Tuesday 4th April 2017
The weather continues to pick up nicely, and has been sunny and warm all day, allowing us to relax on deck this afternoon for the first time in a week.
Geelong probably first came to UK attention in the 1960s, when Prince Charles was sent here 'to be sorted out'. He spent two terms at Geelong Grammar School's remote 'Timbertop' outpost, where he was subjected to a punishing physical regime. So, it's probably thanks to the BBC's news broadcasts of that time that we all pronounce 'Geelong' incorrectly to this day, with the stress on the first syllable. The name is derived from the local Aboriginal word for 'land' or 'cliffs', which was 'Jillong', with the emphasis on the second syllable, which is how Australians pronounce it. Enough of this ;o)
Our excursion was called 'Aboriginal Cultural Experience, and for this we took a coach out of town to the 'Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre'. When you learn of the disgraceful and disgusting way in which European settlers, mainly British, tried to drive the Aborigines and their culture to oblivion, even into the 1950s, it seems amazing that any of their culture remains at all.
There were tens of thousands of Aborigines living in the Geelong area when the first settlers arrived, and within 150 years they'd all been wiped out, three quarters of them by smallpox brought from Europe and the rest, no doubt, by neglect and attacks on their lifestyle. This happened all over Australia, so it's not surprising that the Australian Government has now been forced by local and international opinion (including the UN) to make repeated grovelling apologies.
But interest in Aboriginal Art had been growing before this, together with an appreciation that it was more sophisticated and worthy of respect than had previously been conceded. It's therefore possibly the case that some of it was rescued just in time and that much has been lost. There were said to have been 1,000 'tribes' in Australia that had started arriving at least 40,000 years ago and who had all developed their own languages and dialects, of which only about 250 survive.
The purpose of the Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre is 'to build understanding of Aboriginal culture and history'. Firstly we were shown a roomful of paintings, several of which were gorgeous but with price tags in thousands of dollars, even for smaller ones. What isn't immediately apparent is that every single element of an Aboriginal painting has a meaning, as we discovered later.
There's a large meeting room in which we were entertained by an Aboriginal father and his twenty-something son who didn't look too much the part, but it turned out that Dad had married an Italian woman ;o) The lad was wearing joint a loin cloth and some feathers on his head, with most of his exposed flesh daubed with white paint. He did a bit of singing and dancing, accompanying himself with 'clap sticks' that he beat against each other.
But the really impressive bit was when he played the didgeridoo. Did you know that it's played by blowing into it at the same time that you inhale, thus making it possible to sustain music indefinitely without pausing for breath? No, we didn't either. Apparently, you can train yourself to do this by blowing on the back of your hand and inhaling at the same time. Also amazing was the sounds that he could generate. We all know the deep bass sound of the instrument, but this chap was adding a simultaneous host of higher octave sounds as well, simply by blowing into the thing.
We then moved outdoors to look at plants that Aborigines made use of in cooking and medicine, and one of these we got to feed to the resident emus. It was tricky making sure that they got the greenery without pecking our fingers too! After that came the really fun bit – throwing a boomerang.
We were told that hunters would go after wild birds in groups of ten or twenty men. Most of them would hide downwind of their prey and a few others would scare the birds into the air towards them. It was common to carry two boomerangs and throw them in quick succession, catching the first just after launching the second. The advantage of throwing into the wind is that this would help the boomerang to return to the thrower.
We got some helpful instructions on how to do throw them before having a go ourselves. Some people, surprisingly, got the hang of it first time, including me! Mine made a lovely arc in the sky and fell to earth, Gill says, only a few metres in front of me! I've bought my own to carry on practising when I get home ;o)
The centre's store was doing incredible business before we left, and we spent quite a lot ourselves. It's surprising how appealing Aboriginal art can be to European eyes, and it makes you realise that we should be seeing more of it in exhibitions in the UK.
On the journey back to the ship the coach went backwards and forwards through Geelong, showing us what a lovely city it is. We were told that its population is currently 220,000, but that current planning is for this to increase in only a few years to 350,000. Already, new housing 'sub-divisions' are being laid out and excellent new roads built. You sense that in a few decades Melbourne and Geelong will merge into one enormous conurbation.
We were back on board for a late lunch, followed by an hour or so catching some sunshine on deck. Tomorrow is a sea day as we head through the treacherous Bass Strait to Hobart in Tasmania for our penultimate port of call. A week from now we'll be home!
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