The Australian landscape has been intimately known by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for tens of thousands of years, Rachel Lewis asks, are we really explorers?

This article is from 2018 but it’s one of our favourites. We’re resharing it during NAIDOC Week to highlight the importance of taking the time to understand and connect with Indigenous culture while exploring.


If we keep our understanding of the word ‘explorer’ too narrow, it can easily conjure up images of colonial adventurers forging paths through deserts and swamps whilst wearing what basically amounted to a dinner suit and a funny hat, believing they were the first educated humans ever to have set foot in ‘wastelands’ full of ‘savages’.

Whilst there are still a couple of places on Earth that remain genuinely unexplored, like deep-sea trenches and a scattering of super remote mountaintops, Australia is not one of these places. Here, as in most parts of the world, many of the landscapes we now think of as wild were historically home to healthy and thriving populations of Indigenous people. Disease and displacement brought about by European colonisation led to the decimation and often near-destruction of these ancient cultures. This has meant changes in the way the land is managed and loss of the Indigenous knowledge needed to survive in these areas, making these previously inhabited landscapes inhospitable.

Here in Australia, much of what is now considered ‘wilderness’ would have been populated and cultivated land mapped by complex songlines which detailed its every rock and rivulet. It wasn’t untouched or undiscovered. Most of this great land would have better fit the label of ‘cosy home’ than ‘’terra nullius’.

This disconnect with nature continues and colonisation is still happening. Indigenous people still deal with the aftermath of displacement; many continue to fight for the right to live and practice their culture on their traditional lands, whilst many modern white people are slow to break away from a culture of exploiting others and the rest of nature.

If we bear these things in mind when we’re out on adventures, we can consciously experience ourselves as a different kind of explorer.

Taking a tour run by an Indigenous-owned company is one of the best ways to truly understand Aboriginal culture in Australia.

So What Is An Explorer?

If you’re a regular visitor to We Are Explorers, you probably identify with the Explorer archetype to some extent. According to Carl Jung, the archetypal explorer’s life goal is to pack as much experience as possible into one lifetime.

If you’re digging this, then we’re digging you. We think being an explorer is less about charting never-before-seen territory and more about pushing your own boundaries and going somewhere that’s new and exciting for you. This is the essence of our doable microadventures and why we’re into encouraging ordinary people to get out the door to explore.

Still, for some of us this idea of being a traditional explorer, a pioneer, tickles something deep in our soul — some kind of ancestral desire to see what’s beyond the next horizon – maybe even the echoes of a survival drive to find a better place than this.

In some ways this may work for the greater good. If we view a place as untouched, perhaps we are more likely to want to keep it pristine. This might be part of the reason why we get so mad when litter has been left behind or forests have been logged. We want to maintain the illusion that we were the first ones there.

However, most of the time, blinding ourselves to the reality — that the places we explore have a rich history that spans way beyond our own experience of them — will just make our experience less layered and interesting.

Don’t Keep History A Mystery

At the time of writing it was National Reconciliation Week, a time ‘for all Australians to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements’ as well as exploring how we can each work towards reconciliation between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme was Don’t Keep History A Mystery. For most of us it’s no secret that our country has a 40,000-year-old cultural history and that many of the places we explore and visit have been populated by and cared for by generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Unfortunately around ⅓ of Australians don’t know or don’t acknowledge these facts.

This year’s Reconciliation Week challenged even us modern ‘woke’ kids to go deeper and ask ourselves what we don’t know about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history.

What better way to do this than as part of our adventures?

We thought this was a great opportunity to challenge ourselves and you, our readers and contributors, to dig deeper into the full history of the places we love and explore.

Update: NAIDOC Week is running from the 8th to the 15th of November in 2020 with the theme ‘Alway was, always will be.’


mt warning, wollumbin

Did you know that Wollumbin / Mt Warning is a sacred place that local Bundjalung people would prefer wasn’t climbed?  Photo by Steve Austin | CC BY-ND 2.0


Information on the true history of our great land has been buried for centuries because, let’s be honest, facing up to the brutal reality of colonisation isn’t that comfortable when you’re a whitefella. But now is the time to put the bravery of our adventurous spirits to good use and seek the truth of both the legacy of colonisation and the richness of our entire Australian heritage.

Otherwise, we’ll miss out on the depth of understanding that’s possible when we see things through the eyes of people whose ancestors have lived on this continent for tens of thousands of years and whose cultures understand themselves as part of the natural world in a way that Western culture is only just waking up to.

‘For me as a Wiradjuri woman, the most important thing to remember is that Aboriginal culture, practices, histories and stories belong to us, the Aboriginal people of this Country. The only way to truly gain an understanding of the oldest continuous culture on Earth is to spend time with Aboriginal people.’

Shannon Mallison

Aboriginal Business Development Officer – NSW NPWS


So how can we do this?

How To Incorporate Aboriginal Peoples And Their Culture Into Your Adventures

Before You Go

– Book tours with Indigenous guides or Indigenous groups to get a real insight into the living and continuous Aboriginal culture. Have a look at the links at the end of this article or Google ‘100% Aboriginal owned tour’ and the area you’re going to visit.

– Find out who the Traditional Custodians of the land you visit are. Actively seek out information on the Aboriginal history of the area. You won’t always find the info you’re after on the first click but exploration isn’t supposed to be easy! Try contacting the Local Aboriginal Land Council in the area you’re planning to travel to and ask about the local history and if there are any local guides or tours.

– Read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. It’s likely to literally blow your mind and you’ll never look at the Australian landscape in the same way again.

While You’re There

– Allow yourself to really experience and connect with your environment. Taste the tastes, smell the smells and imagine what it would be like to live there.

– Listen and experience with humility. Try to let go of your preconceptions for a while and allow yourself to experience the place through the eyes of your guide or with your own sense of wonder.

When You Get Home

– Share what you learnt about the Aboriginal history and culture of the places you visited, as well as your experiences with Aboriginal people, with friends and family when you talk about your trip.

– Support Indigenous Ranger Programs by supporting the Country Needs People movement.  You can help advocate for more Aboriginal Ranger Programs to allow Indigenous Australians to combine Indigenous knowledge and modern science to care for our land.

Tag the Indigenous name of places you visit in your Insta posts and give your followers a little snippet of the Indigenous history you learnt about whilst visiting.

–Write about your adventure for We Are Explorers and share what you learnt with our community. We encourage all of our Explorer Project contributors to research the Indigenous names, history and details of any current Indigenous ownership or management of the places they visit and to include them in their submissions.

A Different Kind Of Explorer

Within all this learning and searching out new perspectives is the space we’ve been looking for — the space where being an explorer can also be a state of mind, an attitude of curiosity and wonder and humility.



We don’t have to pretend we were the first ones to set foot in a place for our weekend adventure to be an exploration into uncharted territory, it’s uncharted for us. An awareness of those who came before and consideration for those who will come after us can actually make this exploration a richer experience.

If you want to show you care, then listen. Maybe one day, if we are respectful enough, we will learn to understand these places for what they truly are.

More Resources

Trip Planning

Aboriginal Tourism Toolkit from Destination NSW

Western Australian Indigenous Tour Operators Council (WAITOC)

–’s list of tours run by Indigenous people in Queensland

–’s list of tours run by Indigenous people in Tropical North Queensland

Northern Territory Indigenous Tours, Pudakul Tours and Northern Territory Indigenous Tours are 100% Indigenous owned tour companies in the Top End.

Culture Connect is another resource for Aboriginal experiences in North Queensland

– Tourism Australia’s Discover Aboriginal Experiences page has a factsheet which lists Aboriginal owned businesses.

Diverse Travel has a list of Aboriginal tours

– There is a list of Local Aboriginal Land Councils here. These are great first points of contact if you want to find out about more about the area you’ll be visiting, including if there are Aboriginal tours or guides available.

General Info

The Australian Institute Of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS ) has a huge online library of resources and information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history.

Creative Spirits is a website aimed at non-Indigenous people who want to find out more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues but don’t know where to start.

This page from the National Library of Australia lists places to find out more about the history and culture of Indigenous Australians online.

Cover photo by Jesse Lindemann