How to plan a 5-day Indigenous tour of Tropical North Queensland
Fact: Tropical North Queensland is the only region in Australia that’s home to not one but two rich Indigenous cultures. From the Aboriginal First Peoples of the coast and rainforest right up to the Torres Strait Islanders of the far north, this part of Queensland is steeped in ancient traditions and customs that predate European settlement by tens of thousands of years.
Get ready for an immersive ancient history lesson with this five day road trip itinerary experiencing the best Indigenous tours in Tropical North Queensland.
Day 1: Experience an authentic Indigenous bush feast in Ingham
Starting out from Townsville, today’s final destination is the tropical seaside town of Mission Beach. But before you hit the road, don’t miss the chance to check out a little of Townsville’s Indigenous (and military) heritage.
Learn about the city’s wartime history and its traditional owners, the Bindal and Wulgurukaba People, at the Jezzine Barracks on the Garabarra headland. Wander the outdoor sculpture gallery, discover works created by local Aboriginal artists and get a sense of the sacred role this place occupies in their culture.
Here, you can try your hand at boomerang-throwing and hear stories about the former cattle ranch’s dark and chequered colonial past – as told by its Traditional Owners, the Ngwaigi people. Then wrap up the day with a traditional kup murri feast and swap yarns around the campfire while your food is cooked in an underground oven of hot embers.
Ready to call it a night? You could just unroll your swag and sleep under the stars at Mungalla Station (there are 10 picturesque campsites to choose from). Or, for a more comfortable night’s sleep, jump back on the road and head north to Castaways Resort and Spa, Mission Beach.
Day 2: Learn ancient skills and witness sacred ceremonies in Cairns
If you’re not in a rush, make a detour to spectacular Tully Gorge National Park. Less than an hour west of Mission Beach, the gorge and its surrounding rainforest has great significance for the local Gulngay and Jirrbal peoples. Retrace the footsteps of an ancient culture as you follow the path of the thundering Tully River.
From here, it’s a 2.5 hour drive up to Cairns and the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. You could easily spend all day and night here (the Nightfire corroboree and dining experience is a real stand-out) but if time is limited you’ll need to be selective. Learn how to throw a spear and traditional crafting techniques, take a bush food guided walk with an Indigenous guide, participate in a firemaking ceremony or learn about the impacts of the Stolen Generation on the park’s History and Heroes walk.
Grab dinner at the award-winning Ochre restaurant, where your plate will be piled high with Indigenous-inspired flavours, then get some rest at the Pacific Hotel on the Cairns Esplanade (it’s an early start tomorrow).
Day 3: Forge your own connection to the ocean and reef
Start your day with an early breakfast, then head straight for the Marlin Jetty where your high speed catamaran awaits.
Today you’ll be exploring the Great Barrier Reef through the eyes of a Traditional Owner, courtesy of the folks at Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel. While aboard you’ll witness a live dance performance, hear the Great Barrier Reef creation story and talk to Indigenous Sea Rangers about their people’s connection to the sea. (And that’s all before you’ve even put on your scuba mask).
Not a fan of sailing? Swap the reef for the rainforest and head west to the quirky village of Kuranda, home to the Rainforestation Nature Park and Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience. Join a local guide on a journey of discovery that encompasses Dreamtime storytelling, dance performances and ochre anointments. Afterwards, spend an hour or two exploring the art and craft galleries of Kuranda, or hop aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway – one of the most picturesque rail journeys in the world.
While in Cairns, don’t miss the chance to pick up an original artwork or two: the city is world-famous for its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art scene. If you’d rather encounter Aboriginal art in nature, sign up to a Jarramali rock art tour and explore the sandstone escarpments of Quinkan Country, where ancient rock etchings abound.
Day 4: Forage for bush tucker in Port Douglas
Rise and shine: today’s destination is Port Douglas, just an hour’s drive past Cairns. It may be famous for its cafe culture, bohemian boutiques and spectacular sunsets, but behind that pretty exterior lies a place rich in cultural heritage and ancient traditions.
Get to know the ways of the local Kuku Yalanji People, who’ve called Port Douglas home for thousands of years, on an immersive foraging tour of its wetlands, beaches and mangroves. Follow the Walker brothers on their daily pilgrimage to Cooya Beach and learn how to spear mudcrabs and prise mud mussels from the mangroves. Then, cook up your catch on the campfire as the brothers share stories of their past.
Finally, head back to town for a night of fine food and cultural entertainment at Flames of the Forest: an open air dining experience featuring locally-sourced produce and Indigenous flavours, set to the music and storytelling of the Kuku Yalanji.
Find out where else in Queensland you can sample Indigenous flavours with this Australian bush foods guide.
Day 5: Walk in the footsteps of the ancients in the Daintree Rainforest
Visit sacred sites, hear ancient stories and witness a traditional smoking ceremony on a Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk through the gorge. Follow private Indigenous tracks as your Aboriginal guide teaches you about the Kuku Yalanji’s powerful connection to the rainforest. Afterwards, sample the native flavours of the bush at the Mossman Gorge Centre’s cafe or support local artists and craftspeople by investing in a piece from the art gallery and shop.
For a more immersive experience, sign up to a full day Walkabout Cultural Adventures tour with local guide Juan Walker. Trek deep into the rainforest along ancient trails that take you past waterfalls, creeks and rivers as you discover ancient natural remedies and forage for bush tucker.
As your final day on the road draws to a close, check in to your eco-friendly treehouse at the Daintree EcoLodge and Spa, and drift off to the soothing sounds of the rainforest.
Not quite ready to return to modern life? Extend your Indigenous road trip by continuing north to Cooktown. For an even bigger challenge, pack your bags and your sense of adventure and embark on a tour of the wild rugged north. Here’s how to do the 1000km journey from Cairns to the very tip of Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands beyond.