Learn About Aboriginal Culture in Cooktown

Wanhtharra Nyundu: Welcome to Cooktown

A Guest Post by Judy Bennett

If you want to learn more about Aboriginal Culture and history
whilst you are in Australia, one of the best places to visit is Cooktown, just 4 hours drive north of Cairns in Queensland’s Tropical North.

is Queensland’s hidden gem, a beautiful, unspoilt coastal town with a friendly, laid-back atmosphere and one of Australia’s most historically significant townships. In 1770, Lt. James Cook found a haven to repair his ship, the HM Bark Endeavour, and the First Reconciliation between Europeans and Aboriginal people.

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This area is home to Australia’s highest proportion of Indigenous Australians and its greatest Indigenous cultures’ diversity. This is Guugu Yimithirr and Kuku Yalanji country, and one of Australia’s best places to meet the traditional custodians of the region and learn about their history and culture. Here’s my 10 Aboriginal Must-Dos in and around Cooktown

  1. Stroll through history in Cooktown’s beautifully restored Sisters of Mercy convent, which is now the National Trust’s James Cook Museum. Here you can learn about Lt James Cook’s arrival in 1770 from the perspective of the Guugu Yimithirr and follow their stories of Hope Vale and the Mission. Other highlights include the original H.M. Bark Endeavour’s anchor and cannon and regular Aboriginal talks and workshops.
  2. Join Nugal-Warra Elder Willie Gordon on one of his magical, award-winning tours to his ancestral rock art sites, high in the hills outside Cooktown. Willie is the Milbi Malin, or story-keeper, for the Nugal-Warra people, and at each of the sites, he explains the art, its messages and stories. He also shares some of his vast bush knowledge with you, so you might end up eating green ants, making soap from the leaves of a bush, learning which flowers give you messages, how to interpret snake tracks or give a little lizard a drink. No two tours are ever the same. Still, whatever happens, you’ll be enchanted and enthralled.

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  3. Whilst exploring Cooktown, be sure to see the Milbi Wall (Story Wall) at Cooktown Wharf. Guugu Yimithirr artists learnt the art of tile-making to construct this wonderful Rainbow Serpent of their history. Close by is the cairn making the spot where Lt James Cook beached his ship, the Endeavour after it was holed on the Reef. 
  1. Celebrate Australia’s First Reconciliation at Cooktown’s Discovery Festival held each June over the Queen’s Birthday weekend. The highlight of the 3-day celebration is the Re-enactment of Cook’s Landing, which tells the First Reconciliation story between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. And don’t miss the sunset corroboree and fireworks on the last night either.
  1. Please drop into the Hope Vale Arts & Cultural Centre at Hope Vale Aboriginal Community, where you can meet the locals, yarn with the artists and watch them at work. Hope Vale is home to some nationally recognised artists, and the gallery displays paintings, weaving, jewellery and printmaking. Prices are reasonable, and the gardens a great place to relax and enjoy the friendly and creative atmosphere. 
  1. Enjoy a bush feast and a yarn with Gerry and Irene at their Hope Vale home. Gerry, an experienced ranger, takes you through the rainforest and shares his wealth of knowledge about the area’s trees and plants. Irene shares her experiences of growing up under missionary rule over tea and damper.
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  1. Camp with Aboriginal Elder Eddie Deemal on the white silica sands of stunning Elim Beach outside Hope Vale. Uncle Eddie’s small campground is right on the water’s edge, and the mesmerizing dune formations of the Coloured Sands are just a short walk away. You might even get a lesson on how to spearfish. 
  1. See the beautiful Bloomfield Falls at Wujal Wujal through the Walker Family’s eyes, traditional custodians of the area and members of the Nyungkul clan. They’ll show you some of the rainforest’s wealth of resources and explain why Bloomfield Falls is such a special place for the Kuku Yalanji nation’s people
  1. Take a trip to Quinkan Country to see the UNESCO-listed rock art galleries around Laura’s small township. Listed as being among the top ten rare rock art sites in work, you can take a self-guided tour to some of the galleries or book a hosted tour through the Quinkan & Regional Cultural Centre. Owned and operated by the local community, the Centre showcases all aspects of Quinkan Country, including its shared Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history. It is the information centre for the region.
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  2. Don’t miss the Laura Dance Festival.
    This amazing festival started 30 years ago and has grown to become one of Australia’s largest gatherings of Indigenous people, drawing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from all over northern Australia and visitors worldwide. The 3-day event celebrating song, dance and culture, is held bi-annually (on odd-numbered years) in June.

Note about this Blog Guest Author: Judy Bennett came to Cooktown ten years ago after receiving a request to help local Aboriginal people start their own tourism businesses. She now works behind the scenes at Guurrbi Tours, handling the business’s day-to-day running whilst Willie is on tour and helps Willie share his vast cultural and environmental knowledge in print and online through their blog, Facebook and Twitter.