Central Australia: Alice Springs & Aboriginal Culture

Boarding the internal flight from Cairns to Alice Spring marked the halfway point of my Australian adventure. The Northern Territory leg of The Big Walkabout was, as Paddy had forewarned us, very different from the stretch of sandy, sunny hedonism reaching from Sydney to Cairns. This section was more focused on Australia’s history and aboriginal culture, something that is very much pushed aside on the East Coast. The underlying segregation and disparity between the indigenous people of the land and the modern Australian left a bitter taste in my mouth that far outlasted the happy-go-lucky facade of the backpacking East Coast.

alice springs sign

Arriving in Alice Springs felt like a different country compared with the bustling, modern streets of downtown Sydney with its shiny department stores, its futuristic skyscrapers and its expensive cocktails. The Americans among us said it reminded them of some of the more remote areas of the United States.

A new Contiki coach met us at the airport, with 8 new members of the tour who would be joining us for this leg only. The majority of these were Australian nationals. It was fascinating to me how long these guys had lived in the country and never experienced the aboriginal culture or travelled outside of their own territory.

simpsons gap group

The most significant part of this initial section was the day we spent at an aboriginal settlement, not far from Alice Springs. Here, we learned a huge amount about aboriginal culture itself, the beliefs and values of the people, the way they live and eat and how that has evolved within the modern landscape. The issues facing the community that arise from the intrusion of modern man onto the land are shocking, intriguing and saddening in equal measure.

bush fruit

For the initial part of the morning, we got the chance to sample some bush foods – this included several berries and seeds for the sensible among us…and putting slimy, writhing Wichenay grubs into our mouths for those of us who were a little lacking in wisdom. Our guide also barbecued us an Aussie delicacy: kangaroo tail. A slice of delicious stone baked ‘bush bread’ with my cuppa was perhaps most welcome – this bread reminded me a little of the texture of scones, and is made again with milled wattle seed. Ever so slightly more appetising than the wichenay grubs…

grub

We also learned that aboriginal people often struggled with obesity or alcoholism; the reason for this being that they have not yet grown accustomed to the ease with which they can procure fatty cuts of meat and rich, calorific food in modern supermarkets – survival mode is no longer necessary! Alcoholism has also become a widespread problem. According to  the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 around one in six aboriginal or Torres Strait islander people over 15 drank alcohol at a chronic / high risk level. This issue was actually very noticeable as we did our shopping in the supermarket in Alice Springs.

The often hostile attitudes directed at the indigenous people from other Australians was also apparent to me, and remarkably sad. As we paid for our items at the checkout, the shop assistant on the till began muttering about the aboriginal lady who had left with her items and not said thank you. Our guide later told us that it is common for the indigenous population not to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ as we do, because sharing and giving fairly between everyone in the community is so ingrained it does not require verbal prompts. In other words, the inherent nature of the people is to share between everyone so therefore, why would they need to thank you for doing what they would have done for you? If the ways of the aboriginal people were better understood, perhaps the negative attitudes would subside a little.

Aboriginal people have western names that are used for their Australian citizenship – a right given to the indigenous population in 1967 – an alarmingly short time ago! The diagram below illustrates the 8 possible female aboriginal names and the 8 possible male aboriginal names. These names are then grouped into four circles, and each person may only marry another with a name that is indicated on the chart. This rather bizarre situation is to avoid inbreeding within the community.

marriage diagram

One of the most interesting things we learned about the culture was their approach to death and grief.When a member of the community dies, the chief or leader designates a set period of ‘sorry business’, the length of which will vary according to the age and status of the dead loved one, as well as how unanticipated their departure was. In this period of so-called ‘sorry-business’, the life of the person is celebrated and the women will often dye their hair zany colours or decorate themselves in bright clothes. Whilst visiting, the aborigine people that we met were in a period of ‘sorry business’ for an elder and thus, many of the women had died their hair a luminous orange. What is perhaps most shocking to us in the Western world is the fact that once this period is over, the dead person is never mentioned again. The aboriginal people will also cover or scrub out their images in any photographs they may have. Whilst seemingly brutal to us, this is actually a gesture of respect and love, as they believe that to mention the departed once they have been returned to the earth from which they came is to fragment their spirit and negate from their peace. This is why there are often warnings on Australian television when images of aboriginal people are to be shown as the programme may then contain images of people who have since died.

the bush

I came away feeling that I had (and have) so much more to learn about the aboriginal culture; I found the jarring of the two worlds quite unsettling as I left the village. This juxtaposition is perhaps best summarised by the one of the women sat cross legged on the earth, preparing meat over a campfire for her dinner and wearing Nike Dunks.

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