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Sydney’s hidden Aboriginal gems

This article originally appeared on www.hotelclub.com/blog. which is now part of hotels.com

Some visitors might only associate the beauty of Indigenous Australia with the red sands of ‘the outback’. However, far from remote, the Sydney region is a vastly rich area in which to explore the identity of our first peoples. This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is We all stand on sacred ground: learn, respect, celebrate. Following on from this theme, we take a look at some of Sydney’s hidden Aboriginal gems where you can learn about, respect and celebrate the heritage of our Aboriginal Australians from the past and present to the future.

For a meaningful and memorable experience we highlight a number of Aboriginal-owned and guided, social enterprise-driven and ethical experiences where you can learn more whilst contributing directly to initiatives that respect and support the capacity of Aboriginal peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

1) The BLAK Markets

Cross the bridge to Bare Island in Botany Bay Kamay National Park on the first Sunday of the month to be part of diverse Aboriginal cultural activities at The BLAK Markets. Experience a traditional smoking ceremony and Welcome to Country, taste the bush-tucker infused meals, admire Indigenous crafts and designs, and watch music and dance performance. In depth workshops offer learning from crafts and spear making, to fishing and the uses of native plants and artefacts.

Opening hours: First Sunday of the month, 9:30am – 4:00pm

Entry to Bare Island: $2 pp

Getting there: 

  • Direct buses to La Perouse depart from Circular Quay and Railway Square. The trip takes about 30 min.

  • Get off at the last bus stop at La Perouse

  • 2 min walk to Bare Island accessed by bridge

2) Bangarra Dance Theatre

The internationally renown Bangarra Dance Theatre takes audiences on a journey of connection through deep spiritual storytelling, impressive technique and captivating performance. Bangarra fuses traditional dance with contemporary movement to share the unique stories of respected community Elders. Book performances in Sydney or NSW regions throughout the year directly from the venue.

3) Aboriginal Heritage Track, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park

With over 800 Indigenous sites, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park is a significant place to explore the richness of our Aboriginal heritage. Reflect on the world view of the Guringai Nation on the Aboriginal Heritage Walk, as it guides you to rock art at Red Hands Cave, rock engravings and historic shelters among the beautiful surrounds.

Details: This walk is a 4.5km loop so it’s suggested to allow 2.5 hours to complete.

Cost: The walk is free, but National Park Entry Fees apply.

Don’t miss: See human and animal life through the eyes of the Garrigal people of the Guringai Nation at the Basin Aboriginal art site. Located close to the Aboriginal Heritage Walk, the Basin track detours to one of the most significant examples of rock engravings.

4) Muru Mittigar Aboriginal Cultural and Education Centre

At the base of the Blue Mountains lies a unique opportunity to uncover the history, culture and arts of traditional custodians, the Darug people. Share the imagination of the Darug people at the Muru Mittigar Aboriginal Cultural and Education Centre’s gallery of works and learn from guides about Aboriginal culture, Darug identity and the stories of Darug ancestors.

Don’t miss: didgeridoos sourced exclusively from NSW groups in the retail shop.

Opening hours:Monday-Friday, 9.00am-4.00pm. Bookings available on weekends

5) Boomalli Aborignal Artists Co-operative

Tucked away in the inner west at 5km from the CBD, one of Australia’s longest running Aboriginal-owned and operated galleries, Boomalli, invites visitors to share in ‘contemporary Indigenous cultural expression’. Boomalli’s gallery provides a window into the diversity of Aboriginal identity through innovative, distinct art that goes beyond traditional approaches.

Opening hours: 

Wednesday – Sunday, 11:00am – 4:00pm

Address: 55 – 59 Flood St, Leichhardt.

6) Royal Botanic Gardens – self-guided walk and guided tour

Once an important ceremonial site for many of Sydney’s Aboriginal peoples, and the land of the Cadigal clan, the Royal Botanic gardens reveal rich Aboriginal heritage in the heart of Sydney. On a self-guided walk through native flora, learn how Aboriginal peoples prepared, ate and transformed plants into everyday tools and materials. Guided Aboriginal Heritage tours on Fridays further explore history and culture through plant uses, artefacts, tasting bush foods and connecting with the broader surrounds. 

When: 10:00am Fridays – 1.5 hours – bookings are essential – book here.

Where: Tours depart from the Information Booth outside the Garden Shop at the Palm Grove Centre

Cost: See Guided Tour fees for 2015

7) Urban Aboriginal art – T2 Building

See tradition embedded in the urban landscape at this bright installation by Aboriginal artist Reko Rennie in central Sydney. Rennie transformed a 1910 Commonwealth Bank building with geometric diamonds that reference his associations to Aboriginal North-Western NSW and the traditional markings of the Kamilaroi people. Neon text across the front, ‘always was, always will be’, pays respect to the Gadigal people’s original and current custodianship of the land at this site.

Address: Taylor Square – Intersection with Campbell Street / Flinders Street / Oxford Street, Darlinghurst.

8) Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery

Keep your inspiration of Aboriginal culture at home, see the diverse collection at this gallery including prints, sculpture, watercolour, photography, books, artefacts as well as bark, paper, canvas and board paintings. Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery is also a founding member of the Indigenous Art Trade Association, whose industry associates follow a code of ethics to support Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander artists.

Address: 31 Lambrock Ave, Bondi Beach

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00am – 5:00pm

9) Museum of Sydney

Retrace the steps of the Gadigal people’s history, culture and survival in this interactive exhibition at the Museum of Sydney honouring the traditional owners of the land on which it stands.

Address: Phillip St & Bridge Street, Sydney

Opening Hours: Open Daily, 10:00am – 5:00pm

Cost: Adults $10, Child (under 15) / Concession $5, Family (two adults + two children) $20, Members free

10) Art Gallery of NSW –  Yirbana gallery Indigenous collection 

View a significant selection of works from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection at the Art Gallery of NSW, most of which have been produced since 1945.

Address: Art Gallery Rd, The Domain

Opening Hours: Open Daily, 10:00am – 5:00pm

Entry: General admission is FREE

Aboriginal Tours and Cultural Awareness

Aboriginal community-owned and operated package tours are a special invitation to learn more about Aboriginal history and cultures through a broad range of activities.

Dreamtime Southern X Aboriginal Heritage Tours and Cultural Awareness programs

For Aunty Margret Campbell, respected Elder and owner of Dreamtime Southern X tours, participating in NAIDOC week’s theme is an opportunity to celebrate Aboriginal peoples’ connection to the environment and its deep knowledge systems.

“It is very important to remind all Australians this “downunder landscape-waterscape and skyscape” holds the first human engagement and management practices with such environments”, says Aunty Margret, “..and therefore the first stories-wisdoms-learnings-teachings-memories that extend from saltwater sunrise/moonrise across and over to saltwater sunset/moonset.”

Ancient knowledge and memories contained in the environment are ever-present for Aboriginal people. As Aunty Margret explains, “In specified areas, these first memories remain strong with all Aboriginal people as we hold our secret – and sacred wisdoms in each songline jurisdiction.”

For Aunty Margret, all this underpins the sharing of Aboriginal culture.

“These two prinicipal[s] [are] why and what I do in my cultural experiences..in EORA Country – now known as Sydney.  I mesh these two knowledge systems to become one with a strong cultural identity for everyone to be able to have a reasonable think about.”

To participate in Aboriginal cultural experiences in the Sydney region is not just tourism, says Aunty Margret, “each experience is a life changing one [for] discovering these ancient stories and memories that our (Wyanga Malu) – Earth Mother – holds for us.”

Elder Aunty Margret Campbell welcomes visitors to Eora country to trace the ever-present Dreamtime on ancient Aboriginal pathways, learning how to walk or travel through country with a deep respect. Walk with Aunty Margret in Sydney’s metropolitan area to discover Aboriginal identity and its living connection to the environment through daytime tours on sites, history, Natural Lore, story and ceremony. Dreamtime Southern X also offers a cultural dinner event and a cultural awareness program, is Aboriginal-owned and supports Aboriginal employment where possible.

Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness

Dwayne Bannon-Harrison carries on a great legacy. After studying for 17 years with respected Elder Uncle Max Dulamunmun Harrison, he now guides people to the sacred mountain of the Yuin people, Gulaga, just as Uncle Max did for four decades.

Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness shares Yuin heritage with visitors on an immersive 40 hour experience in the Narooma/Tilba region of southern NSW.

“As far [I] know we are one of only a handful of immersive Indigenous experiences in NSW and South Eastern Australia, we are very privileged to have knowledge and cultural ceremony passed down to us. We owe this to a handful of elders, especially Uncle Max and the late Uncle Mervyn Penrith, both these men are my grandfathers.”

Dwayne invites visitors into the unique and living creation story of the Yuin people through sacred and significant sights at Gulaga mountain and surrounds, and the experience of ceremony and tradition.

“Our tours run from Oct – May which is running in line with our significant dreaming totems the whale[,] we hold this story and ceremony and people come from all over the country and world to experience our whale dreaming.”

Dwayne says previous visitors have claimed the Ngaran Ngaran tour can shift perspectives on Aboriginal culture, some have even called the tours life changing.

“We encourage all walks to come on our country and not just learn a dreaming but feel the story.”

Walk with Dwayne through the Yuin people’s country and explore the stories of land, kinship and dreaming on the southern coast of NSW. Take an immersive tour over 2 nights combining places of sacred significance, Gulaga or Biamanga  Mountain, with traditional dance, didgeridoo, yarning circles and ceremony. Tours include meals and accommodation. Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness also helps develop an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male holistic healing model, drawing on traditions to assist Aboriginal male health and wellbeing.

Tribal Warrior Cruises, Charters and Performances

Lua Penrith of Tribal Warrior, which shares Aboriginal history and culture aboard a Mari Nawi cruise in Sydney Harbour, says the tour aims to ‘promote teaching people about what it was like pre-occupation days for the tribes of the Eora Nation.’

While it’s not possible to visit some Aboriginal sites due to cultural protocol, visitors have a chance to see Clarke Island – previously a central gathering and meeting point for peoples living on each side of the river. ‘We aim to educate people on the various uses of things on Be-lang-le-wool (Clarke Island) such as the natural fish traps, the many uses of the Lamandra tree, how the clans met and moved fire across the river in Nawi’s.’

Lua is the daughter of the late Aboriginal actor and activist, Burnum Burnum. For Lua, her familial and historical connection to the landscape remains present while the tour sails past significant sites, ‘(we sail) past the Sydney Harbour Bridge where the pylons that hold the bridge together on either side are the rock [that] was originally taken from a sacred mountain on the South Coast, Gulaga and also from the Moruya River, near where my father’s people the Yuin Nation are from.’

Tribal Warrior invites visitors for a deeper purpose. As Lua says ‘In this way we teach others about where we’ve come from, to foster a respect for cultural heritage and celebrate our elders past, present and future, and what we are – which is the oldest continuous living culture in the world.’

See Tribal Warrior’s day tours to Goat Island in Sydney Harbour and NAIDOC week tour to Clark Island with Sydney Ferries for additional activities, including a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony, sand painting and hand stencilling.

Lua also recommends Dreamtime Southern X The Rocks Dreaming tours as an ’authentic way of honouring the footsteps of elders past, present and future’.

Catch ‘N’ Cook Tours

Take the Catch ‘N’ Cook tour to learn about traditional fishing practices and the sea, as well as Dreamtime stories, boomerang throwing and bush foods. Operating from Frenchman’s Bay, La Perouse in Botany Bay, visitors can also enjoy swimming on the tour. Koori Communications and Training which runs Catch ‘N’ Cook is an Indigenous-owned company which also provides a range of activities to develop Indigenous young people’s learning, leadership and organisation skills, promote education-retention and encourage Indigenous employment.

Ngurra Bu

Explore the Wollombi and Broke Valleys near the Hunter Valley through immersion in Aboriginal culture and traditions. Join Ngurra Bu’s 2-5 day camps in Wollombi Valley with visits to significant sites, dance, art and artefact making, bush tucker and medicine walks, and traditional cooking methods. On full, half day and twilight tours, visitors can experience Ceremony and Lore sites in the Wollombi and Broke valleys on a traditional ceremonial journey of story, including why Mt. Yengo is as significant to NSW Aboriginal people as Uluru is to the Central Desert people.

Blue Mountains Walkabout

Embark upon a spiritual journey of self discovery through the ancient knowledge and unique understandings of the Darug culture. Join Aboriginal owners and guides on a daytime walkabout tour in the Blue Mountains, following a song line of sacred sites and hidden places through bush and rainforest. Visitors will learn traditional Darug methods, feel the connection of the landscape and enrich their spirits.

Annual Indigenous Events in Sydney

Yabun Festival, Survival Day, 26 January

Be part of the largest one-day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures with arts, dance, music, and speakers on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people at Victoria Park, Camperdown.

NAIDOC week celebrations – first full week of July

Participate in a diverse range of activities to nationally celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Sydney events this year include the family-friendly ‘NAIDOC in the city’ – a free festival fusing the traditional and contemporary with live music, dance, food, art and Australian animals on Monday 6 July, 11:00am – 3:00pm in Hyde Park.

Cooroboree Sydney – November

Celebrate Australia’s rich cultural heritage with exhibitions, talks, performances, live music, films, readings and forums held at significant sites around Sydney Harbour. Join our leading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, writers, dancers and musicians and don’t miss the colourful Gurung Parade of schoolchildren, the symbolic Firelight Ceremony and meeting the makers at the Black Arts Market.

HotelClub would like to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples as the traditional custodians of our land, Australia. We acknowledge the people of the Eora Nation as traditional custodians of Metropolitan Sydney. We would like to acknowledge all Aboriginal peoples mentioned in this article as traditional custodians of the specific sites featured, and honour the cultures mentioned, including the Garrigal peoples and the Guringai Nation, and the Gadigal, the Darug, the Cadigal, the Yuin and the Kamilaroi peoples. HotelClub pays respect to the Aboriginal Elders involved with the featured tour companies in this article, and would like to thank all representatives for their time to consider our questions. In particular, we would like to thank Aunty Margret Campbell of Dreamtime Southern X, Lua Penrith of Tribal Warrior and Dwayne Bannon-Harrison of Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness for their participation.