Art and about

On the indige­nous cul­ture trail in north Queens­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AUSTRALIA - AN­GELA SAURINE

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

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