To me the rippled sands and clear, blue waters of Cooya Beach are just like any other tropical beach. But to Brandon they’re an open-air supermarket.
He spends his days spearing fish, digging up crabs and searching the tangled mangroves for juicy mussels. And its not just food he gathers.
Three minutes into our walk and I’ve learnt how to survive dehydration by chewing on flower petals, overcome a hangover with mullet (the fish, not the must-have hairstyle) and squeezed berries into my tired eyes. Who needs Optrex when you’ve got beach lettuce?
Brandon Walker and his brother Linc run cultural habitat tours to teach traditional fishing skills. No expensive rods and reels here – all that’s needed is a wooden spear and a good aim.
They are Kuku Yalanji aboriginals who live between Port Douglas and Mossman in northern Queensland. Brandon tracks food just as his ancestors did for thousands of years. Okay, his ancestors didn’t wear wrap-around Polaroids, but he’s doing his best to keep the culture alive.
He reads the beach like a map. While I narrowly avoid twisting my ankle in sandy holes, he sees the grazing paths of dugong and sleeping nests for rays. He advises me to poke my sharp spear into holes to flush mud crabs out, but I just seem to gather leaves and rubbish.
Brandon digs a large razor clam out of the sloppy sand and spears three queenfish before I’ve even started to get the hang of throwing the spear.
I remember failing the school javelin test six years in a row, so my chances of having improved enough to catch fish are small.
“Try to throw in front of the fish” he shouts across, as my feeble attempts generate plenty of splashes but no catch.
Eager to stock up for a future night of heavy drinking, I chase after several schools of mullet but they are way too quick and nimble, even for Brandon.
Brandon’s car sits beneath a large umbrella tree which can provide a good meal when in flower. Lorikeets and pigeons feeding on the seeds get drunk, fall out of the tree and are collected to make a hearty stew.
His mother’s house is across the street and she has our catch cleaned, cooked and ready to feast on.
As I eat grilled fish with damper, and slurp juicy mussels down with lemon and chilli sauce, Brandon shows me some remnants of previous suppers including a large, polished turtle shell.
Although they are endangered, the Kuku Yalanji are allowed to hunt turtles as not a scrap goes to waste.
But are they his to take? “People talk about owning land, but actually we belong to the land,” Brandon says. The Aboriginal people believe that if they look after the land then it will provide for all their needs.
With the seafood counter at his doorstep and the vegetable aisle a short drive into Daintree National Park, Brandon certainly seems to have his pick. RC
The details: Cultural Habitat Tours, phone Brandon or Linc Walker, Ph: (07) 4098 3437 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a tendency for people to lump the indigenous people of Australia into one parcel, carelessly labelled “Aborigines”. But that overlooks the fact they are comprised of numerous groups and clans, with different languages and traditions.
This is especially true of Bathurst and Melville Islands, collectively known as the Tiwi Islands, lying just off the coast of Darwin. Being cut off from the mainland has made their culture unique – no didgeridoos or boomerangs, for example – and exploring their culture is rewarding.
Entry to the Tiwi Islands is by permit only and most visitors come over on one-day tours of Bathurst, the smaller island.
The Tiwi people are renowned for their artwork – collectors from around the world come to add to their collections. And this is apparent as soon as you arrive see the airport’s small toilet block. Possibly the most colourful toilets in the country, the walls are covered in traditional decorative paintings. It’s something you see on buildings throughout the main settlement of Nguiu.
Prices are considerably cheaper than on the mainland, and it’s hard to resist stocking up on souvenirs. You can often watch the artists at work, too.
A highlight of our tour, however, was having morning tea with three local ladies. After serving us damper and billy tea, we watched them paint their faces and perform traditional dances for us. With such a small group, it didn’t feel too much like a contrived tourist show.
Everyone on the islands is a Catholic, but with a Tiwi twist. In the graveyard, almost every person laid to rest had both a Christian headstone and a small collection of the hugely cultural significant Pukumani (funeral) poles.
It’s hard to leave Bathurst Island without thinking the people have adapted magnificently to outside influences, to maintain their unique culture in a modern age. I for one felt immensely privileged to have been allowed to have experienced just a taste of it. MvdH
The details: For info on Tiwi Tours, Freephone: 1300 721 365, www.aussieadventure.com.au
I went along to Manyallaluk, about 50km from Katherine, where a handful of Aborigines from the Mayali, Rembarrnga and Ngalkboli tribes help to bridge the gap between natives and tourists. Manyallaluk means ‘dreaming place’ in the native tongue.
In just one day, the men taught us how to throw spears, play the didgeridoo and paint and the woman demonstrated how to weave baskets.
I was impressed to find I’m quite handy with a spear (even though the local children put me to shame), but found the painting a little more tricky. Making their own colours from things they’d found in the great outdoors – like red dirt and grass – the locals effortlessly produced works of art. I’m sure my four-month old niece could have produced something far superior to my messy scrawl.
I couldn’t get the hang of the didgeridoo either (though it’s easy to make a spectacular farting noise) and don’t even get me started on the basket weaving. Quite how the women make such intricate items out of grass I will never know.
I enjoyed finding my own ‘bush-tucker’ in the woods. I was also relieved to find that the grub we were given for lunch was of a far better variety; delicious home-made tea and damper bread, plus delicacies like barbecued kangaroo tail. Yummy!
If you’re thinking of heading off on a culture day, go with an open mind. Don’t be surprised when the locals rock up in expensive cars with all the mod-cons and listen carefully to everything they say – they’re a gentle race so speak very softly.
Oh, and brace yourself for a barrage of cuddles from the friendly and inquisitive children, too. A day at Manyallaluk is a day you’ll treasure forever. JG
The details: Culture days at Manyallaluk run from Mar-Oct, Mon-Fri. Book tours in advance and I’d recommend spending a few extra dollars to camp out beneath the stars – the night sky is amazing. For info, Ph: (08) 8975 4727
They may not be advertised in your hostel, or even have a website, but there are lots of ways to experience and better understand indigenous Australia. For more on Aboriginal tourism try these two websites, which list indigenous tour operators. Visit www.aboriginalaustralia.com, www.aboriginaltourism.com.au