Indigenous community lets tourists in on newly won Australian homeland

It took the Olkola 30 years to win rights to their land in north Queensland, but instead of mining, they will open it to visitors

An Indigenous group who won a huge land title claim is partnering with a commercial tourism operator to bring visitors to its region a remote and seldom visited part of Australia.

Intrepid Travel, a global company known for taking tourists on adventures through Asia, South America and Africa, will begin to take small groups on to Olkola land in Cape York after forming a joint venture with the traditional owners.

In December 2014 the Olkola clan won a 30-year battle to gain use rights over more than 6,300 sq km of former cattle grazing land in far north Queensland.

But when the question of employment and livelihood arose, the clan decided not to mine the land, which is rich in uranium and other minerals.

A French company, Areva, had taken a licence over 1000 sq km to explore for uranium but a deal negotiated by the Olkola forced Areva to give it up.

Instead, the only exploration will be done by foot and four-wheel drive as the Olkola people get ready to welcome the first group of tourists when the dry season starts in June.

With Indigenous guides, groups of up to 12 visitors, paying $2,845, will explore and camp in the region known for its biodiversity and the largest unbroken tropical savanna in the world.

When we got the land back on 10 December, we got all this country. What are we going to do with it? What do you do with it when youve got it? Thats been on my mind all the time, Mike Ross, the chairman of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, told Guardian Australia.

Ross, and many group members who maintained their connection to the land, had been working with cattle since the group was dispossessed of its traditional way of life about a century ago. Others dispersed.

They got shifted out, Ross said. People were scattered Sydney, Palm Island, all the big missions. We are still looking for their descendants. Its really hard finding the people and bringing them back.

Those left working with the cattle earned subsistence wages but were able to keep their link to the land. They talk the language, Ross said. Im just picking it up myself now. But our language is still there. We have a dictionary.

After a slump in the cattle industry, the Olkola people who were left in the region moved to town.

Michael
Me and the visitors, were learning together, says Michael Ross, of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, as he gets ready to bring visitors to his traditional land. Photograph: Ben McNamara/Intrepid Travel

There was a work program in Cooktown but, Ross said, all you were doing was mowing lawns and picking up sticks.

He said opening up their traditional lands to tourism was appealing because me and the visitors, were learning together. Im still learning about my country, he said. It still looks the same from years and years ago. The stones are all intact left here from the old people. Id like to show that off and tell stories.

Many people returning to the land are clamouring to work on the Intrepid tours as cooks, guides and rangers.

Intrepid became involved after the Australian Conservation Foundation got in touch and said the Olkola people were interested in running a tourism business on their land rather than mining it.

The ACF has been working with Olkola for a few years, helping them with their land title claim, Intrepid Travel co-founder, Geoff Manchester, said. We are interested in helping an Aboriginal community get into tourism, so we worked assisting them in creating a sustainable business.

There are many types of Indigenous tourism initiatives running in Australia but most involve day trips or tours to specific sites, such as rock art areas, rather than hosting groups on homelands, where permits are required for visitors.

The Yolngu people in Arnhem Land run cultural tours on homelands including a week-long weaving workshop but such initiatives are the exception rather than the rule.

A proposal was discussed in 2014 to open more of Arnhem Land to tourists.

More than 20 Yolngu homelands had signaled interest in cultural tourism in the region as a means of achieving economic independence and staying on country. However, the projects are unlikely to go ahead this year.

For the Olkola people, the tourism joint venture with Intrepid was a big challenge, Ross said. The land mass was so huge, he said, you could fit Sydney in it twice.

Ross is 64 but ready for a new career. Im just starting, he said.

For Manchester, the project is ground-breaking. We work with them from scratch, including what the product should be that we will be able to sell so things that exist on their land that travellers will be interested in, he said.

Manchester said Intrepid was also helping the Olkola with infrastructure, some properties and housing doing improvements to housing and also training their own people to lead the groups. We dont want a middle man running it, he said.

Cultural factors will also be taken into account when bringing tourists on to the land. We are working through ways of going around things like funerals, so that there will always be people who are available for tours during the season, Manchester said.

He said there was a big demand across the world for Indigenous travel experiences.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/apr/17/indigenous-community-lets-tourists-in-on-newly-won-australian-homeland

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