“My goal for the Aboriginal community is that some day we can be seen simply as humans, with the same feelings and fears. That’s what we’re working towards here.” — Dr. Ernie Grant, Jirrbal Rainforest People elder and Aboriginal scholar.
The Aboriginal map of Australia laid out before us on the table at Café Chloe was not only visually appealing with all its blocks of different colours, but it was also instructive. I’d always considered Aboriginal people as one, rather than drawn from hundreds of different cultures, each with its own unique language and stories.
This was new information for me, as I suspect it was for most of the other travellers listening. They leaned in as Dr. Ernie Grant, Jirrbal Rainforest People elder and Aboriginal scholar, offered something more shocking. Until 1967 Aboriginal people in Australia were categorized legally as flora and fauna — plants and animals. That is, not human. Fathom that. Aboriginal people, considered to be the oldest continuous-living culture in the world (40–50,000 years old), did not possess any human rights in the eyes of the modern state in which they lived until 50 years ago.
Such was the backdrop of a new G Adventures for Good project, Café Chloe.
Café Chloe: a train station finds new life
Café Chloe, housed in a once-rundown train station in the town of Tully, Queensland, is named after Dr. Grant’s mother. It serves as an Aboriginal community job training and traveller interaction centre. Having been initiated and developed by the local Jirrbal community, the project is informed by an inherent understanding of the local culture and socioeconomic context. Through the café and its offering of culturally relevant visitor experiences, it aims to provide job training and employment opportunities for local Aboriginal youth.
Our experience on our recent National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures trip began with Dr. Grant giving an historical overview of the period just after European settlers arrived in Australia. He explained the role the forced deportations, killings and discrimination of Aboriginal people played in disrupting their long-standing way of living.
Through interactions with Dr. Grant and the Café Chloe staff, travellers can begin to understand the Jirrbal mindset and worldview, one that emphasizes harmonious relationships between nature and people. It’s one thing to read about such concepts as Aboriginal song lines, creation stories and dreamtime, but it’s another to sit down around a table together and have the opportunity for open dialogue about cultural facets.
This stood apart from anything I’d come to expect from an Aboriginal experience. It also contrasted greatly with my first trip to Australia 18 years ago. One of the day trips I took featured an “Aboriginal Cultural Experience” — an Aboriginal village visit complete with a tribesman in a traditional outfit, face paint and a didgeridoo (musical instrument). In fairness, the experience carried some redeeming elements, but thinking back, I blush at how superficial and disrespectful the whole thing was, and how dismissive it was of both history and current reality. It underscored that when travellers interact with Aboriginal communities in Australia, it can often be in a contrived, human zoo sort of way.
This is one of the tourism models that Café Chloe is attempting to change through its process of learning and creating together.
Aboriginal symbols: painting to understand
After a lunch of fire-roasted fish wrapped in wild ginger leaves came the opportunity for travellers to create, to paint their interpretation of Jirrbal symbols using a creation story as inspiration. The point: a story isn’t just a story, but a launch pad to understand how a culture thinks. For the Jirrbal people and Aboriginal communities in general, storytelling is central to an oral tradition carried on for tens of thousands of years. This practice enables members of the community to understand who they are while simultaneously absorbing life lessons and guidance on such topics as which plants and animals are poisonous, what food is nutritious, and how to live sustainably from the land.
Sonya, Dr. Grant’s daughter and the project leader, explains that training students to share Jirrbal stories and to lead classes is not just about providing job training and experience. Sharing with travellers from all around the world also enables Aboriginal youth to better appreciate who they are and what makes their culture so valuable.
Job creation for the Jirrbal community is also important. One of the project’s short-term goals is to employ 12 people at the café who otherwise wouldn’t have such opportunities. The upshot: the more Jirrbal people are working and sharing their culture with others to sustain their families, the stronger the community may grow overall.
A broader Australian context: how it all connects, today
Only after our trip through Australia concluded did it occur to me that the trip featured its own essential story arc, from the obvious to the subtle.
Let me explain.
Listening to the Anangu Stories of Uluru
From Queensland, the province where Café Chloe is based, we flew to Uluru. The vastness of red-tinged Outback landscape dotted by tiny villages displayed itself beneath us. In a distance I had the convenience of covering in just a couple of hours, whole cultures had very slowly moved, migrated and evolved over millennia. Onto this vast landscape filmstrip, I overlaid the map of the diversity of Aboriginal peoples that Dr. Grant had shown us just days before.
In Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, the sacred lands of the Anangu people, the arc opened further. Our guide shared creation stories that involved physical markers around us — fault lines and craters, boulders or a watering hole. These stories were Aboriginal ancestors’ attempts to make practical sense of their surroundings. Through story, they passed on lessons of how to survive in such a dry, barren land. (Note: If you are interested in learning more, be sure to read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines.)
As foreign as it all was to me at the time, it dawned on me a little later that theirs was an entirely different way of thinking about life, its origins and the implications for one’s day-to-day. I was reminded of the story the shy Jirrbal high school student had delivered to our group at Café Chloe just before we set off to paint our own interpretations. The similarities were clear; I could feel the link.
A necessary taste of Outback vastness
With our minds full of imagery, we set off on a five-hour journey to cross a swatch of the desert Outback from Uluru to the city of Alice Springs. It was our on-the-ground taste, albeit limited, of Australia’s vastness — a feature that some travellers ingest in days or weeks or even months of driving across the Northern Territory and even the entire country. After spending all that time criss-crossing Australia up in the air, a road trip like this is required to begin one’s journey of appreciation for Australia’s vastness.
It’s difficult to fathom that a people could survive in this barrenness for so long, but they have. That’s what makes Aboriginal culture and its relationship with nature so remarkable; for tens of thousands of years they have been the caretakers and protectors of this land.
Alice Springs: a reality check
Our last stop in the Northern Territory Outback was Alice Springs, an apt name for an unlikely urban centre that rises from the middle of the desert. After our experiences at Café Chloe and Uluru, it was a shock to witness the situation of some Aboriginal people on city streets. Many looked itinerant; some hung around in parks and slept on benches, others walked in a substance-induced haze. Once you understand what has happened — that the basis of their communities was stripped from them and the land and traditions of their ancestors was lost — you might begin to understand how they could become lost, too.
Our experience in Alice Springs served as a reality check on what life is, and has been, for many Aboriginal Australians. It was uncomfortable to process. I hesitate to write this. After all — is this really what a travel experience ought to be?
As a matter of fact, sometimes yes. If we wish to engage differently in our travels, beyond the superficial, then it’s required of us to see things as they are — blemishes and all. Only then can we try to find ways to participate in them to make them better.
Our experiences across Australia also made clearer the importance of the role of Café Chloe, both for travellers and the community. It places the work of a Café Chloe (on the surface, a renovated train station in Queensland repurposed by the local Aboriginal community) in greater perspective. The story of Café Chloe is not only a page out of the ongoing tale of the Jirrbal Rainforest Peoples’ culture, it is a tiny slice of the history of all Aboriginal people.
It’s the unfolding story of opportunity in the face of the current challenges of discrimination and exclusion. It’s a story of changing the equation to create opportunities for Aboriginal people. It’s about giving them the support they need to connect with and celebrate their culture and recognize the strengths of their worldview so that they might enjoy a newborn grounding, pride and satisfaction.
It’s also how each of us, through our engagement, can take part in this story.