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.