Aborigines of Sydney

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 63 of the August 2012 issue.

Possibly as long as 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, Australia’s Aborigines arrived on that island continent from Southeast Asia via the islands of Indonesia. Eventually they occupied almost all parts of Australia, including southeastern Australia, where Sydney is now located. Known archaeological sites near Sydney date back at least 15,000 years. That’s four times older than the Egyptian pyramids, the oldest of which dates to about 2600 BC.

The first European settlers arrived there from England in 1788, a mere 224 years ago, a blink of the eye compared with how long the Aborigines have been there. These Europeans were mostly deported convicts sent to establish a penal colony. They encountered the Cadigal, Aborigines who lived in the Sydney area close to where the Sydney Opera House is now located.

An Aboriginal painting in the Australian Museum — Sydney. Photo: Skurdenis

The Cadigal were a small clan of coastal people, one of seven such clans in the area collectively called the Eora. The arrival of the Europeans all but decimated them within a few years, primarily through diseases for which the Eora had no resistance. Today in Sydney there still live people who can claim Aboriginal ancestry in whole or in part from those who survived the encounter with the first Europeans.

It is possible for visitors to Sydney to experience a little of the rich and varied Aboriginal culture via Sydney’s museums, galleries and public gardens. Here is a small sampling of what I discovered during a trip that my husband, Paul, and I took to Australia in August 2011.

Culture sampling

The best place to begin is at the Australian Museum (6 College St.), which boasts an excellent Indigenous Australia section.

Spending an hour or two there gives a good introduction to Aboriginal history, culture and beliefs, including an understanding of the Aborigines’ Dreamtime as well as of the misguided attempts in the recent past to take Aboriginal children from their parents and raise them in communal settings. There’s also a superlative collection of Aboriginal art.

Follow up with a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Art Gallery Road, The Domain). This museum is so good, Paul and I visited four times, exploring a different section on each visit (Asian, Contemporary, European, and Aboriginal). The Art Gallery’s highlight, I think, is the Yiribana Gallery, where Aboriginal art is exhibited.

One-hour guided tours are offered every day. It is a good idea to take advantage of touring with a knowledgeable guide who can interpret the unique art of Aboriginal painters.

The highlight among the highlights is the group of Pukumani wooden grave posts from Bathurst and Melville islands, off Australia’s northern coast. They’re displayed on the museum’s main floor.

A walk in a garden

For those who might like to walk in the steps of the earliest Australians, there is Cadi Jam Ora Gardens, part of The Royal Botanic Gardens.

Here, where the Cadigal people once lived in an area they called Wuganmagulya, is an indigenous garden with plants once used (and still used) for food and medicine as well as to construct shelters. There’s also a 160-foot-long time line tracing Aboriginal and European historical events that occurred here.

You can walk about on your own or take a 90-minute-long “Aboriginal Heritage” tour to learn about Aboriginal culture, plant use and bush “tucker” (food). The tour is offered on Fridays at 10 a.m., costs $33 and begins at the information booth outside the Garden Shop at the Palm Grove Centre. Book in advance (phone 02 9231 8134).

Captain Cook Cruises offers many sightseeing and dining cruises throughout the day. One of the more unusual ones is the Tribal Warrior Cruise, a 2-hour cruise emphasizing significant Sydney landmarks in relation to the Aborigines and including a visit to Clark Island in Sydney Harbour.

Something very special is the Bangarra Dance Theater, Australia’s premier indigenous dance company, which presents traditional Aboriginal dance in contemporary style. It makes for an exciting evening if you’re lucky enough to be in Sydney when they’re performing.

We had the extra good luck of seeing the company perform at the Sydney Opera House. The Bangarra tours both within Australia (if you’re visiting other cities in Australia, you might want to check to see if they’re in town when you are) and internationally.

Aboriginal crafts

For a special souvenir of an Australian trip, there is no better gift for yourself or someone back home than something crafted by an Aborigine.

On our latest trip, we bought a vibrant dot painting from the Aboriginal Art Galleries in the Queen Victoria Building at 455 George Street. There are two other branches: one in The Rocks (1-5 Hickson Rd.) and Shop 13 (2 East Circular Quay) in Opera Quays, close to the Sydney Opera House.

When purchasing an Aboriginal carving or painting, try to make sure that it was actually made by an Aborigine rather than mass produced or, worse, imported from some other country.

Outback outings

On this Sydney trip, we also visited Ayers Rock/Uluru and The Olgas/Kata Tjuta, located in the center of Australia. We did a number of walks: the “Liru Sunrise Walk,” the “Kuniya Sunset Walk” and the “Mala Walk” to caves with Aboriginal rock art. We also took a Dot Painting Workshop, each in the company of an Anangu Aboriginal guide and an interpreter.

This 4-night/5-day excursion — including round-trip airfare from Sydney, accommodations (we stayed at the hotel Desert Gardens, where we had a spectacular view of Ayers Rock and where we paid $100 per night extra), meals and the walks — was pricey, about $5,000 for the two of us, but worth it for the opportunity to explore this special part of Australia.

Our arrangements were made by About Australia (888/359-2877 or 210/299-1077), based in San Antonio, Texas. — JS

If you go…

We rented a house for a month in Surry Hills, Sydney, through www.vrbo.com but discovered after we’d moved in that there was an Adina Apartment Hotel at 359 Crown Street, Surry Hills just two blocks from the rental house.

For those staying in Sydney longer than three or four days, we highly recommend the Adina. We’ve recently stayed at their sleek, modern, comfortable apartment hotels in Copenhagen and Berlin and loved them.

Each Adina apartment comes with a kitchen, living/dining room, separate bedroom, and washer/dryer (an essential for us, particularly on long trips). Some have balconies.

Rates at the Sydney Adina range from AUS200 (about $199) per night for a one-bedroom to AUS350 for the largest 2-bedroom apartment, but there often are discounts available online.