A singsong voice travels through a knot of strangler figs. The sound sweeps along the forest floor, rising to the canopy above. Uncle Roy is cupping his hands to his mouth and calling out Kuku Yalanji words to the lush scene before us.
“I’m letting the spirits know that I’m with strangers,” he explains. “And I’m asking them to not let harm come to you.”
Small in stature and sporting a crown of silver curls, Roy Gibson is a Kuku Yalanji elder, traditional owner and guide. Today he’s leading our group of six travellers on a 90-minute walk through his ancestral lands at Mossman Gorge, 80 kilometres north of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland.
We pause at a cycad plant topped with bright-red fruit and Roy recounts a tale about once spying on his grandmother as she and friends made dillybags at this very site. As he peered at the ladies through a fan of spiky fronds, the youngster was swiftly busted.
“My grandmother said, ‘Come any closer and I’ll hit you with my stick!’ They had women’s business they had to do. There was a lot of privacy around that. Still is.”
While our walk meanders past medicinal trees and sacred rocks, it becomes clear why Roy is considered a local legend. In 2013, he was named Cairns region Citizen of the Year, and in 2014, his proudest achievement, the now two-year-old Mossman Gorge Centre – an Indigenous eco-tourism experience in the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park – won the Queensland Tourism Award for Indigenous Tourism. The centre now employs 77 Indigenous staff.
Says Mossman Gorge’s general manager, Greg Erwin: “We find that people are touched by Roy’s vision. He’s an inspiration to everyone who meets him. He is known as the peacekeeper and he works to bring out the best in his community.”
Greg adds: “When visitors arrive, they are welcomed by the same people who have nurtured this land for thousands of years. Above all, the gorge offers travellers a positive engagement experience with Indigenous Australia.”
While you're in the region: 48 Hours In Far North Queensland
Hop over to the Northern Territory for more Indigenous experiences: Get Ready To Rock
Statewide, the gorge keeps good company. About 40 Indigenous travel operators spread their wings inside Queensland’s borders. From the Torres Strait to the Sunshine Coast, and even at inland regions such as Central Queensland's Sandstone Belt, this scene is on the rise.
Travellers, it seems, are keen to edge closer and absorb stories from Australia’s first peoples. And in concert, the desire to share culture and inherited wisdom runs both ways.
Roy, for example, is rostered off on the day we see him but he has come to work anyway. "Tour guiding is the best thing in my life – sharing culture with other communities is so important," he says.
An equally committed elder, Fred Conway, arrives at work about 1,200 kilometres south-west of Cairns at Carnarvon Gorge. This expanse of lofty sandstone cliffs and boulder-strewn creeks rests between the prettily named towns of Emerald and Roma.
It’s a rich site for rock art. To discuss just that, Fred delivers ranger talks to park visitors. He brandishes a broad-brimmed Akubra, white sideburns and a ponytail.
“I am one of the custodian elders from the surrounding gorge. I’ve been coming and going here for the last 20-odd years,” he says. “I explain about the ancestral significant meaning on these walls and it makes me feel proud to be looking after our culture.”
He gestures to the ochre-coloured art behind him before setting sail on his ritual raft of stories.
Stories, too, are shared less formally via Queensland’s Indigenous festivals and fairs. Perhaps the two most prominent of these are Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, held every two years in June, and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, an art market merged with public talks, dance performances and activities that’s held annually in July.
The former is an occasion for every Australia-phile’s bucket list. Held in bushland near the township of Laura, 305 kilometres northwest of Cairns, the dance festival sees about 17 Indigenous groups perform 30-minute sets.
It attracts more than 5,000 visitors, half of whom are Indigenous, the other half non-Indigenous. This ying-yang, black-white balance partly explains the festival’s esteem.
It has harmony to it, a mood of sharing, and that takes the event beyond the dance that’s performed and observed. Here visitors can feel the dances. They can meet the dancers, too.
At the most recent festival, I watch the Marrinyama troupe perform a series of traditional dances with crocodile, dingo and fish sequences, in which they wear emu, duck and turkey feathers. As the men walk off stage and pose for photos, there’s a dancer who catches my eye.
Lance Sullivan is from Cloncurry in northwest Queensland. He and his fellow performers live fairly traditional lives.
The dances, he says, teach the tribe how to be men, how to fish and how to hunt. “People think we’ve died off. But our lore is strong. We want to keep our culture. We come here to show the world that even though we’re fading, we’re still here. We’re alive.”
As Lance talks openly, barriers fall. I begin to understand not only how enriching Aboriginal cultures are, but that they’re tough and sacred, too. They vary with as much splendour as Queensland does – from the tropics all the way to the desert.
"What’s unique about north Queensland in particular is that it has more Indigenous people per square kilometre than anywhere else in Australia," says Maryanne Jacques from Adventure North, which runs 4WD tours from Cairns and Port Douglas to Cooktown.
"One of the reasons for that is that it’s largely coastal, so there’s no shortage of food sources," she says.
“What’s special about the Indigenous travel offerings here is that each experience is completely different. Nothing is duplicated. So you spend time with traditional owners of a given country and they’re doing what they do every day. For instance, they’ll go out and hunt, regardless of whether they have a tour group or not.”
Maryanne makes special reference here to the Walker brothers from the Mossman area’s Cooya Beach. Like Roy, Linc and Brandon spent many years fighting for the life they now lead, as well as the ability to share that with travellers.
Along with other Walker clan, they won a Native Title Act in 2007 to hunt seafood here. The pair have since started Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat spearfishing tours along the mudflats near their family home. They complete each session with a homemade meal prepared by their mum.
On a late dry-season day, I follow Linc through a maze of angular tree roots. We each carry a tall, thin spear, and as we travel we spot a cornucopia of aquatic creatures – some instantly recognisable, others less so.
"Being inside the mangroves, you really get to escape out of this world and delve inside another one," Linc says.
"When you get in there, you’ve got to make your own track. You’ve gotta lift your legs up and adjust your eyes.
"You can’t connect to a place unless you’re interacting with it properly. Some things you can’t explain, like the feeling of mud between your toes where different things are living. This place has fed our families since the beginning of time.”
Back beside a water stream in the shady Mossman Gorge, Roy reveals a similar philosophy towards the land, its offerings and opportunities. As we pause at the base of a giant paperbark tree, calm sets in.
Like a white wave, the tranquillity outside floods inwards. It happily invades our thoughts. “This land is a supermarket, a university, a pharmacy and a hardware store all in one,” whispers Roy. “We get out into the rainforest to feel alive again.”
More top Indigenous travel experiences in the Sunshine State
Jirrbal Rainforest Aboriginal elder Dr Ernie Grant and his family run a five-hour Spirit of the Rainforest walk through the rainforest in the state’s north. Ingan’s Kayak tours explore the Cassowary Coast region.
Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks, Mossman Gorge
Beginning with a traditional smoking ceremony and ending with damper and a cuppa, these walks journey along private tracks to culturally significant sites that line meandering rainforest streams.
Gab Titui Cultural Centre, Thursday Island
This centre is a treasure chest of modern Torres Strait artworks, as well as interesting titbits of cultural history.
Quinkan Reserves Ancient Rock Art, Laura
Thought to be at least 27,000 years old, this sandstone rock-art site features a plethora of Aboriginal mythological beings.
Lawn Hill Gorge, Boodjamulla National Park
Known as Rainbow Serpent country, the gorge and its surrounding areas are home to the Waanyi people, thought to be the longest-standing occupants of a single part of Australia.
Mungalla Aboriginal Tours, Ingham
Set at an Aboriginal station in sugarcane terrain, these tours uncover the history of local Nywaigi people and showcase the birdlife and ecology of the station’s wetlands.
Amid a bushy outcrop at Kangaroo Point, east of the Brisbane River – and only a cockatoo’s flight from the CBD – Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dancers share stories, music, customs and didgeridoo performances.
Musgrave Park Cultural Centre, Brisbane
The hub for Brisbane’s Indigenous communities, Musgrave Park is a sacred meeting place. The centre boasts an exhibition and gallery space, performance areas, meeting spaces for men, women and children, plus a ‘yarning’ circle.
Janbal Gallery, Mossman
Local artist Binna runs art workshops and story-telling sessions. Visitors can opt to paint boomerangs, didgeridoos and canvas, and to hear tales about Binna’s mother and the Yiki people – traditional guardians of the night who often appear in Binna’s work.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Caravonica
The Tjapukai centre holds a Guinness Book of Records award as Australia’s longest-running stage show. It’s been in orbit for 25 years. Performances centre on the rainforest people and include didgeridoo playing, boomerang throwing and hunting demonstrations.
Queensland’squirkiest place names often stem from local Indigenous dialects. Wrap your tongue around these examples, or defer to the local nickname if they’re a tad too tricky to pronounce.
The name of this town in the South Burnett region is allegedly derived from the Aboriginal word meaning ‘broken shield’.
Ancient Aborigines used the word ‘dhoo’ for tree and ‘goo/lawa’ to denote something crescent-shaped. From these origins, ‘Toogoolawah’ was born.
Today, Queenslanders refer to Toowoomba as The Garden City, but the local Indigenous meaning is less flattering. The Aboriginal translation means ‘swamp’.
Kaimkillenbun is the longest single place name in Queensland, though its meaning remains a mystery. Locals dub it The Bun.
Residents call her Gundy, but Aborigines artfully named Goondiwindi after the term for ‘resting place of the birds’.