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Spearfish­ing with Bran­don Walker, Cooya Beach, north of Cairns HE in­au­gu­ral three-day Cairns In­dige­nous Arts Fair has been a fes­ti­val of peace, love and un­der­stand­ing so far, but the Ariw Poeni­pan dancers from Saibai Is­land are dressed for war. When they take to the open-air stage at the Tanks Art Cen­tre on the north­ern out­skirts of Cairns they are wear­ing head­dresses, fans of white feathers tipped with blood red. Faces are daubed with paint, shoul­ders are leather-padded and there are arm guards on their left fore­arms. Some wear dec­o­ra­tions in the pierced sep­tums of their noses and they carry bows and ar­rows. Both are re­minders of the prox­im­ity of their home­land to Pa­pua New Guinea, 4km from Saibai Is­land, at the north­ern end of the Tor­res Strait.

It’s a romp­ing, stomp­ing per­for­mance by dancers who are rarely seen in this part of the world, and it un­der­lines the rich­ness and di­ver­sity of Aus­tralia’s in­dige­nous cul­tures.

It is Satur­day af­ter­noon in mid-Au­gust, day two of the Cairns In­dige­nous Arts Fair, and en­light­en­ment as well as en­ter­tain­ment is high on the menu. Al­ready I’ve learned how to butcher a du­gong, how to etch a cop­per plate us­ing the dry­point in­taglio tech­nique and picked up a few weav­ing tips from a woman skilled in the use of the lawyer vine, named for its tena­cious cling­ing prop­er­ties.

The event is a trial at­tempt to give the re­gion’s in­dige­nous arts move­ment the Red Bull treat­ment. Un­til now it has been Abo­rig­i­nal artists from the Cen­tral Desert re­gion, the Kim­ber­ley and Top End who have taken cen­tre stage while the artists of Queens­land’s Arakun, Lock­hart River and Tor­res Strait Is­lands have been eclipsed. The fair shows just what has been miss­ing.

There are al­le­gor­i­cal linocuts as big as tapestries from Alick Tipoti, ab­stract can­vases in vi­brant planes of colour from Joanne Nalingu Cur­rie, photography and so­cial com­ment from Tony Al­bert, dancers from Arakun and the Tor­res Strait, and mu­sic by Chris­tine Anu and lo­cal he­roes Zen­nith. Close to 20 gal­leries and in­dige­nous arts cen­tres are rep­re­sented, with works by more than 100 artists.

About 10,000 vis­i­tors at­tend the event and more than $500,000 of art­work is sold, smash­ing all ex­pec­ta­tions. How­ever, it’s un­likely to hap­pen again soon. De­spite the boost to artists’ egos and wal­lets, de­spite the hun­dreds who are walk­ing away with an art­work for about $100, de­spite the back­slap­ping among dig­ni­taries who at­tended the open­ing (in­clud­ing Premier Anna Bligh), Arts Queens­land lacks the re­sources to host a fol­low-up In­dige­nous Arts Fair be­fore 2011.

On a brighter note, the fair has in­jected fresh pas­sion into the re­gional in­dige­nous arts scene. The week­end saw a new gallery, Canopy Arts­pace, added to the pal­ette of Cairns’s in­dige­nous art gal­leries, com­ple­ment­ing the ex­ist­ing Kick­Arts Con­tem­po­rary Arts Gallery, Pan­danus Gallery, Jun­gara Abo­rig­i­nal Art Gallery and, in Moss­man, the Jan­bal Gallery.

Apart from the arts scene, where does that leave trav­ellers in search of au­then­tic in­dige­nous tourism ex­pe­ri­ences in Cairns and fur­ther north?

Not quite high and dry, yet cu­ri­ously un­sat­is­fied, con­sid­er­ing the po­ten­tial. Tourism ex­pe­ri­ences that spot­light in­dige­nous cul­ture have de­vel­oped pri­mar­ily to sat­isfy an Asian mar­ket that moves quickly and prefers the snap­shot to the doc­u­men­tary. Thus the only in­sights that most vis­i­tors will get amount to lit­tle more than a car­i­ca­ture since this cul­ture, by its na­ture, un­folds slowly, de­pend­ing on hap­pen­stance and per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion for its rev­e­la­tions.

If you want rel­e­vance and in­sight into in­dige­nous cul­ture, look to some of the niche prod­ucts that typ­i­cally cater to a half-dozen peo­ple.

Bran­don Walker is wait­ing for us out­side his beach­front house in Cooya Beach, about 5km east of Moss­man. To­gether with three French tourists I am spending a cou­ple of hours with Walker on a foodgath­er­ing trip. We cross to the beach and leave our shoes un­der the shade of a beach al­mond tree, and Walker shows us a cache of spears. There are sin­gle-pronged items and a wicked-looking tri­dent with barbs that splay when they strike a fish. I’d rec­om­mend a sim­ple point without a barb be­cause it makes it eas­ier to get it out if you spear your­self in the foot,’’ he says.

Walker leads as we wade into knee-deep wa­ter. See that fish out there?’’ he asks. I look at the sun-kissed wave­lets that dance to the hori­zon. Noth­ing. Then Walker cocks his arm, his spear strikes the wa­ter 20m away and a mul­let as long as my fore­arm leaps in a sil­ver flash and is gone. It’s pat­tern recog­ni­tion, I de­cide. Walker is tuned to a dif­fer­ent wave­length.

Af­ter wad­ing for al­most an hour we have trav­elled in a big semi­cir­cle and re­turn to the shore at a man­grove thicket. It looks al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble, yet to Walker this for­est is ev­ery bit as tempt­ing as your near­est fast-food out­let and much bet­ter for you.

We plunge in, mov­ing with a high-step­ping gait to get over the roots and squelch­ing through foot-suck­ing grey muck. Within a few paces we are en­gulfed by a whin­ing cloud of mos­qui­toes.

If they bother you, you can coat your­self in mud,’’ sug­gests our leader help­fully. It seems a less at­trac­tive op­tion than be­ing bit­ten.

To­tal bag for the ex­pe­di­tion is a cou­ple of crabs, a hand­ful of shell­fish and sev­eral puf­fer fish. Back at his house, Walker leads us up­stairs to the ve­randa where there’s tea and bis­cuits wait­ing while he goes off to cook the fishy feast. The French are wary of the shell­fish at first but, the crab? Oo-la-la.

At Moss­man Gorge, an hour’s drive north of Cairns, at the end of a road lined with gi­ant mango trees, the lo­cal Kuku Yalanji peo­ple op­er­ate Dreamtime Walks, a 90-minute stroll through the rain­for­est.

There are 2000 plant species here,’’ my guide Rod­ney Bill Dock­rill ex­plains. Most we can use, some of them three or four dif­fer­ent ways.’’

Af­ter a warn­ing about red-bel­lied black snakes, which sends a fris­son of fear through our group of eight from Spain, The Nether­lands and the US, we set off along a for­est track. To us it looks like the back­drop to a Tarzan movie, laced with vines and foot-snag­ging roots and ring­ing with whop­ping bird noises. To Dock­rill it’s a larder and a phar­ma­co­log­i­cal won­der­land. He shows us a black-bean tree with a sticky fruit that traps birds.

You can eat the beans but you have to leave them in run­ning wa­ter to flush out the tox­ins. Women’s work.

Here’s a can­dlenut, so called be­cause of its oily nuts that burn with a smoky flame. Ring­bark a can­dlenut tree and bee­tles will come along and lay their eggs, which be­come tasty grubs.’’ Luck­ily, there is none for us to try. Here’s a milky pine, which is used for fish­ing. Crush some leaves to release the sap, throw them into a slow-mov­ing pond and the al­ka­loids bring fish gasp­ing to the sur­face.

So rich is this for­est that our guide can’t walk more than 20 paces without some fresh rev­e­la­tion. He shows us a clear pond fed by a rush­ing stream. It’s a birthing place, exclusive to women. In the hol­low of a gi­ant stran­gler fig he tells us the cre­ation story of the rain­bow ser­pent. There are black palm spear points spread out on a stump. We used to call them black boys but it’s not po­lit­i­cally cor­rect.’’

There’s a rock face with paint­ings of sail­ing ves­sels and, by the side of a stream, Dock­rill rubs ochre against his arm to show off the red and sul­phur yel­low. And there’s tea and dam­per spread with jam when we re­turn to the shel­ter where the tour be­gan.

The ex­em­plar of in­dige­nous tourism in trop­i­cal north Queens­land is Wil­lie Gor­don of Gu­ur­rbi Tours (

Fe­bru­ary 7-8, 2009). An elder and learned man of the Nu­gal-warra clan, he takes vis­i­tors on a half- day tour of his coun­try in the Cooktown re­gion. He’s an out­stand­ing in­ter­preter of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture, with the knowl­edge and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills to make this a spir­i­tual as well as a phys­i­cal jour­ney.

There is also a Gar­den of Eden lurk­ing in this part of the world and it’s the home of the Ariw Poeni­pan dancers. Cast against a mala­chite-coloured sea trimmed with coral, the Tor­res Strait Is­lands are par­adise in Robin­son Cru­soe mode. I briefly tasted the pearly plea­sures of the Tor­res Strait sev­eral years ago at Po­ruma Is­land, which lies about half­way along the chain be­tween Cape York and Pa­pua New Guinea.

My im­pres­sions took shape when the pi­lot of the Cessna that fer­ried me out made an un­sched­uled stop so we could gorge our­selves on man­goes from a tree be­side the airstrip. At present, the two open-fronted lodges that make up Po­ruma Is­land Re­sort are closed for busi­ness, await­ing the ap­point­ment of a man­ager, but should the is­lan­ders de­cide to em­brace tourism whole­heart­edly, this could be big­ger than the Mal­dives.

And the thought of see­ing those Saibai Is­land dancers on their home turf sends shiv­ers down my spine. Michael Ge­bicki was a guest of Tourism Queens­land.


Bran­don Walker’s Cooya Beach ex­cur­sion and Wil­lie Gor­don’s Gu­ur­rbi tour are in­cluded in the two-day Bama Way tour from Cairns. More:­m­ www.queens­land­hol­i­

Pic­tures: Michael Ge­bicki

A dif­fer­ent wave­length:

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