozy trappings of restaurant culture. His business, RT Tours, has a fleet of one 12-person bus; he is the only employee. Since this is low season for tourists, I am his lone client. Today we are driving 50 miles out of Alice Springs to West MacDonnell National Park, where Bob plans to grill kangaroo filets and teach me how to find bush food. I notice he's packed a didgeridoo—a long, wooden, tubelike aboriginal instrument famous for its growling, ethereal sound. From my research, I know that the Arrernte people didn't historically use the didgeridoo, but I don't mention this to Bob.

As we drive, the landscape outside our bus is spectacular: prickly yellow spinifex grass clumped in the dark orange soil; furrowed ridges of dusty purple rock; broad blue horizons. Twice the size of California, Northern Territory is home to just over 200,000 people (most of whom live in Darwin, on the northern coast), and the sense of dry, sprawling emptiness is visceral and humbling. Leathery kangaroo carcasses—roadkill, from the looks of it—fringe the roadside.

I ask Bob how it feels to be a child of the Stolen Generation, but he doesn't seem to want to dwell on it. Instead, he steers the conversation to his business and how he feels he's in a unique position to bridge two cultures. "Tourism is a great opportunity for aboriginal people to share their culture and create economic opportunities," he says. "The biggest problem is that we're not really driven by the dollar. Most aboriginal businesspeople are more interested in living close to the land, getting off welfare, and preserving traditions for future generations. I like to think that my business is an example of the opportunities that are out there."

"What kinds of people usually come on your tours?"

"Europeans. A lot of Germans, plus some Italians and French. For some reason, these people are interested in indigenous cultures from all over the world. That means my main competition isn't Sydney or the Great Barrier Reef, but places like Nepal and Peru. Aboriginal tour operators are trying to get the word out, trying to convince people that our culture is as old and interesting as you'll find anywhere. I just wish we could get more of you Americans to come out."

"You don't get many Americans?"

"American tourists out here tend to be older folks, who don't like hiking around and getting dirty. They're happy to see a dance or listen to a didgeridoo at their hotel, then fly back to Sydney. But if you want to understand aboriginal Australia, you have to come here for the land itself. If you don't experience the flies and the heat and the long distances, you're going to miss the point."

When we arrive at MacDonnell National Park, Bob dons a broad-brimmed felt hat and leads me on a two-hour hike along the steep, red-rock chasms. Here, we spot rock wallabies along the cliffs, examine the sandy foxholes made by kangaroos digging for water, and scan the landscape for bush food. Since plants don't grow much in the searing heat of the Australian summer, Bob breaks out a Tupperware jar containing fruits he's collected on other journeys. I can't keep up with the Arrernte words for all the food, but Bob points out that each fruit has an English nickname: bush fig, bush cucumber, bush banana, bush orange. As I sample the foods, I find that these names are somewhat arbitrary: The bush coconut, for example, is sweet and fleshy, but it resembles a tree gall; the bush tomato has an acidic, raisiny taste. Bob tells me that over 30 edible bush fruits are known to aboriginals in central Australia and that the European explorers who famously starved to death here in the 19th century died in a land where indigenous people had prospered for 20,000 years.

Leading me back out of the canyons, Bob sets up kitchen gear at a picnic area and cooks me a tasty lunch of seared kangaroo filets and bread dipped in bush spices. As I eat, he takes out the didgeridoo and begins to play, showing me how he circulates air through his nose to make a continuous breath. As much as I enjoy the spooky, reverberating music, I can't contain my curiosity. "I've read that the didgeridoo doesn't come from central Australia," I say when he's finished.

"You're right," he says. "It comes from the north, in Arnhem Land. But I've found that tourists want to hear aboriginals play the didgeridoo, regardless of where it comes from. When you run a business like mine, that's the trick: balancing people's expectations of aboriginal culture with the real thing. That's why a town like Alice Springs has galleries full of paintings from a culture that never had houses to hang them in."

"You mean all that aboriginal art isn't authentic?"

"It depends on what you mean by authentic. But yeah: If you want to see how tourist demand changes local traditions, look at the aboriginal art business."

The following day, I head into Alice Springs to do just that.

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

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