Going Native in the Australian Outback
The tricky task of balancing visitors' expectations of aboriginal culture with the real thing.
By Rolf Potts
Updated Tuesday, March 6, 2007, at 11:22 AM ET
From: Rolf Potts
Subject: The Pitjantjatjara Word for Tourists and Ants Is One and the Same
Posted Monday, March 5, 2007, at 1:07 PM ET
Here's some advice for anyone hoping to capture the contradictions of Australian outback tourism within a single snapshot: Bring your camera to the base of Uluru—the massive orange-red monolith smack in the center of the Australian continent—and aim the lower half of your viewfinder at the large sign near the hiking trailhead. This sign, which was erected by the local Pitjantjatjara people, solemnly requests that you don't climb up the face of a rock that they consider sacred. Aim your camera at a certain angle, however, and the top half of your viewfinder will capture the knots of tourists who've decided to climb the rock anyway (aided by a safety chain designated by the Australian National Park Service for that very purpose).
The Pitjantjatjara euphemism for tourists in their homeland is minga tjuta—"ants"—and from this angle you can see why: Looking up from the base of Uluru, the tidy lines of people inching up the climbing trail look like insects on a mound.
I, too, have come to central Australia as a minga tjuta, though I'm not here to scale the slopes of Uluru. Rather, I have resolved to spend the next week looking for a meaningful experience of Australian aboriginal culture. My guide for today, a Pitjantjatjara man named Wally Jacob, is late—so I've been killing time by taking photos of central Australia's iconic sandstone landmark and the dusty, red desert that surrounds it.
I've always prided myself on traveling independently in unfamiliar cultures, but joining a guided tour of aboriginal Uluru is something of a necessity: Indigenous people in this part of Australia are famously averse to the notion of random backpackers wandering onto tribal land without a formal welcome, and anthropologists have noted that Aborigines generally prefer busloads of superficial tourists (who buy a lot of souvenirs and are quickly gone) to more earnest seekers, who unwittingly traipse through ceremonial lands, make themselves at home, and ask a lot of intrusive questions. This cultural distaste for drop-in visitors goes back to the earliest interactions with Europeans in Australia. The first aboriginal phrase recorded by 18th-century British convict-settlers was warra-warra ("go away"), and Capt. James Cook noted in his 1770 expedition journal that, in spite of his attempts to interact with indigenous Australians, "all they seemed to want was for us to be gone."
Since it has become unrealistic for outsiders to "be gone" from this Australian landscape, local Aborigines have used organized tours as a way of retaining control over how visitors see their ancestral homeland. Besides competition from nonaboriginal tours—including camel treks and helicopter flyovers—local control is certainly not all-encompassing: Because of functional compromises in regaining legal ownership of Uluru from the Australian government in the 1980s, climbing the rock was never formally outlawed. And, given that 250,000 or so tourists ascend the sacred site each year in defiance of Pitjantjatjara wishes, it's safe to assume that many visitors are more interested in the scenic pleasures of the monolith than the aboriginal culture that surrounds it. During the tourist high season, the nearby hotel complex swells to become the fourth-most-populous settlement in Australia's Northern Territory—and more people pass by Uluru in a single week than Pitjantjatjara people of previous generations saw in a lifetime.
When Wally arrives—dressed in flip-flop sandals, dirty brown pants, and a crisp blue oxford shirt that reads "Anangu Tours"—he barely notices the crowds of tourists. Instead, he grins and points to a spot 20 feet away from us. "Ngintaka," he says.
I look to Keiran Lusk, the tall, salt-and-pepper bearded Australian who serves as Wally's interpreter. "Perentie lizard," he says. A couple of seconds pass before I see the wrinkly, long-necked reptile—a 4-foot-long creature that has probably been sitting there since I first arrived. "No worries," Keiran confides. "I didn't see him, either."
Now that the ngintaka has been spotted, a knot of tourists gathers. Several cameras flash at once, and the lizard flees. Wally shrugs, tugs a brown Billabong ball cap onto his head, and leads us down the hiking trail.
As we skirt the base of Uluru, I chat indirectly with the gray-haired Pitjantjatjara guide, asking my questions via Keiran. Wally tells me that he was born in the bush 53 years ago, then taken by his mother to a Lutheran mission, where he was given his European name. He tells me that he's tired today, because he was busy collecting spear-wood the night before. He tells me about his efforts to teach old traditions to Pitjantjatjara teenagers, who often prefer video games or hip-hop music to spear-hunting and bushcraft. These young people, he says with a weary giggle, are like tourists: It's hard to hold their attention for very long.
Keiran adds details and clarifications as he translates for Wally. "Modern improvements have had mixed results in aboriginal Australia," he says. "The younger generation is living on TV and junk food. They're losing a part of themselves because they've lost their connection to the land. Some of them are dying before their parents because of alcoholism or diabetes."
As he says this, Keiran keeps an eye on people in other tour groups, and he casually steps into the line of sight whenever someone tries to take Wally's picture. When I ask him why he does this, Keiran tells me it's not just an issue of respect, but also business integrity. "Tourists love to have aboriginals in their pictures of Uluru. It makes the photos seem more authentic. But if we let every random person take Wally's picture, people would lose an incentive for taking our tours. Plus, we'd never get anything done."
Wally leads us to a cave at the base of Uluru that is associated with the mala tjurukpa, or "hare wallaby dreaming," which describes an event in Pitjantjatjara prehistory. Such mythic stories of "dreamtime"—epic tales wherein snakes walk, wallabies throw spears, and mulga seeds seek revenge—are central to aboriginal religious and ethical beliefs, describing in detail the creation of the world and humankind's role in it. Celebrated in classic travel books like Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, these dreamtime stories are one of the most intriguing aspects of indigenous Australian culture.
The stories are also one of the most misunderstood aspects of indigenous culture. One hundred years ago, for example, European anthropologists believed that a central dreamtime story for the Pitjantjatjara involved the pungkalungu—giant, flesh-eating ogres who exacted revenge for misdeeds. As it turned out, pungkalungu stories were merely informal Pitjantjatjara folk tales—a local variation of the bogeyman, used to scare naughty children.
" 'Dreamtime' is an imperfect translation," Keiran tells me. "Tjurukpa, as the Pitjantjatjara understand it, is no dream. There's no good equivalent word in English; it's a kind of traditional law, which describes history, geography, and morality. Researchers estimate humans have lived near Uluru for 22,000 years, but the Pitjantjatjara believe that they have always been here, that tjurukpa is part of an ongoing condition, not a mythic past. This oral tradition is accumulated through years of ceremonial initiation and life experience, and it's one of the most technically and legally complex religious systems in the world."
Keiran goes on to relate the dreamtime story of mythic hare-wallabies who visited Uluru and unwittingly found themselves in a feud with the mulga-seed men, the wintalka. The vengeful wintalka created a dog monster to destroy the ceremonial camp of the hare-wallaby men, and signs of the struggle are evident in the lumps and notches of Uluru's furrowed red slopes.
As stories go, the mala tjurukpa isn't particularly spellbinding, but Keiran tells me the purpose of tjurukpa is not to entertain but to teach lessons about respecting ceremonial rules or finding food. "Besides," he says, "you're only getting a small fragment of the story, which itself is connected with other stories. To fully understand the tjurukpa, you'd have to live close to the land for many years. Even then, tradition dictates what you can and cannot know. Wally may be a male elder, but that doesn't mean he has access to female stories and ceremonies."
I notice Wally has wandered off and is now rolling a cigarette under a tree near the Kantju Gorge water hole. "Piiwi," he says, as Keiran and I approach him. He points up at the tree, but it's several moments before I spot a pair of owllike tawny frogmouths—mother and hatchling—perched on a branch. Their coloring is so similar to the tree bark that I can just barely make them out. "She's moved," Wally says to Keiran. "She used to live in a different place. I've never seen her here before. And I never knew she'd had babies."
As Wally puffs on his cigarette and grins up at the piiwi, I realize that his very strength as a tour guide is that he doesn't really give a crap about tourists. Instead of trying to deliver standardized cultural information, the Pitjantjatjara elder is merely offering me the chance to tag along as he enjoys a stroll in his homeland. And, while a morning tour of Uluru can hardly do aboriginal heritage justice, Wally's keen eye for the land hints at a richer cultural story. His story is, in fact, the tale of the oldest continuous culture in the world—stretching well into the Pleistocene Age, when people lived with no permanent possessions, no food preservation, and no distinction between labor and leisure. It's a tale of the first continent in human history to be settled by sea travel, 60,000 years ago—and the intimate knowledge of climate, animal habits, plant cycles, and insect life necessary to subsist in a harsh land.
It's also a story that gets muddled by the noise of the modern world—though modernity seems to be popularizing Pitjantjatjara culture as much as it compromises it. Indeed, even though resort restaurants, camel treks, and tour buses would seem to diminish the aboriginal presence here, the constant stream of visitors creates an inevitable market of fascination in the local culture. Among the hundreds of historically distinctive indigenous societies within Australia, mass tourism has transformed the Pitjantjatjara into an antipodean equivalent of the Navajo—a culture that is celebrated and romanticized by the same public consciousness that threatens to dilute it.
When our morning trek concludes, Keiran mentions that I can buy into a more in-depth Pitjantjatjara tour tomorrow, where I'll be able to dine on witchety grubs, identify bush fruits, and learn how to throw a spear.
I decline—not because I don't want to do these things, but because of that old tourist irony: To get a proper taste of aboriginal culture, I feel I need to find a landscape that isn't so overrun by other tourists.
Bidding my Uluru guides farewell, I fire up my rental car and head east on the Lasseter Highway.
From: Rolf Potts
Subject: If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Arrernte Country
Posted Tuesday, March 6, 2007, at 11:22 AM ET
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.
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 Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His travel-themed blog can be found at Vagablogging.net.
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