Just beyond the Blue Mountains railway lies a portal to the Dreamtime, if you're prepared to open your mind, writes Lance Richardson.
"THIS is what we'll be avoiding today," Evan Yanna Muru says, waving his hand. A freight train rumbles past. Fragments of sandstone crumble in the maw of a bulldozer as another road is constructed by Faulconbridge station. There is a colonial-era cemetery, carefully manicured. And then there is the bush. As we find our unmarked entrance and the drone of machinery is replaced by cicadas, a sense of symbolism settles over what was, moments before, just another stop on the railway.
For eight years, Yanna Muru has brought attention to this contrast through his Blue Mountains walking tour, an immersive cultural experience that pulls Aboriginal knowledge out of static museums and into its element.
During a day of adventure-grade hiking, he details initiation rituals, song lines and the medicinal properties of tea tree. We pause in an open cave, the roof knotted like petrified coral, to read the signs of the Rainbow Serpent. Within an hour, I'm stuffing my nostrils with rolled eucalypt leaves and admiring funnel-web skins in my palm.
Yanna Muru is part of the Darug language group, the traditional owners of much of the area around modern-day Sydney. Ravaged by smallpox brought over by British colonists in the 1800s, the Darug nation now exists in individuals and custodian organisations. This doesn't mean that Darug culture is dead, however. Culture survives through practice: in what Yanna Muru calls "doing culture" the Darug approach to the world endures even if its pure-blood practitioners have passed.
"If you did your culture and hung out with your people, you could become an Aboriginal person," he says while pointing out a stencil made from white pipe clay and goanna fat sprayed across an ancient hand. His intention with these tours is to communicate something of the essence of being Aboriginal – not how it looks but how it feels.
In this respect, the tour demands more than sturdy hiking boots (though these are recommended). It demands an open mind. Negativity, I'm told, is "bad spirit trouble". Any cynicism melts away the first time Yanna Muru pulls us to an abrupt halt to point out a poisonous caterpillar suspended across the track, centimetres from his face. A closed mind – one churning with thoughts – blocks the senses. Scribbling in my notebook, I would have walked straight into the caterpillar. He tells me to put the pen away and trust my eyes and hands.
The importance of this sensual experience is emphasised in all its dimensions. Almost immediately, we find native nuts that taste like butterscotch and leaves that smell like turpentine. A scratching sound in the underbrush resolves itself into a lyrebird shuffling about. "Good dancing, mating may take place," Yanna Muru says. "Bad dancing, back to dance class."
The most significant sense, however, is touch, which brings a person into direct connection with the Dreamtime, that spiritual plane at the centre of Aboriginal belief. The famous Dreamtime symbols that chart the origins of geology and fauna are everywhere on the hike – a cajimbora tree with its lumpy trunk is a prison for bad children, banging their fists against the cell. However, it's not until the first stop on a secluded rocky outcrop that I am shown how the Dreamtime is more than a mere compendium of stories.
Seated on the ground, Yanna Muru instructs me to rub my palms against the rock. As I do so, he runs water down the outcrop, revealing hidden carvings in the stone: a snake, a kangaroo, its joey. Through the story of the carvings and something like a meditation, I am encouraged to sense the undercurrent of connection.
"Our whole culture is based on commonsense," he says, meaning a collective awareness of how everything is interrelated. This is an awareness that is, for the rest of the day, continually renewed as we pause to rub a paperbark or shuffle our feet through the sand, sensing the Dreamtime.
By early afternoon, after swinging on vines in the temperate rainforest, we arrive at a hidden billabong. This is the main destination – a sacred site created by the Rainbow Serpent, whose body shape can be discerned in the scalloped cave behind the waterfall. Snakes are revered for their connection to the earth.
Yanna Muru retrieves some ochres and stones, then traces symbols in the sand as we eat our lunch: meeting place, kangaroo, emu, woman. I can, if I like, paint something to take away, though this is only the material souvenir. What Yanna Muru really wants people to take away is an understanding that there is more than one way to relate to the world.
"There is huge potential for growth of Aboriginal culture in Australia," he says. "How can you have reconciliation if you don't know the other person's culture? That's the first step: to learn it." Maybe, he also suggests, by learning this culture people might also learn something about themselves and the place they happen to find themselves living in. Yanna Muru is soft-spoken but when he sends a cooee out across the valley, it comes back loud and clear.
When we finish the walk, entering Springwood, where newspapers sit on perfectly manicured lawns, I find myself wondering how many of us really understand what's just over our back fences.
Aboriginal Blue Mountains Walkabout tours leave from Faulconbridge railway station at 10.35am every day, just under 1 1/2 hours from Sydney CBD. The tour ends at Springwood station and it is possible to be back in Sydney by 7.20pm.
This is seven kilometres of physically challenging adventure-grade bushwalking, so moderate fitness is recommended. Cost is $95 a person. Half-day tours are available for $75 a person.
0408 443 822, bluemountainswalkabout.com.