Friday, April 19, 2024

A guide to Laura and Cooktown: ‘Country that gradually changes is suddenly, startlingly different’

Quinkan Country is the name given to the area surrounding Laura, located 300 km north of Cairns on Cape York…

By Chan , in Travel , at March 20, 2024

Quinkan Country is the name given to the area surrounding Laura, located 300 km north of Cairns on Cape York Peninsula, as a tribute to the enigmatic spirits that are painted boldly on these walls.

Native guides can show you the places where these figures appear, often amongst animals such as ibis or dingoes. They may also be found in snakes, kangaroos, and other native plants, like yams. These beautiful images, which are often displayed in lifesize, are made with vibrant ochre in colors such as yellow, red, and brown.

Here, it is said, animals that are now extinct, such as diprotodon and giant wombats, have been depicted. Guides share rich stories, and if it’s the right season, they can tell you which fruits to pick from which trees. Local painters use a different technique than those from other countries. This is apparent in how they create solid blocks of color or simple lines that are both broad and fine and sometimes heavily patterned. The edges of the animal’s body were used to stencil an image in some places.

According to the Australian Rock Art Research Association, despite the importance and irreplaceable cultural wealth of these sites, their protection is insufficient. The federal government now has responsibility for protecting sites that were listed as National Heritage in 2018.

Indigenous peoples and landowners across the country have formed respectful partnerships to ensure sites are documented, known, and taken care of.

Tragically, others actively destroy their riches. Complex works that have survived for thousands of years can disappear in a flash. Some are frightened by rumors that “they could take your land if they find evidence of sites.” Others are motivated by wilful destruction that is the result of two centuries’ worth of partial and surreal learning. Australia is a country with a lot of things to celebrate, and this area offers many opportunities.

A hundred kilometers east of Laura and heading to the coast, the country is gradually changing and, suddenly, shockingly different. Black forms appear amongst vibrant green as if defying all logical explanations of power and size. Kalkajaka, also known as Black Mountain, has been darkened by oxidation and algae. Massive groups of blackened boulders protect the solid core beneath. Kuku Yalanjis considers this a sacred place.

When speaking with an Elder and asking if they would go to a certain place, the Elder replies: “Yuwu. We don’t.” Too strong. People who do not listen are often in trouble. “And trouble comes.” Enough people and groups have disappeared from Kalkajaka, including their animals. Logic tells us that we should look at the maze of tumbled boulders for an explanation.

According to another view, this is one sacred place in the country that the older people recognize as an important gathering of energy needed to replenish the land. Others say that there are certain places where the Earth wants to be left alone without humans. It is dangerous to ignore the needs and wants of the Earth in such a way. The Black Mountain skink and Black Mountain boulder frog are also known to be endemic to the Black Mountain.

Gangaarr is located less than 30km from Kalkajaka, along the highway, which cuts the northwest corner of the area. This area, nestled between the mouths of two rivers in coastal hills and situated between them, has a rich history. Gangaarr, a sacred place to the Guugu Yimithirr and other groups, was revered as a haven where no blood would be shed. It was also a gathering point, a place of birth, and a place to resolve disputes. James Cook was lucky to have a great adventure. He arrived in June 1770 with his crew when the Endeavour was in desperate need of repairs. After spending countless hours pumping water at the edge of the Reef, they were relieved when they found Waalumbaal Birri. The Endeavour is the name of this river.

The Guugu Yimithirr did not expect such an intrusion in their world. Cook wrote in his diary that the interactions and exchanges were friendly despite cultural and language differences.

Cook also recorded their first sighting of a macropod in his diary, but it is not known which species they saw. Maybe an agile wallaby or eastern grey kangaroo, maybe a whiptail. Guugu Yimithirr speaks to confirm that the generic term kangaroo today comes from their language. In Gangurru, an “old eastern grey kangaroo” is described. Some people suggest gangurru means “go away.” This is just one of many examples of how translating across cultures can be difficult. It is important to consult Elders with knowledge.

Cooktown, established in 1873, was a port of supply for the Palmer River Goldfields. This brought disease, bloodshed, and chaos to this land and people. During the boom years, the town had 60 pubs and at least as many brothels. This was to cater to the new arrivals. The richness of that time is still evident today. You can learn more about the history at places like the James Cook Museum, which works with Elders from the area to give a balanced perspective. Mount Cook and Grassy Hill offer spectacular views of Guugu Yamithirr land. The river winds through the hills and meets the sea.

The sea is dotted with over 900 islands and reefs. The management of the area is shaped by the leadership and knowledge of the traditional custodians, whose cultural responsibilities are to ensure healthy ecosystems. Over 70 different groups have a diverse and ongoing connection to the Reef, which stretches for 2,000km between the Torres Strait Islands. It is a great opportunity to honor the knowledge of Indigenous rangers in Australia.

Bloomfield Track is a four-wheel drive track that connects Cooktown to Cape Tribulation. It is hailed as Australia’s best, but it is also controversial, with protests against the construction of this road in the 1980s.

The logging industry and Queensland government strongly denied that increased intrusion would have an impact on the rare ecosystems in the Wet Tropics. The argument was swayed by vested interests, gaining national and international attention. The requirements for World Heritage listings were examined despite strong opposition from the government. In 1988, the Wet Tropics was finally inscribed onto the World Heritage List despite the strong opposition.

We who are fortunate enough to have traveled through these hills of lush vegetation can only imagine what life would be like if the current management was more aligned with that of the First People of the country. Priorities are constantly shifting between Indigenous knowledge, practices, tourism, biodiversity, and commercial activities. If we respect the truths that have been known for centuries, many of these things could be complementary.

Indigenous cultural experiences and tours, as well as relevant organizations

Near or in Laura

Quinkan Regional Cultural Centre
The center has an informative display that provides information about the ancient local culture as well as more recent changes. Ask if an Indigenous guide is available when booking your tour. Visitors are asked to take the care of these incredible paintings seriously by the community. The long-term conservation of the place requires strict control of visitor numbers. If you’re told that you can’t visit at any point, you should be happy to know that you have played a part in protecting the country.

National Park Rinyirru, also known as Lakefield.
Please check with the local authorities before going. Roads can become impassable after heavy rain. Ignoring road closing signs can compromise other people’s safety and damage roads for a long time. Respectful travel is required as there are numerous small dirt roads off the main dirt track. Please respect the culture and people of this country.


Split Rock
Split Rock can be visited on your own if you are unable to meet with one of the tour guides from the Quinkan Regional Cultural Centre. You will pass rock art galleries with varying levels of complexity and stories as you walk uphill. Respect the signs, and don’t go beyond them. Enjoy the ancient layers, local figures, and rock art. Please make sure you have cash on hand and that you pay the small fee. The community is grateful for your goodwill.

Laura Dance Festival
This celebration takes place on ancient grounds that many local groups have used for generations. The festival website will have the most recent updates.

In or near Gangaarr (Cooktown)

Kuku Bulkaway Indigenous Art Gallery
Enjoy the works of local artists who are inspired by the sea and land that surround them. They tell stories about plants, animals and bush foods, as well as life in Cape York.

Milbi Wall
This local icon of reconciliation is the story wall. Learn about Aboriginal history, from ancient rivers to more recent events like the 1967 referendum. This complex work deserves your attention since the images and words created by local artists and set on ceramic tiles are worth it.
Foreshore of Charlotte Street, 150m North of Hill Street

Mount Cook National Park
Prepare yourself for steady ascents through diverse ecosystems that offer expansive views of the surrounding country. Look out for all kinds of creatures, from birds from New Guinea to beautiful green tree serpents. The walk starts near a small parking lot on Hannam Street, near Boundary Street.

Grassy Hill
You can drive up Grassy Hill to get a panoramic view and hear the stories of the Indigenous people of the region and the recent changes that have occurred in their land. The steep road provides some interesting stops that allow you to get a sense of the size and flow of the country. Near the lookout, you can find the Scenic Rim Walk that connects Grassy Hill with Cherry Tree Bay and the Botanic Gardens.

James Cook Museum
This museum is a place where exciting partnerships produce interesting presentations. A clear view of the past supports a shared positive future.