The sun is setting and we’re all tired. Mike looks out from underneath his ever-present black akubra to the forested hills in the distance. “This place is full of sites like these,” he says. “It’s up to us to go out there and find them.”
Today is the first time Mike and the Olkola Land Managers – a group of young Olkola men – have reached the site using this route. And Mike is visibly pleased. His smile is wide enough to span the cape. Whenever we head out with Mike, in fact, the story’s much the same: he’s always looking for something new. And as his travel companions for the time being, we get to share the joy of his hard-fought discoveries with him.
The scene is backlit, metaphorically speaking, by the kind of tale that, when told by the right person, could give even the staunchest of souls a lump in their throat. Having being displaced from their land over a century ago, the Olkola people were handed some of it back – about 800,000 hectares or so – in December last year. The hand-back came after 30 years of negotiations with the Queensland government, negotiations led by Mike and the Traditional Owner Negotiation Committee. It's one of the largest hand-backs of its kind in Queensland history.
Over the course of that lost century, some Olkola people worked the land for the new pastoral owners and kept their culture and knowledge alive by sharing stories when they crossed paths. Mike himself was a cattle drover on Olkola country for the best part of his life (“I was making $80 a month – that was good money!” laughs Mike), and he used that time to collect and piece together stories of his people and his land. He says he loved his life during those times.
Working for the pastoral owners was the only way for Olkola people to keep those stories alive and to spend time on their ancestral land. But now that’s all changed. As today's expedition to this ceremony site illustrates, Mike and his people are free to explore their country as they please.
How does it feel to be able to explore his ancestral land freely now? “It gives you a good feeling inside,” he replies. “Yes, we are free. At last we can come home and start looking for what the old people left behind. It’s an experience you can’t explain.”
The responsibility of getting country back was given to Mike by his elders after a small chunk of Olkola land, Glen Garland station, was handed back in 1993. “They said to me: ‘Hey young fella, do you like travelling on planes?’” remembers Mike. “I said: ‘Yeah, I don’t mind.' They said: 'Good, well you go down south and tell the boss people that we want all our country back.'"
Eventually, in December 2014, the State Government returned more of their traditional land to the Olkola people, but not before many Olkola elders who’d given Mike the task had passed away. “I went to visit the last elder when he was sick,” says Mike. “He said ‘sit down next to me, mate’. He asked me where I was going, and I told him I had to go back down south to more meetings about the land. He said: ‘yeah, you go. But you tell the big boss fella, you tell him I wanna go home. I wanna go home now.’”
To Mike, “I wanna go home”, meant only one thing: it was time to set the handover date. Mike left his friend and travelled down to Cairns for his meeting. He walked into the room that day and says he knew exactly what date to set: the first week in December. “No questions asked," says Mike. “I knew.”
The Olkola were returned their land back on December 14, 2014, a date agreed upon by the TONC committee. Mike’s friend passed away during the process, but Mike, because the land was now theirs, was able to bury him back on Olkola country. He got him home.
Spending time with Mike is awe-inspiring. He came up to Killarney – our Olkola base camp for our week on country– the night after us. It was already dark when his old ute pulled up in the driveway. We (myself and a handful of others lucky enough to be invited on this pilot trip) were sitting around the campfire.
“That’s Mike”, someone whispered. We all gazed over to catch a glimpse. He stepped out of the car and cut an impressive silhouette for a 63-year-old – particularly with that trademark akubra atop his head (“I’m not the boss without this hat,” he’ll later tell me). Earlier that night we’d all been star-struck by the clarity of the night skies above Olkola country. Now we were star-struck by a man who was forged under them.
From that night on, whether it was around the campfire or hurtling through the bush in search of ancient sites, our trip was complemented by Mike’s narration. He is the quintessential aboriginal elder: wise, calm and strong, all qualities he’s in the process of distilling into his Land Managers.
I ask Mike what he’s enjoying most about being back on country. “I’m getting my satisfaction out of showing the young people what I’ve learnt,” he offers. “Showing them what the old people taught us. How to respect for it, how to care for it – that’s the first stage.”
The sustainable future
The Olkola Corporation (Olkola country’s representing body, of which Mike is the Chairman) do not want any mining on their land, nor do they want to have to rely on government funding for their livelihoods. Instead, they're looking at sustainable approaches they can take to make their land work for them.
The corporation is currently adopting a three-pronged approach: eco-tourism, carbon credit programmes (early-burning the land to reduce carbon emissions) and cattle farming. The tourism venture, a joint effort between Olkola and Intrepid Travel, is an area everyone is particularly excited about, and it'll be supported by other initiatives, like walking trips, mountain bike tours and a campground on the Olkola land. Intrepid will help train Indigenous guides that'll begin leading travellers through here in June 2016; it's an investment in sustainable skills, something that will support Olkola communities in the long-term.
Attending the handover ceremony back in December, Intrepid Travel's co-founder, Geoff Manchester, said that it was "fantastic that [the Olkola] understand how important tourism can be and that it has that ultimate long-term sustainability than can go on and on."
Manchester went on to suggest that modern travellers are particularly keen on experiencing cultures and learning about different ways of life, "whether it's here in Cape York or in India or Egypt." Manchester said that the Olkola project is part of a wider commitment from Intrepid: a commitment to responsible tourism in Australia and to working closely with Indigenous communities, like the Olkola (in fact Intrepid's sister company, Adventure Tours Australia, was the first to stop climbing Uluru in the late 90s).
Down at Jungle Creek, Mike’s telling me how excited he is at the prospect of regularly meeting people from all over the world. “Oh I’d like to learn about their culture,” he smiles. “Because they had problems too. They had hard times. There was never an easy time for any culture. To learn other people’s culture helps make my culture strong. It makes you one strong man. One strong people.
“I’d like to think that, when they go, and they’re sitting on their own somewhere in their modern world, if they have problems, they’ll drift back to their time with the Olkola people and some memory will help them overcome those problems. Hopefully I can achieve that.”
The magic of Olkola lies in the fact that everything – the land, the people, the culture, the stories – is being discovered again. On top of that, I didn’t see another traveller (outside of our group) for the entire week. We had the whole place to ourselves.
It’s not just Mike who’s excited to welcome travellers to his land, either. Later that day, when we return to the Killarney homestead, I talk with Glen, Mike’s nephew, who may become a tour leader by the time the trips begin.
Glen has been a Land Manager for four years and has grown to love the land he’s been working on – even more so now that it’s legally his. “I can’t wait to see what these people think about the country eh,” he tells me. “I just want to see the expression on their face when they see a new thing. It’ll blow their minds out! I can’t wait for that. Every day out here is like a new picture.”
The month before our trip on country, a team of over forty scientists spent two weeks completing various surveys on the land and wildlife. Amongst other things, they discovered over 20 brand-new species of spiders.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone more passionate about Olkola ecology than Graham Tupper, manager of the ACF Northern Australia Program, who accompanied us on the trip. He's a real-life eco-warrior. “The real excitement of visiting Olkola country lies in having the Olkola as guides,” explains Graham. “It’s a journey through a living cultural landscape, where these plants and animals take on a whole new level of meaning because of the stories we’re told about them.”
Graham tells me that Glen, who’s become a keen birder during his time on country, once took a short walk from Killarney homestead and noted some 30 different species of birds. “That’s an astonishing variety,” Graham says.
Glen, who's never without his camera, has developed a particular fondness for the Golden-Shouldered Parrot – a striking yellow-winged endangered bird that calls Olkola country home. “That’s our totem,” says Glen of the parrots. He points towards the bush. “He lives over the way and we got to look after him. The researchers reckon the numbers are declining, so we just wanna do something for our little totem: find out where he is, where he lives and what he’s doing. We’ve gotta look after him.”
More than once, we clamber out of our 4WDs because Mike's spotted something he wants to show us. He starts off talking about one thing, but he winds up talking about almost everything in sight. "We used this plant to make spears", "we used this tree to making fishing line", "you can use an ant's nest to clear a cold", "here's the tree we use to make boomerangs", and so on. The bush is a pantry, a tool shed, a kitchen and a shelter all in one.
When Graham said "it's a journey through a living cultural landscape," he couldn't have been more right.
A promise to the elders
They’ll listen intently, never interrupting their elder, sometimes taking notes. This is how the knowledge of the land is passed down through the generations – by talking. As the boys work the land, Mike will begin to share with them more and more of his knowledge, and he's well aware of the challenges that come with this verbal form of sharing information. "The one thing Indigenous people don't have," says Mike, "is time. Because in time, we lose our knowledge. The older people pass away and that knowledge is gone – just like a piece of paper tearing out of a storybook. So the faster we move, the more knowledge the younger ones gather, the safer it is."
Now they have their land back, and can pass down stories to the next generation on the land in which those stories took place. The next stage, according to Mike, is for Olkola people to share their knowledge with the outside world. "Our history is our backbone," he explains, "it’s what the country’s made of. It’s the backbone of our knowledge. If we can share that with the outside, we have achieved the goal we set out to achieve."
Mike believes the future of Olkola is in safe hands. “They respect what Mother Nature gave us," he tells me at Jungle Creek. "They’re shaping up, and they’ll be role models for the others who’ll come back. Some young people might come back and say 'I don't know my country'. That's not their fault. Never was. But [I hope] they come back, relive and make the older ones happy."
The sun is setting – literally and metaphorically – on our final day on Olkola country. I ask Glen whether or not he feels burdened by the responsibility handed to him by Mike and the elders. "I'm proud eh, to do that for them," comes his response. "I'm proud of myself for being here, following them on country, listening to their stories around the campfire, meeting different people and telling them all about the land. I'm so proud to tell people what I know."
The writer travelled on Intrepid's brand new Journey into Olkola Country, a 6-day trip with the Olkola across the stunning Cape York Peninsula. There are multiple departures available in 2016, with prices starting at AUD2,845. Intrepid Travel have been leaders in small group travel since 1989, and now run adventures in over 100 countries around the world. For more information on the Olkola project, visit our website.
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