Headed to Australia’s Red Centre? Here’s how to travel responsibly

With its raw, wild landscapes, unique wildlife and rich Aboriginal culture, it’s easy to see why more than 700,000 travellers make the pilgrimage to Australia’s Red Centre every year. To travel responsibly in these ancient lands is largely about respecting Aboriginal culture and customs, especially the deep cultural and spiritual significance of tourist magnets like Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) to their traditional owners. While it helps to have a basic knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture before you come, you can expect to enjoy a deeper, more memorable trip simply by following these tips…

Learn the Tjukurpa (Creation Time) stories behind Uluru on a tour with a traditional owner © Sarah Reid

Choose Aboriginal-led and owned tours

Signing up for a tour with an Aboriginal guide provides a great opportunity to support Indigenous owned-and-run initiatives, and learn the Creation Time stories (also known as ‘Dreaming’) behind the land from the people best-placed to share them. While the number of Indigenous tour guides and operators in Central Australia is still relatively low, there are several great guided and unguided opportunities for cultural tourism in both Uluru and Alice Springs.

In Uluru, SEIT Outback Australia works with local Aboriginal guides on two tours it runs on private Aboriginal lands (Anangu country and Cave Hill). On a recent trip to Uluru, I had the opportunity to experience the ‘Patji’ tour led by Uluru family guide Sammy Wilson, who took our small group on a journey into Anangu country to gather bush tucker (which culminated in eating my first witchetty grub – which tastes a bit like fried egg when cooked), visit sacred sites including an ancient waterhole, and learn more about Sammy’s late grandfather’s role in the land rights movement of the 1970s. You can read more about my experience in this article I wrote for Adventure.com.

Ayres Rock Resort in Yulara, Uluru’s accommodation centre, also offers several cultural experiences including free bush tucker walks led by Anangu guides.

There are more Aboriginal-led tour options in Alice Springs, including cultural tours of Rainbow Valley (Wurre), 100km south of The Alice, with Ricky Orr from Rainbow Valley Cultural Tours, who is a descendent of the area’s traditional owners. Former chef Bob Penunka Taylor, also from a family of Rainbow Valley traditional owners, offers culinary and cultural tours of the region through his company RT Tours Australia.

If you’re planning to hike Kings Canyon (roughly halfway between Uluru and Alice Springs), it’s worth combining with the one-hour cultural tour offered by Karrke (located next to Kings Creek Station) four times daily from Wednesday to Sunday that that introduces guests to local bush tucker, and reveals how traditional arts, crafts and weapons are made.

Uluru family member Sammy Wilson guides a tour in Anangu country © Sarah Reid

Visit Aboriginal-focused cultural attractions

If you don’t take a tour or get the opportunity to chat with Indigenous locals, there are a handful of other ways to learn more about Aboriginal history and culture in Central Australia. In Alice Springs, for example, you can visit the Alice Springs Desert Park (on the outskirts of town), which was inspired by the Arrernte worldview that unites desert animals, plants, people and land. At Telegraph Station, about 5km north of town, photographs and information panels provide some insight into the role the historic site played in the removal of Aboriginal children from their families now known as the Stolen Generation.

In Uluru, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, about 15km from the gates to the national park, is a must-visit for a primer on the history of the area and its traditional owners. In nearby Ayres Rock Resort, the Wintjiri Arts and Museum has some interesting information panels, and you can see the Indigenous art form of storytelling come to life at the resort’s free Mani Mani Indigenous Culture Theatre.

Alice Springs’ Yubu Napa gallery showcases exquisite contemporary Aboriginal works © Sarah Reid

Buy Aboriginal art (responsibly)

Producing art is an economic mainstay of Central Australia’s Aboriginal community, and for many travellers, a trip to Central Australia would not be complete without purchasing some. But while you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to galleries, especially in Alice Springs, it’s worth keeping in mind that not all were created equal when it comes to paying (and treating) Aboriginal artists fairly for their work.

To help you make informed and ethical decisions, consult Desart, the industry body for over 50 Aboriginal art centres (representing approximately 8000 artists). Most are also represented in Alice Springs by Talapi, a gallery that promotes the artists and artworks of Desart members. Another particularly reputable gallery in Alice Springs is Yubu Napa, which is well known for ensuring the artists it works with are treated with respect, and paid fairly.

In Uluru, look for the Maruku Arts and Walkatjara Art stores in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. You can also watch artists at work (and purchase works) at the Wintjiri Arts and Museum. All art centres welcome visitors, but it’s always best to call ahead for planning and out of respect for culture. If you prefer to cut out the middlemen, you can purchase art directly from artists in Alice Springs’ Todd Mall, and in Yulara’s ‘town square’. Before striking a deal, Karl Bajzik from Yubu Napa recommends considering how long it took the artist to produce the work; Australia’s minimum wage is currently AU$18.29/hour.

For more information about purchasing Aboriginal art, check out the Indigenous Art Code, a system designed to promote the fair and ethical trade of Indigenous art, and download the helpful Purchasing Aboriginal Art, An Ethical Buying Guide.

You can watch Aboriginal artists at work at the excellent Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre © Sarah Reid

Respect the privacy and customs of Aboriginal people

While every community is different, privacy is particularly important to all Indigenous Australians. Respect these protocols to avoid causing unnecessary offence.

  • Photographing Aboriginal people, artwork, communities or sacred sites is generally off-limits; always ask for permission if you’re unsure.
  • Many remote Aboriginal communities are ‘closed’, requiring special permits (obtained from the Central Land Council) to visit. Heed the rues.
  • When visiting any kind of Aboriginal community, wait until asked before approaching homes or people.
  • If tourist sites that are places of cultural significance are closed or have restricted access, respect this, even if you’re alone.
  • Show particular respect to Aboriginal elders, who play very important roles in their communities. Elder men are addressed as ‘uncle’ and women as ‘auntie’.
  • Dress modestly when visiting remote Aboriginal communities (in clothes that cover your shoulders and knees); some are more conservative than others.
  • Do not bring alcohol into ‘dry’ communities.
  • Be respectful of the fact that English may be an Aboriginal person’s second, third or even fourth language.
  • Keep in mind that images, footage or recorded voices of deceased persons can cause distress to Indigenous people.
The sign is pretty clear… © Sarah Reid

Respect sacred sites and the environment

Indigenous Australians have a unique and complex relationship with the natural environment, which goes hand-in-hand with the care and protection of their country. Many natural formations are also deeply sacred to the local custodians. Here are a few more ways you can demonstrate your respect for this spiritual relationship to country:

  • Respect the wishes of the traditional custodians of Uluru by not climbing the sacred monolith; their reasons are clearly and eloquently outlined on a huge sign at the base of the climb.
  • Refrain from kicking stones, and from removing rocks or other objects from Aboriginal lands without permission from the traditional owners.
  • Do not break twigs from, or carve initials into, trees (or other natural formations).
  • Don’t clamber on sacred sites, or delicate natural formations, for the sake of photo opportunities.
  • Heed signs that prohibit the presence of women (or otherwise men), at certain sites of cultural importance.
  • Leave no trace in the natural environment – including toilet paper. Pack your rubbish out with you.
  • Ask questions. The simple act of enquiring about whose traditional lands you are visiting is a mark of respect in itself.

Thanks to Tourism NT for supporting my trip to Central Australia.