From Cooya Beach looking south, Port Douglas where we have been staying looks like an overturned teaspoon. An Aboriginal mob (mob means tribe, clan, family group) called the Kukujulangi lives and works on Cooya Beach, giving tours to outsiders to explain aspects of their culture and history, and providing cultural experiences. We were tutored by a man in his 50s in the use of some of the seeds and insects – particularly green ants, which are good for stuffy noses – and the use of various bones, shells, woods and plant fiber for tools and useful items. We also had a chance to throw spears; although we were demonstrably lacking in inborn talent for spear-chucking, there were several of us who would have gladly spent the whole morning honing our abilities. Spear chucking is fun.
Also, as a part of the experience, we were served damper bread spread with butter and drizzled with golden syrup. Damper bread is a traditional soda bread frequently associated with the Australian bush. It is a simple quick bread, and the golden syrup, which does not taste at all like golden Karo syrup, is a tasty addition. Karo syrup is a corn sugar syrup, while golden syrup is made during the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets. Golden syrup has a very mild hit of molasses, without the burnt overtone.
The Aboriginal people in the Daintree/Port Douglas area have been able to use the legal system to gain control of some of their original land and have a focus on using the land in a culturally consistent way that also engages people from outside their community. The tour leader described how his grandparents, who had their children removed by the government, moved to be where their children were taken and worked to recover them, which required 10 years to get all of them back. They had the support of local farmers for whom they worked, which helped them recover their children and, as a result, built tight community bonds between the local farm community and the aboriginal community, such that they say they are now one family.
One object we were shown is called a burny bean. It’s proper name is mucuna gigantica, and it or related beans are found in tropical areas of Central and South America in addition to Queensland, Australia. It is called the burny bean because, if you rub it hard on cement or a smooth rock, it quickly becomes very hot. It was implied that it can be used to start fires, but there’s no documentation of that. Parts of the plant and the bean are toxic and were used to poison fish, but the inside of the bean can also can be treated to make an edible paste. It is currently used to make jewelry and keychains, typically painted with traditional-looking Aboriginal designs.
After our Cooya Beach cultural experience and a nice lunch in the town of Mossman, we visited an art gallery where we were shown a few techniques for painting in the Aboriginal style. We were each given either a boomerang-shaped piece of wood or a small canvas square, each of which had been painted black. The artist gave us pots of white (representing water), yellow ochre (representing sun) and red ochre (representing earth) acrylic paints and bamboo sticks with which to paint. To paint your item, you dip either the blunt or the sharp end of the bamboo stick into the paint and make dots, squiggles, etc. on your object. The dot technique seems to be the most traditional, with large dots and small dots in intricate patterns. My piece is a small canvas square. (The boomerang supply ran out.) My painting is about the importance of lakes, rivers and oceans in my life and my family history.
Side note: I have a partial black eye from the pressure of the snorkel goggles on the bridge of my nose. How cool is that?