The Ancient Way: Discovering the Indigenous culture of Tropical North Queensland
Want to learn how to spear a coconut or try your hand at dot painting? The Bama Way offers all that – and more.
The best tours are the ones that take you to a familiar place – the type of landscape you think you understand – and then show you that you understand nothing, or only see part of a bigger picture.
This thought occurs to me as I stand on Cooya Beach. It’s the kind of place I associate with towels and sunscreen, days spent wading in gentle waters. And yet here I am, throwing spears at a coconut and preparing to hunt for food just as the Kuku Yalanji, the traditional owners of the land, have done for thousands of years.
Brothers Linc and Brandon Walker are the 21st-century custodians of this beautiful patch of coast, committed to keeping their ancestor’s connection to country alive through their Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tour. They see it as part of their cultural responsibility to share their knowledge with others, which is why we’re looking in the mangroves for periwinkles and mussels, and stirring the sand with our feet, hoping to rouse a crab so we can bring down the spike using an ancient fishing technique. “We do this every day,” Linc tells me as he wades through the mangroves with our small group. “We just decided to bring visitors along with us.”
Back across the road a few hours later, we sit on the brothers’ balcony as the bounty cooks in a pot with a liberal dose of chilli. As we begin to eat, Linc shows me photographs arranged into a family tree, generation after generation of people whose lives have been defined by this land.
It occurs to me that this is another feature of a great tour: it transcends a lecture to become an intimate conversation with somebody you might never meet otherwise.
Following the way
Bama (pronounced “Bumma”) means Aboriginal person. The Bama Way follows songlines of the Kuku Yalanji and Guugu Yimithirr tribes, snaking north from Cairns to Cooktown. Along the way are art galleries, World Heritage sites and tours – including the Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tour – which can be seen together over a few days or visited separately, offering a close encounter with the Aboriginal heritage of south-eastern Cape York.
It’s about the past, the present and beyond.
In Cairns, I drop by Canopy Art Centre, which showcases the work of Tropical North Queensland artists. There’s a studio out the back and the artists are thrilled to talk about the meaning of their work with anybody who might drop by. Billy Missi, from the outer Torres Strait Islands, lays out a linocut showing dugongs being hunted in the ocean. “It’s about the past, the present and beyond,” he says happily, pointing out symbols representing his ancestors and future generations. Leaning over the linocut, we end up talking about overfishing in the Torres Strait, a topic about which he and his people have much to say, if only you ask.
Cairns to Port Douglas
Driving north from Cairns, I head to Port Douglas and nearby Mossman Gorge in the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, where the river water is so clear it seems invisible as it cascades over giant granite boulders. By any measure, the gorge is spectacular.
It takes on particular significance, however, thanks to the Mossman Gorge Centre, an Indigenous eco-tourism development, where an art gallery features work by Kuku Yalanji artists and the Mayi Cafe serves food made using Indigenous bush ingredients. This is also the starting point for the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks, where a local will guide you through the rainforest and share stories after a traditional smoking ceremony.
In the afternoon, I drop into Janbal Gallery for an art class with Brian “Binna” Swindley. I’ve long wanted to make my own dot painting – how hard could it be? Quite, it turns out, if you want to make something memorable, though it’s worth the flailing attempt to spend time with Binna, who’s never let his hearing impairment get in the way of a good chat.
Cape Tribulation to Cooktown
Further north, past Cape Tribulation, is one of the country’s most spectacular drives: the Bloomfield Track. The 4WD dirt trail through dense rainforest is famous for its creek crossings and steep gradients up two mountain ranges – so either be a good driver or take a tour. It’s also the way to the Aboriginal community of Wujal Wujal and its Bana Yirriji Art & Cultural Centre, where artists toil away on works that might appear at the annual Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Bana Yirriji makes quite a contrast with the Lions Den Hotel a little further up the road, which looks like it’s been lifted straight from the post-apocalyptic fantasia of Mad Max.
By the time I reach Cooktown, which has its own rich Aboriginal history, I feel as though many of my preconceptions about the Tropical North have been overturned. I am reminded of Captain Cook, who, stuck on a reef off the coast, grumpily dismissed the area by naming part of it Cape Tribulation, because “here began all our trouble”.
He was selling it short. He should have talked to the locals.