Australia's summer holidays: Indigenous culture can enrich your break

I grew up in Melbourne and for most of my childhood, my idea of travel was limited to the big family odysseys we'd take some years at Christmas. Mum would scatter the Naphthalene flakes over the carpet to protect it from the moth plague she feared would descend in the few weeks we were away, we'd lock up the house and pack the Holden with pillows and eiderdowns, and head for Tewantin on the Sunshine Coast, where family friends owned the newsagency.

We'd stop at camping grounds along the way and pitch a tent. One summer it was too hot for Dad to drive, so we stayed overnight in a motel. A motel! Those were considered luxuries for working-class families of the 1960s and 70s. The idea of flying anywhere wasn't even a consideration; we  might as well go to the moon.

In the years when we stayed closer to home, we'd travel to Lake Tyers in Gippsland, to a Methodist Church-run camping ground above the Ninety Mile Beach. We'd sleep under recycled army tents, lit by kerosene lamps. If we needed to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, we had to take a torch and navigate a dark sand path to the toilet block.

My father would go down to the beach at dawn, throw a line into the surf, and come back with fresh flathead, which he'd fry for breakfast. There was a tin shed where the kids would devise skits for concerts at night. We'd run wild. Maybe the parents weren't that careful. Kids did fall off cliffs and get bitten by snakes and ticks.

The simplicity of those camping holidays, the low-impact interaction with nature and the love of wild beaches and bush it fostered, the recycled army tent with its minimal energy use, the line fishing, the fact we stayed for a month even if we did use fossil fuels to get there, seems now like the perfect picture of a sustainable holiday, as we think of it now.

What is missing from this picture are the traditional owners of the land, the Gunaikurnai people, who lived on the Lake Tyers Mission at the time.

In 1917, as other missions throughout Victoria closed down, many Victorian Aboriginal people were rounded up and placed on the Gippsland mission, known to the local people as Bung Yarnda. During the decades after that, the conditions in which they lived became a national disgrace. Various attempts to integrate the residents in the wider community or relocate them to Morwell, only extended the misery.

In the 1970s these people would win the first successful Aboriginal land rights claim in Australia, but they were shadowy figures to me then, living in cottages without running water, unable to own cars, existing on rations, and locked in at night. I knew nothing of this – the reservation was something we white suburban people drove past and, dare I say, avoided.

As holiday makers, we extracted so much joy from that country, and we were far from the worst example of tourists, but what was missing was that we did not give back.

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How much richer for everyone would it have been if the local Indigenous population had been partners in the region's tourism? Certainly, richer for me as a child to have shared the Gunaikurnai people's knowledge of country.

There are approximately 3000 Gunaikurnai people now, and their territory includes the coastal and inland areas to the southern slopes of the Victorian Alps.

The Gunaikurnai Traditional Owner Land Management Board works with the Victorian Government in a partnership for joint management of 10 parks and reserves that have been granted as Aboriginal Title to traditional owners.

Visitors now have many more opportunities than I had as a kid to learn about local Indigenous culture and support businesses in the region.

A good start would be a visit to the Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place in Bairnsdale on country of the Brabawooloong, one of five Gunaikurnai clans. The museum is run by a co-operative of local community members. It offers self-guided tours that showcase the wealth of the traditional culture, its history and practices, through artefacts such as hunting and fighting weapons, bark canoes, fishing spears and boomerangs (see gegac.org.au/keepingplace).

In Kalimna West near Lakes Entrance, proud Gunaikurnai man Kevin Murray serves up Kangaroo Kebabs and Salt Bush Lamb Burgers at the Bush Café, bringing bush tucker to the table. Housed in the headquarters of the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, the café is part of a complex with an art gallery exhibiting local artists and artisans (see gunaikurnai.org).

I wouldn't swap my Dad's fried flathead for anything, but those burgers sound good.

lee@leetulloch.com

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