Tully: State of origin

By Ewan McDonald

Visiting Australia during National Reconciliation Week, Ewan McDonald takes a walk into the country's past.
The rainforests of North Queensland have supported Aboriginal populations for thousands of years. Photo / Getty Images
The rainforests of North Queensland have supported Aboriginal populations for thousands of years. Photo / Getty Images

The invitation to the convention opening ceremony around the pool at the resort read "formal".

It was as formal as Tropical North Queensland gets.

On a humid Saturday evening some women wore cocktail dresses. One or two men wore suits, but they were the ones who would make speeches.

The strolling players of the Cairns Ukulele Orchestra wore Hawaiian shirts and, amid Sea Breezes and Sex on the Beaches and barbecued prawns, strummed I Wanna Dance the Night Away. Not a pelvis took up the offer. It was too sweltering.

The assistant Minister of Tourism was introduced to the microphone, though they were clearly not strangers.

He began: "I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, past present and future."

A Queensland cabinet minister was respecting the rights of the indigenous people to the land.

Okay, Brisbane had permitted an international hotel chain to build a four-storey gated resort with lagoon pool, spa, gym, convention centre and two-bedroom apartments on top of it, but ... is Australia championing and promoting the culture of its indigenous people?

Two mornings later I arrived in nearby Tully, whose landmark is the 8.9m-high concrete Golden Gumboot statue signifying Australia's wettest city. It is on the edge of a World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest, which may give it an unfair advantage.

Journalists from Aotearoa, California and Germany met Doug Jeffrey, who would take us into the bush and tell us his history. We would walk for a morning; he had 30,000 years to cover.

He would take to the single-file track his ancestors had taken from seaside plains up the escarpment into the tablelands for thousands of years. He would give us an insight into how they lived, ate, drank, healed, hunted and housed themselves off the land on their three- to five-day walk into the cool, damp, fertile plateau.

Doug has made a similar journey.

Born on this land he went to school - or more correctly played truant from it - swimming and fishing in the rivers.

Left as a teenager to join the army. Served in Somalia: was in Mogadishu scouting for the Black Hawk Down mission; in Papua New Guinea, in Bougainville. Felt the call of home.

These mountains. These trees. These creeks.

Or maybe the strap. His father-in-law had been a stockman on the King Ranch, the beef station that an American company carved out of the rainforest; later a logger for the millers who cleared almost all the trees.

Had seen that something wasn't right, wasn't balanced; became a teacher and spread the word about First Nation peoples and their lands and culture, toured his country and the Pacific and North America, asking questions. For 32 years.

The stockman turned logger turned teacher is now a Doctor of Letters. A grandfather and an elder of the Jan Banbarra Jirrbal Rainforest people.

Without pausing in his people's creation story - how a lizard guarding a waterhole bit the tail off an inquisitive bird who had come too close to discovering his secret stash - Doug turns the battered, wheezing ute off the two-lane blacktop on to a muddy farm track, past bored Brahman cattle and across a ford.

He stops where the jungle starts.

Two minutes later we are in the rainforest, on that narrow trail of his forefathers and great-grandmothers. Within five minutes and 50m his machete has turned the bark of one tree and splinters of another into firestarters; eyed a root that is aerodynamically tuned to be crafted into a boomerang, a branch that will be whittled into a spear.

Pods that are poisonous unless dried are leached for three days in river water, cooked and pounded into something nearing mashed potatoes.

The fruit that bush turkeys hanker for.

"How far have we come?" Doug asks.

"Less than a football field," I guess.

"And we've found the hardware store, the supermarket, the pharmacy," he laughs.

It is not an object lesson in survival; it is a manual for life.

We walk to the riverbank. Doug is disappointed that his mate, a massive python, hasn't come to greet us; it's too wet. He'll be curled up and sleeping.

I'm not quite as unhappy.

The giant turquoise Ulysses butterfly and lurking golden orb spiders are more than enough.

On the sandback next to a bend in the river, Doug has fashioned a shelter from vines and branches.

He tells of the time, a few years back, when he caught pneumonia, ran a 39-degree fever, couldn't eat, couldn't get out of bed.

His father insisted on bringing him here, to the healing pools, stripping him, bathing him in the freezing water.

He was himself in 48 hours.

He tells me to drink the water. I squat, cup, sip pure mineral water.

His son, coming up 18, follows his grandfather everywhere. Fishes with a line and a spear cut from that tree and cradled on his knee, because that's the way it's always been done, and he can drop a bird from 30 to 40m or a fish in the shimmering water.

Grandad showed him how to do it, as he did with Doug, and clipped both of them across the ear if they pronounced the name of the fish wrongly in the local language.

"Only three things matter," says Doug.

"Land, people and culture."

He sighs.

"But I worry. Our elders have battled all their lives to regain this little part of our land from the farmers and the forestry, and we have taken up the challenge to maintain it. To share it with visitors.

"My son wants to go into the army and go away. Will he come back and take care of it for his children, for my grandchildren?"

I can only reach out and hug him on the banks of the healing pools of his ancestors.

"You did," I say.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Cairns from Auckland. Tully is 113km - a two-hour drive - south of Cairns.

Further information: See ingan.com.au for details on tramping, kayaking and cultural tours.

Ewan McDonald visited Tropical North Queensland with Tourism & Events Queensland and Tourism Australia.

- NZ Herald

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