A cultural trip around the eastern states of Australia: rocking the indigenous arts scene
March 14, 2014 | By:
NSW and Queensland are full of cultural surprises, from ancestral rock art to contemporary sculptures along the coastline. And there's always the opera
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The sails of Sydney Opera House are illuminated nightly during the Vivid Sydney festival

To experience Queensland’s tropical north through the eyes of the people who have been its custodians for tens of thousands of years, you must leave the big city behind to travel the Bama Way.

This Aboriginal journey from Cairns to Cooktown follows storylines of the Kuku Yalanji and Guugu Yimithirr peoples, with three different Aboriginal-owned tours exploring indigenous culture.

High in the hills outside Cooktown, for example, you can walk among ancestral rock art sites led by Nugal-warra elder and storyteller Willie Gordon, who unearths the practical and spiritual meanings behind this primordial art with great energy and charm.

Indigenous tours are a superb way to tap into the rich natural resources that these lands are blessed with, from ‘songlines’ (significant indigenous journey-cum-pilgrimages) to food foraging.

And, of course, the marine life in and around Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef makes for more than just a fishy feast. This natural watery playground is an essential stop on any tour of the region, for divers, snorkellers and sailors alike. It’s also a favourite with some of the world’s toughest ironmen.

AdventureFestival and Ocean Challenge

The Cairns Airport Adventure Festival, an annual sports extravaganza, gives amateur and professional athletes the chance to get up close to the iconic coral, with events such as the Great Barrier Reef Ocean Challenge and Quicksilver Reef Swim on Green Island coral cay.

The festival’s biggest challenge is Ironman Cairns, a gruelling triathlon that travels from reef to rainforest, featuring a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike leg along one of Australia’s most scenic roads, towards Port Douglas, and a 42.2km run, taking in the sunny sights of coastal Cairns.

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Nugal-warra elder Willie Gordon explains some of the ancient Aboriginal rock art

Such buff beings are what many Brits associate with Sydney’s beach culture. The scene on Bondi is many things – loud, toned, joyous – but arty? Not so much.

Or at least that’s what I thought on first arriving in the city. I’d come to the beach to switch off, to be sun-soaked and self-indulgent. But on my first visit to Bondi I found sea urchins. No surprise there, you may think, but these creatures were marooned far from the surf: giant, boldly-coloured urchins the size of smart cars, glowing cerise pink and sky-blue against the sand, their lime green spikes like cartoon cacti gleaming in the sun.

‘Urchins’ was the work of artist Margarita Sampson, part of Sculpture by the Sea. It’s Australia’s largest annual outdoor festival of free sculpture and brings in half a million spectators to see works set along Sydney’s coastline.

Sydney’s art scene highlights

Sydney’s waterfront becomes the stage for a full orchestra during this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. The distinctive sail-like roof of the world’s most famous opera house is also the back-drop for Vivid Sydney, a mesmerising annual display of outdoor lighting sculptures and cutting-edge music that brightens Sydney in winter. Vivid takes over Sydney’s venerable Museum of Contemporary Art, with public talks and debates from leading creative thinkers.

In the heart of Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is a must-see for art lovers with its collections of colonial and 19th-century Australian works and European old masters. And thought-provoking art is found year-round in the independent galleries and design boutiques of hipster neighbourhoods such as Surry Hills, Paddington and Darlinghurst.

Part of the reason we call these regions Essential Australia is the way their cultural and natural landscapes collide. The rainforests, cliffs and surf-sculpted headlands are natural canvasses for both contemporary and traditional indigenous arts. And they make for quite some backdrops.

Five arts and culture experiences

Go gallery hopping in Sydney’s creative villages: Surry Hills’ artists’ studios, Paddington’s big-name galleries and Darlinghurst’s fashion and design shops.

Throw a spear with the brothers of the Kubirri Warra at Cooya Beach, north of Port Douglas.

Enjoy opera against the iconic backdrop of Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, with a full orchestra on a stage over the water. This year is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

See awesome rock art with indigenous guide and Nugal-warra elder Willie Gordon outside Cooktown, Queensland.

Get your groove on at Byron Bay Bluesfest (17-21 April) in the idyllic surrounds of Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. This year’s highlights include Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Dr John, Iron & Wine, The Wailers and Morcheeba.