Jonathan Goldsmith explains how tourism can save a culture

The welcome at the Aboriginal Community Centre in Launceston was fabulous. Aunty Sharon, the undisputed matriarch, was there with tea, scones and her famous brownies as we repacked the gear that we would need for the four-day wukalina walk, a hike along Tasmania’s northeast shore. With everything ready, there was time for one more cup of tea (and an extra scone) while we yarned about palawa history and the importance of wukalina, which is so much more to this community than a beautiful hike.

The palawa (or pakana) are the first peoples of lutruwita (Tasmania) with a continuous history that dates back some 40,000 years, including the 8,000 years since sea levels rose, cutting Tasmania off from the mainland. In the 19th century, that isolation ended abruptly; within three decades of British colonisation, the population of the palawa plummeted from an estimated 12,000 to just 400. These last remaining few were held in internment camps until 1847, when only 47 remained on the mainland. It was in the Furneaux Group of islands, to the northeast of lutruwita, that a small group of palawa women and western sealers, managed to keep parts of the culture alive and it is from here that today’s palawa claim descent.

This loss of land, culture, language and identity would have been devastating enough without the impact of what was to happen throughout the 20th century. This era has become known as the “Stolen Generation”, during which vast numbers of children were forcibly removed from Aborigine families. The horrors of this, and the fact that it was still happening into the 1970s, is something that Australia is grappling with to this day. It is at this point in the story that Aunty Sharon quietly starts to talk. She begins telling us of her early memories of being adopted and growing up in Melbourne alongside a foster sister, Rosanne, with whom she lost touch in adulthood. At the age of 58, when Facebook first debuted, she decided to search for Roseanne, and found her with ease. However, discovering that Roseanne was in fact her biological sister, that she had 13 other siblings, all of whom had been forcibly removed, and that her mother had passed away at 47 was not so easy.

Sharon returned to Tasmania for the first time in more than 50 years and set about rediscovering her roots, her family and her cultural heritage. Listening to the story of her life puts into perspective the enormity of what was inflicted upon the palawa. With families broken up and dispersed, it has taken just one generation to lose a huge amount from an oral culture that has existed continuously for tens of thousands of years. Knowledge of everything from family stories, recipes and bush tucker to hunting grounds and even the language itself has been eroded. This negative legacy leaves more than just an impact on culture. Without traditional cultural management, which maintained the marsupial planes, much of the land is becoming overgrown with bush, changing the balance of a unique ecosystem.

An appreciation of this is key to understanding why projects such as wukalina walk are so important. Established in 2018 and employing only Aboriginal guides, cooks and staff, this project is much more than an incredible experience for guests. It is a chance for language to be rediscovered and used, for myths and legends to be retold, for recipes to be brought back and for a culture to be reinvigorated. The magic is in the inclusion of young people as guides, the energy that they bring and in return, the opportunities that the project offers them.

We were led by one of the most experienced guides, Carleeta, a hugely proud palawa woman, and one of the newest, Travis. Having joined the project at its inception when she was just 18, Carleeta has gone from not knowing what to do with her life to not being able to imagine doing anything else. Her ability to tell tales about the creation of man or to explain the connection to ancient living spaces brings to life the country that she is so clearly at home in. The wonderfully entertaining Travis is at the start of his journey, having worked as a labourer, and even spending the odd night sleeping rough; he encountered the project whilst fixing an elder’s roof. With an almost permanent grin on his face, it was Travis who led our morning bush yoga and who emerged from the ocean one dawn with fresh abalone. He will soon be following Carleeta in getting his official guiding qualifications and continuing to learn about his own cultural heritage as he guides others along the path.

There can be no doubt that this approach to cultural tourism is why the project was named the winner of the Australian Tourism Awards in 2022, and why we would encourage anyone going to lutruwita to include wukalina walk in their experience.

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