There is a perception in the travel business that Central Australia is the only place to experience Aboriginal culture. Wrong. On Cape York alone there are 42 different Aboriginal nations, each with their own language and traditions.
I'm setting out to discover three of these groups on a self-drive adventure that will track the 340 kilometres from Cairns to Cooktown following the storylines through coastal mangroves, rainforest and hilltop savannah. I am taking you along the Bama Way.
The tide is receding as Brandon Walker greets us on Cooya Beach, a 10-minute drive from Mossman, itself about 80 kilometres from Cairns. Brandon leads the way along the beach through a passage between the mangroves. The first step into the warm seawater sets feet on the firm mud base. This is how the Kuku Yalanji people hunt for mud crab, stingrays, fish and mussels, wading through knee-deep water, spear poised, watching every movement on the surface.
The Kuku Yalanji are members of the Kubirri Warra clan, who inhabit this area of far north Queensland. "Be careful. Watch for the edge of the shell poking out through the mud," says Brandon climbing over a mangrove root and prising from the mud a mussel the size of a small coconut. "This one will be sweet to eat."
Joining brothers Linc and Brandon Walker on one of their coastal walks is like stepping into the footprints of the ancients who for thousands of years have hunted in the traditional way. "I used to bring my schoolfriends here and teach them how to spear fish. Now it's your turn." In the space of two short hours, the catch is one mud crab, six mussels and three good-sized trevally. Not bad for novices every mouthful will be savoured.
From the beach it's a short walk to the barbecue pit where damper and tea are accompanied by the recently caught seafood. Then it's back to the vehicle, with the bonnet pointing towards Cape Tribulation and the famed World Heritage Daintree National Park. Here the 4WD Bloomfield Track provides some thrills and spills as we traverse creeks and climb up and down mountain tracks en route to Wujal Wujal to meet the Walker family for their Bloomfield Falls tour.
Also members of the Kuku Yalanji people, the Walker Family of the Daintree trace their ancestors back for tens of thousands of years. I am here to experience a bushwalk with a difference, so it's with interest that I meet Francis Walker, tour manager of Wujal Wujal Walker Family Tours. She smiles broadly, throwing her arms open. "I like to do personal tours. That way you can get to learn about us and I can get to learn about you."
These 30-minute tours follow paths through the rainforest where Francis identifies the various plant species used by Aboriginal people for food, medicine and ceremonial purposes. "Now you can see the rainforest in a different way, through my eyes." Short it may be, but this information-packed excursion serves to remind me how resourceful different cultures can be. I wonder if the hippies latched onto this important resource during their tenure in the region in the '60s and '70s.
Back on the road, I opt to overnight near Bloomfield at Mungumby Lodge so that I can devote the morning to driving through the Black Mountains and arrive in Cooktown in plenty of time to meet up with Willie Gordon of Guurrbi Tours.
Willie Gordon is a man for all seasons. "I am the storyteller but today I want you to become the storyteller," he announces to the group of six joining him on the Rainbow Serpent tour. It may be an easy 30-minute walk through the bushland to the first of the ancestral rock art caves, but in essence a cultural mountain has been climbed by the time the site is accessed.
"I am telling you our stories of the cave paintings. I was to tell only my family, but I want to open it up to share the stories with everyone."
The significance of Willie's words is not lost on any of the group. "I will help you understand the law and the lore of my people and this land." An elder of the Nugal-warra people, whose country lies between Cooktown and Hope Vale, Willie has a commanding presence, something to be expected from a tribal elder. But he is charismatic and open.
"These are the drawings that show us the pathway through life. These stick figures here indicate a lack of knowledge. And here is the rainbow serpent, our creator being." He points to a stylised ochre painting of a snake dominating one part of the wall.
"When you stop to think about 'you', it is called 'Guurrbi'." Patiently Willie explains that spirituality comes from within and that each of us has a spiritual place, no matter where we come from. "Happiness is something you have to work towards. If you do not have hope, how can you find happiness?"
The silence is palpable as every eye is drawn to the images. "If you came here by yourself, you would never get the story," he says. "When people come on this tour, some come because of the environment, some come because of the history, some come because it is a tour they have booked. They leave with an understanding of the spirit."
The end of Willie's tour marks the end of our two-day journey along the Bama Way. I have spanned creeks and crossed mountains, walked through rainforest, mangroves and Savannah drylands and I have come to a better understanding of the original residents of the north. Discover the Bama Way yourself next time you visit far north Queensland.
For more information on both self-drive and guided tours of the Bama Way visit: www.bamaway.com.au
If you'd like to learn more about Australia's indigenous cultures, tours can be booked all around the country.