CITY SIGHTS

Storied history in urban centres

WORDS TIM McGLONE

Sydney's Indigenous cultural history is a story that is thousands of years in the making.

And as the sun beats down on the Sydney Opera House each day and nearby ferries chug along in the Harbour, over which stands that old mighty coathanger, the city's towering sandstone cliffs, plants and thick bush scrub remain a storied time capsule for the Gadigal of the Eora Nation.

Dreamtime Southern X helps you to discover the living Dreamtime wisdoms inherent in Sydney’s landscape.

CITIES HAVE THEIR OWN STORIES TO TELL

Dunghutti woman Aunty Margret Campbell has been operating in the tourism industry for over 20 years. Her Dreamtime Southern X walking tours are breaking new ground by peeling back the layers of city modernity, obscuring the prehistoric foundations upon which they’re built. 

It is one of many operators showcasing the Aboriginal history which is embedded as much in urban landscapes as it is when encrusted with the pindan soil of Western Australia.

“It’s crucial there are experiences like this in the cities because as Australians, we’re still caught up in our English identity,” says Campbell. “There’s a cultural blindness, and we’re still searching for our identity. That’s why it’s so important.”

Dreamtime Southern X shows connecting to Country can happen anywhere, even in Australia's most populated city.

Each city in Australia has its own story to tell. A visit to Melbourne Gardens, for instance, reveals the Kulin Nation’s customs, and use of native plants. On the opposite side of the continent, in Perth, Go Cultural tells stories of the Noongar people and their resistance to the Swan River Colony’s settlement. 

Sydney’s stories are different again, according to Campbell, but the theme is the same; a relationship with the land, a connection to Country.

Dreamtime Southern X will challenge you to see Sydney in a new light.

“It’s all about how Aboriginal culture is connected with nature, and how we’ve maintained our relationship with the natural world,” says Campbell.

“Right now, this time of year it's shedding wattle at The Rocks, beautiful wattle. And when you look at the wattle you know someone’s aligned with that as a birth date. There’s that connection."


“ ...she stripes my wrist with yellow ochre. “We’re communicating with our ancestors through this substance,” she says. “This is an acknowledgement to our mother that we are going to walk on her.”

“It’s the saltwater homelands of five Aboriginal language groups around here. The beaches, the mountains, the alpines, the saltwater and the big river systems: that is the staple diet of Aboriginal culture."  

“We’re saltwater people [in Sydney] but up in the desert, they all are freshwater people. We incorporate that natural environment into our identity and a lot of people don’t know that.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIP

Tours depart from Cadman’s Cottage at The Rocks every morning, just a few minutes from Circular Quay and the ferry wharf. Whereas the city’s iconic architectural landmarks, which are plenty, are easily visible on the hour-and-a-half-walk, it takes an intimate understanding of the landscape to really get beneath the city’s layers and see all that is there. 

Campbell and her team of Indigenous guides provide this intimate understanding, showing guests that despite the skyscrapers and the highways, ancient landscapes survive – even in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge itself. 

In fact, much of what Campbell takes guests to visit is as visible as the Bridge or the Opera House, they’re simply hidden in plain sight.  “Right next to the Bridge, you can stand on this bedrock of sandstone strata which is billions of years old,” she says. 

“It’s what the city is built on – strip off the tar and concrete and there’s the sandstone, with the saltwater running down it." 

“And when you know where to look, you can see trees that still grow out of the ancient bedrock. That story is sitting right there – but most people can’t see it.” 

The walk with Dreamtime Southern X winds through Sydney’s inner CBD and its billion-year-old saltwater harbour like a snake. Aboriginal culture is attuned to the constant flow of changes in the plants and animals that surround it. Many tribes actually discern six separate seasons rather than the traditional four. 

The importance of this link between environmental surrounds and identity is something that Campbell speaks passionately about, her history as a schoolteacher coming to the fore. 

“Our culture is actually aligned perfectly with the natural environment,” she says. 

“With the climate concerns you see at the moment going right around the world, you see human beings suddenly understanding the importance of this." 

“This [these walks] is a way you can learn about the relationship that exists between the natural world and human experience.” 

This relationship is thousands of years old at The Rocks and throughout the rest of Sydney and Australia yet, as Campbell points out, it's arguably never been as important as it is now. 

MELBOURNE GARDENS

Melbourne, Victoria

It has been a long time since warriors hunted emus or wallabies in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, or fished for eels in the river, but the culture and practices of the first Australians have not been forgotten. Much more than just a stroll through the gardens, the Aboriginal Heritage Walk explores the ways that spirit, connection and land intertwine in Aboriginal culture. A daily 90-minute experience that starts with a traditional smoking ceremony, the tour will also ensure you never look at native plants the same way, after your guide reveals the many inventive uses that the Boon wurrung people found for the flora that surrounded them.

Womin Djeka! An Aboriginal Heritage Walk is a great place to start in Melbourne.

GO CULTURAL

Perth, Western Australia

When you gaze at Goomup (Elizabeth Quay’s) glittering riverside playground in central Perth, you see pedestrian walkways, metropolitan eateries and towering buildings of shiny glass and steel. But Noongar guide Walter McGuire sees sacred sites, ancient campgrounds and a vast network of forgotten lakes. On his short walking tours, Walter cuts through the stone and concrete to reveal more about the city than you knew existed, he presents the six seasons observed by Aboriginal people and how they relate to the edible herbs and fruits still growing throughout the city’s surroundings. 

Go Cultural are dedicated to sharing and preserving Perth's Aboriginal cultural heritage.

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