This is one in a series of occasional articles on dream vacations, what some might call bucket-list or once-in-a-lifetime trips.
Wilfred Gordon picks us up in an air-conditioned van at our hotel in remote Cooktown, in far northeast Australia, and jokes that we may hit a wallaby crossing the road.
A Nugal-warra elder and story-keeper, Gordon is taking my companion and me out into the countryside to his clan’s private Guurrbi — sacred place — to see cave art drawn by his ancestors.
A walkabout in the bush with an Aborigine was high on my list of things to do in Australia. But it’s immediately clear with Gordon we have not signed up for some touristy indigenous offering. He informs us the lessons of the day will be in what he calls “the two s’s,” spirituality and survival.
“We need our spirituality to make us strong and ensure our survival,” Gordon explains.
We head about 40 minutes out of the town where Captain James Cook landed in 1770, towards the small indigenous community of Hope Vale, where Gordon’s clan is among the traditional owners of the land.
As we leave blacktop for a tribal dirt road, a wallaby successfully makes its way across our path.
Gordon talks of how when he was young, his artist father, Tulo, took him hunting in the hills of these ancestral lands and secretly into sandstone caves to teach him the meaning of drawings left by his ancestors. At the time, anything to do with cave art was discouraged because it was considered against Christian values.
“We were not allowed to practice rituals,” Gordon explains. “My father would teach me stories really quickly in the hope we wouldn’t be found out.”
Gordon left Hope Vale for several decades for school and work but he says he never lost his awareness that if he didn’t share the meaning of the cave art the lessons might be lost.
In 2003 he started Guurrbi Tours, teaching visitors about a culture that has existed here for at least 10,000 to 15,000 years.
“Education can be a tool to move forward and a tool to go against us,” he says. “I came back to be custodian for our cultural values, custodian for the arts.”
The tours have been named one of the top attractions in Australia, right up there with climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Yet Gordon keeps it a small operation. He’s the only guide.
Our destination is an area known as Wangaar-Wuri or “White Person Playing.” There’s a story that goes with the name: In the 1800s, Gordon’s clan found a white girl who was lost and cared for her for several years.
We get out of the van, and Gordon grabs a walking stick, while my companion and I grab umbrellas. Our four-hour, 1.8-mile walk will be partially in rain, which slightly cools the tropical air and which apparently attracts wildlife — a turkey with a red head walks across rocks at the trailhead.
We hit a dirt path cut through woodlands that leads to a limestone escarpment and the caves. The area is stunning with its giant rocks and greenery.
No one knows when the cave art we will view was first created, but some depictions are as recent as the 1930s.
The images were repainted over generations, as was general practice. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It comes in the realm of fashion and fashion changes over time,” Gordon opines.
The stories depicted are of life, love, birth, death and yes, spirituality and survival — lessons as simple as how to find food and water.
But the cave art is meaningless without interpretation, Gordon says. That’s why Aborigines traditionally had storytellers as clan leaders rather than kings, in recognition of the importance of shared knowledge.
“Art is a way of survival. I have a thing about that. You need a story-keeper to tell the story of life,” he says.
Viewing the art as living history, Gordon says he wants to eventually train younger Aborigines to interpret the art. He also urges visitors to become storytellers.
We visit six shallow caves, climbing over rocks and bending under ceilings at times to get closer.
Most of the art is painted in red ochre, though some white is also used to depict sadness, some yellow to represent light. Handprints are the artists’ signature; one painter clearly had only four fingers.
We see depictions of animals including kangaroo. We visit a cave where drawings of pregnant women indicate its role as a maternity waiting room.
In another cave is a graphic depiction of a woman giving birth, with legs wide spread and baby arriving. A man is shown off to the side, indicating he was not present at the birth.
The birthplace marks the beginning of life and gives people their spiritual identity or warra — their “I am” or “I belong to,” Gordon explains.
By Aboriginal custom, a newborn was presented to his father in front of the clan. The father then buried the placenta nearby. Later, at death, a person’s bones were returned to the same burial place, completing the circle of life.
In the birth cave, Gordon hits us with his most poignant tale.
In the 1930s, a baby was presented to her father. She had light skin and the father immediately realized his wife had had an affair with a white man. But he decided in front of the clan to accept the baby and plant her placenta.
The baby was Gordon’s Aunt Ruby.
Suddenly, our art tour turns to a discussion of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people — a hot topic in Australia.
“Accepting a person is the beginning of reconciliation. You need to make a decision on your own — do you accept this person?” Gordon says.
Reconciliation has to be spiritual, he adds. “We came from the same place, your mom and your spirit and my mom and her spirit.”
When Aunt Ruby was old enough to understand, she was brought back to the cave. Gordon has us bend behind a rock to see a row of little child handprints. A fish symbol is painted nearby symbolizing a good decision was made.
We pause for an emotional moment.
There are other caves with dozens of his ancerstors’ drawings that Gordon does not share with the public. In one, the paintings are explicitly related to sex. In another, the bones of his ancestors are buried.
The last cave we visit has a depiction of the Yirmbal, the Rainbow Serpent, representing the creator in the form of a flowing river that gives life-giving water. It’s a place to pause for reflection.
As we hike back to our starting point, Gordon imparts his know-how of plants and their medicinal purposes, having us crush the leaves of a soap plant to form a foamy liquid and taste the lemony residue of big ants, which he says is good for sinuses.
But that’s not the main message he wishes to impart.
“OK, mate, have a safe trip,” he says, as he drops us off back at our hotel in Cooktown. Then pointing his finger upward he adds, “Remember, life is a journey.” He taps the horn of the van in a friendly honk and drives away.