Sydney has an extraordinary number of Indigenous art sites, walks, galleries and cultural events. In fact, the hardest thing about discovering Aboriginal Sydney is choosing from the enormous selection of possibilities.
The Australian Museum, situated in the city in College St opposite Hyde Park is a good place to start for information about Aboriginal culture, as well as the more controversial issues facing Indigenous people today, such as Deaths in Custody and the Stolen Generation.
You will also find some background about the Cadigal people, the original custodians of inner city Sydney who lived here for over 40,000 years. Tragically, most of the Cadigal were decimated by a smallpox outbreak after the European invasion.
Another museum worth visiting is the Museum of Sydney, which was the point of first contact between the Cadigal people of Sydney and the British exiles arriving on the First Fleet. Here you can experience gallery space honouring the history, culture and survival of the Cadigal clan, on whose land this museum now stands. Hear the voices of Sydney’s Aboriginaldescendants as they talk about their lives, memories and continuing traditions. Further information can be found at www.hht.net.au.
You don’t have to venture out of the city to discover plants and environments significant to the original local people. The Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens offer self-guided or guided one-hour strolls through the gardens, concentrating on native plants of importance to the original inhabitants. You’ll need to book a week in advance if you want an Aboriginal-guided tour (Ph: (02) 9231 8111).
ON THE CULTURE TRAIL
There are many other walks in Sydney where you can discover Aboriginal history. Try the Botany Bay National Park, which has a guided tour with an Aboriginal ranger available (Ph: (02) 9542 0649). Brisbane Waters National Park near Gosford has Aboriginal sandstone engravings, which can be seen on bushwalks. Also in Sydney’s north is the magnificent Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which has many examples of ancient Aboriginal rock art. Ph: (02) 9472 9300 for a walk guided by volunteers.
If you’re interested in buying art or artefacts that are made by Indigenous artists, head to the Walkabout Gallery, 70 Norton St, Leichhardt. You can buy goods directly from remoteAboriginal communities, so you won’t only get something beautiful and original – you’ll also be supporting Indigenous communities all over Australia. For more info, visit www.walkaboutart.com, and click on the music icon while you’re there to hear some samples of great tunes by Indigenous musos.
WHERE’S THE (INTER)ACTION?
For an interactive experience, head west to Muru Mittiga, an Aboriginal cultural centre in Cranebrook in Sydney’s west, the area that belonged to the Darug people. Here you can learn how to throw a boomerang, check out the cultural museum, watch a dance performance or join a Koori art class. Muru Mittiga has an art gallery and shop that sells artwork, boomerangs, didgeridoos and even clothing and jewellery made by Indigenous people. For info, Ph: (02) 4729 2377.
A bit further west is the popular tourist trail of the Blue Mountains. Instead of the obligatory dash to the Three Sisters for a photo op, skip the tourist buses and explore Aboriginal land with an Indigenous guide with Blue Mountains Walkabout. The company is run by Evan Yanna Muru, who was born and bred in the Blue Mountains and has spent his life studying the local Darug culture. You’ll get a full-day tour featuring a four-hour bushwalk as well as time to chill. You’ll see rock carvings, wildlife, caves, rainforests, billabongs and other features of the land, taste bush tucker, have a go at ochre bark and body painting and hear the ancient stories associated with this environment. To book your walk, Ph: 0408 443 822.
KEEPING IT REAL
The Rocks and Circular Quay are chock full of shops selling Aboriginal products. Just check the tags on the goods to make sure they’re made by Indigenous artists.
The didgeridoo (or “didge” as folks here call it) has to be one of Australia’s most well-known icons, recognised both as a visual symbol as well as for its haunting sound. It’s also something many people purchase as a souvenir. But how will you know if you’ve got the real thing and not some nasty fake churned out in an overseas sweatshop?
For a start, authentic didgeridoos should come with a tag stating the region it comes from and the group of people who made it. Second, you won’t get that unmistakable drone if you try to play a “Made in China” didge.
GETTING DIDGY WITH IT
It’s 10am on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of a shopping arcade in The Rocks. I’m not alone; also perched on cushions circling a large woven mat are an assortment of tourists, from two Swiss girls with body piercings to an English woman pushing 60. Are we some kind of weird tourist sit-in perhaps? No, we’re sitting outside of the music shop Didj Beats, about to have our first didgeridoo lesson. Armed with a didge, we’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
Our teacher, Mike, is an unabashedly fervent didgeridoo addict who’s been playing for four years and seems to live and breathe the instrument. And breathing is what didge playing is all about. Before long he has us all blowing raspberries into the long wooden tubal instruments. (Everyone around me seems to produce a good drone – mine sounds like a frog farting in a drain.)
Mike assures me I’ll get the hang of it, and before long I make a sound that could be mistaken for the real thing. Problem is, I’m starting to hyperventilate with all the puffing and panting.
No time to pass out though – he’s now taking us through the mysteries of circular breathing, a technique where you have a continuous supply of air at your disposal. Hmm… something I’ll have to get the hang of later, too.
Mike also gets us to have a go at making animal calls into our didge. I’d heard Indigenous players do this before and assumed it was a traditional thing, but Mike assures us that it’s very much a contemporary thing. The original didgeridoo players, the Yolgnu people from the Top End of Australia, make their didgeridoo drones based on the sounds used in their language.
The didgeridoo is actually a modern instrument, being a mere 2000 years-old. Remember we’re talking about a culture that’s around 80,000 years old by the latest estimation. Add to that the fact that the didgeridoo was only introduced to other regions of Australia from the Top End about 50 years ago and you’ve got a very contemporary instrument indeed.
Finally, Mike gets us to do some tonguing (oo-er!) which is just another technique to get a different sound. By this stage I’m high from carbon dioxide deprivation and really getting into it, but the hour’s up. I reckon I’ll need more lessons, and I’m glad to see an array of “How to” CDs and booklets available among the awesome selection of didgeridoos. They are truly beautiful, with each having unique designs that reflect the region they were decorated. Now I just have to choose one…
The experience: www.didjbeat.com.[Didj Beat]. Lessons are $30 and become redeemable if you buy a didgeridoo. For more information, Ph: (02) 9251 4289.