Saturday, December 31, 2005

Travel: The New York Times - Among the Aborigines in the Remote Outback

Among the Aborigines in the Remote Outback
By JULIE EARLE-LEVINE Published: May 22, 2005

It is not what you might expect to see first when you fly halfway around the world for an authentic indigenous Australian experience: a cemetery.

But there it is, a large cemetery sign at the entrance to the Titjikala Aboriginal community 75 miles south of Alice Springs in the scorching Outback, where flies sometimes seek moisture in your mouth - people tend to talk with pursed lips - and a thin layer of red dust envelops you.
Children play with frisky mongrel dogs outside the community's Art Center, and shout "Hello! Hello!" to visitors, laughing and revealing big white teeth. Some women chat and play cards in the welcome shade of a gum tree. An Aboriginal flag - yellow, black and red - flaps in the desert wind.

Gunya Titjikala is an "indigenous resort" that immerses tourists in Aboriginal culture, allowing them to live with Aborigines on the fringe of the Simpson Desert in the Northern Territory. It officially opened in September 2004 and is attracting a cross-section of travelers keen to know more about one of the world's oldest living cultures.

According to Tourism Australia, the government tourism agency, visitors complained that they never had the chance to meet indigenous people and experience their culture. Most visitors and Australians are unlikely to see many full-blood Aborigines in cities like Sydney or Melbourne. Tourists generally buy didgeridoos and boomerangs in souvenir shops before they climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge or fly off to the Great Barrier Reef.

Before starting Gunya Titjikala, Mark Provost, the managing director of Gunya Tourism, searched Australia for authentic indigenous tourism and did not find any. He began to look for a suitable community; it proved difficult. Aboriginal communities are normally closed to outsiders, and visitors must seek permission even to cross Aboriginal land, which is considered sacred. (Ayers Rock, 200 miles south of Alice Springs, has been known as Uluru since 1985 when it was returned to the Anangu, the Aboriginal owners.) Mr. Provost developed Gunya Titjikala because he believed the people were ready for change. It didn't have the more serious problems of other communities such as gasoline sniffing; it was close enough to Alice Springs for international visitors; and its residents seemed willing to support tourism. He plans to open three other communities to tourism in the next year. Each will offer a different experience of culture, language and environment.

Some critics declare such projects can't work. Relations between indigenous and nonindigenous people have improved in Australia, but tension remains. Mark Provost is confident of success. "We had lots of meetings over many months, sitting in the dirt, to talk about tourism. One day, one of the elders said, 'We'd better sign this now. We think tourism will be good,' " he recalled. He believes tourism will provide jobs and preserve culture and tradition. Half of the money raised goes to a community trust, and the remainder will be reinvested in tourism for other communities.

Getting to Titjikala from Alice Springs requires bumping along for an hour and a half on a dirt road littered with abandoned cars. Visitors stay in three safari-style tents on stilts that are open to the desert. They are half a mile from the community's 30 houses; an average of 10 people and several dogs live in each house, with tin roofs and simple wire fences that collect wind-blown rubbish.

On the deck each morning, guests can dine on mango and passionfruit and brewed coffee and prepare for a day that offers insight into a way of life that is both traditional and modern. Lunch can be roasted kangaroo tail; dinner is upscale bush tucker, as bush food is called, such as steak marinated in bush tomato and native spices and wattleseed cheesecake.
Women still gather bush tucker - everything from witchetty grubs to salt-and-pepper-colored goannas to sugary-sweet honey ants, eaten one by one like candy - but they drive a car to get it. Men with rifles also hunt in cars, shooting as they speed across the desert. Visitors are not permitted to join the kangaroo hunt. The land is littered with hunting cars, flipped from chasing kangaroos, and flagon wagons, cars used to go and get alcohol - often, flagons of wine. Titjikala is a dry community, meaning it does not allow alcohol. Even so, on Fridays some people are drunk because they have taken Thursday's unemployment money and driven elsewhere to buy liquor.
Guests spend much of their time sitting on the dusty ground - a traditional Aboriginal setting for communication - listening to stories and answering questions. Where were you on Sept. 11? Have you heard about the tsunami? One woman said she had wept when she saw "Rabbit-Proof Fence," the movie about the so-called Stolen Generation, when during a 70-year-period, half-caste Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to detention centers. They said the tourism gives them hope, although Titjikala has some problems that the community is tackling. Sammy Campbell, a tribal elder, said four young men had hanged themselves a few years back. Some elders blamed marijuana.
But the people who live there are friendly. Loretta Kenny and her friends enthusiastically teach visitors how to collect bush tucker and track animals. They follow the sandy prints of a dingo and a perentie, a large lizard that whips its tail when cornered. Other activities include learning about art and bush medicine and listening to "Dreamtime" stories about ancestral spirits who often assumed the form of animals.

Community members are paid for their time with visitors. One evening, the dinner host was Ricky Orr, a well-spoken man who left Titjikala 15 years ago. "I went away and came back," he said. "Then, it was a very depressing place to be." Now he is a health worker at the community clinic.

Mr. Orr is optimistic about Titjikala, where he has seen other young men lose hope. He said he believes it will succeed as a tourism venture. "Now," he said, "there is a reason to be here."