Cultural tourism in the tropics of North Queensland offers a glimpse of the native Australians who have called this continent home for 45,000 years.
Many people first learned about the Australian aboriginal culture after seeing the 2008 movie Australia. The story revolves around a young native boy who is hiding from government officials who are trying to remove him from his aboriginal family so he can be “properly civilized.” The movie is not just fiction. This really happened to thousands of aborigine children across Australia from 1869 to 1969. The government took them from their families and placed them in church missions. Referred to now as the Stolen Generations, this movement was one of many egregious efforts to destroy the aborigine culture and strongly echoes what happened to our own Native Americans.
Fortunately, much has changed since then, including a formal apology in 2008 from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who opened a new chapter in Australia’s tortured relations with its native populations, starting with an admission of guilt for past wrongs and a call to improve their quality of life. Yet despite constitutional amendments to remove discrimination, after 200 years of oppression, prejudice and even genocide, Australia’s aborigines still face a tremendous challenge to save what remains of their critically endangered culture.
As elsewhere in the world, Australia has embraced cultural tourism as an effective method to save its indigenous people. Willie Gordon, an elder and the story keeper of his Nugal-warra clan, does that with his Guurrbi Tours. He takes visitors to his ancestral rock art site, a place that is only accessible with his permission. His work to promote and preserve Native Australian culture is recognized throughout Australia.
I went to Tropical North Queensland for a “walkabout” tour with Willie. This would be my second visit to Australia, but my first time to the far north, which meant I was closer to the equator than on my previous trip. Australia is a land of vast beauty and natural wonders, but up here, where the Great Barrier Reef meets ancient rainforest, the abundance of natural beauty was almost overwhelming.
After arriving in Cairns on a Virgin Australia flight, I had three days to explore before meeting Willie. As I walked to dinner that night with my traveling companions, I saw my first Australian aborigines — a small family group wrapped in red plaid blankets quietly walking along the street, hollow-eyed and thin. I was surprised to see them — they looked so out of place in this touristy urban environment. When I mentioned them to my companions, I was surprised that no one else had seen them.
I had two other aboriginal encounters before my walkabout with Willie. The first came when I arrived at the Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa, located in the oldest living rainforest in the world, older than the South America’s Amazon and estimated to date back 120 million years. The Daintree Eco Lodge offers 15 treetop cottages with a bird’s eye view of lush green terrain. The atmosphere is pure and oxygen-rich, and since it was Australia’s spring, the warm, moist tropical air mixed easily with a cool breeze from the ocean.
This particular area is the spiritual home of the KuKu Yalanji people. Juan Walker, who is aborigine with a liberal dose of Portuguese, is a member of that nation and the son-in-law of Daintree Eco Lodge owners Terry and Cathy Mahoney. Juan has found his life’s purpose running Walkabout Adventures, where he teaches the outside world about his people.
After checking into my room, a spacious but simple cottage with a screened- in porch that overlooked a rainforest ravine, Juan took a group of us for a nature walk, pointing out medicinal healing plants, bush turkey nests, lorikeets and spider holes. When we reached a hidden waterfall, Juan explained that is was a sacred place for women only. “This is the place where women would give birth to their babies,” he said, and for him it was not just a myth — he wouldn’t let the men in our group approach the place where the cascading water collected in a pool formed by black rock.
Juan told us that there once were 600 distinct aborigine tribes in Australia – each with their own language and customs. A semi-nomadic people, they lived in harmony with nature and each other. There was no written language, so it was the responsibility of the clan’s teachers to make sure children were taught all they needed to pass on to future generations — one reason why taking children away from their aboriginal parents was so devastating.
When the British explorers arrived in the late 1700s, they reported that Australia was “uninhabited” and therefore available for the taking. Britain considered it the perfect alternative for colonization after losing America in the Revolutionary War. It was shocking to hear Juan say that until 1967, the Australian government did not allow aborigines to vote, and as late as the 1980s, there were still laws on the books that permitted them to be killed.
“There are still some rich pockets of aborigine culture in Australia,” Juan said, “but not many are left.” There’s no anger in his voice, but there is pride and also the hope that it’s not too late. He said that if the outside world wants to know more about native Australians and comes to see and learn about them, there is a chance — not only for the delicate ecosystem, but also for the aborigines’ art, music, language and history.
I had dinner that night with Terry and Cathy Maloney, the Daintree Eco Lodge proprietors, at the lovely outdoor dining room, serenaded by the sounds of the nighttime jungle as we sat at a beautifully set table with candles and beyond, torches that lit up the giant trees with flickering orange light. Terry told me that the aboriginal race is one of the world’s oldest and now is less than two percent of Australia’s population. “They are disappearing before our very eyes,” he said. “Their displacement and treatment has done irreparable damage to their culture, but there is a growing respect and appreciation.”
The Maloneys have developed what they call the Aboriginal Champions Program to provide job training for local aborigines. Over the past 16 years, the program has helped more than 50 Kuku Yalanji people to become less dependent on social welfare and to find jobs. “We have noticed how just one person fully and gainfully employed can make a huge difference to their community,” Terry said.
My next aborigine encounter was much different. It happened during a drive through the Daintree Forest on the way to Cooktown. Named after Captain Cook, the famous British sea captain who ran his ship onto the nearby reef, Cooktown is a frontier town with a population of 2,000 and the last real settlement in northern Queensland before the land gives way to savannas, mountains and almost impenetrable jungles. We were being driven by a friendly Aussie man from Adventure North Australia who shared fascinating facts as we rambled along the stunning Captain Cook Highway, the turquoise ocean on the right and the rainforest on the left.
Among his many tales was one about the nearby Bouncing Rock site, a sacred place belonging to aboriginal women that became a tourist attraction. The rocks at this site bounce like tennis balls — exactly why is unclear, but I’m told it has something to do with the density of the volcanic rock, or perhaps they really are magical. The story goes that when tourists visited the site, they wanted to take the bouncing rocks home as souvenirs. Eventually no rocks were left at the site. When asked to return them, nearly everyone did, believing the rocks cursed them with nightmares and bad luck. Mailed back from all over the world, local aborigine women took the rocks back to the site, which has been closed to visitors ever since.
Turning off the highway, we headed onto unpaved roads, ground up steep mountain passes and splashed through streams until we arrived at a former mission known as Bloomfield, home of the Wujal Wujal community. The settlement sits in the middle of quiet, rural scenery where skinny horses wander freely, looking for a blade of grass to eat. Posted signs warned of severe penalties for importing alcohol to sell to the aborigines.
We stopped at a deserted community center to stretch our legs. It was completely still and quiet, not a soul in sight. I saw a grazing pony move to the other side of a building and went to take a closer look. As I turned the corner, I ran into five aborigines — four women and one man. I was so startled; from my reaction, you’d think I’d encountered aliens from outer space. They were unlike any people I’d ever seen, with a very distinctive aboriginal phenotype — like what I’d seen in college anthropology textbooks. They looked back at me, looked through me, really — that’s what it felt like. I felt like such an intruder that I spun around and walked back to my group, embarrassed that I lacked the courage even to say hello. I swore I wouldn’t let that happen again, certainly not when I arrived in Cooktown for my walkabout with Willie Gordon.
So finally the day arrived and here was Willie Gordon, affable and smiling, the Australian aborigine I’d come all the way to Tropical North Queensland to meet. Driving a comfy passenger van, he came to my hotel in Cooktown to fetch me and a group of fellow travelers for a walkabout through rock art sites made sacred by Yirmbal, the Rainbow Serpent.
He was taller than I expected. A bright blue sports shirt complemented his coppery brown skin. He had a salt and pepper goatee, and matching hair that’s wavy, not wooly like those of African heritage. I was looking for a connection and he was too as he warmly shook our hands and asked where we were from. I wondered which gave Willie more information — his question or the exchange of energy that comes when skin touches skin. I grabbed the front seat in the van, determined I wouldn’t lose another opportunity to connect with a person unlike any I would likely ever meet when I returned home.
In a reflective, quiet voice and lilting Aussie accent, Willie told us his actual name was Wilfred – a German name that likely came from the Lutherans who opened an aborigine mission nearby in 1886. As we drove north, past grazing cattle, sugar cane fields and crocodile-inhabited streams, Willie told us it was fine to ask him questions that might be offensive. He knows open communication can help dispel the walls between his people and the rest of the world.
Like most aborigines of a certain age, Willie experienced firsthand the efforts to destroy his people’s culture. In 1930, his father was taken from the wild and, as a matter of national policy, was forbidden to talk about his culture, as were all other aborigines. Being a people without a written language, this was an effective strategy for snuffing out what memories remained among his nation’s teachers.
When we arrived at the rock site, some 32 kilometers from Cooktown, Willie led us along paths with stunning mountain views before we dropped down into a mass of rock formations that contained the cave paintings. “The cave paintings were stories put on the walls,” he said. “If we don’t tell, no one will know. Aborginal culture will fade until we forget.” Like Juan Walker at the Daintree Eco Lodge and other aboriginal cultural tourism efforts across Australia, what Willie does plays a big part in keeping his culture alive.
While he treasures his aboriginal past, he also knows his people face the challenge of survival in a modern world. “People forget that we were still living in the bush as hunter-gatherers until around 125 years ago,” he said. “It’s not been easy, all people struggle with big changes. Look at the social upheaval brought about by the Industrial Revolution in Britain — yet we’re expected to manage in a little more than 100 years what took Europeans thousands of years to achieve.”
He knows too that it’s not just a matter of modernization; it’s a matter of “reconciliation,” the complicated process of removing discrimination and promoting justice and equity for all Australians. The reconciliation movement began with the 1967 referendum in which 90 per cent of Australians voted to remove clauses in the Australian Constitution that discriminated against indigenous Australians. Although the government got the ball rolling, Willie understands that true reconciliation must happen between individuals. “Reconciliation won’t come from the government, it must come from you,” he said. “It means having an understanding and respect for each other’s culture.
“We all have a spiritual place,” Willie said, noting that all mankind is really one people. “Your life is a journey and it’s your choice. What you want – how you want to live it. You can fill yourself with negative things or you can chose pure, good things. Your life will be the journey that you decide. Choose well.”
I thought of how often we hear of species of animals that are on the verge of extinction, of environments that are at risk of permanent destruction, but how profound and alarming it was to learn that one of our planet’s most precious and gentle people were at such risk of disappearing forever. As Willie said, it is up to all of us, as individuals, to do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island viewers: The following contains images of people who are deceased. No disrespect intended nor meant.
Getting there: Arrive in comfort and style with Virgin Australia’s Premium Economy Class. The extra legroom, comfy seats and great service make the 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane a breeze. Then transfer to one of many Virgin Australia domestic flights to Cairns and in two more hours, you’ll be at the gateway to Queensland’s tropics.
There’s a wide selection of accommodations, restaurants and diversions to select from, but here are our picks of places to stay, dine and visit:
The Hilton Cairns overlooks the Trinity Inlet and is located just a short walk from the city center next to the Reef Casino. The recently refurbished 264-room hotel is located at the beginning of Cairns’ scenic boardwalk, close to the shopping, tourist and business districts.
Dishes include salt and pepper prawn and crocodile, grilled kangaroo with quandong chilli glaze and their Australian Antipasto Plate – a great meal for insight into the country’s cuisine.
What’s a trip to Queensland without a visit to the Great Barrier Reef? Choose your Great Barrier Reef cruise and spend the day seeing one of the underwater wonders of the world. Options include scuba diving, snorkeling, helicopter rides, and more.
Silky Oaks Lodge and Healing Waters Spa
Experience the soothing sights and sounds of the rainforest at Silky Oaks Lodge and Healing Waters Spa, on the edge of the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park. Accommodations feature wide verandas and spa baths along with a fine food and wine at the Treehouse Restaurant
Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa
Nestled in the world’s oldest rainforest, at the Daintree you awaken to the gentle sounds of nature in your rainforest tree house at this private boutique resort where you can also enjoy pampering in the Aboriginal inspired Daintree Wellness Spa.
Sovereign Resort Hotel
AAA 4-star rated resort situated in the heart of Cooktown, close to all historic sites, shops, wharf and the town museum. Cooktown has a laid- back atmosphere and friendly people, and is a perfect base to explore the rugged beauty of the Lower Cape.
Enjoy your day tour with Australian aborigine Willy Gordon and hear the stories behind the paintings in the caves high above Cooktown. Learn why this art is so important to present and future generations of the Nugal-warra people.
Mandalay Luxury Beachfront Apartments
Mandalay Apartments epitomize the beach style and relaxed elegance that make Port Douglas a sought after holiday playground for travelers. Its located within easy walking distance of the shops and restaurants of the Port Douglas village and Marina Mirage.
Reef House Resort and Spa
With its stunning Coral Sea location, Reef House Resort & Spa is a multi-award winning boutique resort with an atmosphere of total relaxation. It’s nationally renowned restaurant, sublime day spa and colonial ambiance set the scene for a fabulous escape.
Urban Brisbane Hotel
Urban Brisbane offers a forward thinking experience within walking distance of the Queen Street Mall and other attractions at the city center while offering a relaxing environment surrounded by leafy park lands and 360-degree views of the Brisbane city skyline.
Located in a trendy section of Brisbane, Char offers organic meat, poultry and game, pork, lamb, beef and sustainable seafood are served alongside vibrant salads and vivid veggies and complimented with gorgeous dressings, sauces and marinades.