July 16, 2021

Cultural tourism in SA: Welcome to Country

Gain a deeper understanding of the history and culture of South Australia’s Aboriginal communities through a guided experience.

When he takes tour groups to a hilltop lookout within the Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park, tour guide Mick McKenzie is the captivating centre of attention as he talks passionately about creation stories, country and the history of the Adnyamathanha/Kuyani people.

 As tourists look to the west to watch the sunset, Mick likes to take a moment and shift his gaze back towards the Wilpena Pound Resort, where campfire smoke hovers just above the trees and helps him imagine what it would have been like in the old days when hunter-gatherer people inhabited the region around Ikara Wilpena Pound.

“On our sunset tour you can see the smoke of the campfires and that’s when I reminisce. It makes you teary-eyed to think that the people before us were here and there’s evidence of it,” says Mick, an Adnyamathanha elder who manages the cultural tours at Wilpena Pound Resort.

 Born in Port Augusta, Mick is one of the traditional custodians of Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. He’s also an archaeologist. It was in 2016 that Mick came on board at Wilpena Pound Resort and began running cultural tours; the same year the park was renamed to incorporate the traditional Adnyamathanha word for the area – Ikara, which means “meeting place”.

Since it was renamed and positioned as a destination where visitors can be immersed in Aboriginal culture, the Wilpena Pound Resort has been buoyed by strong visitor numbers, even with the lack of international tourists.

“Our cultural tours are a big hit here. Since the COVID restrictions were eased, we’ve had more South Australians here than ever before. Numbers have been so good that we’re only just keeping up,” says Mick.

“Our Adnyamathanha country is very rich in history. Our people have been connected with the land since times began and, now, the national park is World Heritage-listed. On our tours, we’re walking and talking and seeing 800 million years of creation.”

Quenten Agius operates the award-winning Aboriginal Cultural Tours.

Mick runs the tours with his two nephews, accredited guides Jimmy Neville and Vince Coulthard Jr. Every afternoon at the resort, the guides perform a Welcome to Country and Mick says that, as far as he knows, it’s the only place in the state where the ceremony is performed 365 days a year.

“Ikara Wilpena is all about culture. We still speak our languages fluently and do all of our cooking traditionally; our culture never died, it’s still here. The guests want to interact with the traditional owners – the custodians – and that’s the best thing you can get,” he says.

The resort offers three different cultural tours, in addition to a sunset tour and a geology tour. Highlights include the Sacred Canyon Yura Mulka cultural walk, which features thousands-of-years-old rock etchings. Then, the Arkaroo Rock cultural walk takes visitors to view the ancient rock paintings created with ochre and charcoal, depicting the creation story of Ikara Wilpena Pound.

Each time Mick enters the Sacred Canyon he loudly announces his presence in the language of his people.

“You’ve got to let our ancestors know that we are coming there, and then we make a little smoke at the end to let them know that we are leaving. It’s a special part of the tour which tourists are fascinated by,” he says. Mick is heartened and proud to see that the next generation of Aboriginal people are involved in the running of cultural tours.

A welcome to county is a daily ritual performed at Wilpena Pound Resort.

“We are very connected to the land and we have to keep it that way by passing it on to the younger generation. One of the things that is written on a stone at Wilpena Station is how can we expect the Udnyu, the white people, to understand our culture if we don’t share it? That’s what we’re out here to do, keep that tradition going and share the culture.”

Mick has seen first-hand the power of cultural tourism and the appetite for it. He believes that there are more opportunities to be developed at Ikara and around the state. Every day he sees visitors transformed as day-to-day stresses are put into perspective by the evidence of Aboriginal life thousands of years old, a reality further enhanced by the ancient landscape.

“Culture is the way to go,” he says. “It’s like a healing journey for some people, and it makes you feel proud.”

In another part of South Australia, award-winning tour guide Quenten Agius is doing his bit to perpetuate Aboriginal culture. “At the end of the day, Aboriginal heritage and culture is everybody’s responsibility to take care of before we lose all of our history,” says Quenten.

Quenten belongs to two first-nations countries, the Adjahdura (Narungga) people of the Yorke Peninsula and the Ngadjuri people of the Mid North. Passionate about sharing his knowledge of country and local history, Quenten operates Aboriginal Cultural Tours, which takes guests on informative trips to either the Yorke Peninsula or the Mid North for the opportunity to walk where his ancestors walked. Tours range from one to five days with options of camping or accommodation along the way.

Since establishing his tourism service, Quenten has discovered great purpose in life as he encourages people of all backgrounds to share the responsibility of learning and maintaining Aboriginal culture.

Even after many years of running tours, he is often heartened and surprised by the comments of his guests. “Some of them say the experience has changed them and given them a different perspective on how they look at not just Aboriginal people, but their own lives,” says Quenten.

“They often say it gives them a deeper and better understanding of our people and the issues, both contemporary and non-contemporary, that we deal with today – both the past and the present. The history we talk about is different to what they were taught in school.

Adnyamathanha elder Mick McKenzie runs popular cultural tours out of the Wilpena Pound Resort within Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park.

“We get them to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors; taking them on a journey of a particular storyline. These stories are very old. They’ve been handed down to me from my mother, from her grandfather and her uncles,” he says. Raised near Gawler at Hamley Bridge, Quenten was taught stories, culture, traditions and beliefs from an early age.

“I was brought up with the knowledge of culture and who we are, about the two worlds and how we place ourselves in them,” he says.

With his amiable personality and character, Quenten aims to provide fun and informative experiences, which are tempered with some hard truths from more contemporary history. His Yorke Peninsula tour includes a stop at Port Arthur to view a stone woolshed that was once used as a prison for Aboriginal people in the early years of white occupation. Although it’s a darker chapter, it is integral to understanding the overall story that Quenten is passionate to share.

This tour also includes an ancient campsite at Black Point which is full of tools and artefacts that have collected over thousands of years, along with fragments of bones from animals and shellfish. He explains that for Aboriginal people, “country” means more than what is seen on a map, but that it is spoken about and to with the same gravity as if it were a person.

Mick’s Sacred Canyon tour provides an opportunity to see ancient rock etchings

While his Yorke Peninsula tour has a focus on the coast and land formations, the Mid North tour provides a chance to view engravings and petroglyphs. “It’s a great opportunity to see an engraving site and a lot of people fall in love with the scenery of Dares Hill,” he says.

The multiple day tours give Quenten the opportunity to spend more time with people, share stories around the campfire and build relationships. He says the three-day tours are most popular. “On a three-day tour it’s a lot more personal, as we get to spend more time with one another and talk about all sorts of issues,” he says.

“We like to have a fire at night, camp and have a yarn; tell stories and actually get to know one another. I get to know who they are personally; they get to know me and we often maintain good friendships.”

Quenten says running the tours has also changed his life and given him a sense of purpose and connection with people of all backgrounds. Aboriginal Cultural Tours has won multiple awards, including the state tourism’s Hall of Fame award.

He says that a theatrical play is currently in the works, whereby a creation story will be told through live theatre for guests of both the Yorke Peninsula and Mid North tours.

“I love sharing the beauty of who we are as Aboriginal people and what we’ve got to offer to the world.”


This story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.


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