Many things make Queensland different from the other Australian states, including its tropical climate, the presence of the Great Barrier Reef and the fact that its population is the fastest growing in the country. However, the aspect that intrigued me the most while I was there was its indigenous population. The size of the aboriginal population in Queensland is second only to New South Wales. However, unlike their counterparts to the south, many of the indigenous peoples in Queensland still reside in regional and rural areas rather than urban sectors. Therefore, Queensland offers some unique opportunities to meet aboriginal peoples who have opened their communities to guests in an effort to share their culture and educate others about their land and history.
One such group of aboriginal people, the Kubirri Warra brothers of Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours, offer walks in their ancestral home in Cooya Beach. I walked through the wetlands and mangroves with our guide, Link’s family has lived in the region for more generations than he can track. Many believe that Australian indigenous peoples are the oldest surviving civilization in the world, so Link has more of a family forest than just a tree. As we fished for mud crabs, sampled native remedies and trudged through shin-deep mud, I found myself lost in the natural beauty of both the landscape and the aboriginal culture.
Cooya Beach is located just north of Port Douglas in North Queensland. The still waters and dense mangroves make the region feel even more tropical than the other lush areas of Queensland, and I very quickly realized why we were offered bug spray upon our arrival. Even during the “dry season,” the air (and mud) feels thick and sticky in Cooya Beach. Somehow, though, the quicksand-like nature of the mangroves and the unique flora only added to the sense of adventure that I felt as Link guided us through the land that his people have foraged and hunted for centuries.
As we walked, Link we point out plants that his people have used for medicinal purposes, including berries that excrete a solution so similar to saline that it is used as eye drops. Perhaps the most intriguing example of living off of the land that Link demonstrated was his people’s affinity for licking the rear ends of Green ants. Why lick an ant’s behind? Because they expel a tangy secretion that tastes refreshingly like a combination of lemon and lime. My curiosity piqued, I grabbed an ant off of a nearby tree and followed Link’s simple instructions: “Lick its butt.” It did, in fact, taste remarkably similar to the aforementioned citrus fruits. I’d happily create a line of Green ant excretion salad dressings if it wasn’t for the anticipated marketing difficulties.
We walked down the coastline and through the tidal pools that showed evidence of rays having been in the sand when the tide was in earlier in the day. Within these snow angel-shaped divots often reside mud crabs. Carrying long, slender wooden spears, we followed Link while poking in small pools and holes, waiting anxiously for a crab to grab a hold and challenge us to a game of tug-of-war. A large mud crab makes an excellent addition to any barbecue, and we were all anxious to find one of our own.
Gradually, we approached the beginning of the mangroves. The mud below us began to get wetter, looser and less stable. Our feet sank in deeper and, as we struggled to extricate ourselves from our sinking terrain, each step made the sound of a fork entering a bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese. The mangroves, unlike the tidal pools, were a serpentine maze of trees, above-ground root structures and mud that seemed clingier than some of my ex-girlfriends. Within the mangroves, Link pointed out mussels that, to our untrained eyes, were seemingly undetectable. I stared down at the ground, determined to find one and prove my hunting skills in some capacity.
After 30 minutes in the mangroves, our legs were covered in mud, we had all suffered a near slip and Link had single-handedly outscored us 6-0 in the mussel collection department. I couldn’t help but marvel not only at Link’s aptitude at distinguishing flora and fauna in this ecosystem, but the pride that he exuded as he taught us about fishing and hunting in these wetlands as a child. He explained that he was never formally taught any of the techniques that he was demonstrating for us. As a child, once he was old enough to keep up with his father, uncles, cousins and older siblings, he simply followed them out into the mangroves and mimicked what they were doing. As if through osmosis, he learned how to contribute to his family.
As my mind wandered to thoughts of what it must be like to grow up in this habitat, maintaining a close relationship with the same land that your ancestors hunted thousands of years ago, I was knocked back into the moment quite literally when I tripped on a root and had to grab hold of a nearby tree to keep myself from falling face-first into the mud. Serendipitously, however, that root was sheltering a mussel. As I looked down to see what had nearly caused me to become fodder for a humorous anecdote over drinks later that night, I saw my trophy mere inches from my foot. Victoriously, I grabbed the mussel and showed it off to the rest of the group. I had found sustenance.
We made our way out of the mangroves thanks to Link’s uncanny ability to distinguish differences in seemingly identical collections of trees and roots. One could easily lose themselves in the mangroves for hours, as disorientation seems to be the norm once you get a few feet inside the densely packed mud forest. We walked back down the coastline, poking at more holes in a desperate attempt to find a mud crab before our time with Link was over. Sadly, we would not feast on mud crab that day. I told myself that Link probably didn’t catch a crab the first time he followed his elders into the wetlands. I used that as my rationalization as I struggled once again to remove my foot from the ever-sinking mud below me.
We returned to Link’s home where he showed us various types of boomerangs that were used in different hunting environments. He also had a collection of shields and native artwork that he explained in great detail. There was something about hearing the stories from Link that felt very natural. It dawned on me that aboriginal history is steeped in oral traditions and storytelling. The indigenous people’s ability to speak in great detail about their heritage is magnificent, and we seemed to hang on Link’s every word. As day turned into night and the heat and humidity gave way to a gentle sea breeze, our time with Link drew to a close.
I’ve been on countless tours around the world and few have been as enjoyable as my time in Cooya Beach. This was more of a cultural immersion than a tour, and it is something I would recommend to anyone visiting Queensland.
To extrapolate that point into a more general sense, I would recommend that you always seek out tours that allow you to experience a way of life rather than just observe it. Learn a craft. Shadow a artisan. Or simply walk where people have been walking for thousands of years. Just make sure you don’t lose a shoe in the mud.
Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.