Building a strong sense of Stewardship and true connection begins in Childhood
Images of visit to Turtle Rock by Sofia Fortunato of P & F Photography
In July of 2018 I had the pleasure of attending the bi-annual QORF* Outdoors Queensland Symposium in Cairns. The theme of the Symposium for 2018 was Stewardship and I was drawn to attend not because of any affiliation with outdoor recreation businesses but due to my strong personal interest in connecting more children to the outdoors. What better way to be inspired than to hear those passionate about the outdoors speak about how to protect it and connect with it.
As a parent of two young children, I hope to encourage a strong connection and instil a thirst for adventure from a young age. Our own children’s natural hunger for being outdoors has inspired us as parents, and their innate curiosity and willingness to try new things and learn from their surroundings has us always seeking the next adventure together.
I value the many lessons to be learnt by really getting to know our region, its history, and its stories. By inspiring our children to learn about indigenous culture, it is just one small way we can help to preserve traditional knowledge and empower the younger generation to be involved in strengthening the likelihood of its continuation as a thriving culture.
Listening to local elder Gudju Gudju from the Yidingi people speak at the opening of the QORF event was just one of many wonderful moments throughout the day. The depth of his knowledge, connection and pride in his culture was evident. Right then and there I was hooked and my notepad already gathering scribbles and notes to follow up on. Not long after he spoke, Professor Marcia Langdon was introduced and I was held captivated for a further hour. Inspiration bubbled and my mind ticked over at a hundred miles an hour. I was left thinking of how I could better connect to country, and how by building a strong connection to country with my young ones, I could help to also inspire stewardship within them.
The whole day at the Cairn QORF symposium was fantastic and there was not a single speaker that I didn’t feel inspired by. I came away from the event feeling highly motivated. I walked out that day feeling a responsibility to bring more connection to our land and traditional culture not just to my own family but also to those families who attend a playgroup I facilitate. Our playgroup is small and informal. We gather fortnightly, inspired by the great work of Nature Play QLD. Our play dates are centred on getting families outdoors and letting the kids spread their wings and enjoy all that our environment here in North Queensland offers.
We go bush walking, we visit the beach, we do nature craft and we occasionally visit local producers to learn about where food comes from or engage with animals. Every fortnight we meet outdoors somewhere around the region. Mostly we gather and explore new places, we chat and we step back and let our kids be kids – they climb trees, play with sticks and burn off energy surrounded by other children and nature. This whole playgroup idea came about from my own feelings and desire to guide my children towards being responsible and passionate about the outdoors. We volunteer for Landcare and do beach debris cleans with several organisations, but how could I grow a deeper attachment? I could already vouch for the physical and emotional benefits found by spending time outdoors and I wanted to build on that experience further.
Having grown up in North Queensland, I must be honest my understanding and exposure to the local indigenous culture and heritage and of the many wonderful lessons and stories that this land holds has been limited. Our family rarely travelled beyond the small coastal fishing villages of the far north east coast, or small regional towns. Although there is a wealth of culture right here on our doorstep and it was right there under my nose every school holiday and weekend, I never seemed to have given it much thought. My own ignorance nowadays makes me quite embarrassed, but even more so it makes me very keen to learn as much as I can so that my own children can learn, respect and be inspired by the wonderful enriching culture right here in our own backyard.
Locally, there are many great and experienced guides, artists, professionals, academics who share a love of their culture and who enjoy sharing and teaching others about the depth and beauty within their culture and heritage. This region is alive with history and many locations hold significance to local traditional owner groups.
When I attended the symposium I heard Dr Madoc Sheehan speak of an area just outside of Townsville. He spoke of its natural beauty and I wondered if an area of such beauty also held spiritual or cultural significance to traditional owners. As it turns out there is a very special ‘Mindi’, a corroboree ground just a short drive away. The very same place is also a burial space and dancing space as well as ceremonial and spiritual space. It is on Warungnu land, up high on Hervey Range.
A few phone calls, a Google search and several emails later my family took a Sunday morning drive up to a nearby cattle station. It was here that we learnt that just 40 minutes from my front door there was in fact a place called Turtle Rock (Badgigal). Turtle Rock has Indigenous Rock art some 5000+ years old and many wonderful stories to be told. Professor John Campbell surveyed this site in the late 1980s and from what has been dug out (more art may exist beneath the surface) possible timelines could be as far-reaching as 10,000 years old.
After being given permission by the property owners to bring our group onto their station, I searched further and was blessed to come across the details of a local elder through the James Cook University Cultural Research Centre.
Uncle Rusty has been sharing his knowledge all over Queensland, guiding students, professionals and international visitors since 1990. He has been involved in much preservation of this site, from completing regular maintenance and preservation work, invasive weed control (lantana), as well as arranging for the erection of a fence to ensure grazing cattle did not destroy this precious site.
A week later a special visit was organised with Uncle Russell (Rusty) Butler. He had agreed to guide 20 of our playgroup children and their parents up to Turtle Rock. We all gathered at the entrance of the Station, then one by one made the short trek into the bush and out to this very special place. Some walked along the dirt track, some bobbed up and down in their SUVs and 4wd vehicles, all buzzing with anticipation for such a special experience.
From the moment we gathered under the trees Rusty shared knowledge of the region, of its plants, bush tucker and of its cultural significance. He pointed out the Cocky Apple bush and told us of its many uses (medicinal, hunting, seasonal calendar. He showed us the soap tree (Jarra) with similar uses. This was all before we had walked 2 metres from our parked cars.
Uncle Rusty went on further, leading us all into the Turtle Rock cave. Pausing for a few moments before gesturing us to follow on, Rusty pointed out tracks left by animals (a goanna, rock wallaby and scrub turkey) who had sheltered there sometime before we all arrived by the SUV load.
He taught us words in traditional language used to describe Man (Bama), Woman (Warungnu) and Child (Yibi Yibi). He told us stories of ‘Ganibara’ the Dingo and ‘Manaro’ the Kangaroo, of the land stretching some 350 kilometres or more from the banks of the Mulgrave River and the Yidingi people of Cairns all the way down to the tip of Cape Cleveland and the Bindal people.
All 20 children sat together with their parents, drinking in the magic. Our experience was rich with wonder and engagement. I feel that not one family who attended that day would have walked away without a sense of awe and a genuine appreciation for this special place.
The children (most under six ears of age) left Turtle Rock that sunny Monday morning, chattering excitedly about the stories, asking questions of their parents about special places and talking very knowledgably (as only 5 year olds can) about throwing spears and catching fish with Cocky Apple leaves. The richness and depth of the conversations was amazing and every parent who attended spoke later of what a unique and inspiring experience this visit had been.
I cannot share more humbly enough how grateful we are to Uncle Rusty (and his friend Ralph) for sharing with us their cultural knowledge and time. For widening the eyes and minds of our children with stories of the land and of the spirits who watch over it. We enjoyed his time so much that we have since hosted Uncle Rusty a second time for Ochre Painting in the park and all the kids reconnected with him like his was an old friend.
The experience has been beautiful and I cannot help but feel like this very simple adventure and a drive to connect to country has enriched the lives and minds of the children and families in our playgroup. If it has instilled even just a touch of stewardship and responsibility within our small group by connecting our kids to country, it has been a success.
I sincerely thank the QORF team and their many wonderful speakers for inspiring me to do this and I hope many others seek out and explore similar experiences in the great outdoors in their region and within their communities.
* Queensland Outdoor Recreation Federation (soon to be renamed Outdoors Queensland)