Kaka-does new era of indigenous tourism

Last updated 23:36 01/08/2008
Fairfax Media
DUNDEED: Kakadu tourist guide Elizabeth Pettersson at Yellow Waters in the iconic Australian national park.

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Kakadu traditional owner Freddy Hunter has the most wondrous stories to tell, if only tourists could drop their obsession with crocs.

"Of course we see them, but I tell people, it's not always about looking for crocodiles," he says.

"When we get out there we see birds, the creation mother – it's beautiful out there in the pitch black with millions of stars."

The 39-year-old, who started working in the park at 15, set up the Kakadu Cultural Camp three years ago with his sister.

Together they run camps and night cruises while sharing the history of their ancestors, the Bolmo Dedjrungi.

"We get out there and talk about our country and our culture, whereas before there was nothing," Freddy says from the southern border of the iconic national park, at the head water of the East Alligator.

"We wanted to talk about the country we were born and bred in, and about our culture as well.

"So people could come here to share our stories, get a little bit of our culture and hopefully they take a little bit back with them."

The 20,000 sqkm national park – home to Aboriginal people for 50,000 years – is undergoing a quiet tourism revolution.

New indigenous tourism ventures – bush tucker walks, nature trails, basket weaving courses, camping and night wildlife tours – are finding their feet, and traditional owners have welcomed tourists into parts of the park previously kept hidden from the public.

It is a dramatic shift from 2005, when a scathing report found that long-held tensions between governments, and limited Aboriginal involvement, were holding back the world heritage-listed park.

The Morse report contained 71 recommendations to turn around dwindling tourist numbers and amend the long-held negative view among locals of the park as "Kakadon't".

To mark the shift in thinking and a new era of indigenous tourism, Kakadu National Park was relaunched this week with a "new logo and new identity".

"Aboriginal people and their culture are now at the heart of the visitor experience," said federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

"There is a groundswell of interest in Aboriginal culture and Kakadu's transformation will help meet that need."

Mr Garret said there was an indigenous tour "to suit every taste", as he launched the blueprint for the park's transformation on the banks of a billabong near Nourlangie Rock.

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General manager of Tourism Top End, Tony Clementson, said the focus was on Aboriginal people starting their own businesses, creating sustainable jobs for their families and young people.

"Kakadu has moved forwards in so many ways over the last few years and this is another big step forward," he said.

"Kakadu is a very special place, cared for by its traditional owners, and that's something you can feel as soon as you arrive."

Mr Clementson said the initiative moved away from the "zip-in, zip-out" mass tourism approach. Instead, he said the new target market was people who wanted to stay longer and see more.

"This is really important for the Top End – experience seekers are just the sort of people we want to attract and I think this new tourism push at Kakadu is going to do a great job of that," Mr Clementson said.

Freddy Hunter said the ventures offered his culture a lifeline.

"A lot of old stories here are long gone," he says.

"But some others are still there and talking about them, telling people, hopefully it will keep them alive."

The Hunter family shows tourists how to weave, hunt, spear and make a didgeridoo. "Most people don't know the termites eat it, hollow it out," he says.

But Freddy says his favourite is the spotlight cruise, which runs five nights a week in an open boat that carries 22 people.

"It's small, (but) that's fine by us," he says.

"It's just something so different, heading out there at night. Most people never get to see birds sleeping and with the water so still and clear you can see the crocodiles, every detail of them through the water."

The Hunters offer the sort of bush luxury the experience seeker wants. Safari-style tents allow people to wake up beside a billabong with the smells of the bush and the sounds of the brolgas.

With Kakadu reshaping itself to meet the demands of this market - now huge both overseas and domestically – there is also a new visitor guide and travel website.

On the ground, the locals are doing what they've always done.

"I'm building a big hole right now, lining it with stones and paperbark," Freddy says.

"I'm going to chuck in some pig leg and buffalo, for lunch tomorrow."

- AAP

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