Indigenous tour operator Tess Atie shows tourists the real Northern Territory

Standing at a lush waterhole in the middle of Litchfield National Park near Darwin, Tess Atie points to the exact spot a few feet from where her sister was nearly killed by a crocodile.

“She was having a glass of water, and she just came out and clung to her leg,” Ms. Atie said.

Fortunately, her husband came running at her call.

“He just jumped out of his car, and he jumped in the back of it and wrestled with her and finally opened his mouth, and then she was released,” Ms. Atie said.

“They took her straight to the hospital from here.”

Her sister still has a huge scar on her leg, but the take-home message, according to Ms. Atie, is to “always take Mr. Common Sense with you”.

Or, if you’re not fully trusting your own mind, take a native guide who will walk you through the safe spots.

Ms. Atie indicates where her sister was almost killed by a crocodile.(ABC: Moving to the countryside)

Sharing cultural knowledge

Ms Atie, a Marrathiyel woman, runs the only 100% Indigenous-owned tourism business in the Litchfield Park area, a park extremely popular for its dramatic waterfalls and cliffs and its proximity to Darwin.

She believes that intimate knowledge, access and connection to this country gives Indigenous tour operators a secret weapon in a crowded space.

“When we went hunting in the bush, when mum took us all, the children, it’s the same knowledge that I bring with me to our clients, to teach them what I was raised on,” he said. she declared.

A woman in a beige shirt smiles, with a green garden behind her.
Ms. Atie shares her family’s knowledge of the region.(ABC: Moving to the countryside)

“When we started, we thought there wasn’t enough aboriginal tourism, so that’s one of the reasons I started this business.

She had the perfect training ground: the vast Uluru Kata Juta National Park, where she worked as a ranger and met her husband, Greg Balding.

She was inspired by a local travel agency.

“There were a lot of indigenous people from the communities who already know the country and the stories of the area, so they were able to choose who could go on the tour that day,” she said.

It’s a really great system, I thought. “

A personal and spiritual bond

Mrs. Atie’s family is literally part of the Litchfield landscape.

A bright pink flower endemic to the region has been named after its grandfather, a botanist who documented much of the local flora and fauna.

His mother’s family are the traditional owners of the area and still have a large train station surrounding the park.

Mr Balding said his wife’s connection to the region is invaluable.

“The [are] various branches of Tess’ family involved in all of these things and have been for many decades, ”Mr. Balding said.

“There are old tin mines where aunts and uncles worked in the 1950s and 1960s and so on. Tess’ grandfather actually built this road in the late 1940s.”

A man and a woman, both dressed in khaki shirts, stand by a railing with a waterfall behind them.
Mr. Balding is proud of his wife’s accomplishments.(ABC: Moving to the countryside)

Tourists seek the real story

A spiritual history of the landscape seems to be something that more and more tourists are looking for, especially with international travel off the table.

Tess’ foster mother Anne Brooks said people were eager to learn from a local.

“It’s a good thing that we have so many tourists who want to do an aboriginal tour,” Ms. Brooks said.

“They want to go out to Lichfield with the traditional owner, just really get to see the country.

“This is the first time they have had the chance to really talk to an Aboriginal person; they are from Sydney and Melbourne, they only see bad things.

Things don’t always go as planned, but according to Ms Atie, when the going gets tough, it only adds to the authenticity of life in the bush.

“It has to be very flexible, the tours, because everything is always changing all the time,” she said.

“Sometimes we can get stuck on the way, or we can have a flat tire.”

A pristine waterhole in Litchfield.
Ms. Atie wishes to share her knowledge of the region.(Provided: NT government)

“I’m not going to water it down anymore”

But she does not ignore the most difficult aspects of the lives of indigenous peoples in Australia.

“It’s better for me to just say how it is,” she said.

“I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to water it down anymore.’ My family is still going to jail; my family is going to the hospital, walking the streets.

Far from putting people off, she thinks it adds a depth to her tours that people enjoy.

“I think tourists are quite fascinated to find out the real history and to discover our real experience of living in the territory because it is different from everywhere else,” she said.

“They really appreciate the honesty and the fact that they are not made happy.”

She said that was also one of the reasons there weren’t a lot of native tour operators.

Mr Balding said that over the past decade he has watched his wife challenge prejudice while setting up his business.

“There was a general distrust within the traditional tourism community of the reliability and continued sustainability of the business,” he said.

“It took us probably 10 years before they actually accepted that we were reliable, we [were] going to show up when we said we would and that sort of thing. “

A woman wearing a khaki shirt speaks and waves to a man wearing a plaid shirt, with a waterfall behind them.
It took a long time for other players in the industry to take Ms. Atie seriously.(ABC: Moving to the countryside)

“You have to work even harder to make sure that this person gets the best quality service possible,” Ms. Atie said.

“You just have to bend over backwards for them, make sure they have a great day and give them great information. “

She plans to overcome some of this stigma by starting her own training business.

Mr Balding said he wanted to see “an army of Tesses leading the indigenous tourism industry”.

“We want to be able to provide a pathway to employment in these different types of touring, but also in the behind-the-scenes work that is required for touring, so that people have real jobs at the end of it. and a real ability to gain self-esteem, ”Ms. Atie said.

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