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: www.bamaway.com.au. www.yalanji.com.au www.queenslandholidays.com.au
A different wavelength: