Have you ever thrown a spear before?” Juan Walker asks, without a hint of sarcasm. As a squeamish city slicker whose supermarket-bought meat bears scant resemblance to the animal it came from, I can’t say I have. Juan proceeds to give me a crash course in spear discharge and etiquette: rest the length of the spear on the palm of one hand, cup the blunt end with the palm and index finger of the other, flick the wrist to release. Most importantly, when not stalking a beast, sling it over your shoulder, gripping the spear near the pointy end, so you don’t impale yourself or anyone else. Got it.
We’re at Cooya Beach, just over an hour’s drive north of Cairns in Far North Queensland, and I’m learning a skill that for tens of thousands of years has been a mainstay of Aboriginal culture and survival. This is Kuku (pronounced goo-goo) Yalanji country, and I’m following in the footsteps of the Aboriginal ancestors, earnestly trying not to disrespect generations of tradition. It’s difficult when the bamboo spear flings from my grasp and skids spasmodically across the sand, woefully missing its target – in this case, a practice coconut shell.
It’s the tail end of the monsoon, and dark clouds hang on the mountain range that clings to the horizon in the west. A white egret soars across the water as the ocean starts its slow, tidal retreat, exposing a corrugated trellis of sand bars and mud flats. We walk out across the sand, so compact that its rippled surface strains the arches of my feet. Then, without warning, it’s a quagmire – a squelching gluepot of mud that sucks at my feet as I step, leaving a wake of charcoaled potholes.
Juan clutches his spear by his cheek, eagle eyes fixed on the shade and movement of the water. Mud crabs travel with the receding tide, but if they’re too slow, they must bury themselves to survive. “Just poke around any divot, any sort of discolouration of mud, and if you’re lucky a crab might be hiding in there,” Juan says. Fish aren’t so easy to detect: it’s overcast and the water is murky, so we’ll have a tough time spotting them today.
Juan thinks we’ll have better luck inside the mangroves, and strides purposefully towards the seemingly impenetrable forest hugging the shoreline. I’m spooked. In northern Australia, mangroves are home to man-eating saltwater crocodiles, and clearly my spear skills won’t save me. “No crocs,” Juan offers as reassurance. “Crocs like deeper water where they can grab you and drown you. They have short legs and a soft belly, so they won’t go in there,” he says, disappearing into the dense undergrowth.
Soon, I’m clambering over mangrove roots that sprawl and weave across the mud like tentacles, anchoring tall trunks to the ground. Dappled sunlight filters through the canopy. It’s beautiful, if a little eerie. And quiet, except for the dull pops of buried whip lobsters. Juan prods his spear into a sand hollow at the base of a mangrove and teases out a mud crab. He plucks mud mussels from the ground, tapping them to see if they spit water and are fit to eat. We forage for periwinkle snails, avoiding the larger cone-shelled mud whelks that litter the ground. They taste good, Juan says, but their stomachs are a mongrel to clean. We’re surrounded by a smorgasbord of bush tucker, the local lingo for foraged food.
“It gives you a true feeling of what the Aboriginal people had to do daily to eat,” Juan says. “As kids we used to come in with paint tins and see who could fill theirs up first. This is my front yard, my playground.”
Juan is a Kuku Yalanji man, a descendant of the indigenous rainforest people who inhabited the lands roughly between Port Douglas and Cooktown. They were hunter-gatherers and lived off the rich bounty of the forest and sea, existing in perfect harmony with nature – taking only what they needed and using everything they took.
At the aptly named Pretty Beach, Juan scratches his toes in the sand, teaching me how to find pipis, a type of shellfish. He grabs a sandpaper fig leaf – abrasive, like its name suggests – and explains how the plant was used in bush medicine to fight fungal infections. Another plant, silver wattle, carries the distinct aroma of muscle rub and, when boiled into a tonic, provides relief from congestion. Juan takes a handful of the leaves and rubs them between his palms with some sea water, working them into a lather to create bush soap.
On the foreshore, against the shrill squawking of a flock of rainbow lorikeets scrabbling in a ghost gum tree, Juan hands me a couple of gidee gidee seeds he’s pulled from a vine. Small and smooth, with bright red and black pigments, the beads were used for decoration – and death. Their poisonous fibres were once ground into the food of the condemned as punishment for acts that broke Aboriginal law, such as eating a sacred animal.
The Kuku Yalanji retain their spiritual kinship to country
While many indigenous traditions – rituals, initiations and ceremonial dances – died with European settlement and forced assimilation, the Kuku Yalanji have managed to retain their language and spiritual kinship to country (country being a collective term for the land and everything in it – living, inanimate and spiritual).
Juan is doing his part to keep his culture alive; sharing its traditions with visitors and teaching his four young children to become the next generation of custodians (each had their placenta tied to a tree, binding their spirit to the land).
On the veranda of Juan’s childhood home in Cooya Beach, we feast on our catch of freshly caught seafood while he explains the significance of various artefacts. There are woven baskets, spears, digging sticks, a woomera (spear-thrower), numerous boomerangs and firesticks in a waterproof beeswax sheath, decorated with gidee gidee. Juan jokes that his grandfather could start a fire in a few seconds; the last time he tried it took ages and left his hands blistered and bloodied. He takes up a didgeridoo, a long, hollowed wooden instrument, and demonstrates – cheeks puffing – how to play: staccato inflections for jumping wallabies; long, throaty drones for growling crocodiles; and sharp chortles for laughing kookaburras. Like much of Aboriginal expression, didgeridoos are used for telling stories.
Storytelling goes back to the Dreamtime, the Aboriginal understanding of creation, which is at the heart of indigenous spiritual beliefs and explains the ancestors’ sacred bond to country. Driving inland to Mossman Gorge, in the southern section of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, we see the handiwork of Kubirri, the good spirit who turned animals into stone to protect them from the flesh-eating demon, Wurrumbu. Those with a vivid imagination can spot a wallaby, echidna, python and other creatures in the mountain ridge that rises over the gorge. According to the legend, Wurrumbu remains entombed in a cave, trapped by a rock thrown by Kubirri. “We believe that if this rock ever breaks or falls, the evil spirit will be set free, and that will be the end of the world. That’s our story of good and evil,” Juan says.
At a secluded section of the gorge, downriver from the main tourist access site, Juan leads me through the rainforest to the Mossman River. A torrent of cool mountain water tumbles and thunders its way between basalt rock faces and over granite boulders. The emerald green water is refreshingly crisp, and we have it all to ourselves. I float in the rapids, carried by the force of the current, as a great-billed heron soars over the gorge, tracing the watercourse carved by a serpent in the Dreamtime.
There’s something magical about the Daintree. It’s an ancient rainforest that harks back more than 200 million years; a biodiversity colossus whose verdant tendrils nibble at the fringe of Australia’s other great natural wonder – the Great Barrier Reef. “In the Daintree, in 100 square metres, you’ve got more plant species than the whole of North America,” Juan says. The Daintree is also the spiritual home of his clan. It’s on a lonely hillside in Daintree village, overlooking the river of the same name, where Juan’s grandfather was born. His spirit lives on in this place.
As we haul ourselves out of the water, Juan nabs a couple of green ants off a bush, sucking the zesty critters down before they get the chance to nip. “Good for a cold if you want to grab one,” he grins. I think I’ll pass.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.