I'm just as much a fan of "fly and flop" holidays as anyone, especially this time of the year, when the warm tropics beckon. Sometimes all I need is a bit of warmth and a few absorbing books to recharge (and I still prefer paper ones).
It's nice to bliss-out for a while, but it can be a bit like fast food – no real nourishment. A lounge chair by a swimming pool in a beachside resort isn't going to expand my knowledge of anything, except the variation in cocktails made with rum.
Which is why I always try to connect to a place by doing something local and, hopefully, memorable, something I can keep with me long after the suntan fades.
Tropical North Queensland is one of Australia's favourite places to flop and Cairns is the major destination in the region because of its airport. I was there recently, and I did a bit of flopping, but by far the best experience I had was the new, half-day Hands on Country tour with Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tours (mandingalbay.com.au), a 100 per cent Indigenous owned and operated company.
Just across from the busy Cairns Marina is a quiet place which straddles the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics World Heritage sites. It's country for the Mandingalbay Yidinji people, who have lived in the rainforest and fished these waters for over 60,000 years. This magical place, which I could see from my hotel balcony, is only a 15 minute boat ride across the port and into the mangrove-lined creek.
I meet Marcus Brady, Dale Mundraby and captain Liz Crough of the tour company at Cairns Marlin Marina before setting off on their shiny new covered river boat for the cruise up the tranquil creek. Dale explains a little about connection to country through landscape and songlines, points out landmarks, talks about wildlife and conservation and gives his guests background to history of his people, who were fierce warriors that other tribes called on whenever there was trouble.
There's a new shelter in the shape of a stingray at the pontoon where we land. A boardwalk with three observation towers is in the planning stage. Next, we're taken on a short bus ride to the ranger base. Dale explains there has been an indigenous sea and land ranger program operating for eleven years.
Uncle Maynard Bulmer welcomes us to country with a smoking ceremony. Afterwards, we set off on an easy uphill hike through the rainforest with Laurissa Mundraby, direct descendent of the original inhabitants, who has been a ranger for 10 years.
The path is a bit rocky, requiring solid boots. We stop frequently, as she points out different plants and their uses, starting with the pandanus leaves that her grandmother taught her to weave into baskets and the paperbark that's used as roofing for shelters because it repels water.
I'm always amazed at the extraordinary abundance of our "bush tucker" and this rainforest seems more plentiful than most, from native tamarind, ginger, olives, damson, and yam to the Badil nut, which is toxic raw but once it is soaked in water for days can be ground to make damper. "Our food wasn't bland," Laurissa says.
She shows us a plant called Supplejack which is used as a contraceptive and the Golden Bouquet Tree which has nectar sweet enough to make cordial. At the end of our walk she picks some leaves off the "soap tree" and shows us how to crush them in our hands and mix with water to make frothy soap.
Most affecting is when Laurissa talks about her spiritual connection to country with stories that are not mine to tell here. There's nothing polished or touristy about her presentation, it's honest and heartfelt and a true example of how much we can learn from our First Nations people. But do go and hear for yourself.
The tour ends with cake and tropical fruit and a relaxing boat trip back through the mangroves. If you want to try some sophisticated bush tucker, I suggest you visit Ochre on Marlin Parade, where executive chef Craig Squire is a pioneer in the use of native ingredients and regional produce.
I had a wonderful lunch there, and then I went back to the pool to flop.
Lee Tulloch was a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland.