Before I left Melbourne I was chatting with a young guy in one of the city’s outdoor shops about this trip. My travel plans were met with unanimous enthusiasm until I mentioned that my first stop was Adelaide. His face fell and he said, ‘wellllll...I’ve heard it’s OK,’ his voice suggesting the exact opposite. And it was with this less than ringing endorsement sounding in my ears that I set off to explore the capital of South Australia.
And I was pleasantly surprised. It may not be the centre of bohemian debauchery but it is a charming and laid back city. Founded in 1836 by free settlers (as opposed to convicts, something Adelaide citizens remain proud of to this day), the centre of the city is planned on neat grids and is ringed on two sides by the river Torrens and on all four sides by large parks. I spent a happy couple of hours wandering through these parks – across green grass, past verdant old trees and ponds filled with lilies, resting in areas of dappled shade and sometimes dozing in the sunshine.
The Botanical Gardens were constantly distracting me with informative plaques, not the least of which was the one pinned to the specimen pictured on right. Called the Wollemi Pine, this innocuous looking little tree was found in 1994 some 200km north west of Sydney. Australia is an ancient and undiscovered continent and this particular tree surprised a whole discipline of scientists simply by existing. Before its discovery, samples of this species had only been found in prehistoric fossils and it was widely thought to have been extinct for about 90million years. When it was found, growing happily, less than 125miles from one of Australia’s largest cities, it caused a bit of a stir. In a gesture of surprising goodwill, Sydneysiders sent a specimen to Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens so that visitors like me could raise a quizzical eyebrow and take the obligatory tourist photo. There’s a website if you want to find out more.
I paid a visit to the Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australia Museum, too. It’s the largest gallery focused on Aboriginal culture in the world and a great exhibition that highlights everything from the trade and legal systems that existed, to art and religious beliefs.
It illustrates, too, the huge depth of knowledge that exists in Aboriginal culture. Boomerangs, for example, are amazingly ingenious. In genuine boomerangs, designs that mark the wood are not purely aesthetic: long before Ping came up with the dimples in the golf ball, Aboriginal hunters had worked out that burning or carving designs in the wood helped boomerangs to fly better. They also used boomerangs in creative ways – some were designed to hover and resemble a bird of prey, making it easier for hunters to catch water fowl.
The exhibition also shows how white settlement virtually decimated an entire people (these days it would probably be called genocide). I’d always thought that Aboriginal tribes lived primarily in Australia’s deserts and far outback, which doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider what harsh environments these are. The exhibition pointed out that most Aboriginal people lived in the south east of Australia, a region with plentiful water and food supplies. Take a look at the Tindale Map to see how comprehensively the country was peopled when Britain decided to use it as an offshore prison in the late 18th century.
White settlers used Aboriginal guides when exploring the country and the guides, naturally, walked tracks that led between waterholes. These tracks became roads, the waterholes became settlements and the traditional Aboriginal way of life became unacceptable. ‘Imagine walking down the road with a spear, or ripping bark off a tree to build a canoe. You just couldn’t do it. You’d be arrested,’ explains one Aboriginal elder in the exhibition.
The exhibition is fantastic and worth a visit in every sense. But it is also sad and very frustrating. To lose so much knowledge, to ignore everything that a whole culture had learned during 50,000 years in the country, is a tragedy. It is a particular and devastating tragedy for indigenous people but it is also a tragedy for all Australians. Just think how much more we would know of this country, of how much more effectively, more sustainably we could live here, if we had incorporated rather than ignored their knowledge.