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 Djabugay 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.
“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.
THE autumn leaves are turning from emerald green to gold and a rust red, before they reluctantly concede to the season and litter the Vancouver streets like confetti. Pause and take a deep breath and the scent of pine needles hangs in the air, redolent of crisp, fresh laundry on the line. Canadians grow melancholy at this time of year for it means winter is on its way, but visitors adore this colourful contrast.
Sitting in an Indigenous sweat lodge on the rooftop of a Vancouver hotel was never part of my plan. But that’s one of the great beauties of travel. The serendipity. And so, I find myself on a crisp Vancouver afternoon undertaking a traditional healing with Aboriginal elder Old Hands at Skwachays Lodge in which I am staying.
Old Hands is stoking the coals which will be used in my healing when I bump into him on the rooftop. I ask him what I’m about to encounter in this teepee-like structure on the roof.
“We start off with spirit calling and ask our ancestors to come and join us. We tell them we need some help. And then we ask the creator to give us a good life,” he says.
“There are four songs. We are acknowledging that we are a part of everything and everything is a part of us.
“The second round is a prayer round. Make sure you ask for what you need, not what you want because what we want gets us into trouble. The third round is a healing round to detox all the junk that is in our body. We are going to ask the creator to repair any damage to ourselves that we don’t know about. And the fourth round is a thank you round.”
Still unsure of what to expect, Old Hands tells me that some people cry during the ceremony.
“It’s just a way of letting out what’s bothering you. I get guys I work with in prisons who are all tough and stuff and then the next thing they are crying,” he says.
“I work with people in hospices who are getting ready to cross over and the one thing they are afraid of is that no one will remember them. I work with people who are fighting their addictions.”
The one thing of which Old Hands is certain, is the healing power of the sweat lodge, a gift that has been passed down to him from five generations of medicine men.
“I’ve been sweating every weekend since I was 13 and I haven’t been sick since. This is where we heal,” he says.
“I had a friend with cancer who was told he had six months to live. He came for a sweat and the spirits said he needed to do four sweats back-to-back. That was 17 years ago and he’s still alive.
“Tomorrow you will feel like you can run to Winnipeg and the next day you will feel even better. It goes on for about four days.”
We start with a smudge ceremony where we are told to toss the smoke of a burning sage bush over our body. Then we enter the sweat lodge, where it’s smoking hot and completely dark.
“We see the clearest when we are in the dark,” Old Hands says.
As the only woman inside the teepee, I am tasked with sprinkling a pinch of sage on the hot rocks, which sparkle with light. Another man in the tent softly beats a drum while Old Hans calls our ancestors.
“We are taught to be weak minded but our bodies can take a lot of punishment. It’s our minds that give up first,” Old Hands says.
“It just takes something to wake us up. Grandpa used to say ‘the turtle goes no where until he sticks his neck out’. We are all eagles being taught to be chickens. Our lives aren’t happy because we aren’t soaring. When we realise we can soar, our lives change.”
It’s so hot and dark in the tent that I almost surrender to panic, but I sit with myself and practice deep yoga breaths, willing my ancestors to give me the life answers I seek.
After the first healing round, Old Hands announces that the ancestors have told him to give me his drum to keep and that I will know what I need it for when the occasion arises. We complete the final three rounds. I sit in the dark, willing my ancestors to listen to me.
The healing ends and Old Hands asks me whether I am available to meet the women of his band tomorrow, saying the “female energy” would be good for me, but I am flying to Toronto for another story. He nods, tells me to look out of the plane window as I’m flying, saying he’ll send me a message.
The next day I spend the four-hour journey glancing from the plane, expecting to see a bird, and just as I’m about to give up, the thick clouds part and form the precise shape of a polar bear walking.
I haven’t told Old Hands that after Toronto I’m heading to Churchill on a polar bear walking safari and I shake my head, smiling wryly. When I get to my hotel room, I research the spiritual meaning of polar bears. It means rebirth and courage.
I think back to something Old Hands told me: “You’re here to do a story but your ancestors didn’t bring you to Canada just for a story. We were meant to meet.”
The ancient drum beat of my ancestors lives on.
The Global Goddess travelled to Canada as a guest of Destination Canada (www.keepexploring.com.au) For those who have wondered, the drum given to me by Old Hands travelled safely with me across Canada, and despite concerns the elk skin wouldn’t make it through Australia’s strict biosecurity laws, passed effortlessly into the country. The ancestors would approve.
I AM slouched in the shadow of the world’s largest rock – Uluru – grappling to come to grips with how I capture its spiritual significance in words. I could pepper my story with adjectives dipped in red ochre, toss in the smoky scent of campfire, conjure up the drum of a didgeridoo, and talk in hushed tones about the sounds of silence. I could deploy all of this writing trickery, but still not do justice to this Australian icon. Even the cliché “icon” makes my palms sweat.
Instead, I relinquish my role as writer for this one afternoon, and take a cycling tour around the rock. It’s my first visit to this ancient landmark and instead of clumsily grasping for the toolkit of adjectives and mixed metaphors upon which I usually rely, I empty my head, open my heart and clutch the handlebars. It’s early spring and a cool breeze gives me permission to smile.
Relax, the rock assures me, there’s plenty of time to get the story. And it should know. For this is one of Australia’s oldest homes of storytellers, dating back at least 20,000 years. Even the traditional custodians the Anangu people don’t speak about the Dreamtime out here, which they believe suggests the stories, customs and traditions exist in the mind. For them, it’s Tjukurpa, which is more about a way of life. As for Uluru itself, it is considered just one chapter in Australia’s lengthy songline and to understand the entire story, you’d have to walk the length and breadth of this big sky country. My mind goes walkabout with the possibilities.
The next morning, I find myself standing before the massive monolith in the pre-dawn light, still no wiser about how to approach this story. How on God’s earth can I possibly capture the magic passed down among Australian Aborigines on the soil upon which I stand? I jot down the words “diversity and depth” and “caves and crevices” in my notebook. I could talk about the lilac hues as the first light hits the rock, but suspect that might be purple prose. I feel insignificant and to be honest, that’s humbling. This journey is not about me, or my story. It runs much deeper than that. I dine under the stars, searching for the constellations, but my writing mind is still walkabout.
Then, the next day, something special happens. In this land of ancient scribes and storytellers, I’m listening to journalist and author Margaret Simons speak about the art of modern writing. And I am snapped back into the present with her opening words: “If you choose writing as a profession you are choosing fear and those dark nights of the soul as a daily companion.” Mind reader! I want to shout to the room of fellow writers in which I’d always imagined I was the only scaredy cat.
Margaret believes good writers avoid sheltering readers from the shock of the real and constantly try to see the world fresh. They “think themselves back into the experience” and avoid adjectives and adverbs in favour of nouns and verbs which she describes as the “bone and sinew” of good writing. Luckily, for me, alliteration is allowed.
“Show, don’t tell. Simple to read is not simple to write. You have to take risks in order to achieve that authenticity,” she says.
“First drafts are crap. The only thing you need to know is whether it is alive or dead. You want a nice fertile mess. You just need to work out what it is you are writing about.
“Your second draft is about form and shape. Your third draft is your cut and polish. Take words out to gain power cut out the purple prose to reveal the authenticity.”
And in an era when I wonder whether there is any future for those of us who remain ridiculous romantics of the written word, Margaret says the one thing that makes this journey all come together: “Human beings have always made stories. Consider this rock, there is no human society that has not made and communicated stories.”
And so, I give you my Uluru.
The Global Goddess travelled to Uluru with assistance from Voyages Ayers Rock Resort (www.voyages.com.au); Outback Cycling (www.outbackcycling.com); and AAT Kings (www.aatkings.com)
FOR one week every year, one magical week between Christmas and New Year, in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland behind the tiny township of Woodford, exists the People’s Republic of Woodford. The Woodford Festival. If you’re looking for an antidote to a frenetic year, a chance to recharge your batteries, to find a destination that for one week only represents the way the world should be, head to “Woodfordia” where reality is suspended, if only for the briefest of times.
On this beautiful 200 hectare environmental parkland, which has withstood the scourge of floods and scorching summers, people are nicer to each other, they dance, laugh and sing. Talk to complete strangers. Engage in debates about the universe, global warming, coal seam gas, fracking, and euthanasia. Dance under huge tents, play the bongos, dine on exotic cuisine, strum guitars, learn how to paint, draw and craft things. They hug trees, hug each other. Trek to the top of the hill and honour the last sunset of the year and the first sunrise of the next. Sit under the Southern Cross and in a huge bush ampitheatre indulge in that unmistakable Australian sound emanating from new bands. Discover foreign groups. Honour the Indigenous custodians of the land in Jinibara Country on which they sit. Chat around the campsite.
If the Woodford Folk Festival isn’t Utopia, then it’s about as close to Nirvana as you will find. What other place on the planet do you line up to fill your recycled bottle with rainwater to discover the person in front has already paid for it? This is a destination where paying it forward looms large. Egos are suspended. Bonhomie reigns. The Global Goddess has been attending Woodford for about a decade, at first apprehensive that it was a bit of a hippie festival with which she would have no connection. Back in the early days I didn’t camp but drove home to Brisbane every night to the comfort of a warm shower and a soft bed. As the years wore on, I started out in a basic tent pitched in the campsite of my friends. I slept like the dead, to the sounds of distant beating drums. I awoke each morning to the cacophony of the Aussie bush.
These days, we’ve upgraded, our site becoming more sophisticated as we sleep in a campervan, our friends in a Kombi, a tarp strung between the two, mapping out our home for the week. There’s Moet in the esky and aged cheese and strawberries in the fridge. We eat fancy pancakes for breakfast. Brew real coffee. And sit down and pour over the program and plan the day ahead. This year’s program, just released late last week, promises to be a corker. Highlights of this year’s festival include singers Beth Orton, Tim Finn and Clare Bowditch; Environmentalist Professor Ian Lowe; former politician Bob Hawke and, yet-to-be-confirmed Malcolm Turnbull; comedian Denise Scott; writer Blanch D’Alpuget.
And there’s some acts always worth revisiting among the diverse performance venues on the site. The Global Goddess likes to spend her time in the Blue Lotus tent listening to talks on spirituality. Sometimes I sit on the hill and watch stunning Spaniards introduce me to fast and frenetic music with a tinge of Hawaii Five’O. Other days, it’s in Bills Bar you’ll find me, people watching as much as music listening, having a cold beer before heading down the hill to the Blues Tent. A couple of belly laughs in the Comedy Tent is also a nice way to end the evening and as I stumble back to camp to the glow of paper lanterns, I’m likely to stop several times, for a tea and a carob ball in the Chai Tent, a cold drink in the Pineapple Lounge, a bit of jazz, a circus act, some Indian or Tibetan music along the way.
Last year’s festival saw 2,200 artists and musicians perform across 25 venues to an audience of 113,000 people over that wonderful week. A steady program of tree planting over the years, in which attendees can “adopt” a tree, has resulted in the 101,000th tree planted in Woodfordia soil this year. Some years there’s dust. Others, it rains and there’s mud. Bring your gum boots. Embrace nature and creativity. Random acts of music. Robust acts of kindness. That’s my idea of Utopia. What’s yours?
For more information on the Woodford Festival please visit http://www.woodfordfolkfestival.com