Every year in August, Australia’s culture vultures set their compass due north for Cairns to rub shoulders with 300 of the nation’s leading artists at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. For some, it’s an opportunity to pick up a bargain from the next big thing. For others, it’s the chance to dive into the Dreamtime with Australia’s first people.
If your timing is off kilter for CIAF (this year it’s from August 17–19), don’t sweat. Cairns is the heart of Australia’s best Indigenous experiences. The key is choosing what suits your travel style. Here are five of the best Indigenous experiences:
1. For Art’s Sake
Canopy Artspace has to be your first stop. Every day here is an art fair as some of the biggest names in Aboriginal circles like Alick Tipoti pop by to hone – or hang – their latest masterpieces. At the entrance there’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful gallery, but it’s the working studio out back where you can hob nob with the masters. Just don’t expect to see dot art from the desert here. North Queensland artists are influenced by their environment, and the brilliance of the rainforest and reef is their starting point.
2. Go Walkabout
Want to walk in their shoes? Check out some of the best interpretive walks on the planet, but be prepared to go barefoot!
Part teacher, part preacher, Willie Gordon from Gurrbi Tours makes a whole lot of sense as you tip toe along a magical bush track used by his people for thousands of years. A Nugal-warra elder and master storyteller, Willie has created a half-day adventure that gently probes into the emotions of the group. Don’t be surprised if he asks you if you are a good person (and don’t lie either, I swear this man can see white spots on the tongue). It all makes sense at the sacred Birthing Cave, where ancient ochre rock art portrays a heart-warming story of acceptance and compassion.
If you fancy yourself a bit like Bear Grylls and have always wanted to stand ankle deep in mangrove muck with a spear raised high, then Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours is for you. Every day, Linc and Brandon Walker invite travellers to go hunting and gathering along the tidal flats of their ancestral country. You have to be prepared to muck in – at times jiving knee deep in mud to dislodge cockles, at others trekking through swampy mangroves to pluck molluscs embedded in muddy roots. But believe me, the little suckers are divine – you get to eat them later on.
3. The One-Day Blockbuster
If you’re short on time, need to stick close to Cairns, but still want to pack in the blockbuster experiences, then take a box-office seat at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. After 25 years of performing for travellers around the globe, this one-stop schmick performance shop has all the key experiences – and with kapow!
4. Tuck into Indigenous experiences
Combine the five star flavours of bush tucker with a dramatic candle-lit performance at Flames of the Forest. Listed by Australian Traveller as one of the 100 Great Things to do in Australia; dinner under the rainforest canopy comes with a serving of kangaroo and a dash of Indigenous drama.
5. Say ahh to an Aboriginal Spa
If your idea of a Dreamtime experience is, well, a dream-time experience, then book a 40,000-year-old Aboriginal treatment. Hibiscus Resort & Spa in Port Douglas combines native bush products in its Lit’ya products with kodo – a traditional massage technique that will send your mind on its own walkabout. Be prepared for a few zzzs.