Profound Indigenous travel experiences are right on Sydney’s doorstep – but you might need a guide to show you where to look. We immerse ourselves in Indigenous culture on the NSW Central Coast.
Tim Selwyn is a master of the slow reveal. The Aboriginal guide, whose company Girri Girra runs cultural tours in Bouddi National Park on the NSW Central Coast, stops his four-wheel drive at a seemingly unremarkable spot along a bumpy track on Box Head.
From here, it’s a short walk through low scrub to reach a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Swivel south and you can see across the mouth of the Hawkesbury River to Lion Island and Sydney’s Barrenjoey Lighthouse, a distant beacon blurred by sea spray. Three children are part of this tour but Selwyn doesn’t try to control their urge to burn off energy, encouraging them to run around and explore. Finally he calls them back, asking if they can find something on the ground. They scan rocky surfaces and even peek into bushes as Selwyn yells “warm”, “hot”, “cold”. Still, they can’t find anything.
When Selwyn finally points out the outline of a wallaby – pecked into the rock with tools thousands of years ago – we’re dumbfounded we couldn’t see it. But that’s what Selwyn is here for – to open our eyes to Aboriginal Australia and the stories written upon this land long ago.
Selwyn sings us into country but he isn’t a bloodline custodian of this part of Australia. He was born on Wailwan country near Dubbo to an Aboriginal mother whose skin colour barred her from high school and a red-headed, freckled father of English descent. His ancestral line is the Wongaibon people whose traditional country is in the Nyngan area. When his sister moved to the Central Coast, he followed. He is well schooled in this country’s stories, though, which unfold over the course of three hours.
Given his firm yet patient manner with the kids – “Listening makes you smarter; I’m going to give you tools today to make you smarter people,” he tells them – it’s unsurprising to learn he also runs education programs for pre-schoolers through to high school seniors. At one point, he rings our eyes with white ochre, transforming us into powerful owls. “This gives you powerful eyes so you can see things and be a boss,” he tells one child. “Not bossing people around but leading by example.” It’s a simple lesson given without fanfare.
Bouddi National Park’s 1,500-plus hectares are home to more than 100 documented Aboriginal sites, including middens, grinding grooves and rock shelters containing engravings. There are also fascinating coastal rock formations such as the tessellated sandstone pavement near Putty Beach. In the Box Head section we’re in, the landscape varies from open windswept heath to rugged bushland. Towering overhead are the gnarled, knobbly branches of smooth-barked apple gums, an angophora that sheds its bark in spring to reveal a new rose-pink skin. White-bellied sea eagles coast on windy currents. At ground level, you might spot the amethyst-coloured edible berries of a dianella (blue flax lily), notable among weavers for its strong, strappy leaves.
However, you won’t miss these things if you have Selwyn to guide you through this country. His stories slip effortlessly between the physical and spiritual realms. Certain trees, for example, are women’s trees. If soft and woolly flannel flowers are blooming, you will hear a moving story about two little swans and an eagle.
“You tell stories at the appropriate time,” he says later. “The flannel flower story gets told when they’re flowering and you’re walking past them. There’s a time of year you tell that story. It’s all about looking and listening and knowing when it’s appropriate to share that story.”
“The reason I do tours is it’s an obligation and responsibility of mine, as an Aboriginal man, to share my culture,” he says. “The tours are a conduit for me to do that. If we don’t share knowledge, that knowledge is lost and is useless.”
His tour concludes with another dramatic flourish. As we pause to inspect a carving of a leatherjacket, Selwyn asks us to consider if the tiny fish is something more – is it, in fact, part of a songline that connects back to that wallaby carved onto the ridgetop? At this moment, it seems like anything and everything could be possible.
“This is not rock art – these are learning spaces,” says Selwyn. “They’re our universities.”
GET THERE: Girri Girra is a fully Aboriginal-owned business that operates Indigenous walking tours and camping experiences on the NSW Central Coast, approximately 1.5 hours’ drive from Sydney CBD.
Tours start from $90 per adult.
STAY THERE: Groups of 10 or more can join Girri Girra for a sleep-out in a remote area, beginning the evening with a smoking ceremony at sunset before a night of Indigenous dancing and storytelling under the stars. Visit girrigirra.com.au for more info.
Those who enjoy their creature comforts can opt for nearby luxury eco retreat Noonaweena (Aboriginal word for resting place in the bush) on the Central Coast.