Art and about
On the indigenous culture trail in north Queensland
Looking out at the vast tidal mudflats of Cooya Beach, most of us would see a barren wasteland. But Juan Walker knows better.
“See these little swirls?” he asks, pointing to the ground. “Well, it’s worm poo. They live under the mud and stingrays come and suck them up. At night if you shine a light you’ll see hundreds of stingrays.”
As a child, Walker and his brothers spent their days hunting for mud crabs and foraging for pipis and clams along these shores near the mouth of the Mossman River, just north of Port Douglas, learning the traditions of the Kuku Yalanji people from their grandparents. As an adult, he still spends his time pretty much the same way, But now he’s the teacher, passing on his knowledge to tourists keen to know more about indigenous culture.
Walker’s older brothers, Linc and Brandon, began leading cultural tours in 2006. He worked with them before starting his small group tours two years later, joking that as the youngest brother he got given all the bad jobs.
Walker explains his unusual name came about because his great-grandmother was from the Torres Strait Islands and had three husbands. The first two were “black-birded” and taken to work as dive slaves. The third was a Filipino man who was fishing in the islands, hence Juan, his Spanish name.
Our tour begins with a quick lesson in spear throwing on the beach. Walker shows us how to hold the weapons, and instructs us to aim, step forward and flick. “Point a finger at the back, palm up, and let him rip,” he says. My first two attempts flop a few metres away. Walker swaps me to a smaller, lighter spear. It arches high in the air and lands pointy end in the ground, and I feel a tiny bit proud. Then he throws his, and it lands about 30m away. But that’s nothing. He says the farthest he has ever thrown is 35m, while the world record is 124m.
We walk barefoot across the mud towards a lone grey mango tree that juts out of the distant horizon. “Think of this as a free pedicure,” Walker says. He explains that indigenous Australians look for different food sources depending on the season. At the time of our tour the weather is cool, which is ideal for shellfish. Around a full moon, the current is also stronger, so the crabs eat more and fatten up faster.
We change direction and continue wading through the warm shallows towards the mangroves. Walker catches a mud crab for our lunch but all I manage is a leaf. “That’s for vegetarians,” he jokes. Searching the mangrove roots, we find sea snails, periwinkles and oysters but Walker warns these must be cooked to eat because they suck bacteria from the trees. “These mangroves are really special. You’ll never run out of food here.”
Across the road at Walker’s mum’s house, we wash our feet under the garden tap before going upstairs to the kitchen, where he cooks our bounty with freshly picked chillies. Then we sit on the veranda and savour the succulent flesh, sucking the juice from the shell.
“Make a mess,” he says. “If you’re not making a mess you’re not doing it properly.”
As we eat, Walker shows our group three boomerangs of different shapes. To our surprise, he says there are more than 30 types of boomerangs found in Queensland alone, and only two or three styles are carved flat on one side and curved on the other so they return. Some are suitable for catching small animals such as bandicoots, goannas and possums; others are specifically made to snare wallabies. He then plays us tunes on a didgeridoo that sound like dingoes howling and kookaburras laughing and shows us how to check if it is authentic (“not made in Taiwan”) by feeling inside for termite tracks.
Just down the road at the southern end of Daintree National Park, the oldest surviving tropical rainforest in the world at 100 to 150 million years old, lies Mossman