real life

TRAVEL: Aboriginal Sydney. In two days.



TRAVEL:   Two days, three square kilometres and 40,000 years of culture and history

Only got a couple of days in Sydney and want to spend it near the world’s most beautiful harbour, but also take in art, culture, history and some exercise? Then join local author Anita Heiss as she shares her favourite contemporary spaces that demonstrate Aboriginal heritage in the city that will enrich and entertain.

We begin our tour at 9.30am at the Museum of Sydney (MoS) which stands on the site of the first Government House, built by Governor Arthur Phillip. The award-winning outdoor installation Edge of Trees – with 29 massive pillars made of sandstone, wood and steal – created by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley, set the scene for the day. We slowly weave through the tall structures taking in Koori voices softly announcing the locations of difference clan/family groups around Sydney, while various organic materials embedded in the trees tell the story and evoke images of a life long past. Lose yourself in the moment, and then look up and see Sydney skyscrapers overhead. You’ll be quickly reminded of how the present meets the past.

On entering the museum we’re faced with Gordon Bennett’s painting ‘Possession Island’ which re-interprets Cooks ‘discovery’ of Australia, while Gordon Syron’s works ‘Invasion I and II’ give a powerful Aboriginal perspective of what happened in Sydney harbour when the First Fleet arrived.

In Gadigal Place, there’s a tribute to local historical personalities like Barrangaroo, Nanbaree, Bennelong, Colebee and Daringha, while the story of warrior Pemulwuy is told through a red, black and yellow mapping cloak designed by Sydney-based artist and poet Brenda Saunders.

We sit for a few minutes in the viewing cube to reflect on what we’ve read and seen, then stroll 800m to The Rocks Discovery Museum (we’re only briefly side-tracked by the gourmet fresh food markets in Argyle Street so as to refuel for the rest of the day), then enter the museum through a modest entrance in Kendall Lane. It’s here in the exhibit named Warrane – the traditional name of the area known as Sydney Cove – we can get a sense of the life of the coastal Cadigal / Gadigal people. It’s a great space for kids because they can see tools used in the past, hear a welcome in local language and they can touch things!

Afterwards, a leisurely 100 metre stroll takes us to the newly refurbed Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) near where Aboriginal people camped in boat sheds until 1879. Keith Munro, Curator Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Programs says, ‘Included in the opening hang is a diverse selection of work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. This includes work from our major Maningrida and the Arnott’s Collections as well as works by Sydney shell makers Esme Timbery and Lola Ryan.’ The shell works bring back memories of my own childhood spent at the beach at La Perouse.


By the time we step out into George Street (via the gift shop) our head’s are spinning with knowledge and creative inspiration and we all want to be artists now! The day is coming to a close so we stroll five minutes to Customs House for a sunset drink on the Terrace at Cafe Sydney. We sip cocktails called Quay Side Punch and Pomegranate Fizz as we watch the ferries and water taxis cruise under our world famous bridge which has grey-suited silhouettes still climbing it. The lights come on at Luna Park and along the Opera House concourse. Collectively we try to imagine what the harbour looked like over 200 years ago, before the First Fleet sailed in and the natural landscape and lifestyle of the locals changed forever.



Today we are like stalkers, waiting outside the doors of Art Gallery of NSW at 10am so we are inside them at opening time. I’ve been there too many times to count, for free floor talks, festivals, music in the cafe, launches and special events, like the Papunya Tula exhibition during the Sydney Olympics. But today, we’re visiting the Yiribana Gallery, home of the AGNSWs Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection. The name Yiribana acknowledges the Eora people and their descendants and simply means “this way”. The current installed collection includes bark paintings from Arnhem Land, sculptures from the Tiwi Islands and contemporary works by urban-based artists like Vernon Ah Kee and Richard Bell. I want to show you my all-time favourite piece, ‘Fruit Bats’ by Lin Onus but it’s no longer on display, but that’s okay, we go for a coffee and naughty treat at the gallery’s café to console ourselves.

With our bodies caffeinated it’s an easy stroll down Art Gallery Road to the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney where we meet our guide, Aboriginal Education Officer Clarence Slockee, who is warm, generous spirited and slightly comedic at times. He takes us and other tourists through the gardens, sharing with us history, the cultural, medicinal and culinary uses of various plants (lemon-scented tea-tree is a natural citronella), yarns about wildlife and the story of Cadi Jam Ora – First Encounters, a commitment by the RBGS to demonstrate Aboriginal presence and prior use of land in history. It’s the first attempt of this kind in the world, and something Sydney-siders should be proud of. Someone suggests lying under a Moreton Bay Fig for a while and taking in the stunning harbour backdrop, but there’s more to see and Clarence walks us along Brenda L Croft’s  Wuganmagulya (Farm Cove) installation as part of the Sydney Sculpture Walk. The work honours the Yura (Eora) clans of Sydney and acknowledges the cultural practices that occurred along the Sydney shoreline.

It’s early afternoon and stomaches are rumbling and feet are getting slightly weary as we head towards the Sydney Opera House and Bennelong point, where all the clan (family) groups from around Sydney used to meet for corroborees or bush operas. The site is named after Bennelong of the Wangal people who was known as a conciliator between the local Aboriginal community and Governor Phillip. It’s with this new knowledge, and the recent memories of the past two days that we sit at the Opera Bar, and indulge in a tasting plate as we contemplate current Indigenous expression shared through annual events held there now such as the Message Sticks Festival, the Deadly Awards and Bangarra Dance Theatre performances.

Who said there was no Aboriginal culture in the city?

Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles. She is a regular guest at writers’ festivals and travels internationally performing her work and lecturing on Indigenous literature. She is an Indigenous Literacy Day Ambassador and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. Her latest book Am I Black Enough for You? is on sale now. You can follow her on Twitter here.

INFO BOX:BEST FAMILY VALUE: The Yiribana Gallery is FREE as are a number of activities for young people at the AGNSW. Check out what’s on at:BEST PLACE TO SHOP: For Aboriginal arts and crafts the MCA store works directly with communities, art centres and Aboriginal designers. Check out Lucy Simpson’s work!

BEST FOOD WITH A VIEW: You cannot go past lunch or dinner at the Opera Bar at Bennelong Point. You can’t book though so you might have to be patient at getting a seat outside with the best view of all the activity of the harbour.

OTHER TOURS: Got more time?  Then grab a copy of the Barani / Barrabagu (Yesterday / Tomorrow)
HistoricalWalkingTours.asp  historical walking guide to Sydney. It has four tours covering early contact, civil rights, performing / visual arts and across the Redfern area, The Quay and Rocks, Sydney City and Glebe.

HOW TO GET THERE: Ferries, trains and buses all arrive at Circular Quay at regular intervals from all parts of Sydney. If you’ve got a few hours to kill in transit, then get the train from the airport direct to Circular Quay.