I was sitting with a friend while he read The Wall Street Journal. “Here is an article about an Aboriginal tour in Australia run by an elder named Willie Gordon. I guess you know all about it,” he said. I grabbed his paper and started reading.
As a travel agent who plans custom itineraries to Australia and New Zealand, I search for tours that help travellers really experience what they see, particularly regarding native culture. I’ve attended Aboriginal dance festivals, camped with Aborigines in deserts and ranges, and hiked to dozens of rock art sites. Over time, I have developed a strong affinity for the Aboriginal people.
In contrast, most tourists have just a dose of Aboriginal contact in a tour – a show, really – that is more entertainment than education. My dilemma has been finding tours for travellers with limited time that leave them with a powerful, lasting impression of Aboriginal culture that is also relevant to the past and present. It may be entertaining to see how animals were killed with boomerangs, but no Aborigine hunts that way today.
So I put Willie Gordon’s Rainbow Serpent tour on my list for the next trip. Now a few months later, I was following him on a hillcrest path overlooking broad escarpments at Wangaar-Wuri to see the rock art sites in his country.
Cultural Tourism Near Cooktown
Willie’s country is near Cooktown, a place in the state of Queensland I’ve described as “the end of the paved road” in northeast Australia. It is the sort of small and friendly remote town people describe as “the real Australia” and one of the country’s most historic townships.
Cooktown is where Lt. James Cook found safe harbour after his ship, the HMB Endeavour, struck coral on the Great Barrier Reef and was seriously damaged. It was also the first place that Willie’s people, the Guugu Yimithirr, saw white people. The James Cook Museum here is a fine regional museum that has thoughtfully crafted displays describing those historic encounters from the viewpoints of Cook’s crew and the Aboriginal people.
Ancient Aboriginal Origin Stories
In Cooktown, after meeting Willie, our small group walked with him. Along the way, Willie began telling the story of his people – a story that starts in a time that can only be measured in other stories, the so-called Dreamtime. “In the Beginning was The Word,” says the Bible in the New Testament Book of John. “In the beginning were the Mimi Spirits,” an Aboriginal guide said to me at a rock art site in Arnhem Land. “We have been here since The Beginning,” says an Aboriginal elder in the Flinders Ranges.
Willie is far more likely simply to ask a traveller “When was the Beginning for you?” I’ve yet to hear someone able to answer him. It is quite humbling to be in the presence of someone who is still in touch with his Beginning.
I’ve seen rock paintings of animals that have been extinct for thousands of years, and paintings of one clan’s first sighting of ships and men on horseback. But in far too many magnificent rock art sites, the full story has been lost. Present-day Aborigines in Australia are the grandchildren of men and women whose children were stolen from them and put in ‘schools’ to become ‘civilised.’ Consistent with that, Aboriginal guides sometimes merely tell visitors a version of a story that an academic rock art scholar told them to say. The lucky ones – like Willie – learned what they know directly from elders and grandparents.
Teaching Valuable Lessons
Willie tells the story of a painting rather briefly. It is not so much ‘art’ as it is instruction. To ensure that he bridges the gap between his culture and ours, he begins with his family’s story, then relates that to the story the visitor has (or lacks).
And this is what makes Willie different: his remarkable sense of what each visitor brings to the moment. Once I witnessed him use the presence of a child to make a story relevant. Another time, he sensed a traveller’s indifference and crafted his questions in such a way that the man clearly left the tour wondering why he had never considered the need for a spiritual life.
Willie does not confuse organised religion with spirituality. There are no sermons here, but each time I take the tour I am left pondering things for weeks. My clients come back speaking of his ancient wisdom, his powerful presence. They marvel that in two hours his tour had a bigger impact on them than anything else they did in Australia.
Listening to the Land
As far as the eye can see, the landscape of the Aborigines is filled with stories that tell them how to live. Since the land instructs them, they understand that we are not here to conquer land but to care for it so that life can be handed down to the next generation. Their success at this has earned them the distinction of being the world’s oldest continuing culture.
Like most Westerners, I have lost the footprints of my ancestors. To even begin to understand ancient Aboriginal culture and its survival, you must leave the city and go into the bush on a walkabout with an elder. How fortunate we are that there are elders like Willie Gordon who have dedicated their lives to enriching ours immeasurably.