Indigenous culture can enrich your stay

I grew up in Melbourne and for most of my childhood my idea of ​​travel was limited to the big family odysseys we took for a few years over Christmas. Mom would scatter the mothballs all over the carpet to protect it from the plague of moths that she feared would descend during the few weeks we were away, we would lock up the house and pack the Holden with pillows and comforters, and we were heading for Tewantin on the Sunshine Coast, where family friends owned the news agency.

We would stop at campsites along the way and pitch a tent. One summer it was too hot for Dad to drive, so we spent the night in a motel. A motel! These were considered a luxury for working-class families in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of ​​flying anywhere was not even a consideration; might as well go to the moon.

In the years we stayed closer to home, we would drive to Lake Tyers in Gippsland, to a Methodist Church-run campground above Ninety Mile Beach. We slept in recycled military tents, lit by kerosene lamps. If we had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, we had to take a torch and walk down a black sand path to the toilet block.

My dad would come down to the beach at dawn, cast a line in the waves, and come back with a fresh flathead that he fried for breakfast. There was a tin shed where the children designed sketches for concerts in the evening. We would be wild. Maybe the parents weren’t so careful. The children fell off the cliffs and were bitten by snakes and ticks.

The simplicity of this camping holiday, the low-impact interaction with nature and the love of wild beaches and bush it fostered, the upcycled military tent with its minimal energy consumption, the line, the fact that we stayed for a month even though we did use fossil fuels to get there, now seems like the perfect picture of a sustainable vacation, as we now think of it.

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

In 1917, as other missions across Victoria were closing, many Victorian Aborigines were rounded up and placed on the Gippsland Mission, known to locals as Bung Yarnda. In the decades that followed, the conditions in which they lived became a national disgrace. Various attempts to integrate the residents into the wider community or relocate them to Morwell have only extended the misery.

In the 1970s these people would go on to win the first successful Aboriginal land rights claim in Australia, but they were just shadowy figures to me then, living in cottages with no running water, unable to own cars, living with rations and locked up at night. I had no idea – booking was something we white people in the suburbs passed by and, dare I say, avoided.

As vacationers, we extracted so much joy from this country, and we were far from the worst example of tourists, but what was missing was that we weren’t giving back.

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

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

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

Visitors now have far more opportunities than I had as a child to learn about local Aboriginal culture and support area businesses.

A good start would be a visit to the Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place in Bairnsdale in the land of the Brabawooloong, one of the five Gunaikurnai clans. The museum is run by a cooperative of local community members. It offers self-guided tours that showcase the richness of traditional culture, history and practices, through artifacts 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 Kevin Murray serves up kangaroo skewers and salt-cured lamb burgers at Bush Café, bringing bush tucker to the table. Housed in the headquarters of the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation, the cafe is part of a complex with an art gallery exhibiting local artists and artisans (see gunaikurnai.org).

I wouldn’t trade my dad’s fried flathead for anything, but these burgers sound good.

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