A new adventure, an ancient place: Olkola Country

If you want to discover the real Australia, start here.
Mike Ross looks out over Olkola Country © Oliver Pelling
By Oliver Pelling

This story has been republished with permission from Intrepid Travel.

In December 2014, Cape York’s Olkola People were given back their land, 100 years after they were displaced by the Australian government. Now they want travellers - domestic and international alike - to learn their story, to walk the land of their ancestors, and to share in one of Far North Queensland’s most remote and untouched places: Olkola country.

Michael Ross is examining an ancient aboriginal ceremony ground. We’ve driven off-road for over 40 kilometres through Olkola Country to get here. The drive took some four or five hours (it was really, really off-road).

The sun is setting and we’re all tired. Mike looks out from underneath his ever-present black akubra to the forested hills in the distance. “This place is full of sites like these,” he says. “It’s up to us to go out there and find them.”

Today is the first time Mike, CEO of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, and the Olkola Land Managers have reached the site using this route. Mike is visibly pleased. His smile is wide enough to span the cape. Whenever we head out with Mike, in fact, the story’s much the same: he’s always searching for something new. And as his travel companions for the time being, we get to share the joy of these hard-fought discoveries with him.

Mike enjoying a moment of reflection © Oliver Pelling

The scene is backlit, metaphorically speaking, by the kind of tale that - when told by the right person - could give even the staunchest of souls a lump in their throat. Having being displaced from their land over a century ago, the Olkola people were handed some of it back ( 800,000 hectares or so) in December last year. The hand-back came after 30 years of negotiations with the Queensland government, negotiations led by Mike and the Traditional Owner Negotiation Committee. It's one of the largest hand-backs of its kind in Queensland history.

Over the course of that lost century, some Olkola people worked the land for the new pastoral owners and kept their culture and knowledge alive by sharing stories when they crossed paths. Mike was a cattle drover on Olkola country himself for the best part of his life (“I was making $80 a month – that was good money!” he laughs), and he used that time to collect and piece together stories of his people and his land.

Working for the pastoral owners was the only way for Olkola people to keep those stories alive and to spend time on their ancestral land. But now that’s all changed. As today's expedition to this ceremony site illustrates, Mike and his people are free to explore their country as they please.

In search of ancient sites, Olkola Country © Oliver Pelling

The long road home

It's the day after our adventure to the ceremony site. Mike is sitting on a log at Jungle Creek – a freshwater stream deep within the Olkola bush. We can hear the Land Managers, his boys, telling jokes and laughing downriver. Mike scratches his beard and takes a big, lingering sip of his billy tea. He seems content.

How does it feel to be able to explore his ancestral land freely now? “It gives you a good feeling inside,” he replies. “Yes, we are free. At last we can come home and start looking for what the old people left behind. It’s an experience you can’t explain.”

The responsibility of getting country back was given to Mike by his elders after a small chunk of Olkola land, Glen Garland station, was handed back in 1993. “They said to me: ‘Hey young fella, do you like travelling on planes?’” remembers Mike. “I said: ‘Yeah, I don’t mind.' They said: 'Good, well you go down south and tell the boss people that we want all our country back.'"

Eventually, in December 2014, the State Government returned more of their traditional land to the Olkola people, but not before many Olkola elders who’d given Mike the task had passed away. “I went to visit the last elder when he was sick,” says Mike. “He said ‘sit down next to me, mate’. He asked me where I was going, and I told him I had to go back down south to more meetings about the land. He said: ‘yeah, you go. But you tell the big boss fella, you tell him I wanna go home. I wanna go home now.’”

To Mike, “I wanna go home”, meant only one thing: it was time to set the handover date. Mike left his friend and travelled down to Cairns for his meeting. He walked into the room that day and says he knew exactly what date to set: the first week in December. “No questions asked," says Mike. “I knew.”

The Olkola were returned their land back on December 14, 2014, a date agreed upon by the TONC committee. Mike’s friend passed away during the process, but Mike, because the land was now theirs, was able to bury him back on Olkola country. He got him home.

Mike having a yarn at Jungle Creek © Oliver Pelling

Spending time with Mike is awe-inspiring. He came up to Killarney – our Olkola base camp for our week on country– the night after us. It was already dark when his old ute pulled up in the driveway. We (myself and a handful of others lucky enough to be invited on this Olkola pilot trip) were sitting around the campfire, swapping stories and talking smack.

“That’s Mike”, someone whispered. We all gazed over to catch a glimpse. He stepped out of the car and cut an impressive silhouette for a 63-year-old –  trademark akubra atop his head (“I’m not the boss without this hat,” he later tells me). Earlier that night we’d all been star-struck by the clarity of the night skies above Olkola country. Now we were star-struck by a man who was forged under them.

From that night on, whether it was around the campfire or hurtling through the bush in search of ancient sites, our trip was complemented by Mike’s narration. He is the quintessential aboriginal elder: wise, calm and strong. And these are all qualities he’s in the process of distilling into his Land Managers.

I ask Mike what he’s enjoying most about being back on country. “I’m getting my satisfaction out of showing the young people what I’ve learnt,” he offers. “Showing them what the old people taught us. How to respect for it, how to care for it – that’s the first stage.”

In the bush, everything has a use © Oliver Pelling

Creating a sustainable future

If Olkola people – there are an estimated 500 of them across Australia – are going to come home, they need something to come home to.

The Olkola Corporation, Olkola country’s representing body, do not want any mining on their land (they recently rejected a deal from a French mining company), nor do they want to have to rely on government funding for their livelihoods. Instead, they're looking at sustainable approaches they can take to make their land work for them.

The corporation is currently adopting a three-pronged approach: eco-tourism, carbon credit programmes (early-burning the land to reduce carbon emissions) and cattle farming. The tourism venture, a joint effort between Olkola and Intrepid Travel, is an area everyone is particularly excited about, and it'll be supported by other initiatives, like walking trips, mountain bike tours and a campground on the Olkola land. Intrepid will help train Indigenous guides that'll begin leading travellers through here in June 2016. It's an investment in sustainable skills, something that will support Olkola communities in the long-term.

Attending the handover ceremony back in December, Intrepid Travel's co-founder, Geoff Manchester, said that it was "fantastic that [the Olkola] understand how important tourism can be and that it has that ultimate long-term sustainability than can go on and on."

Fresh tracks. The only ones for miles. © Oliver Pelling

Down at Jungle Creek, Mike’s telling me how excited he is at the prospect of regularly meeting people from all over the world. “Oh I’d like to learn about their culture,” he smiles. “Because they had problems too. They had hard times. There was never an easy time for any culture. To learn other people’s culture helps make my culture strong. It makes you one strong man. One strong people.

“I’d like to think that, when they go, and they’re sitting on their own somewhere in their modern world, if they have problems, they’ll drift back to their time with the Olkola people and some memory will help them overcome those problems. Hopefully I can achieve that.”

Leading the way to some ancient Olkola rock art © Oliver Pelling

The magic of Olkola lies in the fact that everything – the land, the people, the culture, the stories – is being discovered again. On top of that, I didn’t see another traveller (outside of our group) for the entire week. We had the whole place to ourselves.

It’s not just Mike who’s excited to welcome travellers to his land, either. Later that day, when we return to the Killarney homestead, I talk with Glen, Mike’s nephew, who may become a tour leader by the time the trips begin.

Glen has been a Land Manager for four years and has grown to love the land he’s been working on – even more so now that it’s legally his. “I can’t wait to see what these people think about the country eh,” he tells me. “I just want to see the expression on their face when they see a new thing. It’ll blow their minds out! I can’t wait for that. Every day out here is like a new picture.”

Searching for Golden Shouldered Parrots

The environment

Olkola is a diverse ecosystem. As well as boasting the world’s largest unbroken savannah outside of Africa, you’ve also got the Great Dividing Range and the Kimba Plateau running through it.

The month before our trip on country, a team of over forty scientists spent two weeks completing various surveys on the land and wildlife. Amongst other things, they discovered over 20 brand-new species of spiders.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone more passionate about Olkola ecology than Graham Tupper, manager of the ACF Northern Australia Program, who accompanied us on the trip. He's a real-life eco-warrior. “The real excitement of visiting Olkola country lies in having the Olkola as guides,” explains Graham. “It’s a journey through a living cultural landscape, where these plants and animals take on a whole new level of meaning because of the stories we’re told about them.”

Glen partaking in some bird spotting © Oliver Pelling

Graham tells me that Glen, who’s become a keen birder during his time on country, once took a short walk from Killarney homestead and noted some 30 different species of birds. “That’s an astonishing variety,” Graham says.

Glen, who's never without his camera, has developed a particular fondness for the Golden-Shouldered Parrot – a striking yellow-winged endangered bird that calls Olkola country home. “That’s our totem,” says Glen of the parrots. He points towards the bush. “He lives over the way and we got to look after him. The researchers reckon the numbers are declining, so we just wanna do something for our little totem: find out where he is, where he lives and what he’s doing. We’ve gotta look after him.”

More than once, we clamber out of our 4WDs because Mike's spotted something he wants to show us. He starts off talking about one thing, but he winds up talking about almost everything in sight. "We used this plant to make spears", "we used this tree to making fishing line", "you can use an ant's nest to clear a cold", "here's the tree we use to make boomerangs", and so on. The bush is a pantry, a tool shed, a kitchen and a shelter all in one.

Sharing a story with his boys © Oliver Pelling

A promise to the elders

A common sight during our trip is that of seeing Mike talking quietly, away from our group, to his boys.

They’ll listen intently, never interrupting their elder, sometimes taking notes. This is how the knowledge of the land is passed down through the generations – by talking. As the boys work the land, Mike will begin to share with them more and more of his knowledge, and he's well aware of the challenges that come with this verbal form of sharing information. "The one thing Indigenous people don't have," says Mike, "is time. Because in time, we lose our knowledge. The older people pass away and that knowledge is gone – just like a piece of paper tearing out of a storybook. So the faster we move, the more knowledge the younger ones gather, the safer it is."

Now they have their land back, and can pass down stories to the next generation on the land in which those stories took place. The next stage, according to Mike, is for Olkola people to share their knowledge with the outside world. "Our history is our backbone," he explains, "it’s what the country’s made of. It’s the backbone of our knowledge. If we can share that with the outside, we have achieved the goal we set out to achieve."

Big man, bigger country © Oliver Pelling

Mike believes the future of Olkola is in safe hands. “They respect what Mother Nature gave us," he tells me at Jungle Creek. "They’re shaping up, and they’ll be role models for the others who’ll come back. Some young people might come back and say 'I don't know my country'. That's not their fault. Never was. But [I hope] they come back, relive and make the older ones happy."

The sun is setting – literally and metaphorically – on our final day on Olkola country. I ask Glen whether or not he feels burdened by the responsibility handed to him by Mike and the elders. "I'm proud eh, to do that for them," comes his response. "I'm proud of myself for being here, following them on country, listening to their stories around the campfire, meeting different people and telling them all about the land. I'm so proud to tell people what I know."

An Olkola sunset © Oliver Pelling

The writer travelled on Intrepid's brand new Journey Into Olkola Country itinerary, a 6-day trip with the Olkola across the stunning Cape York Peninsula.

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