For many thousands of years cairns and the surrounding region has been home to not only two of the world’s most stunning natural attractions, but also the world’s oldest continuous culture, the Australian aboriginal culture.
Cairns is nestled between the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea and the Wet Tropics rainforest on the land, and while these are now some of the most popular tourist destinations in Australia, they also play an important role in the Indigenous lifestyle of the region.
The indigenous stories of creation, as well as the survival of the indigenous people was dependent on the land around them, including the rainforest and the seas. And the significance of the region is still as important today as it was thousands of years ago.
When you visit the Cairns region, you have the opportunity to learn about the rich indigenous history of the area in a variety of different ways. But before we tell you about some of the different ways that you can immerse yourself in indigenous culture, let’s talk about Tropical North Queensland’s Aboriginal history.
Indigenous History of North Queensland
The Yirrganydji people are the traditional landowners of the Tropical North Queensland area that spans from Cairns to Port Douglas. The Yirrganydji people were coastal and rainforest people who had vast knowledge of the land, water, and seasons, and were able to utilise the rich offerings of the natural environment around them in the region.
The Dreamtime story of how the area came to be – the story of creation in Aboriginal culture – is that the Rainbow Serpent, Gudjugudju created the coastline’s shape as it slithered, before making its way to the island of Wangal Djungay to rest. Wangal Djungay is where the Dreamtime boomerang had landed, which is now known as Double Bay Island. The Dreamtime boomerang also played an important role in the creation of the region as it was used to create many significant features of the land, such as rivers, rocks, and mountains.
There is archaeological evidence that shows that Aboriginal people lived in the rainforests of the Cairns area for at least the last 5000 years, however, this could be even longer, with the Aboriginal culture of Australia dating back more than 60,000 years.
In the late 1800s, European settlers started to disrupt the indigenous way of life in the Cairns region and forced many of the Yirrgandji people away.
While many Yirrgandji people left the region the area still has strong ties to the indigenous culture, with around 10% of the current population identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
The indigenous people of the region encourage locals and visitors to the Cairns area to learn more about the history and lifestyle of the aboriginal community.
Indigenous experiences you can have in Cairns and North Queensland
There are many different experiences you can have in the Cairns region, with many led by local indigenous community members. Some of the most immersive and memorable experiences include:
Dreamtime Walks in Mossman Gorge
Known as the gateway to the Daintree rainforest – the oldest rainforest in the world – Mossman Gorge is almost overwhelming visually.
Native flora and fauna cover the land and towers towards the skies. Many of the plants and animals in the forest are actually only found in the Daintree rainforest – it is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world.
There are lots of different ways to experience Mossman Gorge, with something for every kind of traveller, from self-guided walks to river drifting and everything in between. However, one of the most amazing ways to discover Mossman Gorge and the Daintree is through a guided Dreamtime walking tour.
Led by local indigenous guides, you will learn about how the land was used by the Kuku Yalanji people, you’ll learn about the various plants and how they were eaten or used as medicines by the indigenous community, and you’ll even be able to take part in a traditional smoke cleansing ceremony to ward off bad spirits.
Flames of the Forest Dining Experience
If you’re a bit of a foodie and want to learn more about the Indigenous community, you can combine the two during this totally unique dining experience.
Through a 7-course banquet, you can learn more about Indigenous culture and food from the Aboriginal brothers who run the experience, and this all takes place in the heart of the rainforest.
Each meal of the Flames of the Forest dining experience has been carefully curated to represent and be inspired by the region.
This experience is also the only true rainforest dining experience in Australia – there is nothing else like it.
Learn and Hunt by the Sea
If you want to spend some time on or near the water, and learn about Indigenous culture of North Queensland, there are a number of options available.
From Cairns you can join a half-day tour with the Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tours group where you cruise the Trinity Outlet area, learning about how the land was used to sustain the indigenous community. You will also get to discover the wetlands and mangroves, take part in a short bushwalk, and witness the Mandingalbay Yidinji welcome and traditional cleansing smoking ceremony.
Another option is a tour with the Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours group. Leaving from Port Douglas, which is about an hour north of Cairns, you will get up close to the beaches, mudflats and mangroves of the area and learn why these areas were vital to the indigenous community’s survival. You’ll even get to learn Aboriginal spearfishing techniques and mud crabbing, among many other activities. Definitely a great option if you want to get hands on with your indigenous experience.
Follow the Cairns Arts Trail
Art is extremely important to the Aboriginal community of Australia. Not only is it used as a way to express themselves, in indigenous culture, it was one of the main forms of communication and a way to pass on the stories, laws and social behaviours. This is because the Aboriginal culture did not have a written language.
When you’re in Cairns you’ve got the chance to have front row seats to some of the most amazing pieces of indigenous art – Cairns is sometimes referred to as “Australia’s Indigenous art capital”.
The area is lucky enough to be home to numerous galleries displaying Aboriginal artwork by local indigenous artists. The Cairns Art Gallery is an award-winning art gallery that is a must visit – often hosting events, classed and of course exhibitions. While Doongal Aboriginal Art, also in Cairns, showcases Aboriginal Rainforest Art by indigenous artists.
Cairns is also where one of Australia’s best indigenous art events takes place. The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is an annual celebration of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. You can learn more about the culture as well as traditional aboriginal skills, enjoy performances by local indigenous musicians and even purchase authentic Aboriginal artwork.
The Cairns region comes alive during fair as many event stakes place all over Cairns. If you’re an art lover or interested in learning more about the Indigenous culture, planning your trip around this Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is a great option.
You can even take your love of art and take to exploring the local area to discover some of the oldest pieces of art in the world. The landscapes of the North Queensland region are essentially an art gallery, with incredible rock art found throughout the region.
One of the rock art areas in the region, Quinkan Rock, has been recognised by UNESCO as one of the ten most significant pieces of rock art in the world. The rock art at Quinkan showcases the lives and stories of the Kuku Yalanji people.
There are a number of tour groups in the area who offer trips to Quinkan rock and other rock art in the region too.
Discover Australia’s Rich Indigenous History in Cairns Today
With so many incredible indigenous experiences and ways to immerse yourself in the aboriginal culture on offer in Cairns, there is something that for everyone to enjoy.
Take the time out to learn more about this unique part of Australia’s culture in Cairns.