Australia Diaries: An Indigenous Celebration In The Heart Of Perth

A trip to Western Australia is an eye-opening introduction to the country's history and the beliefs of its Aboriginal people
Evernow is a first-of-its-kind festival during Kambarang, one of six traditional Aboriginal seasons, which signals summer's coming
Evernow is a first-of-its-kind festival during Kambarang, one of six traditional Aboriginal seasons, which signals summer's comingMiles Noel@MojoDigitalStudio

Sitting in the Supreme Court Gardens, facing a circular mound of sand on which dancers and musicians perform, I hummed along to the song being played. We were in the heart of Perth's Central Business District, surrounded by office buildings and hotels. Yet, the evening had a distinctly communal aura—families and friends settling on blankets and collapsible chairs for the performance. They were all in attendance at Evernow, a first-of-its-kind festival during Kambarang, one of six traditional Aboriginal seasons, which signals summer's coming.

Performance at Evernow
Performance at Evernow

The songs interspersed Noongar (the dialect of the indigenous people) with English, but as with most music, the beat immediately hooked itself to my auditory cortex. As the evening was called, Song Circle signalled the beginning of the six-day festival that celebrated and highlighted the region's aboriginal people and history

Still, even before the actual kick-off, I'd already learned more about the land on which Perth now stands and the beliefs of the Aboriginal communities that have lived on it for centuries.

'Welcome To Country'

Within hours of landing in Western Australia, Nick Abraham, founder of WarrangBridil, an Aboriginal-owned tour company, had given us a centuries-old welcome as we stood on the banks of the Swan River. The sinuous waterway was earlier known as "DerbalYerrigan." The Dutch colonists renamed it, and it's where Abraham gives us a traditional "welcome to country."

An aerial view of Perth and Swan River
An aerial view of Perth and Swan RiverShutterstock

The ritual is grounded in land acknowledgement. It has to be done by a recognised elder. This is followed by a smoking ceremony that uses local flora, which fills the air with the sweet and intense aromas of wool (the local name for peppermint) and eucalyptus, which are part of the fuel for their cleansing properties. Leaves were mixed with belba bush in a metal dish. The local bush has a dry wooden bark that naturally turns into chips, producing smoke believed to purify the spirit and body. The welcome bridged a gap of a millennium, given that the continent's aboriginal inhabitants are said to trace their heritage back over 50,000 years.

Fire, important to ancient beliefs and ceremonies, has long been regulated in modern-day Australia. So, it was heartening to be welcomed by the flames and learn about the local traditions, even as we stood in the shadow of Optus Stadium, a multi-purpose, world-class venue in Perth. There, we learned about the Aboriginal belief to take only what is needed and think ahead to the seventh generation—ensuring that resources are managed effectively and creating a connection with the world and its shared future.

Abraham also stressed the interconnectedness of any community, asking questions like "Who are you? "Who is your mother," "Where are you from?" and "What is important to you?" To answer each, one must understand one's family lineage and history and the values and desires that will guide daily actions, personally and professionally.

Flames in motion at Fire Gardens
Flames in motion at Fire GardensJessica Wyld

Fire also livened the second part of our evening during Evernow after the Song Circle performance ended. If the music is elemental in a way that unites sounds like hand claps with simple intonations, walking among flames is to feel connected to the earth. The heat from the flames is a constant reminder of fire's destructive potential, and at Fire Gardens, the flames were in motion—stacked in pots in layers, strung together in metal garlands and shaped into circular archways. The feeling is one of awe—taking in how others are responding to the 7,000 pots of flames arrayed all over Government House.

Thousands of pots of flames arrayed all over Government House
Thousands of pots of flames arrayed all over Government HouseJessica Wyld

Nature That Nurtures 

The next day, Kings Park was the first stop on a tour led by Justin Martin, an Aboriginal art specialist who shared more insights about how the community guides indigenous living. While telling the stories at the foundation of Noongar, its myths and origin tales, it was fascinating to hear the role that local creatures like kangaroos, snakes and whale sharks play in how the original inhabitants of Perth see themselves and the environment.

To learn more and understand how local art also had its language, Martin took out paints and a basic primer on Aboriginal art symbols and encouraged the drawing and creating of personal artwork. Two zigzag lines symbolising mountains can be further away from a curved S-shaped river, while concentric circles indicate a nearby campsite. For Martin and others, the manicured lawns and well-maintained gardens of the 998-acre park hold special significance because before the European settlers came, the very same area, known as Mooro Katta, was a local campground.

The Trees Speak
The Trees Speak

In the evening, I returned to another part of Kings Park, completely transformed. On the branches and the bark of ancient trees, the stories I had been hearing over the previous few days came alive as audio-visual tales told in animated videos. The vignettes were each visually distinctive, and the immersive experience included audio, giving the evening its name—The Trees Speak.

While strolling through the feast, the snippets of conversation were interesting, as one father tried to convince his children that the giant lizards being projected weren't going to skulk off the trees and into real life. The almost processional walk, surrounded by others taking the same route, gave the evening a ritualistic air and while walking around, it was hard not to marvel at how modern technology had allowed traditional beliefs to be brought to life, even as the Perth skyline was visible through the trees—a reminder of the city as it now stands.

WA Museum BoolaBardip
WA Museum BoolaBardip

A subsequent visit to the WA Museum BoolaBardip showcased and recognised the indigenous people's lives and beliefs in an institutionalised setting. The museum was reopened and renamed in 2020, showcasing the region's history in one building.

WA Museum BoolaBardip has an Aboriginal name, which BoolaBardip translates to "many stories" to reflect the items within. It also occupies the former Perth Jail, though it expanded beyond the prison with a new building, where we have a walkthrough of the show.

An inside shot of WA Museum BoolaBardip
An inside shot of WA Museum BoolaBardip

"NgalangKoortBoodjaWirn—Our heart, country, spirit" rewrites colonial history with a better understanding of the more than 100 cultural language groups in Western Australia. To see aboriginal art alongside diamonds (Western Australia is known for its mines) and even dinosaur skeletons is to realise how important it is to catalogue and showcase tangible and intangible culture.

Getting There

The most common and efficient option to travel from India to Perth is by air. Book a flight from major Indian airports to Perth International Airport, with popular carriers like Qantas and Singapore Airlines. Flight duration varies based on departure city and routes, but direct flights offer faster travel. Ensure you have the required Australian visa beforehand.

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