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NAIDOC Week: Wurundjeri tours offer access to Indigenous owner knowledge of Dandenongs

A woman stands next to a felled tree with shield-shaped scar marks.
Michelle Mills says the tours had been targeting the wrong market.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown

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It is a weekday afternoon and the carpark is full at Grants Picnic Ground in Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges.

Dozens of tourists are feeding birds, bushwalking through Sherbrooke Forest or enjoying a quick cuppa at the cafe.

Eighteen months ago the Wurundjeri council decided to target these tourists, offering tours of the area highlighting its cultural significance to the local Indigenous people.

But that idea didn't work.

Bullen Bullen Cultural Tours manager and Wurundjeri woman Michelle Mills said most tourists did not have time to take the tour.

A close up of a bird, people and trees in background
Most tourists leave Grants Picnic Ground after feeding the birds.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown

Tours target schools, locals

The real market for the tours, the council discovered, was local school groups and Melburnians keen to learn more about the Indigenous history of their home town.

Members of the public can now book a weekend tour while schools can arrange to visit on a Tuesday or Friday.

"We've probably had eight schools through so far, ranging from 20 to about 120 kids," Ms Mills said.

A young man in a baseball cap looks at the leaves of a tree, smiling.
Jayden Mills says school children love learning about the "toilet paper tree".

ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown

As tour guide, Ms Mills' son Jayden shows tour groups the plants local Indigenous people used for food, fire lighting and toilet paper.

It's the latter, of course, that has most delighted school children, Mr Mills said.

Access to traditional owner culture

While the target market for the tours has changed, the idea behind them has remained essentially the same, Wurundjeri council's Karmen Jobling said.

"It was the idea of allowing the broader Melbourne-based and Victorian community to have access to traditional owners, traditional owner culture and knowledge, something which can be quite hard for the mainstream to tap into."

Three people stand around a campfire, smiling and talking.
Karmen Jobling (left) says the tour provides public access to traditional owner culture.

ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown

The council runs tours by arrangement around Melbourne including Lancefield, Dights Falls and an inner-city bus tour.

"Any tour you can think of, we can arrange it," Ms Jobling said.

Shocked and amazed

She said the tours also provided younger Wurundjeri members with "culturally relevant employment".

Mr Mills said he loved his job.

"I enjoy learning about my tradition, as well as what plants we used to eat and what food we used to hunt," he said.

Showing off a felled mountain ash tree with 16 to 17 shields cut out of it, Mr Mills said the tour gave Melburnians a chance to experience Indigenous traditional knowledge in their own backyard.

"A lot of the time they're shocked and amazed because they never knew it was up here, and they've come up here and they've found it," Mr Mills said.