What I actually learned about Aborigines.

Everybody who visits Australia should be aware that this country originally belonged to another people – the Aborigines. This post is about them. It is a matter of respect as they have lived in Australia for thousands of years before the white people came (colonization by the British started in 1770 with the arrival of James Cook) and things went badly wrong. Diseases, fights, stealing of Aboriginal kids to raise them in white families – just to mention a few things. When I came to Australia, I was very interested in learning about Aboriginal culture and hoped to meet some in person. Well, I learned…    

My impression of the Aboriginal people is in general an impression of their absence in everyday life.

Although I spent most of the time in the Northern Territory – which is the place where their share of population is actually the highest in Australia – I didn’t get in touch with them. Whether in Alice Springs or Darwin or in little towns like Tennant Creek or Katherine, it was all the same: When I took the bus, the driver was white. In cafés, supermarkets, shops or hostels the staff was white. Yet when I walked around I saw Aboriginal paintings everywhere. You can also buy them in all souvenir shops, together with boomerangs or didgeridoos, which are traditional hunting weapons or musical instruments for the Aboriginal people. The question that came to me was: Is this only a show for tourists? Do they show and sell artefacts of the Aboriginal culture because they’re pretty or because this culture really matters for Australia?

See, this is a very sensitive topic and I don’t dare to judge anyone in Australia, black or white, native or not. Having travelled this country altogether for about 4 months (if you take my working holiday in 2010 into account) I am not in a position to do so. Nor am I an expert about the historical facts or the present situation of the Aborigines or could say what is actually done for them by the Australian government. But I am human and I usually walk around with my eyes open, so what I see I can share with you.

What I saw was that everybody claimed to respect the traditional owners of this land – in many places like parks or even on buildings in cities I saw signs that said so – but as I mentioned before, the Aborigines themselves couldn’t be seen. Even in Uluru National Park I never saw them. But there is an information centre where you can learn about their stories of the Dreamtime, which are their rules for living and their history and identity. And it is said that the rangers of the park are trained by Aborigines to explain everything correctly to the visitors that come to the park.

What upset me the most was the issue of the climb of Uluru.

You should know that tourists are asked not to climb the rock because that’s the wish of the Aboriginal people and they are terribly sorry if anybody gets hurt or even dies at their sacred place (which sadly happened often enough). Still it is allowed to climb Uluru and I saw people doing so. I can’t say how much this ignorance annoys me. Just imagine it would be against Christian belief to climb a church tower – I bet they wouldn’t allow it, right? I wish this climb was closed forever so that never again the tourist adventure would count more than the traditions of the owners of this land!

uluru ayers rock climb

The climb of Uluru. I heard it takes more than 2 hours. What a madness.

But let’s get back to everyday life. When I said that the Aboriginal people were absent that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I just meant they don’t seem to play a part in it. They are watchers. They sit around in the streets all day and gather in front of supermarkets or bus stations – some apparently homeless, but also just mothers with their children. Some lie around in apathy. Some shout to each other across the streets. Some ask you for money. Many of them are drunk.

I only had one personal contact with an Aborigine during my journey, when I walked on the main street in Darwin. He grabbed my arm and asked me something in a very throaty voice. I can’t say what he actually wanted because I didn’t understand all the words. I was so surprised that I just shook my head and walked away. After that I realized my heart was pounding and I still had his smell in my nose.

Things like these break my heart.

I wish I could tell you a more pleasant story. But we should never deny that what was done to the native people in Australia was despicable. And how long it took for this country to openly admit this! Only in 2008 Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd spoke an official apology to the Aborigines, first and foremost for the “stolen generations”. But as I said, I won’t judge anyone. I met many Australians who are aware of their history and have a very respectful opinion about the Aborigines. I am really glad that on all tours during my journey the guides made a big effort to teach us about Aboriginal culture. This is sadly the only thing we as visitors can do today.

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