6 Ways To Experience Indigenous Sydney

26 March 2016

There’s no need to travel to the dusty outback or the far reaches to experience indigenous Australia. Aborigines, said to be custodians of the world’s oldest continuous culture (rewind back some 40,000-plus years), hold a strong attachment to the land, not least around cosmopolitan Sydney. The increasing interest in Australia’s native riches and history has given rise to unique offerings, all within easy access of the CBD. Here are a few of the best:

 Learning about native flora in the Royal Botanic Garden. (Image: Royal Botanic Garden Sydney)

1. Aboriginal Heritage Tour

This is one of the most insightful and interesting tours about indigenous Sydney. Run by The Royal Botanic Garden, tour guide Leon Burchill (among others) leads small groups around the gardens, specifically a spot called Cadi Jam Ora, which means ‘I am in Cadi’, with respect to the Aboriginal Cadigal people who lived there. A printed storyline educates visitors about Cadigal Dreamtime (it is believed Baiame, the spirit of their ancestral being, created nature and informed their traditions, art, and dance) and native flora abounds with species still used by indigenous communities: lomandra grass is used for basket weaving; lemon myrtle trees have strong medicinal purposes; bottlebrush leaves flavour cooking; and raw lilly-pilly berries are high in vitamin C.

Did you know that spider webs were once used as twine? A highlight is when the guide plays the didgeridoo, less commonly referred to as the ‘yidaki’. On my tour, Leon, who learned how to play the instrument as a teenager back home in the Daintree Rainforest, performed a musical tale about crocodiles, myna birds, and dingoes.

 Margret Campbell imparts her version of the Dreamtime. (Image: Marina Chetner)

2. The Rocks Dreaming Tour

Aboriginal elder Margret ‘Muughi’ Campbell leads a highly regarded 90-minute tour that takes visitors through her rendition of Dreamtime. Guests meet at Cadman’s Cottage in The Rocks to partake in a welcoming ceremony, whereby Margret dabs forearms with ochre (a stripe on the left arm for women; on the right, for men) before sharing stories about Mother Earth.

The walkabout traverses Circular Quay, Hickson Road Reserve, Campbell’s Cove, and Dawes Point – recently co-named Tarra Point for the white ochre that lies beneath – as Margret describes growing up in Dunghutti Country on the northeast coast of New South Wales and in Yuin Country on the south coast of NSW. She imparts knowledge about her community’s customs, the importance of storytelling, colour coding in nature, and above all else, the powerful relationship indigenous Australians have with Sydney’s waterways, flora, and fauna.


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 Pukumani grave poles in the Art Gallery of NSW. (Image: Marina Chetner)

3. Art Gallery of NSW

This beautiful gallery, located next to the Royal Botanic Gardens with views over Woolloomooloo, holds a large collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Works from West Australia are displayed throughout its Entrance Court; Pukumani grave poles anchor the 20th-century Australian Galleries and are exhibited with bark paintings by artists including Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan Marika.

Stop by Russell Drysdale’s portraits of Aboriginal people from the 1950s. The upcoming Milingimbi exhibit (November 12, 2016 to January 2017) in the Rudy Komon Gallery will showcase the artistic prowess of this small island in central Arnhem Land.

 The Bangarra Theatre production of Terrain. (Image: Greg Barrett)

4. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra, a leading performing arts organisation, fuses indigenous dance with contemporary movement. The rehearsal studio is located in Walsh Bay and performances tour nationally, including at the Sydney Opera House and Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre.

 Experience the Crystalus Body Massage at Shangri-La Hotel Sydney. (Image: Sodashi)

5. Sense of Australia spa treatment

Just as art depicts indigenous Australia, so do wellness rituals. Chi, The Spa at Shangri-La Hotel Sydney offers Sense of Australia treatments that connect guests to the land. Native floral essences like lemon myrtle, long used by Aboriginals to treat headaches, scent the Crystalus Body Massage, while healing gems soothe: heated tiger’s eye smoothed over muscles eases tension; amethyst, rhyolite rock, chrysoprase, prehnite, and red-banded Jasper crystals – all sourced from Australia – are placed on chakra points to unify the body, mind, and spirit.

 Red-braised caramelised wallaby tail with black bean and chilli at Billy Kwong. (Image: Penny Lane)

6. Billy Kwong

Food bridges cultures and encourages interesting conversation, especially over ‘Chinese bush tucker’ at Billy Kwong. The restaurant is run by renowned Australian chef Kylie Kwong and incorporates endemic flora and fauna. Top choices are steamed dumplings filled with warrigal greens (sometimes referred to as Botany Bay spinach), caramelised wallaby tail braised in spices, and a stir-fried mix of Australian native greens that includes foraged salt bush, ice plant, Barilla spinach bower, and karkalla – a succulent also known as beach banana. Noma founder and chef Rene Redzepi is a fan of this Potts Point dining hotspot.

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Marina Chetner

Marina Chetner is a Los Angeles-based Australian freelance writer. She has written for various inflight publications, The Daily Telegraph, James Halliday Wine Companion, Islands, LA Yoga, DAYSPA, and Australian Yoga Journal. When she's not traveling, she's planning her next escape.