Travel

Sustainability Tours Have a 40,000 Year History-If You Know Where to Look

From Australia to Hawaii, Indigenous guides have been on it for centuries.

Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

I’m crouched near a large rock, its dimpled sandstone surface announcing that-unlike me, a visitor in the South Australian outback-it has been here for quite some time.

“See that petroglyph there?” asks Kristian Coulthard, a guide from the Adnyamathanha indigenous community.

Admittedly, I do not. What’s in front of me appears to be just an ordinary rock top splashed in the browns, greens, and greys of lichen baking in the sun. I lean closer.

Coulthard traces the air above the weathered rock, leading my eyes along the carved lines. As if roused from a long slumber, the petroglyph seems to rise up toward us, its shapes now unmistakable. It’s an image of an ancient camp, my guide explains-and it’s not the only one. As I now look all around us, shapes emerge from faint etchings: goanna tails, ground ovens, maps, and boomerangs, each with their own stories. Coulthard points out a particularly clear carving of a yamurti, a giant extinct wombat.

“Traditionally the yamurti was about as big as the SUV that you’re driving,” Coulthard says. “We co-existed on this continent for about 25,000 years with these fellas. But [humans] put pressure on the species by hunting them, by changing the environment, by pushing them further out into drier zones.” Over the course of the tour, Coulthard illustrates how, in so many ways, environmental protection was a core part of Adnyamathanha beliefs, long before sustainability became a trending term.

Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

Adnyamathanha, meaning “People of the Rocks,” are the Aboriginal people from the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia, who’ve inhabited this region for about 49,000 years (evidenced by shelters, tools, and giant wombat bones archaeologists found). Originally, their language was not written; they shared stories and traditions orally and through rock art, which are called yura mulka. “Some of these yura mulka date back 40,000 years,” says Coulthard. “This is our written history-to pass on to the next generations and the generations to come-that you can survive here.”

With my vision now calibrated to the yura mulka, the landscape no longer appears static; it seems to be pulsating, each stone and shrub potentially possessing stories of those that have passed here before us. But without an Aboriginal guide, I could have easily walked right past these almost-hidden tales.

That’s why Coulthard started his Aboriginal-owned and operated tour business, named Wadna, the word for boomerang-he wants to share with travelers their community’s intricate relationship between country and culture here in Australia. “The people that live on the land can explain those storylines better than anyone else,” says Coulthard.

Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

After finding several more petroglyphs, each with their own story or legend, we move on to another activity: identifying plants and food in the Australian bush. My guide points out the myakka, an important plant with four editble parts: the flower, leaves, an avocado-shaped fruit, and yams at the base.

Coulthard explains that it’s traditional practice to take a couple yams, but always leave the main one and bury it. “We don’t take all the resources. If we took all those yams, the plant would die.”

Sustainable practices have long been central to Adnyamathanha culture and survival. “When we traveled through this country, we took very little from the environment so there were always resources there for the next time we traveled around or the people coming behind us,” he says. Coulthard finds it important to share these messages with all travelers on his tours, offered at different sites.

Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

Elsewhere around the world, other Indigenous-led experiences are also offering visitors the opportunity to actively sustain cultures from the people who’ve known the lands the longest. In northeastern Tasmania, visitors come to Wukalina (also known as Mount William National Park) and Larapuna (the Bay of Fires) for a multiday Wukalina Walk. The journey invites travelers to slow down and connect with Country, a word that includes land, seasons, stories, ancestors, and more. On the trek, visitors hike with guides from the Palawa people and, along the way, learn about sustainable kelp foraging, sample edible plants, identify wildlife, and more.

But sustainable travel isn’t just about the environment; it also includes cultural knowledge and local communities. “When I was in school, we were still being taught that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were extinct,” says guide Cody Gangell. “Through the walk, we are able to teach people how to respect our Country and culture. We can show them we’re still here and what we’re about.” He explains how the walk facilitates “respectful engagement” and encourages stewardship of the natural environment and perpetuation of Palawa culture.

Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

The Wukalina Walk also serves the Palawa community, which Gangell says is an important part of the mission and founder Clyde Mansell’s vision, who’s a Palawa elder. “We run some trips for Aboriginal people from our community to come and connect with our traditional homelands,” Gangell says. Gathering together has strengthened relationships and facilitated knowledge sharing, which is particularly important to people like Palawa, who were forcibly removed from their cultural homelands. “It’s become this big knowledge network,” says Jake Brown, another guide on the Wukalina Walk.

These networks-created within Indigenous communities and with visitors-are a critical piece of the larger sustainability puzzle. Travelers who feel a genuine connection to a place and its people are more likely to become stewards and advocates, sharing their experience with friends and family and inspiring others to choose Indigenous-led and more mindful tours, says Kimela Keahiolalo, the education programs manager at Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe, Hawaii.

Kualoa Ranch
Kualoa Ranch
Kualoa Ranch

As part of the Malama Experience at Kualoa Ranch, participants head to the loʻi (taro patch) to plant, harvest, or clean alongside Native Hawaiian farmers. This is not a surface-level voluntourism activity; knee-deep in mud, you’ll learn about the traditional and sustainable management of resources, the cultural significance of the kalo (taro), and how to engage in malama ʻaina (care for, protect, and preserve the land).

“We have a concept in Hawaii: ma ka hana ke ʻike. It means ‘In working, one learns,'” Keahiolalo says. “By working in the loʻi, you’ll learn more about my culture and who I am, and therefore feel more responsible to take care [of the land and culture] in the way that we take care.”

Working with kalo is especially significant. Beyond its culinary uses (the staple crop is used to make poi) and health benefits, kalo is an important part of the Hawaiian creation story. So, in spending time with the farmers and getting your hands-and everything else-dirty, Keahiolalo says you become family. “Once you’ve done the work, this is part of who you are,” she says. “And part of you will always be here.”

Kualoa Ranch
Kualoa Ranch
Kualoa Ranch

Afterwards, guests sample some food, including kalo, prepared by Kualoa Ranch’s chefs. Many visitors, after tasting the fruits of the land and their labor, like to bring home some locally-grown products as gifts. “When you share those tangible things with people back home, you also get to share your experience, what you did and learned here,” Keahiolalo says. More than just a souvenir, she explains how “that continues the cycle and perpetuates the good.”

There will always be demand for the beach and the well-known tourist sites, but Keahiolalo points out that the opportunities to really dig in and learn from Indigenous people will likely be the most meaningful memories you carry with you. And the positive impacts of choosing Indigenous-led tours, in Hawaii and elsewhere, ripple out to people and the planet. “As we like to say, ‘It’s a kakoʻo thing,'” Keahiolalo says, which translates to uphold or support. “Meaning: All of us, we do it together.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Sunny Fitzgerald is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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