Closing the gap

Heritage sights ... a swim in Mossman Gorge.
Heritage sights ... a swim in Mossman Gorge.
Fruits and nuts found in Mossman Gorge's rainforest.

Fruits and nuts found in Mossman Gorge's rainforest.

Up in the gorge, the indigenous community are opening their arms, writes Jane E. Fraser.

We stand in silence in the rainforest of Queensland's Mossman Gorge as Roy Gibson calls out to his ancestors. He speaks in his Aboriginal language, distinctive and lyrical, and it is incredibly moving.

His connection to his land, his culture and beliefs are so much part of him, I can't help but envy his sureness. He explains that he is telling his ancestors he is bringing white people into the rainforest, which is sacred land. He tells them not to bring us any harm, as we are his guests and should be welcomed.

The spirits forewarned, we continue along the path through thick and ancient rainforest, stopping regularly to hear about various customs and beliefs of the local Kuku Yalanji people. Gibson shows us a bark shelter, explains the local style of rock art, tells us what is good to eat and explains what falls under "women's business" and "men's business".

We learn how to get water out of a native cane plant, how the seasons dictate what tasks should be carried out and how sticks covered with a phosphorescent fungus can be used to light the way at night.

This is not something that has just been set up to cater for tourists. The Kuku Yalanji people have lived here for longer than Gibson knows. He shows us a rock where indents have been worn over hundreds of years of cracking open nuts to make a paste to "drug" fish and make them easy to catch.

It is because of Gibson that we have access to this rich rainforest in far north Queensland.

The land on which we walk is usually off limits to visitors but the opening of a $20-million, indigenous-owned tourism development has changed that.

Gibson, who is known among his people as "Maja" or "boss", has been dreaming of this project for more than 20 years.

He has finally made it happen, with the help of funding from the Indigenous Land Corporation and the guidance of a group of committed individuals.

At first glance, the Mossman Gorge Centre is an impressive piece of culturally inspired and environmentally smart architecture, with a large building that houses an art gallery, cafe and indigenous training academy.

But it is soon clear that this project is not about the physical structure. It is not a museum or a cultural centre with displays about indigenous culture; it is a rare opportunity to truly engage with Aboriginal people and hear their stories firsthand.

Aboriginal faces welcome you at the front desk and there is hardly a white face among the khaki-uniformed staff wandering around. Non-indigenous employees make up only 10 per cent of the staff and have only been employed where certain skills were required. The indigenous staff, most of whom are from the local community, are warmly welcoming and full of good humour; there is little of the shyness and reticence that you encounter in many indigenous communities.

In the forest on our guided walk, Gibson welcomes all questions about his historical and present day culture, only saying that he can't discuss "women's business", simply because he doesn't know it.

"I want to share with you as much as I can," he says, asking us to help keep track of time because he would happily talk all day. As we follow the bends in the forest path we begin to hear the clapping of sticks in a consistent and ever-loudening rhythm. When an Aboriginal man appears around the bend in full body paint, my heart skips.

If we weren't here as invited guests, with some knowledge of Aboriginal ceremony, it would be absolutely terrifying.

We listen to a local Aboriginal story told with passion and drama then continue on to the better-known part of Mossman Gorge, where sparkling clear water tumbles over boulders in postcard scenes. One member of our group braves the cold of the water for a swim while Gibson mixes up ochre to paint my face in a traditional pattern replicating raindrops.

The tour ends with cups of strong billy tea and wattle-seed damper served with flowery bush honey and tangy jam made with rainforest berries. The painted man reappears from the forest and gives us a demonstration of the didgeridoo and other traditional instruments.

Sitting under a rustic shelter and feeling the vibrations of the didgeridoo go through my body, I feel an authenticity and openness here that takes the experience out of the realm of something watched from the outside and into the realm of something to which you can belong.

Making Aboriginal tourism really work, for the benefit of both tourists and local communities, has always been a battle.

At Mossman Gorge, we have something to celebrate.

The writer visited Mossman Gorge as a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, Qantas and Accor Hotels.

Trip notes

Getting there

Mossman Gorge is about 20 kilometres from Port Douglas or 75 kilometres from Cairns. Qantas has regular flights to Cairns.

Staying there

The Sea Temple Resort & Spa in Port Douglas has a range of room types including family villas.

Touring there

Ninety-minute guided walks are $45 a person, 2½-hour tours are $65 a person. Self-guided visitors can get an all-day pass for shuttle services for $4.80 an adult. It is no longer possible to drive your own vehicle into the gorge.

This story Closing the gap first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.