The tourist test: how to tell if you’re a stranger in your own town

The tourist test: how to tell if you’re a stranger in your own town

I took a test. A fun test. Its overarching question: are you a tourist in your own home? Absolutely not, I thought. Almost three decades in Sydney makes me a local. But when I tried to answer the questions, I was shocked – I couldn’t pass.

Because it’s not about “where to eat, play, and stay”. The tourist test is a kind of belonging barometer that explores how much we understand and participate in our home environment.

Drawn from the Kamana independent naturalist study program, My Year Without Matches author and rewilding facilitator Claire Dunn has adapted the test for Australia, and drops some of the 133 questions to city dwellers at her workshops.

“It can give people a bit of a wake-up call but hopefully it sparks curiosity and the desire to bring ourselves back to a more intimate way of knowing our place in the world,” says Dunn.

Here is an abridged version of Dunn’s test, with advice from experts across ecology, culture and community activism to help you pass it.

1. Where does your tap water come from? And when it goes down the drain, where does it end up?

How to pass: feeling embarrassed at your ignorance (like me)? We’re not alone. Water scientist and lecturer at Western Sydney University Ian Wright says that unless they’re relying on rainwater tanks with private sewerage systems, most urbanites don’t know. Which river or reservoir? If groundwater, then where? Or does it come from the ocean? Then down the drain – out to sea, a river or recycled?

To find out, Wright advises you grab the water bill, ring your provider and ask them questions, or visit their website. We don’t realise how important it is. “Everyone finds it routine and boring,” he says. “But just one single morning without water is a recipe for a family meltdown.”

And you might find out your waste goes somewhere that doubles as a birdwatching haven.

The western treatment plant near Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, is a hot spot for twitchers, with 295 species recorded at the site.

2. What’s the first bird that calls in the morning?

How to pass: the show usually starts 30-90 minutes before sunrise – sorry night owls. But there’s a reward to rising early, says Sydney Bird Club co-founder Stephanie Chambers. You’re serenaded by a dawn chorus, when birds are often their liveliest and loudest.

“You can record a little video. Binoculars are a big help. Try to jot down its size, shape, beak and pattern – colour itself can be misleading in the early morning light,” she says.

The first bird call can change throughout the seasons. To help identify them, Chambers recommends the Morcombe & Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia app and joining a local bird club walk.

A quartet of corellas perched on a fence in Windsor, west of Sydney.

3. What’s the nearest wild edible plant to your back door?

How to pass: “There are plants all around us labelled as ‘weeds’ when, in fact, a lot of them have exceptional nutritional value,” says Zena Cumpston, research fellow with the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub. Like yellow dandelion flowers, heart-shaped wood sorrel leaves, and even stinging nettle. Just be careful not to forage from polluted environments.

Cumpston firstly seeks Indigenous plant knowledge, which can often be found through resources listed on the websites of Aboriginal corporations or the local council. She has produced a free booklet called Indigenous Plant Use featuring plants native to Kulin country. She also recommends The Weed Forager’s Handbook by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland, and even chatting with a local native nursery.

4. What are your neighbours’ names?

How to pass: in the suburbs? Start conversations at your front gate. “People plant their verges as a way to interact with neighbours,” suggests urban planner and co-founder of community-led proposal Yarra Pools, Mitra Anderson-Oliver. “Add more ecological diversity to the street – food, plants, flowers – or just create something of beauty. Some people get council approvals, some don’t.”

While Australia doesn’t have town squares like Europe, we do have parks and pubs. If you want to get to know your neighbours, using them is one of the fastest ways to go about it. “The pandemic showed us more powerfully than ever before the value of local green spaces for creating community connections,” Anderson-Oliver says.

Don’t forget the good old-fashioned way too: knock, say hello, offer food. To stay in touch, join the neighbourhood’s Facebook or Whatsapp group, or if you’ve got one, community centre.

5. Where is the moon in its lunar cycle right now?

The first supermoon of 2021 rises behind the Meriton Hotel in the Sydney City CBD, as seen from Blackwattle Bay.

How to pass: is the moon new, full or in its third quarter? There are names for the intermediate phases between them too. Novice moon watchers can keep track using apps like Phases of the Moon.

Its homescreen moon widget illuminates and casts shadows according to the current phase – and it’s rather beautiful. There’s no shortage of free astronomy apps either: Moon Phase Calendar Plus, My Moon Phase. Or for one-off checks, a quick internet search or your AI assistant will tell you.

But you can work it out just by going outside and looking up at night (that’s healthy).

6. What are two common native trees in your area?

How to pass: a reverse image search on Google can help name the trees dominant in your local landscape. Alternatively you can chat with your local nurseries to dig deeper. Council websites can be useful too, especially major cities like City of Melbourne’s interactive map of 70,000 trees, and the Botanic Gardens of South Australia’s Plant Selector +.

Trees are sacred and carry ancient stories, says Cumpston. “We Aboriginal people have a deep cultural connection with trees – they provide so much in terms of medicine, nutrition and technology.” To learn more about trees through Indigenous perspectives, she recommends you try to find educational resources produced by Aboriginal community members.

7. Who are the traditional owners of the land you live on?

How to pass: there’s often more than one traditional owner group of an area, and this can lead to confusion. To find out, Cumpston goes to the people themselves wherever possible: “Elders will acknowledge all mobs associated with an area. Listen carefully to them and you’ll begin to understand the boundaries and belonging of groups. Look for information that comes directly from Aboriginal people.”

One way to identify these groups is to search online for welcome ceremonies recorded on that particular country, then listening to their elders. Cumpston stresses there’s a wealth of information when we choose to look. Don’t be afraid, do your best, make mistakes then learn from them.

“Aboriginal people carry too much of the burden of educating. Non-Aboriginal people must take more responsibility in educating themselves,” Cumpston says. “We must work together. That’s the only way we’re going to move forward.”

To Dunn, the purpose of the test is not just about having the correct answers: “What this test is actually doing is helping us to fall in love with the world we live in. Through this empathy, we’re more likely to protect it.”

I initially thought this test was cleverly framed (me? A tourist? No!), although I didn’t mind being tricked into improving my ecological literacy. But as I discovered more, I also started to understand the difference between being perched on this land and having my roots sunk into it.

The latter is the kind of “local” I want to be.