Distant spot now easier to reach

I have always wanted to visit the Torres Strait Islands; this cluster of stepping stones scattered between the tip of Cape York in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Formed when sea levels rose around 8,000 years ago, they are the drowned remnants of a land bridge that once connected Asia to Australia. A secluded and remote place of coral reefs and white sand beaches, where volcanic peaks jut above aquamarine waters and palm trees cling to the sky.

But I’m not here for the scenery. I am here to discover a marine people of Melanesian origin, whose rich and varied culture is closely linked to the stars. Whose knowledge of astronomy, seasonal winds and complex moon phases enables them to navigate the night sky, know when to hunt turtle and dugong, when to plant and when to fish. A group of Indigenous Australians, culturally distinct from Aboriginal peoples.

Although I consider myself well-traveled (and of Aboriginal descent), I knew less about the Torres Strait Islanders than I knew about the moon. In the past, a few travelers arrived alone by plane, others by ferry after the long and dusty journey to the tip of Queensland, and some by expedition cruise ship.

It has now become a little easier to visit with the launch of a new day trip organized by Strait Experience. Co-founded by Fraser Nai, a traditional owner of Masig Island, the 11am tour departs from Cairns on a charter flight, visiting Horn and Thursday Islands. I’m on the first day trip and the excitement is high.

Two hours after leaving Cairns airport, our Dash 8-100 lands on Horn Island, a soft green carpet in a sea of ​​blue. One of the 247 islands in the archipelago, of which only 17 are inhabited, this small, rugged island is known as Ngurapai by the Kaurareg people.

Within minutes, we’re immersed in a little-known chapter of Australian military history on a World War II tour with local historian and guide Vanessa Seekee. From the Torres Strait Heritage Museum, we travel by minivan and on foot to discover some of the relics scattered across the island.

“Horn Island was the second hardest hit base in Australia after Darwin,” says Vanessa, as we drive through the forest to see the scattered remains of a crashed B-17 bomber. “During the war, the airstrip at Horn was a forward operating airbase.”

We learn that nearly every Torres Strait Islander of eligible age – 880 in total – volunteered, forming Australia’s only Indigenous Battalion. “Only 10 men stayed to support their communities,” says Seekee.

From Horn Island, a spectacular 15-minute ferry ride will take you to Thursday Island (Waiben), the administrative capital of the Torres Strait.

“Our people have existed here since time immemorial,” Uncle Milton Savage said during his welcome-to-the-country speech in the garden of the Gab Titui Cultural Center. “It is a privilege and an honor to share our culture with you, our stories, our history and the history of past injustices.”

The welcome dance begins with the rhythmic thud of the warup drum. Low and powerful, it resonates on the sandy stage. Soon the thud is joined by the rattle of kulap shakers, men’s voices rising and falling as three dancers tell the story of the winter winds. While some dances are about animal totems and others reflect the era of the pearl lugger, all highlight the Torres Strait Islanders’ deep connection to land, sea and sky.

“Today’s dances use the knowledge of the past incorporated into our future,” says Joey Laifoo, a traditional owner from Badu Island dedicated to the preservation of Ailan Kastom (island custom). “If we share our stories, our culture stays alive.”

After a traditional island-style feast, we join the affable Dirk Laifoo of Torres Strait Eco Adventures for a minivan tour to see some of the sights we might otherwise have missed. As well as the pub, post office and Green Hill Fort, which was built in the late 1800s to defend against a Russian invasion, Dirk points out the local sports ground, where the rugby league match of the Saturday is well under way. As Dirk explains, in Torres Strait, football is a religion.

We also stop at the grave of Bernard Namok, the man who designed the Torres Strait Islander flag, and the courthouse where the late Eddie Koiki Mabo began his 10-year journey to overthrow ‘terra nullius’ ‘ in the High Court of Australia, which eventually paved the way for Aboriginal title claims (see straitexperience.com.au).

In the heart of Gulf Savannah country, 360 kilometers west of Cairns, Native Title Determination enabled the Ewamian people to develop Talaroo Hot Springs (opening August 2021), an Indigenous-owned cultural tourism business. While the front panel is brand new, the geothermal system it depicts is millions of years old. Unlike anything else in Australia, these series of geothermal pools and terraces are fed by water that has seeped through hot granite rocks, miles underground.

“This place is very important to our people,” says Jimmy “JR” Richards, Ewamian Elder, guide and cultural advisor. “It’s where our wives went to give birth. It’s a place of great healing.”

With traditional lands back in Ewamian hands, the country is also healing, after decades as a ranching station. “The land is our mother, the rivers are our blood,” says Jimmy. “We have to watch our heart rate.”

As we walk along the Einasleigh River, Jimmy notices stone grooves carved into the rocks by his ancestors and flowering plants that indicate when it’s time to burn.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring our people home, especially our children,” says Jimmy. “And what better than through employment and training.”

Visitor experiences include a 90-minute hot spring discovery tour, private pools, night spinning circle, and stargazing. Talaroo hosts glamping tents, sites with and without electricity, a modern camp kitchen, cafe and gift shop. After a late afternoon swim, I sit on the veranda of my tent, watching the red sun over the savannah, a symphony of light to stir the soul (see talaroo.com.au).

Cairns is best known as the jumping-off point to the Great Barrier Reef, but across Trinity Inlet (10 minutes by boat), the Mandingalbay Yidinji people offer an alternative experience.

Leaving Cairns, we glide down Hills Creek, where seawater meets freshwater from the rainforest-clad mountains. Engulfed in the mist and smoke of the welcoming ceremony, it feels like stepping through a secret portal to another time.

“Our people are the descendants of the great warrior Jabulum Mandingalpai,” says elder Victor Bulmer, showing us a faded black and white image of the proud leader, famous for wearing a human femur in his nose and umbilical cord. first son around his head. neck.

The reputation of the Mandingalbay warriors is reflected in their clan totem, the black scorpion – Djunbunji – which is used today as a symbol of the Djunbunji Land and Sea Program, an initiative to protect the country through traditional methods.

With a brand new, purpose-built 42-passenger boat, pontoon and visitor shelter, 100% indigenous-owned Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tours will be offering regular departures on their hands-on half-day ecotourism tour of the country. .

“It is in honor of Jabulum that we continue to protect our country, our sacred sites and our totem plants and animals,” says Bulmer (see mandingalbay.com.au).



Visit the Great Barrier Reef accompanied by native Sea Rangers on a day trip. See dreamtimedive.com


Sip cocktails and dine on a Thai-style kangaroo or mud crab under the towering melaleuca trees. See mandingalbay.com.au


A week-long annual event that celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture. See ciaf.com.au


Learn about the bushtucker, cultural practices and history of the Kuku Yalanji people of the Daintree Rainforest. See walkaboutadventures.com.au


Enjoy a cultural dance at Rainforestation Nature Park near Kuranda, followed by a Dreamtime walk. See rainforest.com.au



A Strait Day, the new Strait Experience tour, runs the first Saturday of each month from Cairns and costs $1399 per person. See strait experience.com.au


On the Cairns Esplanade, the five-star Crystalbrook Flynn offers rooms with city views from $325. See crystalbrookcollection.com




Kerry van der Jagt traveled as a guest of Tourism and Events Queensland.

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