There’s more to Oz than a bridge and a rock. For that uniquely Australian experience, don’t miss a performance of Aboriginal dance, the bush sky at night and a good drop of wine. WORDS and PHOTOS Janelle Estreich

Five barefoot young men wearing red loin cloths and armed with wooden spears crouch in wait, their hostility visible as we approach. There are no special effects, no digital sound system and no big-name actors to speak of, but we, the audience, are captivated. One member of our group offers a ‘yalwabuna’ or message stick, a type of passport indicating one tribe’s intention to pass peacefully into another’s territory. The flat decorative stick is accepted and the animosity gone as we’re granted passage.

Today’s performance by the Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal dance troupe takes place at Kangaroo Point, on the banks of the Brisbane River in Queensland. After a welcome dance, dancer Dean Tyson, 17 (whose Aboriginal name is Binkin, which means turtle), explains the area was once home to the local tribes Nunukul, Yuggera, Yugimbir and Nugi, who inhabited an area stretching roughly from Stradbroke Island in the north to the Gold Coast in the south, and west to the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. The Brisbane River served as the main food source. “Crabs, fish, oysters, you name it – we ate it,” says Tyson.

As the name suggests, Kangaroo Point was once inhabited by the native marsupial, long since driven away by development. Pointing up at the sheer yellow and black cliffs behind us, Tyson explains that if you look closely you can see the faces of their ancestors in the rocks. Down the road at Wooloongabba, home of The Gabba cricket stadium, were the traditional fighting grounds. “Back in the old days, when there was a fight to be had over things like food, women or land rights, that’s where it happened,” he says.

Across the river from where we stand is Brisbane’s central business district, an area once covered in mangroves and called ‘place of sharp rock’ by the Yuggera, who never lived there for this reason.

Education and entertainment mix seamlessly throughout the hour-long session as the group moves from dance to dreamtime stories, didgeridoo demonstrations, and finally a lesson in starting a fire from scratch using a local species of dried wood. We sit on the grass in the warm morning sun, watching these ancient customs and rituals acted out, with only glimpses of the office towers looming across the river to remind us we’re in a city, albeit a very different place from that the group’s ancestors knew. It’s also a scene that is at odds with the stereotype of today’s Aboriginal people.

Eddie Ruska, Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal dance troupe manager and an Aboriginal elder, said the group began 12 years ago in Ipswich, about 40km west of Brisbane, as a deterrent from incarceration for Aboriginal kids with no apparent future outside of jail or substance abuse. Adults in the community consulted elders, and it was agreed that song and dance were key to reconnecting with their culture. Along with this, it was hoped, would come respect for themselves and for others, and the chance at a positive future.

“I’d ask any kid walking the streets of Ipswich what makes them Aboriginal and they’d all give you the same answer: ‘I’m black.’ That was what they knew,” says Ruska.

The group now employs up to 35 dancers, five of those full-time and the others casual. And their services are in demand: 2007 saw them perform as part of Australia Day celebrations in Melbourne’s Federation Square and at the Sydney Opera House for the Corroboree Indigenous Tourism Expo, before touring the UK and Europe, and later performing in China. They were also invited to dance at the third State of Origin in Brisbane later in the year and answered the call of the haka on behalf of the Kangaroos at the Anzac Test. The group also makes regular appearances at schools and community events.

“These young guys may never have had the opportunity to go overseas. For all of them it’s been a life-changing experience,” says 27-year-old Shannon Ruska, Eddie’s son. “More than 30 of us have jobs, many gave up drinking and smoking, all because of the opportunity this group has given us.”

Young Aborigines and their audiences aren’t the only winners. Tourism bosses have cited indigenous tourism as a unique offering with the potential to bolster flagging visitor numbers following a tough year for the country’s A$22 billion tourism industry. When the Australian dollar topped 90 US cents late last year, many Australians cashed in by holidaying overseas while the exchange rate spooked foreign visitors. Compounded by the increase in cheap international flights and competition from other destinations, the traditional experiences that previously satisfied holidaymakers were no longer enough.

“We can’t simply keep putting new marketing labels on the same product and experiences and expect visitors to keep coming or to come back,” says Matthew Hingerty, managing director of The Australian Tourism Export Council.

“We need to compete in the areas where we are unique, but we also need to think laterally and look at some emerging new markets on the global scene, such as indigenous tourism … which also promises a long-term sustainable future for indigenous Australians at a time when they really need it.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Shannon, who sees a return to their cultural roots as the ticket to a better future for Aborigines. “When I left school all I wanted to do was dance. I made that choice and now I’m living the life every day. The lessons learnt by the 30-odd kids in this group will filter out to another three or four who will join suit. We’ll see a huge change among Aboriginal communities once I’m dead and gone.”

The Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal dance troupe performs at Riverlife Adventure Centre in East Brisbane every Thursday and on Saturday evenings. For more information see www.riverlife.com.au.

Budget Flights
The battle for the budget travel dollar has shifted up a gear in Australia, with a bunch of new low-cost airlines having joined the market. Australian travellers are laughing all the way to the airport as rival carriers try to outdo each other.

Qantas off-shoot Jetstar flogged A$0.05 domestic flights in a bid to steal the thunder from new rival Tiger Airways when it launched out of Melbourne last November. Tiger lined up against Qantas, Virgin Blue and Jetstar, offering $9.95 promotional fares on major routes.

The flurry of new international budget carriers is also expected to revolutionise outbound travel from Australia. Budget outfit Viva Macau arrived in Sydney last August, touting all-inclusive one-way flights from Sydney to the Chinese-Portuguese province of Macau for $305. Malaysian outfit AirAsia X followed in November, commencing flights from the Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur for less than A$600 return. Jetstar Asia already offers bargain deals to Aussie favourites including Bali, Phuket, Bangkok and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

China Eastern has commenced flights between Heathrow and Sydney or Melbourne via Shanghai from $579 one-way, while last June India’s Jet Airways began a codeshare arrangement with Qantas offering passengers services from India to Australia via Singapore. The United Arab Emirates’ national airline, Etihad Airways, will commence flights from Abu Dhabi to Sydney from March this year. Hong Kong budget carrier Oasis has also expressed interest in Australia.

Unique Aussie Experiences
Faced with stiff competition from rival destinations, Australian tourism gurus have decided that uniquely Aussie experiences are where it’s at. Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, gazing with wonder at Uluru and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef are all well and good, but before you can honestly call yourself Australian or claim to have truly tapped the heart of this wide brown land, you must take in at least one of these truly Aussie treasures.

  • Rural racing
  • Not even the dreaded horse flu could stop punters attending horse-free Melbourne Cup Day meets across the country last November. Country racing is where the real characters come out – the big picnic meeting at Come-by-Chance, the Darling River meeting of Louth, St Pat’s races at Broken Hill, and the iconic Birdsville races – and dodgy tracks, interesting odds and a flexible dress code make for plenty of horsing around.

  • Surf clubs
  • Even if you’re not the beachy type, it’s hard to beat Australia’s surf clubs for a well-priced feed with a million-dollar view. Perched on prime beachfront turf, you can tuck into a seafood platter big enough to feed a third-world country for a week while watching the sets roll in.

  • Get festy
  • The Byron Bay Blues & Roots Festival, the Tamworth Country Music Festival, Stanthorpe’s Apple and Grape Harvest Festival, Mardi Grass in Nimbin … what better way to take in the local character of a region than by stopping at an annual festival?

  • Big is better
  • There’s the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, the Big Bull in Wauchope, The Big Cassowary at Mission Beach, the Big Prawn in Ballina, The Big Lobster in Kingston … these hideous giant landmarks are a unique feature of Aussie culture and a snapshot with one is the ultimate souvenir.

  • Fine wine
  • Binge drinking aside, Australia enjoys a tip-top reputation the world over when it comes to producing a decent drop. With more than 60 wine regions to choose from, visit the vine of your favourite wine and stock up by the dozen.

  • Go bush
  • If such unfortunate films as Wolf Creek haven’t killed it for you, spending a night under the stars is about as Waltzing Matilda as it gets. Set up camp, catch some fish, boil a billy and absorb the smells and sounds (and I don’t mean footsteps) all around you.

  • Road trip
  • With kilometres of wide open road just begging to be driven on, a road trip is the ideal way to take in Australia’s vast and changing landscape. Take a popular route – the Great Ocean Road, the Stuart Highway, Sydney to Brisbane, just to name a few – or grab a map and follow your nose.

  • Be a sport
  • Australia and sport go hand-in-hand, meaning you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to watching world-class athletes compete. Take your pick from Aussie Rules, rugby league, netball, rugby union, cricket – local matches in any part of the country can be just as entertaining as big ticket events.