On the far northeast stretch of coastal Queensland we find ourselves yet again plopped down in the center of one of the oldest cultures on the planet, the reality of which is both thrilling and thought provoking with each new experience traveling throughout Australia. We pull under a massive canopy of mangroves, the still air laced with a nearby campfire and the rich perfume of blooming plumeria trees. We are greeted enthusiastically by our guides, brothers Linc and Brandon Walker, the juxtaposition of their aboriginal beauty against modern, day-glow t-shirts and thick Aussie accents is impossible not to notice.
We pile out of our rental van, eager to practice our first word in Kuku Yulanji.
“Yalada!” I say, hoping I got my pronunciation right.
“Yalada,” the brothers echo, inviting smiles spreading across both their faces.
As is the tradition of passing down local customs, Brandon splits from our group with several young apprentices in tow, trekking well out beyond the shoreline. Cooya Beach (pronounced Kuya Kuya) a locale which has served as traditional hunting grounds for the Kuku Yulanji people for millennia, has provided a rich and diverse food supply unique to this coastal-reef ecosystem.
After a brief instruction of spear-throwing 101, we wade barefooted out into Trinity bay, the low tide stretching over a quarter mile yet barely coming up to our knees in the deepest spots. The softness of the sand beneath our feet and warm tropical waters are downright meditative as each of us, spears in hand, scan for signs of breakfast. Since the beginning of time, the brother’s family has lived, hunted, and passed down stories in these spectacular ancestral hunting grounds at the edge of the Daintree Rain Forrest, and Linc regales with pride, the magic of this unique part of the world.
“It slows you down [so that] you enjoy where you come from and look after it, [you] connect to the land. Your spirit comes from the land and returns to the land. It isn’t about taking all the time” he points out, the group falling silent at his recommendation while the sounds of the ocean and wildlife take over. After what feels like an eternity in my big city, fast-paced mind, Linc breaks the silence once more, as if he’s been deeply reflecting on his last words and wants to make sure we truly understand his point.
“You have a responsibility to the land. We are loosing that responsibility, to look after the different species here. It is a different way to look at things. Grandma used to say, don’t wear shoes all the time, they make you lazy. [It] forces you to take care of where you put your feet and stay grounded.” The purpose of our request to remove our shoes upon our arrival now fully sinking in.
Suddenly Linc spots a vulnerable mud crab ripe for the taking. He gestures toward our host Didiayer, a lifelong vegetarian and animal lover. A look of dread comes across her face as we cheer her on, spear raised yet frozen high in the air. A short prayer of gratitude and apology escapes her lips just before she empales the crustacean in one try, followed by a roar of applause from the group. Linc’s spear is a heavy shish kebob of mud crabs, a young sting ray, and one baby black-tipped reef shark. But this is a small sample of the traditional fare known as “bush tucker” including puffer fish, barramundi, periwinkles, and sea turtles which can feed up to 300 people for weddings or funerals and are still permitted by law for aboriginal people to hunt. Linc reminds us the importance of only taking what they need and that they often take far less than what they are allowed.
We return to shore and follow our guide to an opening in the dense thicket of mangroves. Our bug repellant is working overtime with the stench of citronella lathered on our bare, Western skin. Linc cannot seem to resist the chance to teach and we are all much obliged to absorb his wisdom. He reaches for a bright yellow pedal of the native hibiscus and encourages us all to take a bite, its velvety leaves, mild and nutty like butter lettuce but so exquisitely beautiful I hesitate to destroy it. Within the same arms reach, he points out tiny white fruits that act as an aboriginal-style Visine, as we all jump at the chance to try the eye drops out on ourselves.
We begin meandering through the gluey mud flats, the cool earth feels good betweens our toes and the shade a nice reprieve from this morning’s sweltering tropical sun. With an uncanny ability to spot what the average person would likely miss, Linc points out a parade of neon-green ants who have formed a silk-wrapped leaf pouch on a low-hanging mangrove branch.
“Have you licked one before?” he asks, our faces crinkle in both horror and wonder, assuming we didn’t hear him correctly.
“Yeah, you just hold on to his head, hang on to him!” He gently grasp one of the ants in his powerful hand.
“You lick the green bit,” he says delightfully gesturing at the rear end of the unwitting insect.
“He squirts sour lemon at you!” his arms and hands quickly covered in a highway of tiny hurried bodies. We each grab an ant off his arm and do as instructed, touching the butt-end of this tiny creature to the tips of our tongues. Sure enough, an explosion of lime fills our pallets followed by a tingling sensation.
“When we get a cold or the flu, we make a drink with water from the ants that has a numbing to it, so you don’t get a sore throat. And if you have a blocked nose…” his hands vigorously rubbing together, he offers us to have a good hard sniff which sends a sharp and powerful lime aroma right to our heads. Who knew a holistic pharmacy was right at our fingertips!
High potency vitamin c fruits of the Daintree rainforest are believed to prevent cancer while mangroves filter impurities from the water, he explains. I ask about the adaptation of the Western diet into traditional cultures such as the Kuku Yalanji. He tells us the people of this area put a high importance on eating a more traditional diet due to a rising understanding of diseases of affluence which have hit aboriginals hard over the past century including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. Their deep understanding and connection to the land is palpable, its simplicity and common sense we have failed to embrace in much of our wealthy Western culture both back home in the US and here in Didiayer’s native Australia, leading to ever-increasing rates of lifestyle-linked disease and mortality.
Back at camp we are greeted by the bright-eyed young apprentices proud to share in their bounty from the morning hunt. We are given a quick cooking tutorial of proper techniques for preparing steamed mud crab and pan-seared sting ray. Reef sharks are briefly soaked in milk to draw out impurities then skinned and sautéed. Accompanied with tea, fresh-baked Damper bread doused in butter, and cane-sugar syrup which grows abundantly in the region, it is a true melding of the best of both worlds.
As our time draws to a close, the feelings of altruism and awe are palpable as two unlikely groups of human beings share a mutual respect, tremendous sense of generosity, and a desire to understand one another. I can’t help but see the pricelessness in these experiences, not only because it allows one group of historically oppressed people to share their story and another to see up close the beauty in honoring those who live and think differently, but because we are all changed forever, for good and for that moment in time, we were one human race.
For booking information:
Adventure North Australia: https://www.adventurenorthaustralia.com/