Well well well… We finally begin the good parts of our journey!
Our first full day in Cairns was amazing. We were scheduled to visit the Tjapukai (pronounced “Cha Book Eye”) Aboriginal Cultural Village. This will be the second Aboriginal Village we have met over the years – last year we visited a cultural center in Adelaide. It was amazing, but nothing like what we were about to embark on.
The first order of business was for me to figure out how to get 17 of us there! We weren’t going to be here long enough to warrant buying transport passed, so I opted to buy just day tickets. I left the hotel just before 7 a.m. to look for a ticket vendor or the bus station. I knew where “Central Station” was so I headed there. As it turns out, Central Station is just a main pick-up/drop-off point for the busses. I learned from a local man (after the 3rd time I walked past him looking for a ticket machine!) that you just purchase tickets on the busses here (unlike the other citied we have visited where you can pre-purchase).
I had checked the transport website and it indicated that during “peak” or “rush hour” times, some drivers may be unable to sell specialty tickets. We needed to leave around 8 a.m. – what I assumed was the leak of rush hour… Would we be OK to get our tickets? As it turns out, rush hour here is a bit like it is in Potsdam – you may have to wait for a few minutes at the light, wait for the crossing signal to cross the road, or have to look around for a few minutes for a parking spot (but there is always one available)… Just as it looks, Cairns is truly a “small-town” city. Quaint, quit, peaceful, not rushed. What a great place to begin our journey…
After learning what bus we needed and what time it would depart, I headed back to the hotel. On my way back, I walked by an area that was set up as a bat sanctuary – for the well-known “flying foxes”. We had noticed them (hard not to! They are HUGE!) the day before when we walked past this area on our way to “Woolies” (Woolworth’s) to get breakfast food for the week.
As I was making my way back to the hotel, I followed what the locals were doing – walking along the sidewalk which was somewhat under the edges of these trees. Suddenly, I felt something hit my head and shoulder… Yes, that’s right, I had been targeted (I firmly believe these bats singled me out because I was new in town!) and got pooped on by a bat… Don't judge me!! Not that I haven’t had worse days, but keep in mind, this was just a few hours after learning Verizon had “grounded” me on my cell plan… not a stellar start to the day!
Anyway, I survived the ordeal, went back and re-showered, changed clothes and we were off to return to the bus stops – mind you, on a different route than through “bat-bomb alley”…
After a 30 minute bus ride, we finally arrived. What a spectacular place Tjapukai is. Not only for the interesting art and other things you see, but these are the true Aboriginals – a people who are among the first peoples to inhabit our planet… There was something amazing, ancestral, special, sacred – almost spiritual – that you feel when you first meet one of the Tjapukai people. They are real, genuine, welcoming.
Our day started when we met our journey-guide for the day, Dayle (that is the English translation for her Tjapukai name). Dayle greeted us with the traditional Tjapukai greeting “Djirri Nyurra”. She was a petite, dark skinned woman who would lead us through a variety of “shows” and performances, as well as talk to us about the history of her people and how they were treated and viewed previously by the white man’s government. It is both an amazing story – their “creation” story, and a sad story – the fact that they were not recognized as human beings until into the 1960’s.
We started by each of us having our face painted in traditional dot styles and then went in for an overview presentation on the past and present history of the Aboriginal people in Australia. Much in the way native peoples have been viewed by other societies, the Aboriginals of Australia were removed from their sacred lands, re-located, some had their children taken away if they did not have a sort of “permit” for them, had their overall health decline when they were no longer able to sustain themselves on the foods of their land as they had done for countless generations, saw an increase in their mortality rate (which was at one time the highest of any peoples throughout history) due to the introduction of flour, sugar, tobacco and alcohol into their daily lives… The list goes on.
Finally, the government enacted laws that gave the Aboriginals rights as humans under the law, and the Prime Minister of Australia, in the late 1960’s issued a formal apology to all Aboriginal peoples for the wrongs done against them. Australia is still working on fixing this – and now celebrate “Reconciliation Day” to honor that. As Dayle told us about the treatment her peoples had experienced, it was amazing that there was no anger or no malice in her voice or face – no “somebody owes us something” attitude. They were appreciative for finally being recognized and treated as they should – as human beings. Perhaps a lesson man societies could learn from…
We next went into a theater to watch a live performance of the Tjapukai creation story. Several performers acted out the story accompanied by a variety of images being projected on the floor and walls. During the performance, one performer told the story in English as the others told the story in their native Tjapukai language – a language that nearly became extinct. It was amazing and moving. These people have a very deep, spiritual connection to their Creator and to their lands, which became amazingly obvious throughout the performance. They know who they are and where they came from – not the continent their past family members came from, not a mixture of cultures at holiday time – these are a pure people and it was awesome to witness.
Next we watched a traditional dance performance, known as a “corroboree” that included the creation of fire using their traditional method – with wooden implements and dry grass, a dance performance that illustrated the hunt, and a variety of other things – all to the music of traditional instruments (the digeridoo and clap sticks). In the end, they had the entire audience clapping and singing and had up join them up front to take part in some native dance. This was the stuff you see on The National Geographic channel – ancient, ceremonial and beautiful and was absolutely amazing to witness and experience.
Then it was hunting time for our group. We went to an area set aside to learn how to throw boomerangs (yes, they do really hunt with them and thrown correctly, they do return!) and spears. This wasn’t just chucking a spear, they have an implement that is a spear thrower. This took more skill than the boomerang to throw properly!
Next up was to hand paint our own boomerang. I was surprised how into this the students were! They did outstanding – and then we got to keep our “artwork” (I use that term lightly!) as a memento of our time at Tjapukai. Lunch was next – an amazing buffet that included a variety of salads, chicken, beef, and kangaroo!
Our last performance of the day was a discussion on weapons, bush foods and medicine. Keep in mind – these are the people who had to figure out how to make tools and implements without tools and implements! Same idea with foods and medicines – and as Dayle told us, much of the food and medicinal knowledge they have came from many generations of “trial and error”!
It was then time to depart. Many of us purchased a variety of authentic Aboriginal items – boomerangs, various art pieces, bone art, etc. It was simply an amazing day. As we were departing, the young woman I had worked and coordinated with over the past months to arrange this visit asked if I thought it was OK and if I thought we would come back with future groups…. I pointed at the students, who were ALL smiling ear to ear as they recounted the experiences of the day and just said “You tell me!”…
Stay tuned - Great Barrier Reef tomorrow and the students' first posts on Saturday or Sunday....