As I stood in the large welcome hall of the Tjapukai aboriginal cultural centre, I noticed a wall of photos.
Upon closer inspection, it became clear that this was not just a wall of photos of the aboriginal people that work here like I had first thought.
Instead, it was a wall dedicated to those of aboriginal decent that had made something of themselves.
An aboriginal wall of fame if you will. Only unlike most halls of fame, there was no fanfare to go along with these faces. They were there as much for inspiration as for celebration.
Now, of course, I had heard of Cathy Freeman. The face of the Sydney Olympics back in 2000. As a 10-year-old from the UK, that was the first time I had really heard anything about the aboriginal people of Australia.
Some of the others I vaguely recognised the names of but most I had never heard of. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t Australian, but then again how many Australians would know these people?
Nonetheless, it was impressive.
All these people had achieved amazing success in their chosen field.
Whether it be sport, music, art, politics, activism or something else. All while facing the prejudices and struggles that are too often attached to the aboriginal people of Australia.
Yet before I had looked through the all the images I was being called by my guide, Joe. It was time to stop looking at the aboriginal world and to take a step into it.
Why places like Tjapukai are so important
The didgeridoo and the boomerang symbolise Australia as much as the Sydney Opera House and the Kangaroo. They are key parts of the Aboriginal people’s cultural heritage. A history that was nearly erased after the influx of westerners.
With over 40,000 years worth of history and traditions, the aboriginal people of Australia are one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world.
Made up of hundreds of tribes that spread across the country adapting to the different climatic regions, the aboriginal people of Australia were often multilingual. A skill needed when there were over 200 different aboriginal languages and hundreds of dialects.
When the first western settlers arrived in Australia, they took advantage of the goodwill of the aboriginal people that they encountered to help them find food and water to survive.
It was only later when the sharing culture of the aboriginals clashed with the ownership culture of the west that their lives changed for the worse.
Despite the best efforts of the “white man” to colonise and erase the language, history and beliefs of the aboriginal people, it was never achieved.
In more recent times the Australian Government has begun to take small steps towards reconciling with the aboriginal people. Steps such as a national apology, giving them the right to vote and acknowledging that they are the traditional owners of the land. Not forgetting the handing back of ownership of traditional sacred places such as Uluru and more recently K’Gari or Fraser Island.
You can read all about exploring Fraser Island here.
However, there is a long way to go.
The establishment of education pathways has also been successful. Education whereby Aboriginals can learn about their own heritage and also where Australians and non-Australians alike can also learn and begin to understand these fascinating people.
On the outskirts of Cairns, at the foot of the rainforest stands one such place, Tjapukai. An aboriginal culture park that has been developed specifically to share and help you understand the aboriginal traditional way of life.
No there isn’t a scheduled naptime while exploring Tjapukai.
Dream time, or dreaming, is the period of time that aboriginal people refer to when they talk about how the world was created. Each tribe has specific dream time stories that explain how they came to be and about the rules and ways of life of their particular tribe and for survival these laws must be observed.
Although all slightly different the Dreamtime creation stories all share the common themes below. Like a story distorted over time in a game of Chinese whispers they probably all descend from the same original tale.
The Dreaming world was the time of the Ancestor beings.
Time began the moment that these supernatural beings were “born out of their own eternity”.
When they emerged they travelled the dark formless land. These Ancestral beings created the natural elements of water, air and fire.
They created the celestial beings – the sun and moon and stars – and the created life.
They made the aboriginal people who are descendants of the ancestral beings themselves.
They made the ant, grasshopper, Emu, Eagle, Crow, Parrot, Wallaby, Kangaroo, Lizard, Snake and all other creatures.
Then after all their hard work, they sank back into the earth and returned to a state of sleep.
It is said that some of these Ancestral beings turned into rocks and trees or part of the landscape and these places became sacred. These places are said to have special qualities and so were only to be seen by initiated men.
As well as creation stories the Aboriginal people of Tjapukai share with you dream time stories that are specific to their people. This includes stories which explain how the tribe live and rites of passage such as marriage.
These stories are all told within a small, interactive theatre.
Not a member of the tribe talking to you but a whole show complete with lights and dramatic sounds. It an experience that really plunges you deep into the traditional way of life. Allowing you to get a deeper understanding of this way of life in only a short time.
Can I eat that?
Have you ever wanted to be one of those people who could survive off what they find around them if they had to?
You know if you got lost in the bush or stranded on an island Castaway style or something?
Or perhaps you just want to show off to your friends and be like you can eat this but don’t touch those berries!
Well now’s your chance.
One of the cool experiences you can get involved with at Tjapukai is learning about the different plants in the area that you can eat. You even get to try them if you’re brave enough (seriously its easier than any bushtucker trial).
You even get to learn about how some plants are used for medicinal purposes because its not just the Chinese who use herbal remedies.
Shall We Dance?
Like pretty much every culture throughout the world music plays a huge part in aboriginal life. The most well known of the aboriginal instruments is, of course, the didgeridoo.
Traditionally made from Eucalyptus trunks that have been hollowed out by termites, each one is unique.
Now I knew that just getting a sound out of a didgeridoo was a skill in itself having seen them before back home (and failed miserably I might add). It wasn’t until my Tjapukai aboriginal guide explained exactly how to play this instrument that I realised just how skilful players are.
Not only do you have to use your mouth to change the sound of the didgeridoo, akin to how buglers change the sound when playing the bugle, but they have to breathe in through their nose while simultaneously breathing out to make the sound.
No wonder it is so difficult!
When it is done right though, it sounds pretty awesome.
He went on to explain some of the ways that the didgeridoo was used. From telling stories to notifying other members of the tribe of nearby animals or possible threats. It really is a versatile instrument.
Of course, it was also used in ceremonies and celebrations along with other aboriginal instruments such as the bullroarer and gum leaves.
We were then treated to a dance performance in the Tjapukai outdoor theatre. Using the different sounds of the didgeridoo the guides took on the different personas of the wildlife. From Cassowary to Kangaroo.
I had seated myself on the front row for the best vantage point to take photos. What I hadn’t anticipated was what came next. The audience participation section.
The whole front row was dragged up and taught a simple dance while the rest of the audience was to make the beat using their voices and clapping. It was definitely a fun surprise – especially I was there on my own so there was nobody to take embarrassing videos of me!
Learning to Hunt
Now that I’d learnt all about the history and culture of the Tjapukai aboriginal people as well as how to gather food the only thing left to do was to learn to hunt like an aboriginal person.
Yes, that is right, I got to play with aboriginal weapons.
Now I’m talking spears and of course boomerangs
Yes, boomerangs are weapons. Something I incidentally later forgot when checking in for a flight and the lovely lady behind the desk reminded me that as a weapon my souvenir boomerang would need to go in my checked luggage.
Have you ever tried to throw a boomerang before?
Did it come back to you?
Well, it turns out when you learn to throw one from an aboriginal person it isn’t that hard. In fact, I was pretty good at it for a beginner. So good my guide gave me the boomerang I had been using as a gift and signed it for me!
Next, it was on to spear throwing.
Now the aboriginal people are pretty clever people.
Rather than just throw a spear, they developed these spear throwing handle things which hook onto the back end of the spear. This allowed them to throw the spears so much further. Meaning that they could stand a safe distance from their prey (or I guess their enemies in a fight).
It took me a little while to get the hang of throwing the spears. Once I did though, well there was no stopping me. I hit that drawing of a kangaroo pinned to a hay bail time after time. Even managing to get it to stick into it near the end.
Yeah, I would have made a pretty good hunter. Haha.
Unfortunately, Tjapukai and other aboriginal experiences in Australia don’t seem to be as popular in the backpacker community. It isn’t a conversation I’ve often had or heard people talking about.
I find this a little sad for a community that is so often travelling to understand the world and other cultures that they are missing out on an amazing experience like this. The majority of people that I came across in the centre were older or families.
It’s a shame really. Yes, you can go and visit many of the museums in Australia full of aboriginal exhibits. However, it is these kinds of interactive centres where real knowledge sharing can occur. You can’t ask an object that burning question you have or get an insight about what it means to be an aboriginal person in the 21st Century.
You can at Tjapukai.
Until Next Time