The towering sandstone escarpments, vast savannah, extensive rock-art sites and culturally significant spaces of Far North Queensland are best explored with Traditional Owners.
Thundering in a hulking mine-spec truck into the tiny township of Laura, roughly a 320km drive north-west of Cairns, in Far North Queensland, seems excessive at first but I soon understand the need for such grunt. On leaving the bitumen, we venture south-west into the eastern corner of the Cape York Peninsula along the formidable heritage-listed Laura to Maytown Coach Road. It’s revered as one of Australia’s toughest four-wheel-drive tracks, but to Kuku Yalanji Traditional Owner (TO) Johnny Murison, it’s the route of his twice-weekly commute. “We call it the ‘Thousand Dollar Track’, because that’s what you’ll need to fix your car after you drive it,” he says, laughing.
Johnny guides tours into Western Yalanji Country, which forms part of Quinkan Country, with his company Jarramali Rock Art Tours. From Laura, it takes about an hour and a half to reach Camp Jarramali, where we will be based for the next two days. The final 10km is particularly rough and slow going. The landscape buckles and folds around us as we weave through Quinkan Country, past rugged tangles of savannah and the stands of desert bloodwood, stringybark, ironwood and melaleuca trees that skirt the towering sandstone escarpments nearby.
Johnny calls out to his ancestors as we approach Western Yalanji Country, which stretches from the headwaters of the Palmer and Mitchell rivers to lands surrounding Laura, and is home to 26 family groups from 10 clans. It covers about 7610sq.km in total and forms part of the larger footprint of exclusive and non-exclusive native title and freehold land that makes up Quinkan Reserve.
“To inspire cultural understanding, I welcome visitors to see Country through my eyes as a TO,” Johnny says. He explains that although native title exists over most of Western Yalanji Country today, times were very different for his ancestors, many of whom endured indelible suffering and were forcibly removed from Country. “I share our truth and honour the fight our people put up to stay on Country where they belonged, but I do so with compassion and grace over venom,” he says.