Indigenous tourism in Victoria set to shine

Braydon Saunders at Budj Bim

Larissa Dubecki

Posted April 08, 2019

Budj Bim becomes first site in Australia to achieve World Heritage status for Aboriginal cultural significance.

The country around Lake Condah, out in the west of Victoria, is mesmerising. Windswept, rugged and eerily beautiful, it’s the kind of landscape that seems to go on forever. The enveloping peace is broken only by birdcall, the swoosh of tall grasses and the sight of the occasional snake enjoying the height-of-summer sun.

Walking through the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape, the untrained eye can pick up mysteries without finding answers. Stone rings that occur too often to be coincidence hint tantalisingly at another story. More stones lining old waterways, arranged in a way that demonstrates purpose, rather than happenstance, deepen the intrigue.

But walk this country in the company of traditional owners Braydon Saunders, a Budj Bim ranger, and Tyson Lovett-Murray, project officer with the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, and the epic truth is revealed. Welcome to the land of the Gunditjmara people, the world’s first civil engineers.

It is here – on land that European settlers rebadged Mount Eccles until it was changed back to its rightful name in 2017 – that a large, settled Aboriginal community systematically farmed and smoked eels for food and trade 6600 years ago, and very possibly much longer. “We were the original sustainable farmers,” says Braydon Saunders. “We weren’t just hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors were looking after the landscape, taking care of biodiversity, doing planned burns and concentrating on the production of one species.”

Their Gunditjmara ancestors trapped short-finned eels in a complex system of channels, ponds and weirs. They sometimes fattened them up on kangaroo meat, separated the pregnant eels from the others, and captured them in intricately woven grass baskets. The reliable food supply allowed them to settle and build villages of stone huts where they lived year-round. They smoked eels in hollowed-out trees for trade, and stored food in sinkhole ‘fridges’ – all at least 4000 years before the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids.

In 2017, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull travelled to Gunditjmara country to announce Budj Bim’s official nomination by the Australian government for World Heritage status; the first such nomination based purely on Aboriginal culture and heritage, and the culmination of 10 years of painstaking documentation by the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. The site was granted World Heritage status on July 6, 2019, and its inclusion on the UNESCO cultural sites list is set to see visitation increase from 5000 visitors each year to at least 50,000 – and quite possibly double that number.

Tyson Lovett-Murray and Braydon Saunders in front of huts

Tyson Lovett-Murray, project officer with Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, and Budj Bim ranger Braydon Saunders, outside their Gunditjmara ancestors’ reconstructed stone huts. Photo: Shannon Morris

“It’s important to tell our story,” says Tyson Lovett-Murray. “If we can capture just 10 per cent of the tourists who come down the Great Ocean Road to the Twelve Apostles then we’ll be telling it to more than 100,000 people every year.”

Consumer demand for cultural tourism experiences, whether that be evidence of scar trees, rock art or other traditions, has been among the areas of highest growth in worldwide tourism. Victoria, however, has historically lagged behind northern Australia in attracting tourists to places with evident cultural heritage. Kakadu, unsurprisingly, attracts the highest number of visitors, followed by other regions in the Northern Territory, the Daintree in Queensland and the South Australian regions of Riverland and the Flinders Ranges.

But Budj Bim is just one of several new Indigenous tourism initiatives putting the history, country and traditions of Victoria’s first peoples in the spotlight.

Officially opening in September (although the first 36-kilometre section from Halls Gap is already being used), the Grampians Peaks Trail in south-western Victoria will be the most heavily invested-in walking track in Australia’s history.

Costing $30.2 million, the landmark 160-kilometre walking trail across the ancient landscape will link the national park’s dramatic sandstone peaks. Taking around 13 days to walk the full trail, although it can also be done in sections, authorities hope it will be a tourism magnet like Tasmania’s world-famous Overland Track or New Zealand’s Milford Sound.

Visitor numbers to the Grampians are already on the rise, reaching the magic one million mark last year. The Peaks Trail will bring many more (an additional 34,000 walkers a year are expected by 2025) to the country known to the traditional owners as Gariwerd. Significant flow-on is anticipated for the Indigenous-owned and operated Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre in Halls Gap and for the Indigenous landmarks dotting the area.

The cultural epicentre of the creator spirit Bunjil, the Grampians are home to around 140 Aboriginal rock-art sites dating from 1000 to 22,000 years old. More are being uncovered every year.

A park ranger marking the Peaks Trail discovered a forgotten sandstone cave with two red-ochre bunyips painted on the walls, helping to cement the area’s growing reputation as an open-air gallery of significant Indigenous artwork.

“It’s a magical place,” says Jake Goodes, a former Parks Victoria ranger, now rock art cultural heritage protection specialist with Parks Victoria. “We’re just waking up to what we have here.”

For Jake, one of the challenges of increased tourism in the Grampians is protecting the cultural sites against vandalism. Much of the rock art, including the newly discovered bunyips, is kept secret to protect it from graffiti. The four rock-art sites in the park that are open to the public and signposted are kept behind protective cages. “Those are the extremes we have to go to,” he says. “There used to be more that were open but we closed them. As soon as one person graffitis a site, other people do it. Of all the conservation works I do around heritage, people are the biggest threat.”

The Peaks Trail will have a distinct Indigenous flavour with signs indicating the history and beliefs of the three traditional ownership groups of the Gunditjmara, Barengi Gadjin and Eastern Maar.

Tyson Lovett-Murray on a rock at a lookout

Jake Goodes, Parks Victoria rock art cultural heritage protection specialist, in the Grampians. Photo: Shannon Morris

Parks Victoria is currently recruiting six traditional owner rangers from those groups to guide visitors on a three-day hiking and cultural experience in the north, to be known as the Edge of Gariwerd. As the job description says: “As a Gariwerd ranger, you will help visitors to experience country through your eyes. You’ll have the opportunity to share your cultural knowledge, including the importance of rock art and caring for country.”

This is precisely where the importance of Indigenous tourism goes beyond consciousness raising, says Simon Talbot, Parks Victoria’s chief operating officer. Sustainable Indigenous tourism can help bridge the gap by bringing economic, environmental and cultural benefits to traditional owners.

As already seen with the development of the Peaks Trail and an anticipated rise in ranger numbers at Budj Bim, it brings jobs and self-determination.

“The elders tell me they want to see their young people engaging with country by becoming a ranger,” he says.

He emphasises that caution is needed, however. Joint management of country between traditional owners and Parks Victoria is in its early stages. While country such as Budj Bim is ready to take the next great tourism leap forward, many others are a work in progress, as previously dispossessed Aboriginal groups reconnect with their land.

“One of the constant themes, regardless of which mob I’m speaking with, is the elders telling me, ‘Please help us connect with country, help us walk together and be patient because there is so much to learn’, ” says Simon.

“It’s the sad result of genocide and colonisation that so many connections with culture were broken. You can’t just jump straight into an end tourism product. We’re committed to ensuring traditional owners have time and space to relearn their stories, to practise their culture and work out what self-determination looks like. Only then can we look at special and sacred places and work out how to share them – if, in fact, they’re shared at all.”

The prospect of a three-night touring route taking in the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles, Budj Bim, Tower Hill and the Grampians has plenty to recommend it. There’s rock art, the world’s oldest aquaculture system, and, in the case of Tower Hill near Port Fairy, a hidden volcanic hunting ground.

Yet not everything in Victoria’s Indigenous tourism sector requires a three-hour drive. Even in Melbourne there are plenty of opportunities, both new and established, to engage with Aboriginal culture.

The short-finned eels that migrate all the way from northern Queensland and provide the lifeblood of the Gunditjmara are celebrated at Melbourne Museum every day with eel-feeding sessions in the grounds of the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The ground-breaking exploration of the history of Victoria’s Indigenous peoples, from thousands of years ago to the present day, launched its First Peoples tour in November last year.

Co-curated by the Yulendj Group of elders from across Victoria, it’s a 90-minute tour of Bunjilaka and Milarri Garden with an Aboriginal guide. They share their insights into performance, storytelling and artwork, the traditional uses of plants, and help visitors handle tools and artefacts.

Brambuck cultural centre building

The Brambuk National Park and Cultural Centre at Halls Gap. Photo: Shannon Morris

John Huggins, Aboriginal tourism business development manager at Visit Victoria, says Melbourne’s rich Indigenous urban heritage helps set the southern capital apart.

“Elsewhere around Australia there’s a lot of Aboriginal tourism content that goes up to colonisation but there’s very little from then on up in terms of narratives. There are so many opportunities to add to the stories of Aboriginal tourism in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland for an expanded view into what Aboriginal tourism looks like.”

Victoria’s urban strengths lie in the facilities and places to tell that story from a more contemporary point of view. John cites Bunjilaka at the Melbourne Museum, the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square, the Royal Botanic Gardens’ Aboriginal Heritage Walk and Indigenous-inspired restaurant Charcoal Lane in Fitzroy as highlights of the inner-city experience. “There are exciting opportunities to really emphasise those urban type of experiences.”

Out in the distinctly non-urban environment of Budj Bim, there’s excitement and anticipation about the prospect of receiving World Heritage status. The world is about to hear the story of the Gunditjmara, their ancient feats of engineering and their modern tales too.

Near Budj Bim, on Portland Bay, is the Convincing Ground, where many Gunditjmara were killed by European settlers in a dispute over a beached whale in the 1830s. Plans are afoot to memorialise Victoria’s first recorded massacre with interpretive signage.

Braydon Saunders and Tyson Lovett-Murray talk about the banning
of their language and traditions, and of the elders’ ever-present fear of losing their children if the women were found practising traditions such as weaving eel baskets.

The Gunditjmara’s native title over their country was acknowledged only 12 years ago. They have been hosting tours of Budj Bim for a decade but as the UNESCO decision on World Heritage listing looms, the trickle of visitors looks set to turn into a flood.

Gunditjmara elder Denis Rose, program manager with the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, says they’re ready for the challenge. “There aren’t many Indigenous-led World Heritage sites around the world. A lot of Indigenous communities have this imposed on them, but we’ve been actively pursuing this,” he says.

The flow-on effects for the community, including economic benefits and better protection and management for their country, will be welcomed with open arms.

“As a young fella I knew what we had out there, but I didn’t think other people would be interested. It’s good to know I was wrong. I think people are ready to hear our story.”

Pointing out rock art

Grampians rock art. Photo: Shannon Morris

A culinary cultural adventure

Koalas snooze in gum trees close to the Tower Hill Visitor Centre. Emus parade through the car park. Cradled inside the 11-kilometre rim of a dormant volcano that erupted 32,000 years ago, Tower Hill is a haven for native flora and fauna.

Ten minutes’ drive from Warrnambool, Tower Hill is managed by its traditional owners, the Gunditjmara people. Their hour-long tour takes a culinary bent, starting with emu sausage, braised kangaroo and lemon myrtle and strawberry gum tea, before taking visitors through the spectacular landscape to taste a smorgasbord of native foods.

There’s water parsley that tastes like a cross between celery leaf and parsley, water ribbons that you can eat raw but are apparently much better roasted. There are “bush chips”, otherwise known as the crisp leaves of the bower spinach plant, the baby shoots of the weeping she-oak and bush tomatoes.

“Food is all around,” says our guide Jackie. “You just have to know where to look.”

Five Indigenous tourism experiences

Royal Botanic Gardens

Led by Indigenous guides, the Aboriginal Heritage Walk starts with a traditional smoking ceremony and offers a 90-minute exploration of the gardens’ native plants and their traditional uses as food and medicine.

Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre

Just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne at the start of the Great Ocean Road, this cultural centre is home to art exhibitions, guides sharing Dreaming stories, and activities such as boomerang throwing. There’s also a cafe serving food made with native ingredients.

Charcoal Lane

Named after the ballad by Aboriginal singer Archie Roach, this social enterprise restaurant run by Mission Australia serves critically acclaimed modern Indigenous-inspired food, while also giving young Indigenous people valuable skills.

Wurundjeri Cultural Tours

Connect with the original custodians of the land on which Melbourne is built on a guided walk around Dights Falls in Abbotsford or inner-suburban Fitzroy. Or take a bus tour to Wil-im-ee Moor-ring (Mount William), near Lancefield, to their traditional greenstone quarry, the epicentre of lengthy ancient trading routes.

Koorie Heritage Trust

An innovative and immersive cultural education centre in Melbourne’s Federation Square, it houses a large collection of art and artefacts and hosts workshops and yarning circles.