Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel, Cairns, Queensland © Tourism and Events Queensland
Experience Aboriginal culture in Cairns
Cairns is not only the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, it’s also a great place to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
By Katrina Lobley
Dreamtime stories are woven through both land and sea for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have inhabited the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region for tens of thousands of years. Learn more about these two thriving, distinct cultures and the people’s spiritual connection to their ancestral lands while exploring this tropical north Queensland city.
Venture onto traditional land
An authentic Aboriginal experience is just a short boat ride away from central Cairns. On a three-hour eco-cultural tour with Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tours, you’ll journey into the ancestral lands of the local Mandingalbay Yidinji Aboriginal people.
After a quick cruise across the broad creek from the city’s busy Reef Fleet Terminal, you’ll experience a traditional Welcome to Country in the form of a smoking ceremony. Then it’s time for a guided walk in Grey Peaks National Park. This lushly forested area to the east of Cairns is normally off limits to visitors; you can only enter with Mandingalbay Yidinji guides.
In this sanctuary for coastal birds you’ll learn how to “shop the bush supermarket” and visit the “bush pharmacy” – in other words, forage for the edible and medicinal plants, flowers and herbs that the Mandingalbay Yidinji people have used for thousands of years.
Afterwards you’ll enjoy a snack of coconut damper (a traditional Australian bread cooked over an open fire) and tea, before taking the boat back to Cairns.
Dive into the Dreamtime
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of North Queensland have a strong spiritual connection to the sea as well as to the land. You can discover this on a Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel tour.
Get to know the crew of Aboriginal and Torres Strait sea rangers as you cruise from Cairns out onto the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. They’ll tell you how they practise their ancient culture in a modern world and share a creation story about how the reef was formed. You’ll also experience traditional dances and didgeridoo playing, and see how clap sticks are used as percussion instruments.
As well as enjoying an Aboriginal cultural experience, you will get plenty of time to dive or snorkel on the reef and explore this natural living masterpiece.
Shop the galleries
An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artwork makes for a great souvenir of your Australian holiday. In central Cairns, head to the Doongal on the Esplanade gallery, which specialises in lush rainforest paintings by local Aboriginal artists as well as works by Central Australian Aboriginal artists. The gallery also has an extensive collection of locally made didgeridoos and boomerangs.
UMI Arts in Manoora, a 10-minute drive west of the Esplanade, is an organisation dedicated to preserving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural identity. Here you’ll find regular exhibitions by local Indigenous artists as well a shop selling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks and design objects.
You can learn more about the rich heritage of Indigenous art by visiting Cairns Art Gallery. This public gallery’s permanent collection includes works by highly regarded Aboriginal artists such as Danie Mellor and Rosella Namok.