Cairns is not just the place where ancient rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef, it is also the gateway to a number of unique Aboriginal cultural experiences.

A great introduction to local Aboriginal clans and their history is at Tjapukai, the cultural centre 10 minutes' drive from Cairns Airport (and right next door to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway). It's aimed at the mass tourism market but touches on many of the things that make this ancient culture so special.

At the Night Fire ceremony we were welcomed to a corroboree by the Mayi Wunba clan to learn about the importance of birra (fire) and the dreamtime stories which tell how their ancestors collected honey and hunted kangaroo.

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There's something primal and invigorating about standing around a fire pit, accompanied by chanting, didgeridoo and traditional clapsticks.

The Mayi Wunba clan performing at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Photo: Tracey Bond
The Mayi Wunba clan performing at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Photo: Tracey Bond

After my introduction to the Bama people I jumped into a four-wheel drive and headed out along the Bloomfield Track, which runs through North Queensland and the Daintree. The road winds through fields of sugar cane and along the coast before the rainforest takes over and the track becomes more challenging.

On the drive up to Cape Tribulation I kept willing for a cassowary to pop out of the rainforest. These elusive, prehistoric-looking flightless birds are well-known for their fierce nature. I had not long been in Cairns & Great Barrier Reef (the new name for what used to be Tropical North Queensland) but I already knew to back away from a bird if I was lucky enough to see one as they can deliver a powerful kick when threatened.

My driver told me he once spent three hours stuck up a tree waiting for an aggressive male to leave.

Many cassowaries are run over by speeding motorists. These signs remind people to slow down. Photo: Tracey Bond
Many cassowaries are run over by speeding motorists. These signs remind people to slow down. Photo: Tracey Bond

Even in well-maintained areas like this, it is easy to appreciate how beautiful and deadly Australia's flora and fauna can be. Growing in a patch of sunshine just off the walkway was a gympie-gympie tree, displaying its enticing mulberry-like fruit. The fruit is edible but coating the underside of the leaves are tiny, stinging hairs that deliver a powerful neurotoxin that lingers for several months after contact.

We beat a hasty retreat and continued north, across creeks and riverbeds. Like the cassowary, the crocodiles were nowhere to be seen, although I was assured crocodiles (and sharks) get a bad rap. Apparently more people die from being hit on the head by a coconut.

Just outside Cooktown I visited Normanby Station to find out how the traditional owners from the Balggarrawarra clan are managing the 31,000 hectares entrusted to their care.

The Harrigan brothers run ranger tours which include an exhilarating hike through the bush and across a creek, to a sacred site of the Balggarrawarra people.

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The stems of the Blackboy grass can save your life if you are lost in the Outback. Photo: Tracey Bond
The stems of the Blackboy grass can save your life if you are lost in the Outback. Photo: Tracey Bond

As we trek into the bush, my guide for the day, Cliff Harrigan, points to the rings of mud and silt high up on the trunks of the trees. This is where the floodwaters reached in the rainy season.

We pass a spectacular spider's web, home to a sleek bodied creature with bright yellow bands on its legs. "I wouldn't mess with any spiders out here'" advises Cliff, giving it a wide berth.

As we make our way through the trees and scrub alongside the river bed, he points out various trees, with incredible uses.

The soft leaves of the soap tree can be crushed up and rubbed in water to create a soapy lather that leaves hands soft and clean. The ironwood tree has been used for thousands of years to make spears; the sap of another tree can be added to baths to soothe aching muscles; yet another can be used to help with toothache.

At the foot of the slope we stop by some spiky looking grasses. The white stems of Blackboy taste slightly citrusy and refreshing. "This fella can save your life if you are lost out here," Cliff tells us.

It is a knowledge born of the land. Cliff's people, the Balnggarrawarra, have links to this area stretching back thousands of years.

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On today's hike we are joined by one of Cliff's distant relatives, Vicky, a self-confessed city girl from Brisbane, who found out only recently that she had connections to this part of Australia. Her nan was part of the stolen generation, children from Aboriginal communities removed from their families by Government agencies and church missions. Vicky is visiting Normanby Station to reconnect with her roots.

Beside the river, Cliff performs a ceremony to let his ancestors know I am not a threat. This can take the form of a smoking ceremony but today Cliff trickles water from the river on the crown of my head and blows on the top of my hair.

As we climb up the hill towards a stand of massive rocks, balanced precariously on top of each other, a sense of serenity comes over me. We stop by an opening and are met by a stylised humanoid figure - or, as Cliff calls him, a good fella.

He is painted on the rock face in deep red. He has seven fingers on one hand and is surrounded by images of yams. There is something very reassuring about him.

One of the images found on rocks at Normanby Station. Photo: supplied
One of the images found on rocks at Normanby Station. Photo: supplied

The Balnggarrawarra believe these are spirits, so direct photography is not allowed of some of the images.

These galleries have not yet been dated but Cliff expects they are around 20,000 years old.

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Making our way in between cracks in the rocks, we see huge barramundi and detailed images of crocodiles and turtles in vivid red and yellow peeking out at us.

The detail on a painting of a turtle at Normanby Station. Photo: Tracey Bond
The detail on a painting of a turtle at Normanby Station. Photo: Tracey Bond

It's a meticulous record of how the people living in these caves hunted and lived.

The detail on some of the paintings is breathtaking and Cliff saves the best for last: a collection of images hidden below an outcrop of rock, which has kept them safe from the elements for thousands of years.

Later we visit the eerie site of Battle Camp and Cliff tells of how, when his his grandfather was a young boy, he was taken forcibly from his family who were living up in the caves. Hundreds of people lost their lives in the fighting between government officials and the Balggarrawarra people. Many of the children were relocated to other parts of Australia.

It was a privilege to get a glimpse into Cliff's world and share in his family stories, and to have the opportunity to visit the sacred site where his ancestors recorded their daily life.

A few days later at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair I was again drawn to works influenced by rock art.

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A vibrant marketplace presented an opportunity to buy work from some of the art centres around the country and there were talks by artists, uplifting dance performances and workshops where you could try your hand at weaving and print-making.

There's a huge interest in Aboriginal art and many pieces in the main exhibit area had been snapped up by galleries and collectors before it was opened to the public.

I still managed to snag my own piece of a dreamtime story, in the form of a print from an emerging artist. And of course I still have the songs of the first people running through my head - the stories of the Aboriginal people have a way of sneaking under your skin and into your heart.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Cairns. airnz.co.nz
DETAILS
This year's Cairns Indigenous Art Fair takes place from July 9-12. ciaf.com.au
ONLINE
tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au
queensland.com