6 things you should know before travelling to Indigenous Australia
Nine years ago, I founded Red Earth, an organisation that creates 10-day immersive experiences for young people to travel to remote Aboriginal communities and homelands. As a result, I have been lucky enough to spend the past decade travelling to Indigenous areas in some of the most remote parts of Australia, such as with people of the Kuku Yalanji clan in Cape York, the Kunwinjku people in Arnhem Land or the Anangu people in the deserts of Central Australia.
Here are some of the things I wished I knew before I ever set foot on Indigenous land:
1. The environment might kill you
I’ve run out of fuel in the middle of the night in the rainforests of Cape York and popped my last good tyre in the middle of a dirt road in Yolngu country in Arnhem Land. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
Australia is a big and dangerous place and, outside of the big cities, you can find yourself in trouble very quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing. The areas in Australia with the greatest number of Indigenous people by population density tend to also have the most extreme climates and the least infrastructure.
If you’re planning to go to an Indigenous community or homeland, make sure that you follow basic outback driving safety (World Nomads has a good post on this).
On top of their recommendations I would add that you ensure that you:
- have called ahead to service stations to check if they are still open. Never assume a fuel icon on a map will mean a definite chance to refuel (especially with the effect of COVID-19 on the tourism supply chain).
- cross-check the region with the time of year eg. don’t go to Cape York during cyclone season
- do not cross waterways that do not have a depth marker or if the water is visibly flowing
- slow down when near Indigenous communities and assume that people may be walking on the road, including at night.
- make sure you’re actually allowed to go (more on this below)
2. You might not be allowed entry
In some special areas, such as Arnhem Land and the APY Lands, Indigenous people get to choose who can and can’t come onto their land. Land Councils are in charge of administering this strict system and failing to follow the rules could see you turned around by police with a $1,000 fine to your name.
Aboriginal land is private land and not Crown or public land, and permits allow Traditional Owners to decide who comes to see them. As a result, you will not be allowed to travel unless the Traditional Owner of the area to which you are seeking access approves your permit request. This can take 10 days or more so make sure you lodge your application well in advance.
In addition to this, even once you have a permit, there may be special rules that apply to the places you’re going to. For instance, if you’re traveling through areas governed by the Northern Land council, you may not bring alcohol or other volatile substances of abuse with you. Laws can change on a community by community basis so make sure you check them out before starting your journey.
3. You might only get to see Indigenous people painted up in ceremonial clothing if you’re lucky
After learning about Indigenous Australia in school and watching historical documentaries on SBS, many people are surprised to see signs of modernity in Aboriginal communities and homelands. I have heard from quite a few people who have travelled to remote Australia saying that they expected to see more Traditional Owners in traditional attire and were surprised to see the trappings of modern life such as mobiles phones, western clothes and 4WD vehicles around communities.
Like anybody, Indigenous people will probably use technology available to them to make their life better! The key to a textured and contemporary understanding of Aboriginal Australia is to watch out for the interplay between traditional Indigenous culture and ‘western’ culture. In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Elders, none have completely rejected western culture. Instead, they worry about finding a way for their families to live with one foot both the traditional world and the modern world.
4. Be open to new takes on the oldest culture in the world
The first thing to say about cultural differences is that they are not uniform. There is not one Indigenous culture and we would be foolish to infer cultural difference solely on the basis of someone’s ethnicity. And yet, being able to experience the world’s oldest ongoing culture directly from people who have had it passed down from generation to generation for 50,000 years is one of the draw cards of going to these incredible places isn’t it?
I will let lucky travellers pick out their favourite ‘cultural moment’ but my personal favourite is the respect for family that tends to characterise the kinship system in Indigenous Australia: leaving the city and heading to some of the regions Red Earth is partnered with is a lesson in the importance of family ties, near and far. In my experience of remote homelands, many Indigenous people have an incredible reservoir of goodwill for their extended families and their broader community. A great lesson for all of us.
You may or may not come across other cultural differences. Be open to them. They’re one of the reasons you made the trip aren’t they?
5. Make sure sacred sites stay sacred
If you slow down and listen for long enough, you’ll start to hear some Elders talk about how their lives are inextricably linked to the earth and the stars. The Dreamtime belief derives much of its power from the physical world; where Notre-Dame expresses Judeao-Christians theology, a cave or boulder can support an entire Dreamtime creation story.
An easy mistake to make is to assume that if a site is on your map, it’s perfectly alright for you to visit it. That may well not be the case. Everyone now knows that hiking up Uluru ran against the wishes of Anangu Traditional Owners, but the same tension between law and lore is true for many other sites around Australia. I’ve seen people jump out of 4WDs and swim in sacred women’s birthing sites while Elders watched on helplessly. What’s legal isn’t always what’s respectful.
Be respectful of the environment and make sure to find out from Traditional Owners if it’s appropriate to visit certain sites, even if they are open or on your guide. And, of course, make sure you leave everything as you have found it.
6. Be COVID Safe
It wouldn’t be 2020 without mentioning COVID-19. Indigenous homelands and communities are home to the world’s oldest ongoing culture and that very culture is held by Elders and Traditional Owners all over Australia. Health authorities are deeply concerned about outsiders bringing a potentially deadly virus into the heart of some of the world’s most important communities.
My advice: while the pandemic is still smouldering, don’t go unless you can get tested right before going. Indeed, all Red Earth employees and participants will undergo mandatory testing within 4 days of travelling to any remote Indigenous area while COVID-19 still poses a risk.
August 10 2020 | Posted by Arthur Alla, Founder and Director of Red Earth