Sam “Gurramatji” Mehan: Walking in the Footsteps of the Elders
Sam Mehan travels the world, particularly his native Australia, to connect with and learn from indigenous cultures. The Yolngu People of the Gove Peninsula call him Gurramatji (the magpie goose) for his ability to act as a bridge between people of various backgrounds. When in Australia, Sam often visits the Northern Territory, where he has been invited to cut didgeridoos and learn traditional cultural practices with Aboriginal Elders. He documents his travels through film, art and writing. His video work is currently being exhibited in Holland’s Tropen Museum. His dot paintings and hand-carved didjerdoos have been sold and exhibited in Spain, France, England, Canada, Japan and the United States.
Even as a kid my family was nomadic.
My parents’ work would take us all around New South Wales. I loved packing up the family Valiant, driving for days and sleeping across the back window of the car.
Culture feeds my heart.
I love to listen and learn from Elders and culture holders around the world. They are walking history books and have taught me to be silent, be patient and to listen to my heart.
My heart is my biggest influence on where I go and why.
With that said, every person who fills my heart pushes me to become a better person and better traveler.
The first time I went to New Zealand I left with 35 bucks to my name—just knowing that I had to go.
I felt drawn there and it was easy to trust I would be provided for. I went with no plans, just a dream. When I came back to Australia I flew into Melbourne just to hitchhike 1,200 kilometers home for the adventure.
If I plan things it’s never as good as when I just let my travels unfold, so flexibility is a must for me.
I trust the Great Spirit or Great Mystery to deliver me exactly where I need to be for what I need to learn or experience.
Going on walkabout through the Australian Outback with Aboriginal Elders keeps me fit and eating what country provides keeps me healthy.
On the road, I forget the three meals a day supermarket lifestyle and focus on being grateful when country provides a fish, a kangaroo, lizard or a lillypilly fruit. That’s what nourishes my soul.
When I’m on the road and I look for love I never find it.
Instead I just live and be me, loving my life. That way, if someone is attracted to me I know it is for all of the right reasons. I met my last love up in the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve in Australia’s Northern Territory Australia and after some time together she said to me “I don’t care if I have to eat dirt, I just want to be with you.” I knew right then she was the one for me.
My library for researching my destination is through people. If I see a like-minded traveler’s face light up about a place, that is usually the key for me. Also, when I arrive in a place, I always ask the locals where I should go and what I should see.I never carry a guidebook.
I rarely carry a map.
My favorite country to visit has changed so many times—lately.
I’m inclined to say Mexico. But nothing fills me more than spending time with the Aboriginal people of Australia.
My favorite place in the world is the Northern territory of Australia—someplace I am visiting for the fourth time right now.
Did I choose it or did it call me? I guess I will find this out over the next four months of walkabout.
The strangest food I have eaten whilst on the road was turtle soup and this was done traditionally with an Aboriginal Elder.
We cooked the turtle in its shell cutting a hole in through the tail and drinking the boiled intestines and stomach contents. I definitely sat in on the next turtle meal!
Up in the Northern territory we have different ideas about street food.
I hit a kangaroo in my car once…I wanted to respect its life, so I roasted it straight on the fire. It was a great meal.
Respecting people, their cultural practices and their traditional beliefs is my travel secret.
The Pilgrimage (by Paul Coelho) is a favorite book of mine.
The journey in that book sounds a lot like Walkabout.
The first thing I do when I arrive in a new place is talk with the locals.
Inside information is a great beginning for any adventure.
The desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle has had me convert my four-wheel drive to run on straight vegetable oil.
It feels good and it’s definitely a topic of conversation as I travel.
I have grown immensely through travel.
Understanding different cultures has helped me to understand my own life, my heart and the person I strive to be. Taking myself out of my comfort zone has brought up fear; the willingness to face these fears and grow through them has changed me for the better. I fear very little these days and I love so much more.
When I travel I prefer to stay with the locals or on my swag under the open sky.
There is a certain freedom to laying the swag down whenever I get tired, wherever I may be.
The key for me to getting to know a place is to seek the Elders or traditional owners of a place and ask for permission to walk barefoot on their land.
Not only does this show respect for the people and their land but also gets you access into communities on a deeper level. Being humble with the locals allows a connection to be established and brings about a mutual respect.
I need very little when I travel but I usually carry a lighter, a knife and a handline for fishing.
I was humbled a few years ago after walking for two days and eating absolutely nothing.
When I went fishing at first I felt like I was going to catch fish—but after two days of not catching fish I realized that I was not in control of catching the fish, it was the country (or spirit of the country) that would feed me. It wasn’t long after this realization that I was given both a fish and a kangaroo by country. It changed the way I viewed the connection between the land and myself. I am nothing more than a speck of dirt on this earth, it tells me when I eat, when I drink, when I will be dry and when I will be wet.
The one thing I won’t leave home without is the knowledge, wisdom and joy that has been given and taught to me by my Elders.
That is where my love for life derives.
A Wardaman Elder named Bill Harney taught me to read the trees for collecting didgeridoos and to understand that every part of the land is the ancestors—the rocks, the animals, the trees—they’re all the ancestors.
Bill also taught me about trust. He sent me in to a river that had crocodiles in it, to clean the inside of the didgeridoos while he sat back under a big gum tree and sang a sacred song that would keep the crocs away. When I gave him a look that said “you have to be kidding” he raised his arm and motioned with his finger to go in. This was a turning point where I had to have trust in my Elder. I knew that if I couldn’t enter that water my learning with Bill would be done. He began to sing and I crawled into the river, my heart in my throat and didjeridoo in hand.
I belted 45 didgeridoos on a rock just under the water for nearly five hours. Crocs are attracted to vibration but during this time not a croc surfaced or came near me. Once I walked back to where Bill was sitting he smiled at me and pointed back towards the river. The crocs had already resurfaced. This was a lesson in trust I will never forget and the lessons continue thick and fast when I’m with Bill. He is a man with a beautiful spirit.
Like anyone else, I am nowhere near perfect.
I have personal issues that I continue to grow through, I make mistakes, I am wrong at times. It seems these shortcomings are highlighted even more so when I am travelling or out of my comfort zone.
I love being on walkabout.
Most people aren’t wild about the idea of not knowing when or what they will eat, walking miles in 110-degree heat and sleeping on the earth when the nights dip near freezing. We call it Full Granny Style (old people style) and I love it. It reminds me that I am alive and that my needs are actually very simple.
If you were passing out plane tickets, Window Rock, Arizona is where I would go in a heartbeat.
The first time I was there, I had been given the name of a Navajo lawyer and a man from Navajo country whilst eating sushi in New York. I wanted to learn about traditional Native American people, so I drove across the country asking different tribal councils if they knew of this lawyer with no success. Camping in the back of my van, I woke to find two Elders standing at my window. When I wound down the window and asked if everything was okay, they told me I had to go to Window Rock and walked away. Needless to say I drove the 29 miles to Window Rock and asked about the female Navajo lawyer. I was told that she did reside in that community but was away for four days.
I walked around the Window Rock escarpment and began talking to a Navajo man who went on to tell me about a vision I’d had weeks before. We spoke for six hours on many subjects ranging from totems to color and animal representation in Navajo culture. Upon being invited back for a traditional pipe smoking ceremony I introduced myself and found that this man was the other name I had been given in New York. I love how the Great Spirit fills our lives and travels with mystery.
When I get home the first thing I eat is my mum’s baked dinner.
You can’t beat her cooking. Once they know what I eat on walkabout, most people don’t trust me when I say something tastes good but this is a certainty.
The thing I miss most while I am away is the people who have filled my heart from home.
But then at home I miss the people from where I have traveled. I miss many people, but never forget them. They are always in my heart.
My travel tip is to go with an open mind and open heart.
Carry no expectations and be grateful that you are going!
I’ve met many lifelong friends during my travels.
I’ve always welcomed friends to come and share my fire when they get the chance—and I have always been welcomed into people’s lives abroad. In Aboriginal culture there is no word for stranger. I love this! People are just friends we have not met yet.
I love to travel because I love diversity in life.
I love meeting new people, hearing their stories, experiencing culture and finding myself along the way.
Online, Sam can be found at Ridji-Didj.com. He is currently traveling across Australia once again, this time in a car powered with used veggie oil collected from restaurants. Sam updates his blog regularly to share stories from the road. Clips of his video work can be found on his Youtube channel.
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all photographs provided by Sam Mehan and may not be used without permission.