Meeting With Tradition
“They’ve got a turtle.” We’ve been strolling down Cooya Beach with Juan Walker. The tide is out and we’ve wandered along the edge of the mangroves, watching the mud skippers skim across the damp sand. He’s plucked leaves from bushes and demonstrated how they’d be used as medicine. The whole way we’ve been accompanied by his niece Chili, who runs out in front, pointing out crabs hiding beneath driftwood. There are few other people around; just a lone woman walking her dog far off on the tidal flats.
At one point Juan stops and points into the distance. Port Douglas is south, Snapper Island – it looks like a huge crocodile floating way off shore – is out at sea, and Thornton Peak is to the north. These are the Traditional Lands of the Kuku Yalanji people – the people of the rainforest – and they’ve been home to Juan’s family for thousands of years.
Juan has been leading travellers on his day-long Walkabout Cultural Adventures into the Daintree Rainforest and down to the ocean since 2008. Every day is a little different, but all who join in will check out traditional bush foods and medicines, have a go at throwing a boomerang, visit the Mossman Gorge and find out more about Kuku Yalanji life.
Today, we’re sticking to the beach. When we arrive, Juan’s brother Brandon is sitting near a fire chatting to other guests. “Try this,” he says, handing over a plate with a few pieces of what I think is fish.
“It’s turtle,” he says, as I chew down. “We marinate it in soy and garlic then cook it in some coconut oil.”
He then shucks an oyster with a screwdriver. “These are from mangroves off the Low Isles,” he says and points out towards the sea. Out there is the Great Barrier Reef and it has provided well for the Kuku Yalanji. Cooya Beach, Juan tells us, gets its name from gooya gooya in his language, which means many fish. Coral trout, spangled emperor, trevally and crayfish are often on the menu.
By the time we get back up the beach to the boat, the men are preparing to carry the green turtle to their ute. There’s a family celebration the next day and it is going to be lunch. Many white Australians are alarmed by the eating of turtle, but both Juan and Brandon, whose duty it will be to prepare it for cooking, tell us the population is strong and they hunt sustainably.
“We have friends who live further north who occasionally hunt dugong,” says Juan. “But we’d never do that here – there just aren’t enough.”
Just as we’re about to leave we take one last look at the turtle. “Before I kill her, I’ll tell her why she’s here,” Brandon explains. “I’ll tell her the name of everyone coming to the party, and thank her for feeding them all.” If only everyone showed such respect for the animals they eat.
North Queensland is a massive drawcard for travellers from across the world. It’s the place where two World Heritage Sites – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree – meet. Whether you’re keen to dive, stay on an island, find adventure on the tablelands or simply soak up long days in the sunshine, it’s all here. What has become more prominent in recent years, however, is visitors adding Indigenous culture to their itineraries.
One of the most popular attractions is Flames of the Forest. To experience this dinner extravaganza with little prior knowledge is absolutely incredible, so I won’t spoil it too much for you. Except to say arriving is like walking into a twinkling fairy land. Each Tuesday and Thursday evening, guests not only get to tuck into three courses, including lemon myrtle kangaroo and locally caught reef fish, but are also treated to tales and tunes from Kuku Yalanji brothers Gary and Skip. Beneath huge rainforest trees they entertain and share their culture with Dreaming stories and traditional music played on the didgeridoo. It’s certainly a different way to dine than booking a table at the majority of Port Douglas restaurants.
The next morning we find ourselves sitting in the back courtyard of Janbal Gallery in Mossman. Brian ‘Binna’ Swindley is an artist and owner of the gallery, which is downstairs from his parents’ house. “We used to have dinner over there,” says Binna, pointing at what is now his painting table.
While guests can simply check out the paintings by Binna and his late mum Shirley, there’s also the chance to take part in a workshop that’s hands-on but also includes plenty of information about the traditional ways of life. Today, we’re painting tiny canvases, Binna leading us through the process of dipping brushes into pots of colour and placing them gently on to the canvas.
“Because we’re rainforest people, dots mean rain,” he tells us as we work, explaining that every element of Indigenous art has a meaning.
He takes regular walks into the rainforest and dives on the reef to refresh his ideas and bring new inspiration. “I respect the Dreamtime stories of my people,” he tells us, “But I also make my own art.”
It’s fair to say some of our paintings are better than others, but they’ll be an excellent reminder of a couple of days spent finding out more about a culture that stretches back more than 40,000 years.
The nearest airport to Port Douglas, surrounding towns and the Daintree Rainforest is Cairns. You’ll need to hire a car to get around. All the major companies have a desk in the arrivals hall.
The Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple Resort & Spa is set just outside of town around a huge lagoon pool and next door to a golf course. Rooms include studios, swim-out suites and large apartments, from one to three bedrooms. Rates start at about AU$205 a night.
A full-day tour with Walkabout Cultural Adventures costs AU$230 a person, including morning tea and lunch. The Aboriginal Cultural Experience at Flames of the Forest costs AU$227 and includes transfers from Port Douglas hotels. (Cairns transfers are also available.) A 90-minute workshop with Binna at Janbal Gallery costs AU$55 a person.