Australia: Cairns – the Good and the Bad (Really Bad)


After World Sprints near Brisbane, crew mate Audrey and I flew off to explore.  We landed in Cairns – a popular destination for setting off to the Great Barrier Reef.  Barry, John, and I were there about 13 years ago and spent three days on a boat over the reef.  The experience was fantastic!  Tour boats – but in greater numbers – still go out.

The Cairns harbor has developed with an esplanade lined with outdoor cafés, up-scale restaurants, and galleries.  Now some boats serve great seafood feasts on board.  I barely recognized what had been a touristy, but small town on the mangrove coast.  We had fun then – and we had fun now.  This time, I learned more.

The Cairns Esplanade is especially wonderful: you’ll see playgrounds for children, fitness equipment for adults, two public swimming pools, bike and walking paths along the beautiful waterfront. You’ll even find quiet spots for anyone wanting to stop and strum a guitar.


Cairns has birds and fish and marine life to enjoy.  If you are there at sunset, thousands of  birds swoop down to roost, somehow missing everyone – but not by much. 🙂

For me, one of the best experiences in Cairns was going to the Tjapukai Cultural Center.

It’s a 20-year old site, but Barry and I didn’t know about it when we were there years ago, and Audrey and I wouldn’t have found it this time except that Tom and Denise and some of our other Kihei paddlers had gone.   Tjapukai seems to be advertised only in conjunction with the crocodile feeding experience – which is not something I fancy.  When you go to Cairns, do the dives and zip lines and all the activities, but also find out about the rich history of the original people.  I highly recommend the Tjapukai cultural site.


Tjapukai – the original people – a culture that has lasted 50,000 years!

The indigenous Aboriginals of Australia have one of the oldest living cultures on Earth.

However, when British Captain James Cook arrived on Australia’s shores in 1770, the country was  described  as uninhabited, despite the fact that an estimated 700,000 people were living  there.  Like many other colonized places, the original culture was not respected for its rich practices that allowed the local people to live in harmony with their land.

Tjapukai celebrates some of the knowledge and skills of the Aboriginals.  After a Cirque du Soleil light and sound show about the Aboriginal history, our friendly guide, who is proud of his heritage, shared some of their  practices.   We saw a “bayngga” – an underground oven – much like our Hawaiian “imu” that allows meat and vegetables to be steamed; we got to sample them later: delicious.  Also, much like our Hawaiian “ʻaumākua” spirit guides, Aboriginals have special names connected to nature.  ʻ”Dingo,” the young woman who helped us make bracelets out of seeds and other found objects and showed us symbols we could use in painting boomerangs, was given her name by her father.

Audrey and I also took the medicinal/herb tour and were introduced to plants that have helped Aboriginals survive and thrive in what we consider a very harsh land.  Australia, you probably know, is  infamous for its deadly animals, including the Box jellyfish,   Irukandji jellyfish, the European honey bee, bull sharks, Eastern brown snake, saltwater or estuarine crocodile, Sydney funnel web spider, and the Blue-ringed octopus.  The plants in Australia can kill you too.  But the Aboriginals have learned how to use them well.

For instance,  the Aboriginals make use of  the “Stinging Tree” or “Suicide Tree.”  If you get close to it and happen to touch it, your skin will burn for months!  Its stinging hairs cover the whole plant and deliver a potent neurotoxin.  Incredibly, the Aboriginals discovered that its fruit is edible if the stinging hairs that cover it are removed.

We were given pointers about the circular breathing necessary to create the haunting music of the didgeridoo.


We got to try spear throwing – all animals were safe from us – even the stationary target!

The boomerang was fun too.  Again, we would have gone hungry if it were up to us to use a boomerang to hunt.

We were impressed by the Aboriginal skills, art, and knowledge.

The overal message of the Tjapukai was about the  Aboriginal expertise in living in harmony in a sustainable way – for over 50,000 years.  We saw the richness of their art and myths and saw examples of Aboriginals who have become famous in politics, art, music, sports, and business.

Art at the Tjapukai Cultural Center:


We lived in harmony with our land for 50,000 years


Our land was taken/ Our culture broken/  Our children stolen

Although the atrocities were mentioned, they weren’t the focus of the cultural center perhaps because many of the tourists coming to Tjapukai would not know the Aboriginal history at all.


But – We are still here

Our Aboriginal guides at the Tjapukai are proud of their art, their culture, and their survival.

Going to the Tjapukai Cultural Center made me curious for more information.

I learned that Aboriginal culture in Australia has almost been destroyed.

Immigration to Australia was restricted almost exclusively to whites from the country’s founding in 1901 until the mid-1970s.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Indigenous Australians could vote in Australian federal elections. Queensland became the last state to remove restrictions on Indigenous voting in state elections in 1965.



“Kanakas” on a sugar plantation in Cairns circa 1890 via  Britannica

Colonial Australian ships scuttling from island to island brought back tens of thousands of people to toil on sugar and cotton plantations. Aboriginals and South Pacific Islanders were taken against their wills. Although some were released after three-year contracts, many went unpaid and toiled for decades.

Since the first colonists arrived, Aboriginal life has been difficult. “The Aborigines of Australia were faring little better than immigrants of color and slaves during the latter half of the 19th century. Sometimes hunted like animals, and often taken prisoner for minor offenses (both real and contrived), they were treated like chattel. . .

It wasn’t just people who identified as Australian who were trafficking in slavery during this period. Some of the most ruthless and successful enslavers were Americans who sold people (again under the guise of “indentured servitude”) to plantation owners who needed cheap or free labor in Fiji, Queensland, and New South Wales.”


South Seas blackbirding ship named Fearless (John Oxley Library).  “Blackbirding” refers to the practice of coercing through trickery and kidnapping people to work as laborers.

Another Australian practice against its Indigenous people involves kidnapping the children.

See the documentary/drama: The Rabbit Proof Fence that tells the true story of three aboriginal girls who are forcibly taken from their families in 1931 to be trained as domestic servants as part of an official Australian government policy. They make a daring escape and embark on an epic 1,500 mile journey to get back home – following the rabbit-proof fence that bisects the Australian continent – with the authorities in hot pursuit.

Go to:

Between the 1890s and 1970s, thousands of Aboriginal children were kidnapped from their parents by the Australian government and religious missions.  Why?  The two major reasons seem to be: for cheap labor and to breed out the black! 😦 😦    Many [Most?] of those children suffered terrible abuse and  never saw their parents or relatives again.

Well, you might say, at least it stopped in the 1970s.

However, according to a 2014 news report in The Guardian, “The mass removal of Indigenous children from their parents continues unabated” –

“In 2012 the co-ordinator general of remote services for the Northern Territory, Olga Havnen, was sacked when she revealed that almost A$80m (£44m) was spent on the surveillance and removal of Aboriginal children compared with only A$500,000 (£275,000) on supporting the same impoverished families. She told me: “The primary reasons for removing children are welfare issues directly related to poverty and inequality. The impact is just horrendous because if they are not reunited within six months, it’s likely they won’t see each other again. If South Africa was doing this, there’d be an international outcry” . . .

Today, the theft of Aboriginal children – including babies taken from the birth table – is now more widespread than at any time during the last century. ”

For the whole article, go to –


Sunset from the Cairns Esplanade – it looks really good

Australia may be a good place to live or visit if you are white, much like in the U.S.

However, its Indigenous people still suffer, and the future does not seem good for them.

But, it’s easy to criticize other countries.

Wherever we are, we can celebrate diversity; we can learn from each other.    So, when in Cairns, be sure to go to Tjapukai; you will have fun while learning about the Aboriginal culture that has lived in harmony with the land for 50,000 years!

And if you are not in Cairns, look around.  Inequality and injustice abound.

Who seems different from you?  Find out about that person and his/her culture – then repeat.  You will enjoy an enriched life, and the norm can/does change.

We are all a part of the whole.

Sad but hopeful, Renée


Tags: , , , ,

About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

2 responses to “Australia: Cairns – the Good and the Bad (Really Bad)”

  1. Rosita says :

    Whoa! I loved those photos, and I guess all that info is pretty interesting and I couldn’t forget mentioning that ‘Dingo’ is Australian native dog, and, just as Australian Aboriginal peoples, regarded both as pests, obstacles for the country’s development. It’s sad seeing that an unique culture as the aboriginal Australian is almost forgotten by nowaday’s Aussies. It’s similar to wha’ occurs there on Brazil, we had almost forgotten our indigenous roots and we’re embracing a most ‘Europeanized’ or even ‘Americanized’ – or wha’ we think it’s Europeanized/Americanized – way of living, and, consequently, denying our unique indigenous heritage. And I know that ’cause I live in a place who, due to its localization, closely to the Amazon River and the Amazonic rainforest, should be proud of its Amazon indigenous heritage, but is still denying it, sadly. We just don’t deny our indigenous heritage when it comes to local culinary, but, in other aspects, we don’t preserve it, sadly. But I’m glad of seeing that an unique place as the Tjapukai Center is recovering pride to Australian indigenous unique culture. I don’t know if we have a place analogue to this here, and, if we have, it isn’t on my city nor my state. The photo who says ‘we lived in harmony with our land for 50,000 years’ is a very touching and meaningful one, and it should make we reflect on how we’re treating this planet – the same planet we’ll let for our children, and, sadly, sometimes we doesn’t seem to be taking care of this precious planet and the only one who we live in. And wha’ to say of this other photo who says ‘our land was taken, our culture broken and our children stolen’?! It is a very sad, although touching one. It should make we reflect about anthropocentrism and other’s culture rights and freedom of speech and thinking. We can learn with all those errors our European ancestors committed on past, in name of the racial superiority, by slavering both innocent indigenous and Africans, so we make sure we wouldn’t do those things never more. And wha’ to say about that tree who can burns your skin? Sheesh! In the Caribbean and South America, some countries have a tree like that, but, instead of burning your skin, it can actually kill you with an acid who is expelled in rainy days, and even its fruits are poisonous. Sinister; no?! Sadly, I forgotten this tree’s name 😦 But I should say that both indigenous people from the Caribbean, South America and Australia know how to manage those now very dreaded trees who we don’t know even say if are they poisonous or nah by just giving them a look. So, that’s more one reason we should preserve our indigenous heritage and be proud of their culture, instead of denying them, ’cause they aren’t forgotten characters of history books nor wild, undeveloped persons. Thinking like that is wha’ we should call as being anthropocentrism. So, I guess we should be open to others culture instead of thinking we’re like private islands on a sea of selfishness, just feeding and feeding more that egoism instead of being open to other’s people and learning somewhat new with them, as well as sharing information about our cultures with each other 😀 so, wha’ is Hawaiian poisonous tree (if yours have one)? And is nowadays Hawaii culturally most closely to mainland USA or to other South Seas islands? Is Hawaii preserving its original culture or nah?

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Rosita: I agree completely with your stand that we need to respect and learn from indigenous cultures – everywhere. Their knowledge might even save our lives in the future – and certainly give us good ideas and methods to live sustainably. Surely Brazil has something like the Tjapukai for the indigenous there. In Australia, the Tjapukai isn’t well advertised, so the same thing may be happening in Brazil. In Hawaii, the culture is coming back!! In about 1985, a few Hawaiian language preschools were started. Few people knew the language since it hadn’t been allowed in schools for 100 years or so, and only about 10% of the native Hawaiian people survived colonization and the diseases introduced by Westerners. The parents of those Hawaiian immersion pre-schools were required to attend the classes too, so they could learn the language. Now, a child can attend school from pre-school through university using Hawaiian as the first language! There is a movement to take back the land that was stolen from the Hawaiians. (Good luck with that since the U.S. government has bases and sees the islands as a strategic spot and lots of rich U.S. Mainland and wealthy people from around the world live here). Recently, we tried to get a initiative on the November ballot to take over sugar cane land (stolen from Hawaiians about 150 years ago) and make it available for small plots for organic farming. It failed 😦 😦 But a movement is growing to make what I see as positive changes that give Hawaiians more control of the land. Many of the Hawaiians on Molokai especially hunt, fish, and live off the land as their ancestors did. Since we are over 2,000 miles (3,219 km) from the nearest continent, knowing how to live off the land could be very useful information if something happens. And on another positive note, Hawaii has few poisonous anythings: no poison oak, no poison ivy, no stinging trees – or killing trees as you have, no snakes (of any kind), no poisonous spiders, no bears, no tigers, not even the box jelly fish of Australia. We do have scorpions and sea urchins that won’t kill you, and an occasional shark bite. For the sharks, usually that’s a mistake because after the first taste, they tend to let go; their eyesight isn’t very good, and sometimes they think people are turtles (which are much tastier than humans – I’ve been told). I’ve been asked if we live in grass shacks here in Hawaii – no. Although a small number of people go into the mountains and “live off the grid” (no electricity), most people who live here have very expensive condos and houses. We look a lot like Mainland U.S. beach towns – except we have volcanoes and really beautiful beaches. Here on Maui, the population is only about 150,000 people, so there is much undeveloped and open space. I hope you will come visit someday.
      Aloha, Renée

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: