From Texas to Arnhem Land, driving 4WDs and changing tyres on remote Outback roads are just part of the job for Lirrwi Tourism’s operations manager Rachel Albers. She talks to ANGELA SAURINE about her passion for Indigenous culture.
Rachel Albers was born and raised in Texas, but it’s fair to say that she knows more about Australia’s Indigenous culture than most Aussies. Working with remote communities in East Arnhem Land for Lirrwi Tourism, she spends her days learning about the language, complex kinship system and Songlines of the Yolngu people, and taking part in traditional activities such as hunting for mud crabs, fishing and weaving baskets made from the leaves of Pandanas palms. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted — the role entails everything from driving a 4WD filled with city slickers over bumpy red dirt roads and changing tyres to unblocking toilets. But nothing seems to faze her. “I love it,” she says simply.
Growing up in the great outdoors
Rachel, 33, has always had a passion for the outdoors. Growing up in Houston, about an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico, her family spent their spare time partaking in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, kayaking, swimming, etc. After being caught in a tornado, which saw trees fall on neighbouring tents, when she was around six, her parents packed up and bought a pop-up camper trailer. They then travelled all over the US, visiting many iconic national parks along the way. “There’s a photo of my dad carrying my brother and I across the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park located in west Texas when I was around three-years-old,” she says.
With a dream of becoming a National Geographic photographer, she studied photography and geology at Texas State University, later switching to communications and photography, then adding in another degree in outdoor recreation. For a period, she studied at the University of Utah, and was soon backpacking, rock climbing, slot canyoneering and abseiling throughout the state. “In Texas, there’s more private land than public land,” she says. “I remember saying: ‘You can’t just hike all over the place where I’m from, you’ll get shot at!’”
Rachel has tried her hand at many pursuits!
She worked at summer camps, as an outdoor education teacher and team building facilitator working with women’s, corporate, and school groups. She also had a stint as a wrangler on a horse ranch, worked at a ski resort in Colorado, and guided backpacking trips for boy scouts in New Mexico. Wherever she worked, she was one of the few women.
From there, she moved into wilderness therapy, which she describes as her greatest passion. The job involved helping at risk youth, domestic violence and sexual assault victims, and people with addictions and behavioural issues. She’d teach them how to build shelters, cook outdoors, and take part in activities including hiking, yoga and meditation. As part of the job, she had to do a ten-day course as a wilderness first responder, later moving to Lake City and Gunnison, Colorado to study to be an Emergency Medical Technician working on the ambulance. She was trained in helicopter, snowmobile and over the edge rescues in temperatures as extreme as -40C. “It was so cold your eyelashes froze, and your car door wouldn’t open,” she says. She lived in a small cabin and chopped her own wood, with bears and mountain lions occasionally wandering in the backyard.
Australia is a dream destination for RachEl
But Rachel always dreamt of coming to Australia, something she attributes at least partly to the movie Crocodile Dundee. She went to dinner at the Outback Steakhouse restaurant for her birthday every year, and admits to drinking Fosters beer and eating “shrimp from the barbie”, because that’s what marketing taught Americans was the “cool thing” Australians did. She had planned to come with her beloved brother, Daniel. When he was tragically murdered whilst working on a fishing boat in Alaska, it was a breaking point for her to finally make the move to Australia and live out her lifelong dream of living and working Down Under. When she travels around Australia, she spreads some of his ashes to honour him and keep him part of the adventure they dreamt of experiencing together.
As a condition of her working holiday visa, Rachel had to work north of the Tropic of Capricorn for more than three months, so she got a farm job through a working hostel in North Queensland. She did the required farm work for her second year visa planting and picking capsicums and rockmelons. It was so hot during the day that she had to work from 4pm to 4am, but when the tractor lights were turned on, it attracted thousands of bugs. “There were girls on the tractor from various countries who were just screaming in disgust,” she recalls. “It was absolutely awful.”
Discovering an affinity for Indigenous culture
After a period working for a cattle yard company building, welding, and cementing yards on stations, she finally made it to Uluru. “I cried the first time I saw it,” she says. “It was number one on my bucket list. There’s something magical about it; the landscape, colours, stories, and of course the millions of stars at night you see at night.” It was there that she got her first job working as a guide in Australia, taking tours to Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and visiting Indigenous rock art sites. Working with the local Anangu people, she began to learn their language, discovered their culture, and reiterate their stories. She’d intended to climb Uluru before she arrived, but when she learned it was disrespectful, she decided not to.
“I love bush medicine and how they live and survive off the land,” she says. “I’ve always loved their style of fishing and hunting with spears and boomerangs. I also love the singing, dancing, and the playing of the didgeridoo.” She studied Indigenous Australian culture through Charles Darwin University, and began leading tours in the McKinley Ranges and on the Larapinta Trail. “Sunrise on the top of Mt. Saunder is a must!” she says. Missing the water, she headed to Kakadu next, driving boats for Yellow Water Cruises and spotting animals such as crocodiles in their natural habitat. She found the Indigenous culture in Kakadu very different to Uluru. For example, their art features X-ray style paintings, while dot paintings dominate in the Uluru region. East Arnhem Land, she says, is different again. “There are different tools, weapons, flora and fauna,” she says.
Working with Lirrwi Tourism in East Arnhemland
She was guiding tours in Tasmania when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and her company shut down. She made it back across the Queensland border in time to be with her partner in Townsville, whom she’d met whilst working in Queensland, to ride out the storm. She got a job as a program co-ordinator for the Australian School of Entrepreneurship, which included teaching Indigenous kids how to start their own business. Earlier this year, she started her job with Lirrwi, which operates authentic Indigenous tourism experiences visiting and staying on homelands in East Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory Top End. “In the other jobs I had I wasn’t immersed in the culture in the way I am in this job,” she says. “Here in East Arnhem Land I get to dive into the culture learning about the language, Songlines, and moiety system. I’ve even been adopted into a Yolngu family, which means a great deal to me.”
She can now communicate in several different Indigenous languages, and is frequently told she knows more about First Australians than most people who were born here. “I feel like there’s probably Australians who know more about America than I do,” she says humbly. “I love history, I love geography, and love learning about different cultures, as it has always been a massive part of my nomadic lifestyle.”
Whilst she admits some days are harder than others, she tries to learn from each challenge. “I think wilderness therapy taught me that you can be that strong, independent person,” she says. “Every person has that strength; they just need to find it within themselves. A lot of the time I don’t feel like a strong woman, but when I think about what I’ve gone through to get to where I am now, I realise I’m a lot stronger than I think I am. During COVID-19 people were freaking out about groceries and I was thinking: ‘Put me in the bush and I’d survive just fine’.”
More information: Lirrwi Yolngu Aboriginal Tourism
The writer was a guest of Lirrwi Tourism and Tourism NT.