WE’RE driving through remote, quintessential Queensland country with place names like Hell’s Gate, tackling one of the roughest roads in Australia and the toughest Indigenous issues. There’s five-hours to kill on this journey from Cairns and we’re facing the huge stuff head on….murder, rape, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, unemployment…picking at Australia’s scab. The conversation is scratchy, like the scrub in which we find ourselves, as we navigate that last, scarred stretch, along the Old Maytown to Laura Coach Road. Here, 10km takes an hour.
I’m on a Jarramali Rock Art Tour through Cape York Peninsula in north Queensland with Kuku-Yalanji man Johnny Murison, who is not afraid to answer the hard questions as we gallop along in our four-wheel drive. Should I even be hurling these curly questions or should we just stick to white fella polite conversation about his tour? We both already know the answer to this. Murison believes it’s a lack of cultural knowledge in some of Australia’s Indigenous communities plagued by strife that needs to be rectified.
“They’ve got to start taking these young kids camping and fishing. One of the big key things is loss of identity,” he says.
“You’ve got to validate kids’ feelings. Tell them if they step into the ring and they’re scared, that’s OK, until you find your momentum, and if he’s a bigger fighter than you, just keep fighting.”
And Murison should know. He’s just established his rock art tour near Laura, against opposition from all sorts of warriors including some of his own people.
“It’s like a bucketful of crabs, one of you escapes and everyone wants to put you back in that bucket,” he says.
It’s a whole new direction for Murison, who was a former Seventh Day Adventist Minister. Sit in a car long enough with someone and you sand away every dusty, rusty layer.
“I was sick of the crap and sick of the church. Some of these times were the best time of my life but I just had enough and wanted to do something different,” he says.
“I was visiting people and doing Bible studies and it was just demanding and I could work 80 hours a week. I’ve got a young family and you are away from your family a lot.
“If you care for people you put your heart and soul into it. But I’m taking into tourism these organisational skills and people skills. As a Minister, I’ve been public speaking for 20 years.
“Love, support and respect…that’s my brand.”
Once we cross Rifle Creek, a site of massacres and warfare, we’re in Yalanji country, the home of Murison’s ancestors.
Murison says he can feel the ancients, ‘it’s a sense of belonging and a link to the past’, but it’s when he enters camp is where he ‘gets the tingles’. It’s here that Murison has established “comfortable camping”, three tents in the bush, with a loo with a view and a shower too overlooking a deep escarpment. Late in the afternoon, when the heat slackens off, we walk down to the rock art site and Murison interprets the stories of his ancestors. There’s Quinkan spirits, an eel tail cat fish, a widowed woman, kangaroo, snake, echidna, yams, dingo, a fertility symbol emu clutch of eggs, and ancestral guardians and heroes.
“They lived here. If you listen carefully you can hear the singing. You’ve got powerful men and women living in this gallery, everyone was here, they just did life,” he says.
And these ancient storylines run deep into the modern day. Tales of self-determination. Of Tropical North Queensland’s Indigenous people turning to tourism. And excelling.
Mid-week and I’m at the Mossman Gorge Centre Dreamtime Walk meeting with Indigenous woman and General Manager Rachael Hodge. Hodge says the centre was a dream of the community who started original tours into the Gorge in 1986.
“At that time we had 500,000 people turning up in the Gorge and there were environmental concerns and also some safety issues. Construction began in 2010 and we opened in August 2012,” she says.
“The elders were talking about how we could make opportunities for jobs and a future for the kids. We now employ 90 staff, of which 82 per cent are Indigenous.
“We’ve also got retail and the art gallery featuring the works of more than 25 local Kuku-Yalanji artists and a range of products you won’t find anywhere else.
“This is the southern-most end of Daintree National Park. It’s all about the rainforest, the boulders, the icy-cold water…it’s very enticing.”
By the end of the week I’m in Kuranda Village, meeting with Aboriginal master weaver and Tjapukai woman Rhonda Brim. Five days a week you’ll find Rhonda and a small group of women in the Kuranda Amphitheatre, weaving baskets from local grass, emu feathers and giddy, giddy seeds. Rhonda, who has been weaving for 35 years, learned the skill from her grandmother.
“The thing about our culture is when your teachers passes you can still feel them in your fingers,” she says.
“You are carrying on a long line of history”.
• Pacific Hotel Cairns http://www.pacifichotelcairns.com
• Peppers Beach Club Port Douglas http://www.peppers.com.au/beach-club/
• Silky Oaks Lodge Mossman http://www.silkyoakslodge.com
• Alamanda Palm Cove by Lancemore http://www.lancemore.com.au/alamanda
• Ochre Restaurant Cairns http://www.ochrerestaurant.com.au
• Harrisons Port Douglas http://www.harrisonsrestaurant.com.au
• Nu Nu Restaurant Palm Cove http://www.nunu.com.au
• Frogs Restaurant Kuranda http://www.frogsrestaurant.com.au
• Jarramali Rock Art Tours http://www.jarramalirockarttours.com.au
• Flames of the Forest http://www.flamesoftheforest.com.au
• Janbal Gallery http://www.janbalgallery.com.au
• Mossman Gorge Centre http://www.mossmangorge.com.au
• Walkabout Cultural Adventures http://www.walkaboutadventures.com.au
• Tjapukia Aboriginal Cultural Park http://www.tjapukai.com.au
• Skyrail Rainforest Cableway http://www.skyrail.com.au
• Kuranda Village – http://www.kuranda.org
GETTING AROUND WHEN NOT ON TOUR
• Exemplar Couches and Limousines – http://www.exemplaronline.com.au
• Avis Car and Truck Rental http://www.avis.com.au
The Global Goddess was a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland http://www.tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au
A heartfelt thank you the Aboriginal people of Tropical North Queensland for sharing their country and culture with me.
A FAMILY wedding, my birthday, new hotel openings, restaurant reviews, festivals, and friends. After a busy start to 2018 which had me on the road constantly for nearly 8 months, I’ve spent the past month at home, writing and recalibrating. I even joined a boxing class!
As much as I adore my beloved Brisbane, and my own bed, it’s time to hit the road again for the next few months. Time to get out there and hunt and gather the world’s stories, doing what I love most. I’ll be heading off this weekend to Tropical North Queensland to tell the tale of the Australian Aborigines who live there. Please join me on this and other journeys.
A FLIRTATIOUS French fellow is pouring a sexy shiraz from a pleasingly phallic stem, while explaining the sex muscle of a cow. I am dining in one of Brisbane’s oldest riverside restaurants, revisiting the classy classic that is Cha Cha Char…and my tastebuds are ready to rumba. While Cedric, the restaurant’s General Manager is ensuring I am well libated, it’s the steak here that really does the talking.
Brisbane’s beef baron John Kilroy opened Cha Cha Char 21 years ago after working in country pubs and vowing to “never sell a steak again in my life.” These days you’ll find every steak imaginable on his restaurant from the Wagyu Rump Cap which has been grain fed for 300-plus days; the Rib Fillet Black Onyx Angus aged 30 to 36 months and grain fed for 270-plus days; to the T-Bone Angus Yearling aged 12 to 18 months and grass fed. This is a man who knows his meat. When he’s not in the restaurant, he’s out mustering with mates “for fun”.
Kilroy, as he is known about town, was the first to introduce Wagyu to a sceptical Brisbane dining public who hadn’t yet cottoned on to the idea of marbelling in their beef. Now, he is about to tantalise the city’s taste buds with the introduction of a new cut, the French Blonde D’Aquitaine beef, to his menu. There’s also the new light dishes, tapas if you will, of the Oyster Carpet Bag bao bun with Wagyu striploin, oyster and bernaise sauce; and the Bugs BBQ served in brioche roll filled with Blonde D’Aquitaine steak tartar.
Not content to rest on its laurels, Cha Cha Char will soon transform the private dining room in which we are sitting into a Wagyu bar.
It appears there is not rest for the wicked for this country boy who once couldn’t read and was assisted in gaining his first job by Flo Bjelke-Petersen who helped him secure a role as a Main Roads surveyor…despite Kilroy having no surveying skills.
By his own admission, Kilroy has lost and made millions of dollars over the years, but for him, success all comes back to the customer.
“I can take a piece of meat in this town and make it tender just by the way it is cooked,” he says.
“Owning restaurants is not just how much money you have in the bank. You get to know people.
“I get to travel the world in people’s big boats and jets and planes. You never know who you are going to meet in there.”
Kilroy admits Brisbane palettes have come a long way “everyone knows Wagyu now” and has moved on from the days when calamari was used for fishing bait.
“We didn’t used to eat these things in Australia but people are eating anything now. A lot of this has to do with travel,” he says.
“There is passion in this restaurant. I can put a plate of food in front of you and in 30 seconds I know if you are disappointed or not.
“We’re just dishwashers listening to people. It is a very rewarding business.”
Along George Street, the Queensland capital has just opened its doors on new Indian restaurant Heritij in the new Brisbane Quarter. In this cavernous space, overlooking the Brisbane River towards South Bank, there’s dining for 210 people including private spaces such as The Library, Cellar Room and Passage, each accompanied by their own inspirational quote outside. I am feasting at the Captain’s Table, inspired by the quote “Around my table we make the big decisions, we solve the world’s problems, yet never lose sight of the deck or horizon.” It’s a fitting tribute to a city whose dining scene is on fire.
Outside, on the deck, it’s all breezy, blue cushions and river views, accompanied by a chic bar set up, while inside, it’s plush royal colours…purples, turmerics, navy blues, emerald greens, reminiscent of a Maharaja’s palace. The food here is fit for a king, with the pungent scent of the smoky tandoor wafting through this beautiful, big space, punctuated by voluminous, brick columns. While Michelin-star Chef Mural and his talented team weave their magic with the likes of chicken thigh, Thai basil, mint, rhubarb, zucchini, pineapple and kasundi from the tandoor, he pays homage to his homeland with his curries such as Kashmiri lamb, Goan fish, chicken Makhna, spinach kofta, black lentil dahl and vegetable masala.
“Indian food is incomplete without curries,” Chef Mural says.
“I don’t want everyone to be disappointed if there is no curry served in my restaurant. We used to serve this food in the home.
“Kofta is very close to my heart. My mother used to make this.”
Back over at Cha Cha Char, I ask Kilroy, the self-made man who has lost and made millions over the years, what he would do if it all went belly up.
“I’d go to Europe and buy a little restaurant on the beach,” he says.
“To me, it’s all about the people.”
We’re a bit like that in Brisbane.
The Global Goddess dined as a guest of Cha Cha Char – http://www.chachachar.com.au; and Heritij – https://heritij.com.au
“Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them,” Winston Churchill
THEY look insipid, like a long line of stinking black house ants just before the rains come, trailing their way to the top. I’m standing at the base of Uluru watching a congo line of tourists snake their way up Australia’s most iconic rock, a monument we’ve been warned against climbing, again and again. It’s not just about death – 35 people have died trying to climb Uluru – but deity. The local Anangu Aborigines believe this is a sacred site, to be respected, and yet the visitors still scramble skywards. Under the hot August sun my face burns with shame at my fellow tourists.
In a recent piece for Fairfax Traveller, travel writing colleague and close friend Louise Southerden, who blogs under No Impact Girl, talks about why travellers are drawn to mountains and skyscrapers.
“Ever since we roamed the grasslands of Africa, we’ve looked to elevated locations for safety, for advance warning of predators – or invaders. Visit any castle or fortress from Bhutan to Balmoral (in Scotland), not to mention China’s Great Wall, and you’ll get a visceral sense of this strategic advantage,” Louise argues.
“Sometimes getting high is about escaping the cloying heat of the lowlands. Think tea plantations in the hills of Sri Lanka, the temple-dotted Himalayan foothills of northern India, the snow-caked peaks of Equatorial Ecuador (although Ecuador’s highest peak, the 6263-metre Chimborazo, has long lured climbers for another reason: it’s the world’s highest mountain when measured from the centre of the Earth, not from sea level).
“Altitude gain can also help us face our fears, give us a thrill (and sometimes vertigo) and let us see where we are and where we’re going, and not just cartographically.”
Ironically, I am in Bhutan, being cradled in the bosom of the Himalayas, when I read her powerfully-penned piece. I send her a private message, it’s in the valleys, I argue, that I discover my truth, in life’s troughs, not its peaks. Down in the nitty gritty. Louise, who is also opposed to climbing Uluru and other sacred sites, urges me to trek on and to scratch out my truth on the page. And so here I am. And I am not alone in this valley. Back in Bhutan, the Happiest Country on Earth, they consider the surrounding Himalayas so sacred, that despite having one of the world’s highest mountains, no climbing is allowed, unlike neighbouring Nepal and its alluring Everest. Three quarters of Bhutan’s land mass is mountain, yet its entire population lives in tiny slivers of valley. My nights in Bhutan are spent alone, staring at those mighty mountains, feeling like they’re wrapped around me like a comforting cloak.
On a visit to Nepal in April this year, I turn my back on Everest Base Camp and head in the opposite direction, towards the valley. I interview women who have been stolen from the mountains and sold into the sex trade, but have escaped and are now trained to become paralegals, and save other women in the same dire situation. So desperate was the sex trafficking in this country, that at one point, no teenage girls lived on Nepal’s mountains. The women, from SASANE, a project sponsored by G Adventures, are imploring the world to look into Nepal’s valleys, not its mountains. And these brave women are inspiration indeed.
Months later, my physio, who is an avid climber, and I discuss the death of New Zealand’s experienced mountaineer Rob Hall at Everest in 1996. I argue it’s ego that killed Hall – who had already summited the mountain five times previously – when he stayed up on Everest long after the deadline to leave had passed. My physio reckons Hall risked, and lost everything, because it was one of the first paid expeditions with tourists.
I ask another travel writing mate and avid climber, Andrew Bain, who blogs under Adventure Before Avarice his views on climbing.
“It’s a running joke, even among my hiking mates, that I’m one of those people compelled to stand on top of anything pointy – a peak bagger – and yet I often despair at the lack of respect we bring to mountains in the name of ‘conquering’ them,” Andrew says.
“Massive crowds filter through the Khumbu Valley to tick Everest Base Camp off a bucket list, for no reason other than the fact that it has Everest in the name. In so many cases, it’s not about the beauty of the place, or what it means, it’s simply a word to boast about, a tick on a list.
“Mountains are places that remind me that the world is greater than us – that we can’t conquer the planet as we believe – so to approach them is to respect them, whether we’re standing on top of them being uplifted by them, or simply looking at them from afar.
“I may be compelled to climb them, but I still take immense heart and hope looking at a mountain such as Machhapuchhare and knowing that there are still peaks that are beyond us, if not physically, at least spiritually or respectfully.”
And this is my point. I have a massive respect for those who climb, who forge new frontiers and discover new lands. But do it for the right reasons. Man can’t conquer mountains. Mother Everest continues to remind us of this. Trek but don’t trample. It’s not the Eiffel Tower I want to climb when I’m in Paris, jostling with thousands of other tourists wanting to tick it off their bucket list. For me, the joy comes from sitting in the shadows of this mighty metal sculpture, speaking with the old Parisian gent who ventures there every day with his coffee. That, to me, is the real Paris. I want to float down life’s rivers, part of the landscape, not perch atop it. Let me dive into the world’s oceans and lay on her sandy beaches, feet firmly in the sand. For to me, it’s in these rivets where the truth really lives. And so, on this hot August day, I wander around the base of Uluru, snatching quiet moments among her craggy crevices, listening to her tales, soaking up her soul and begging her forgiveness.
From October 26, 2019, no further climbing will be allowed on Uluru following a land-mark decision by the Traditional Owners of the land and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board.
ON a sanguine Siam Sunday, in the month of monsoon madness, I am flying through a chunky carnival ride of clouds. I am travelling from Bangkok to Thailand’s Trat region, lurching through the sky and big Buddha bellies of bursting water over thirsty rice paddies below. I am enroute to Koh Khood, the Thai island which is home to Peter Pan and Tinkerbell resorts, and beaches of the same nefarious names. But up in this scatty sky, I am wondering if this is where my fairy-tale ends. After one aborted landing, we eventually reach terra firma and I rapidly swap my terror for travel writing. Silver linings? This story is full of them.
I amble through the Thai Muslim/Hindu village of Ban Nam Chiew, past vibrant blue, aqua, orange and red timber fishing boats which contrast against the angry August sky. Ban Nam Chiew means “fast current” in Thai, and it’s apt, as this is a village which is moving with the times. During the monsoon, there is little fishing to support this tiny population which has, instead, embraced tourism. For $41, visitors can buy a two day/one-night package which includes local food, a homestay with a village family, and craft making such as traditional farmer’s hats. Ban Nam Chiew is also known for its sweet crackers crafted from coconut milk or cream, mixed with rice or tapioca and topped with brown sugar, shallots, coconut-diced carrot and sea salt.
And it’s smart women such as Tourism Project leader Surattana Phumimanoch who are embracing this change.
“The purpose of the village is for tourists to have a look and see our way of living,” she says.
“Fishermen can’t work in the monsoon season so this project will make extra income.
“This village is unique in that the Muslims and Hindus have lived together for more than 200 years. A lot of the new generation live away from the village and come back and realise the potential.”
Sated from this success story and a local seafood lunch, I board the boat for Koh Khood, the last island in the Gulf of Thailand before the Cambodian border, and what the Thai’s call “paradise on earth”.
Thailand’s fourth biggest island after Phuket, Chang, and Samui, the lesser-known Khood has such high-quality pepper, it exports this spice to Europe. You’ll also find superior seafood here. On this humid hour, I scramble onto the sticky seat of a “songtaw”, a Thai truck with two long bench seats and bars, and rollick along the island.
Outside, the emerald countryside is as lush as a Sydney socialite, peppered with pointy Thai rooves, rich rice paddies, and locals in conical hats.
I am meant to be island-hopping, snorkelling what the postcards promise are pristine waters, but the weather has dampened that plan, so instead, the next day I hop back into the sweaty songtaw, and explore the island. There’s a Thai’s fisherman’s village at Yai Bay, home to giant grouper, crab, lobster and pineapples, and a glistening golden Buddha statue. I feast on barbecued prawns for lunch at another seafood village and burst into the Gulf of Thailand ocean at Tinkerbell Beach, just as the sun explodes through the clouds for a few precious minutes.
I am staying at Cham’s House, which pays homage to an ethnic group in south-east Asia which is believed to have originated in Borneo and who, during the cruel reign of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, suffered a disproportionate number of killings. Here, it’s peaceful, where only the croaky night bushes have frogs in their throat. Outside my room, the ocean gushes peaceful platitudes at me, while inside, the geckos are goading me to write. But what? I am scratching for a story and a silver lining, knowing it’s out there somewhere. But where?
It’s a smooth flight back to Bangkok where I seek refuge at the Rembrandt, a glorious hotel surrounded by serene side streets or “sois”. If you’re looking for an Australian travel writer in bustling Bangkok, chances are you’ll find them in the Rembrandt’s Executive Lounge at 5.30pm, where the drinks poured are almost as tall as the tales told here. It’s a comforting corner in this hectic city, in the tradition of foreign correspondent’s clubs all over the world. If you squint, you can almost see the ghost of the world’s great writers lurking in the corner. I repair to the hotel’s Rang Mahal restaurant where I feast on this city’s finest Indian fare. It’s washed down with Granmonte shiraz, wine made by an award-winning female Thai wine maker who studied in Australia and whose vineyard I visited on a previous trip.
On my last day, I am a lazy lizard, floating in the pool, drinking beer with pizza, stretching out those tired travel muscles in a Thai massage and even having my hair washed and blow dried, before the flight home. While the hairdresser scratches my scalp, I keep mining my mind for the story. And as a travel writer, I should have realised, it is just this. Travel doesn’t always go to plan. It will pour big Buddha bellies of rain and you’ll be gasping for a snorkel that may never come. Travel, like flying, comes with unexpected turbulence and you will feel uncomfortable, even scared. But if you wait long enough on those sticky songtaw seats, there will be a breeze. Some seafood. A simple story about a fishing village turning to tourism. And even a break in the clouds. And you’ll take your monkey mind and plunge into the ocean, and smile at that silver lining.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Thai Airways http://www.thaiairways.com; Bangkok Airways http://www.bangkokair.com; and the Tourism Authority of Thailand https://au.tourismthailand.org