January 06, 2013

Cape York Peninsula: Stopover on an Ancient Journey

The rock walls on islands along the east coast of Cape York Peninsula tell many tales. Most we’ll never know.

Words and pics by Roderick Eime

No one knows what happened that night. The longboat with twenty crew just disappeared after the Frederick broke up on the jagged rocks of Cape Flinders on the northern tip of Stanley Island.

In 1818, the last nooks and crannies of the Australian coast were still being charted and it wasn’t until twelve months later that Captain Phillip Parker King found the wreck and presumed the men and one 16-year-old girl were lost or killed by the Aborigines. Such were the fears of the time, yet in truth the Aba Yalgayi, the local clan group of the Yiithuwarra, would most likely have helped rescue the stricken sailors, probably the first Europeans they’d ever seen. And perhaps they did, because for many years after, rumours of a white woman among the natives persisted.

Today, hidden away in the rocky alcoves beneath craggy overhangs and weathered sandstone monoliths are a series of sacred paintings depicting the life of the Yiithuwarra people who lived on the islands of the Flinders Group near Cape Melville, north of Cooktown.

The Yiithuwarra are now vanished from their ancestral home, removed during WWII along with dozens of other neighbouring tribes and clans to the 'safety' of Christian missions like Lockhart River, Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal. The authorities feared the welcoming Aborigines, by now accustomed to visiting seafarers, might lead an invading Japanese force to water and food sources. Societal structures and families were further disintegrated as men went off to work on stations and ships and the women into domestic service.

Danny Gordon
Our group is visiting one of these sacred sites on Stanley Island (Yindayin) in the Flinders Group National Park with Danny Gordon, a guide and interpreter for the Yiithuwarra people. We’re travelling with the Cairns-based Oceanic Discoverer as she makes her journey to Thursday Island en route to Darwin via Arnhem Land.

"When you look at the paintings," says Danny, his bright eyes wide, "you only see a tiny part of a very big picture. We don't have books and movies to show our history, this is our history, our story, ‘ere on these walls." And the walls are covered in paintings of ships and sailing boats of all sizes, their origins a mystery.

I find myself imagining the scenes that would have inspired these paintings and I realise this is one of the very few times I have ever had a traditional owner show me their land and its significance. Sadly, expert and sensitive guides like Danny are rare. Anglo-Australian guides, although expert and learned, cannot impart the deep the cultural importance that only comes with thousands of years of connection with a place.

Danny has been a guide for over twenty years, working with Captain Cook Cruises and Clipper Odyssey in the past and just Coral Princess Cruises and Orion Expeditions currently. His brother, Willie from Cooktown, is one of the best known Aboriginal tour operators in the country and both Danny and Willie are currently training younger family members to eventually take their place.

Australians travel around the world to experience exotic cultures and civilisations yet one of the planet's oldest and most mysterious is right here on our doorstep. Sadly, generations of marginalisation by the now dominant European culture has muted our appreciation for these hardy and ancient people.

Ian Morris OAM, a guest lecturer aboard Oceanic Discoverer, has lived most of his life with the indigenous people of northern Australia, speaks several of the languages and is an environmental consultant to academia and government.

"There's a growing demand for indigenous guides," says Ian, "but the support mechanisms are missing. We eagerly use their skills when and where available, but do very little to create more guides with training. Fortunately companies like Coral Princess Cruises are providing a means to do this."

Ian believes that Australians, especially the younger generations, are travelling more to seek a connection with the indigenous Australian culture and fill gaps in their knowledge and correct much of the accumulated misunderstanding.

To meet and spend time with guides like Danny, especially in their ancestral homeland is to gain an insight that makes a mockery of my early schoolbook teachings. There’s no undoing the past, Danny knows that, the journey from here is only forward, a path none of us can resist.

Fact File:

Coral Princess Cruises 'Across the Top' itinerary is rich in indigenous culture and spends eleven nights visiting islands, reefs and cultural sites between Cairns and Darwin.

Contact Coral Princess Cruises on 1800 079 545 or visit the website at www.coralprincess.com.au

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