“A city is a language, a reservoir of possibilities,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her 2002 book Wanderlust. “And walking is the act of speaking that language, of choosing among those possibilities.”
Solnit was writing about the act of walking, broadly defined, but could have commented on urban walking tours which, if you hadn’t noticed, have changed.
No longer the pedestrian version of the double-decker sightseeing bus, walking tours eschew major landmarks for smaller, cooler, and harder-to-find spots.
The walking tours are social, active and if outdoors relatively safe for Covid. You can explore your own city through the eyes of another or discover something new by visiting an interstate capital. In short, they are very 2022.
There are tours run by First Nations in most Australian cities. From The Rocks Aboriginal Dreaming Tour (Illi Langi) in Sydney, to short walks in central Melbourne with the Koorie Heritage Trust, to BlackCard cultural tours of Brisbane where ‘no subject is taboo’. In Darwin, the Larakia Culture takes care of a cultural saltwater tour, while in Canberra, Dhawura Tours focuses on the nearby mountains. Nyungar Tours from Perth do short walks in South Perth and Kings Park, and takara nipaluna is Hobart’s first and only Aboriginal tour.
Melbourne offers the most varied wanderings. For starters, there’s Fashion by Foot’s exploration of ethical independent designers. Then there’s the Australian Center for Contemporary Art’s Six Walks, with audio guides provided by writers such as Tony Birch and Christos Tsiolkas, creating journeys around themes such as motherhood, colonization and surveillance. But everyone already knows that Melbourne is cool.
For visitors to Perth, a visit with Oh Hey WA borders on obligatory. “I only give first-hand recommendations,” says founder Adie Chapman. “I am immersed in the culture, I go out a lot!
Perth’s liquor licenses, which do not require bars to serve food to serve alcohol, have seen small bars flourish. That is, if you can find them. You enter Alfred’s Pizza through a phone booth on Barrack Street, while Lucy’s Love Shack is underground. Top-secret Sneaky Tony’s (the speakeasy themed) bar is accessible from a grimy parking lot. Once there, if you quietly ask the bartender, “Is Tootsie there?”, as Chapman knew how to do, they’ll show you a second secret bar (disco-themed) down a dark hallway.
“Just before Covid, Perth was exploding,” says Chapman. “People were coming into the city, and there was the new Perth-London flight. All the hotels opened and then bang! Covid. The Novotel opened as a quarantine hotel.
Walking tours also put a new spin on old things. In Canberra, She Shapes History tells you the stories of the diverse women behind Australia’s defining moments. While in Sydney, Renaissance Tours’ Women’s History Walk wanders around Kings Cross (formerly Queens Cross) – a place “most Sydneysiders think they know the history of”, says Ute Junker, travel journalist and guide.
“It’s generally the male story that we know, starting in the 1940s,” she says. “A few guys will pop up on today’s tour, but we’ll try to keep them boxed.”
Junker does just that when we hear of Mary Gilmore, writer, activist, Spanish translator, utopian socialist and $10 bill model. Gilmore was a contemporary of the poets Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. But Junker says Lawson was “often too drunk to write” and Paterson “didn’t write anything too interesting after he was about 40 or 50”. Gilmore, meanwhile, wrote a newspaper column until she was 97.
As a professional tourist herself, Junker knows that a good script is not just a transfer of knowledge. We have air-conditioned houses and Wikipedia for that. Hikers want fun, company, and generally a meal and drink. This is another trend with which the new generation of walking tours has developed in synergy: everyone is a foodie now.
Some of Sydney’s best food tours take place in suburbs that many self-proclaimed foodies have probably never seen, let alone dined. The social enterprise Taste Cultural Food Tours organizes walks such as Taste of Migration in Bankstown, Taste of Afghanistan and Syria in Merrylands, and Taste of Korea in Eastwood.
In Melbourne, a Hidden Secrets tour takes you to places that, despite being a few years old, still feel new, as some were only open for a few days between closings. Foodie Trails runs a CBD masala tour, as well as trips to Oakleigh and Footscray for Greek and African cuisine.
Adelaide’s Flamboyance Tours take you to Haigh’s and the famous Central Market for Adelaide oddities such as frog cake and fritz. In the Top End, the Darwin Gourmet Food Tour solicits the city’s best restaurants, while Walk Brisbane organizes a private backstreet and cafe tour to prove its claim that ‘the best coffee is never on the high street’ .
Back in Sydney, at the new Kings Cross Distillery hosted by “gin architect” Odelia Potts, Junker tells us how artist Rosaleen Norton – who has been dubbed the “Witch of Kings Cross” – was hunted down on the homeless by the NSW Police Vice Squad for her apparent links to the occult.
“Rosaleen is the only artist in Australia whose art has been destroyed by court order,” says Junker. “[Her paintings] reminds me of James Gleeson and no one was accusing him of black magic.
Earlier in the tour, we had stood outside the workman’s cottage where heiress, journalist and activist Juanita Nielsen lived until her alleged murder in 1975. About Nielsen’s involvement in green bans that define the city, Junker says, “I’ve always thought [the Green Bans] were a fight for architecture, but she reframed it as a fight for community.
It’s a simple yet inspiring glimpse into a city where losses for developers are piling up.
Near the workmen’s house, a brass plaque is embedded in the sidewalk, stating that Nielsen was “not afraid of the toes she stomped on.” I’ve probably stepped on this plaque hundreds of times – but never read it. But I do today.
All walks listed should be checked by contacting the travel agent as many operators are still responding to unpredictable demand and Covid restrictions. The Renaissance Tours, Trailblazers, Renegades and Activists Women’s History Walk is scheduled to take place again in September 2022 or sooner if demand is high.