x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Australia: A future from the past

Australia is not all about beaches and nightlife. Aboriginal culture is proudly celebrated in north Queensland.

A boy participating at the Laura Dance Festival in Queensland, Australia. Courtesy of Celia Topping
A boy participating at the Laura Dance Festival in Queensland, Australia. Courtesy of Celia Topping

The drums are rising to a deafening crescendo and sweat is flying fast from the painted dancers' dark bodies. Their feather headdresses jut and weave like swallows in flight with every stamp of their bare feet and hip shake of their grass skirts. The men jump forward faster in a menacing fashion, with spears aloft, as the ululating of the singers reaches its peak, and the drums pound out their furious climax. The crowd gathered around this ancient Bora dancing ground are caught up in the drama of the moment, whooping and hollering in a frenzy of excitement, and when the dancers are finally still, with just their feathers quivering in the breeze, they break out into thunderous applause, whistling and cheering in appreciation of this magnificent spectacle.

This impressive display is just one performance in many, during the biennial Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, which takes place in the Cape York Peninsula, in tropical north Queensland over three days in June. As the dust begins to settle in the darkness of night, the exhausted dancers leave the well-trodden circular dance arena, allowing another tribe to take their place. This year is the 40th anniversary of the festival, and more than 20 Aboriginal communities with about 500 performers are taking part, including men, women, and children as young as four, from all over the Cape and the Torres Strait. Tribes have been dancing here for many millennia and, as such, it's a very sacred, spiritual place. The ceremonial Bora ground was rediscovered in the 1970s and, since then, has been the site for the festival, where Aboriginal communities can come together and pass on their traditional dance cycles; it's seen as crucial to the preservation and continuance of the culture of the region. There are about 5,000 people in attendance, a comfortable mixture of Aboriginals, white Australians and international visitors.

"The festival enables the wider community to gain invaluable insight into the uniqueness of Aboriginal culture," says Raymond Blanco, artistic and creative director of the 2013 festival. "Spectators can witness the storytelling of Aboriginal life through dance, language and art; it highlights the many diverse communities in a celebration of strength and pride in their heritage, and helps to breed respect and develop our unity as a nation." It seems that the festival is as much about the importance of educating the public as celebrating the native heritage.

As a first-time visitor to Australia, I'm not fully aware of the extent of the present-day division between Aboriginals and white Australians, but am told that this coming together is sadly a rare and exceptional occurrence.

With the aid of Queensland Tourism, I'm in Australia with the aim of fully immersing myself into Aboriginal indigenous culture and to gain a deeper connection with the people and their land.

I begin in Cairns, on the north-east coast of Australia, and head north, on a spectacular drive along one of the country's most scenic coastal roads, up the Captain Cook Highway; the road hugs the shore most of the way, and passes through the Unesco World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest and National Park. A small cable ferry, crossing the mighty Daintree River, marks the gateway to the park, taking just a few vehicles at a time. At 23 Australian dollars (Dh76) per crossing, and with no other way of accessing the rainforest, the Australian government has assured that this land, the largest continuous area of tropical rainforest in Australia and the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, will not be destroyed by industrial farming, fishing or other development. It's thanks to such careful preservation of the area that the rainforest remains in pristine condition. It's here that the rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef, in the only place on the planet where two World Heritage areas exist side by side. The resultant scenery is magnificent; crashing waves and rugged shoreline teem with abundant foliage as far as the eye can see.

I stop off for an unexpectedly quaint tea and scones at a roadside cafe, overhung by luscious plants and trees from the encroaching forest. Halfway through my second scone, the waitress beckons me urgently, with her finger on her lips. I tiptoe over, and there, on the patio, is a baby cassowary bird. It may only be a youngster, but it's still the average height of a female human, and I marvel at its huge claw-like feet and prehistoric appearance. This is an unusual entrance for a habitually shy breed, and I wonder if this omnivorous bird is keen to add scones to its diet.

Back on the road, I pass Cape Tribulation, where, in 1770, Captain Cook's ship famously ran aground, and onto the four-wheel-drive-necessitating Bloomfield Track, which is so bumpy it elicits a "Crikey, I shoulda worn me training bra!" from the 50-year-old male bus driver, in a broad Northern Australian accent. Splashing through fords and over wooden bridges, he continues to tell me about Aboriginal history and the legends of this beautiful region, explaining about Dreamtime and the stories that Aboriginals believe date back to creation by their ancestral spiritual beings. The Dreamtime stories also refer to instructions and beliefs passed on from generation to generation through inherited rights, guiding and directing the indigenous communities through life.

I arrive in Cooktown, a small, unassuming, pretty little town of wooden buildings, which belies the enormity of its origins, as it was here that Captain Cook changed the fate of the Aboriginal people and the course of Australia's history forever. Originally staying here for just a few weeks when repairing his ship in 1770, Cook claimed the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, and christened the area the Cape York Peninsula after the British Duke of York.

Traditionally, this south-east corner of the cape is home to two Aboriginal nations, each with their unique culture and language; in the north, the Guugu Yimithirr people and, farther south, the Kuku Yalanji. Today, 30 minutes drive outside of Cooktown, I meet up with an Aboriginal elder of the Nugal-warra clan, one of the 32 clans that make up the Guugu Yimithirr community. Willie Gordon, all sparkly eyes and welcoming smile, greets us, staff in hand, ready to take us on his award-winning tour of the ancestral rock-art sites set in the stunning countryside of rainforest and sandstone escarpment, high on the hills above Hope Vale.

For generations, this land has been inhabited by Gordon's ancestors and, as a master storyteller, he makes a fascinating guide, bringing to life the ochre-daubed paintings of people, animals and spiritual beings covering the cave walls. "The cave paintings were stories put on the walls for us to tell," says Gordon. "If we don't tell anyone, no one will know Aboriginal culture, and it will fade until it is forgotten. So it is important to continue the tradition." I move through the birthing and reconciliation caves, learning of the Dreamtime stories, myths and legends particular to Gordon's clan, and see where his ancestors were both born and buried within just a few metres of each other, in alignment, completing the circle of life. Sitting there, under the shaded rocks, looking out towards the sea over verdant treetops, it's a tranquil, inspiring spot and even I, the most ardent unbeliever, cannot fail to appreciate the spirituality of the place.

The following day we travel from Guugu Yimithirr land to that of the Kuku Yalanji people, at Cooya Beach, their traditional hunting ground, just north of Port Douglas. We meet Linc, our local guide and one half of the Kubirri Warra brothers, who lead cultural habitat tours over the land that has been part of their heritage for thousands of years. Yet, over the past 15 years, Linc has had to fight for "native title", or the right to win back the land which had been taken from them centuries before. "We had to provide proof that we are the traditional custodians of our land," explains Linc, "and that we still maintain a connection with the land in order for our traditions and culture to be legal practice here."

I need no proof that Linc and family have their roots set deep in this beautiful land, as he points out the abundance of natural resources around us, such as beach lettuce with cooling leaves for skin ulcers and sunburn, or the Calophyllum tree's seeds, which contain a poisonous toxin that can be used for fishing. It seems there is nothing that cannot be provided by nature, if you know where to look.

I spend a pleasant couple of hours wading about in the knee-deep pools left by the tide, where smaller sea-dwellers reside and breed. Yet, despite being taught how to hold and throw a spear, I completely fail to even see a crab that isn't already on the end of someone else's spear. Slightly disheartened, I trudge back to Linc's family home, where his mum cooks up the catch of the day. I soon cheer up when the plates of steaming crab, periwinkle, mullet fish and a chilli-infused dip are presented. "You must try the damper with butter and syrup," Linc enthuses, "It's delicious!" The soft, cake-like bread certainly is wonderful in contrast to the chilli-dipped, fresh crabmeat, and for the first time, I fully appreciate the effort that has gone into providing my plate of food.

This may be a trip for tourists, but as Linc says: "For centuries, people have been visiting our country, from across land and sea, so it has always been our responsibility as hosts to look after visitors. Sharing cultural knowledge has been done this way forever in our family."

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