Mandingalbay Yidinji eco-tour in Cairns: Seemingly impenetrable and riddled with danger
16 January 2017
Andrew Taylor, The Sydney Morning Herald - Traveller, 14 January 2017
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"Gamin" is a word spoken by the indigenous people of Cairns. It roughly translates to "just kidding" and is usually followed by a burst of laughter.
But the size of the crocodile pointed out by Dale Mundraby as we motor across Trinity Inlet towards mangroves and the rainforest-clad mountains of the Grey Peaks National Park is no laughing matter.
Mundraby also points out a giant stingray and scrub turkey nest formed by the rugged peaks surrounding Cairns, as our boat enters Hills Creek and glides along the still, opaque water.
"The cultural landscape links our people and our identity," he says, "which gives us strength, motivation to continue on."
Shrouded in cloud and mist, the distant mountains resemble a Swiss alpine landscape as we embark on the tour led by Dale, one of the traditional owners of the land.
Beyond developing an Indigenous-owned business, Dale is eager to share the culture and knowledge of his people.
His sales pitch is inventive: "We say you can telephone, telegram, tell a Murri for us, tell a friend."
The Mandingalbay Yidinji eco-tour is an introduction to the area's rich cultural and natural values as well as arts and crafts. It begins by boat that departs Cairns Reef Terminal and glides across Trinity Inlet, dotted by yachts, and up Hills Creek to where the salty water of the sea meets freshwater flowing off the surrounding mountains.
The creek is thick with mangroves, their red roots reaching into the water, seemingly clawing at the mud.
Dale calls the wetlands the lungs of the landscape, filtering pollutants before they reach the water that is brimming with marine life.
Up to 20 real-life crocodiles also call the mangroves home and can be seen sunbaking when the tide is low.
Seemingly impenetrable and riddled with dangers, the mangroves are rich in history.
Dale says the area, scattered with midden sites, was an important meeting place for tribes who would come together to trade before European settlement.
"How they got there, they used to walk across the inlet at low tide," he says. "After contact, with dredging and all this, it's become deeper so we use cars to drive around here."
The traditional lands of the Mandingalbay Yidinji people have long been subject to draining, dredging and deforestation, with the latest environmental threat coming from a proposal to dump the aptly named spoil from further dredging of Trinity Inlet.
But the land is as resilient as its people, with the abundance of bird life and fish species like barramundi and mackerel evidence of the wetland's health.
There are also plenty of insects biting, scratching and niggling like errant children as the boat reaches its destination and we scramble up the banks of the creek.
Indigenous ranger Vic Bulmer watches me fruitlessly swatting away their attentions before wryly observing: "Funny thing with mosquitoes. You can't bite them back."
The wetlands are crisscrossed by levees and pumping stations to control the tidal flow of water.
As we drive along a levee, there are lingering signs of environmental stress as Vic points to dead melaleucas, their lifeless trunks devoid of leaves due to the depletion of the water table.
In the late 19th-century, a tram rattled through the wetlands where Chinese migrants, who had first flocked to the area during an earlier gold rush, grew rice, corn, bananas and pineapples.
There is little sign of Cairns' Chinese history these days except for the lychee trees scattered among the eucalypts, red beech and even tamarind trees.
Across the range is the Aboriginal community of Yarrabah where Captain Cook moored his ship, the Endeavour, and went ashore for a short time with Sir Joseph Banks.
At the Djunbunji ranger station, an impromptu feast of mackerel and prawns awaits us as Auntie Violet and Veronica show beautifully woven dilly bags and artworks inspired by totemic animals.
A turtle crafted from shells and blood-red, giddy-giddy seeds is particularly striking.
The rainforest-clad mountains of North Queensland are a supermarket and pharmacy – abundant in food and medicinal plants – as Vic shows during a short trek from the ranger station.
The air is alive with a chorus of birds and cloud of butterflies as Vic shows us a feast of edible flowers, sweet fruit and native herbs. There are leaves and roots to calm teething babies, sterilise water, soothe sunburn and cure upset tummies.
But Vic warns us to take care with the supplejack vine – a salve for sore eyes, it is also a contraceptive.
The red beech handily indicates a nearby source of water, while the golden bouquet tree is also called the wallaby wireless. Its fallen flowers attract wallabies and thus hunters.
He points to the spiky lomandra, which can be eaten or woven, and the versatile pandanus: "That's a red bull drink for us."
While the strap-shaped leaves are used for weaving, the plant also has an edible nut, Vic says. "You have two of those, you'll be running up that hill."
Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Tigerair all fly to Cairns directly from Sydney and Melbourne.
The Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort in Cairns CBD (122 Lake Street) is a 10-minute walk from the Cairns Reef Terminal. Standard rooms for up to two adults and two children from $184. See novotelcairnsresort.com.au
The Mandingalbay Yidinji Tour takes three hours and includes boat transfers and a light meal; $97 for adults, $48.50 children or $250 for a family. Phone 0477 002 554; see djunbunji.com.au/tours
Andrew Taylor travelled with assistance from the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.
The story Mandingalbay Yidinji eco-tour in Cairns: Seemingly impenetrable and riddled with danger first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.