How Whitsundays indigenous experience got off the ground

In Attractions, Australian Domestic Tourism, Featured Home Page News, Queensland

Peter Pryor a Burri Birri man teamed up with a boat owner and a business coach to offer an indigenous experience to tourists visiting the Whitsundays with Ngaro Indigenous Cultural Tours starting in February last year.

from cairns post 28.08.21

From the hills above the Whitsunday’s stunning Nara Inlet, at the mouth of the cave his Ngaro ancestors used for centuries, Peter Pryor invites his guests to look out and drink in the vista.

“It’s all blue, green, aqua water through the trees,” says Pryor. “Once people turn and look at where we’re standing, they’re just blown away by the colour, the pureness of the water.”

Then Pryor begins his Welcome to Country. He speaks of the Burri Gubba, an indigenous nation made up of the people of the islands, the Ngaro, those from the Proserpine and Airlie Beach area, the Gia, and those of the Bowen region, the Juru.

He tells of the way of life of his people, as depicted by the fish trap paintings on the cave that have been dated back 2350 years by Queensland-based archaeo-anthropologist, Dr Bryce Barker

“The paintings are done in our ochre, mixed with animal blood,” says Pryor, who co-runs Ngaro Indigenous Cultural Tours. “The cave was a refuge for my ancestors. It was a meeting place and an eating place; we have midden beds up there as well.”

It’s been a long journey for Pryor to return to his ancestral roots, to the magnificent island group on the central Queensland coast where his great grandfather, Tom Pryor, was born in the 1880s.

By the time 55-year-old Pryor came along, his people had long been removed from, or left, the islands.

The Burri Gubba man was raised in Ingham, about 400km north of Airlie Beach, and spent most of his adult life in Brisbane, but seven years ago, Pryor packed up his family and returned to the Whitsunday region.

“As I got older, I felt this pull and I know that spiritually, my ancestors were guiding me back home,” he says. “They needed a voice in this area and they needed a strong male to stand up and be proud and hopefully bring some of the younger ones along.”

Part of amplifying that voice is this tour, the only bookable Aboriginal experience in the Whitsundays, which Pryor offers in conjunction with his friend and operator of Whitsunday Paradise Explorer, John Henderson.

The two met when Pryor was working on the islands as an indigenous ranger for Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service during the clean-up following the devastation caused by Cyclone Debbie in March 2017. Henderson was ferrying the workers to the islands.

“On that hour journey, to and from, we got to talking and once John found out that I was a descendant of the Ngaro people of the islands, he had a sympathetic ear,” says Pryor.

“I just said to him, ‘All the tours and stuff happening through the islands, there’s a missing link, and that missing link is us. It’s the traditional owners’.”

A seed was sown. Henderson consulted his business coach and before long, he and Pryor were holding workshops with elders to discuss the type of tour they could offer.

“We just thought, ‘What have we got to lose?’ We’ve got a huge opportunity for Peter and his people, just a little tour that’s different,” says Henderson.

“We worked out what we could tell the guests, what the elders were happy to tell.”

Ngaro Indigenous Cultural Tours launched in February last year, with Henderson skippering the boat and Pryor as the guide. “As soon as we get to the point where the tour is starting, I hand over to Peter and he formally welcomes them and acknowledges the elders; tells the ancestors that we’re here and then the tour starts.”

The timing wasn’t great to launch a tour, given the advent of Covid-19, and while restrictions have stymied the tourist trade, that didn’t stop Henderson purchasing a new 12-person boat in January this year. One of Pryor’s cousins was commissioned to paint its hulls: the Gubulla Munda, a snake totem, now graces the boat called Wild Dreams.

Henderson, 67, says that with his retirement looming, he is keen to train indigenous people as skippers and deckhands so that the business can be handed over to Pryor and the Aboriginal people.

“It would give me no greater pleasure than to see the tour manned completely by indigenous descendants,” Henderson says.

“They don’t have to be Ngaro, but to create employment for indigenous people and recognise that they have an important story to tell. Why not have them tell it? We can’t tell it the same way.”

Says Pryor: “This is a way home for us. To light the path for the Ngaro people to come back home. Through tourism we have a voice.”

After leaving the cave at Hook Island’s Nara Inlet, the tour heads to Cid Harbour on Whitsunday Island where Pryor leads the way through the bush to show the trees that his ancestors used to make canoes and some of the native foods along the trail.

When they emerge from the bush at Sawmill Beach, Henderson has lunch ready and Pryor does a smoking ceremony

The spot has special significance to Pryor. “There’s signage at Sawmill Beach telling people a short story about the timber cutters that were down there and how they were working with the last two Ngaro men of the islands,” he says. “And one of those men was my great grandfather, Tom Pryor.” Tom Pryor’s last time on the island was in 1905.

After lunch, Pryor talks about what the land and the sea means to indigenous people. “We build our canoes, we do a lot of things on the land, so we have to respect it. It’s the same as the sea; when we respect the sea, we also respect the animals and the marine life. We eat the tucker, the turtles, the fish, it sustains us, and when we respect it, we come to understand,” says Pryor.

“And with respect and understanding comes knowledge. And they are the three things that we hold very, very, very close to our hearts as traditional owners and indigenous people of this region.”

One element of Ngaro culture that Pryor is keen to promote and “resuscitate” is the language. If a butterfly flits by, Pryor will let tourists know that’s “buka”. If a swarm passes, a common and beautiful sight in the spring months, that’s “buka buka”.

“Buka” was the first word Tom Pryor’s brother, Willy Moogera, translated for a linguist who came to the Whitsundays in the 1930s to record the native tongue. Moogera was living on Lindeman Island at the time, one of the last islands in the Whitsundays where Ngaro congregated. To break the ice with a reticent Moogera, the linguist asked the local name for the insect as it flew past.

“Once he got that butterfly word out of him, well, Willy opened up then,” says Pryor. “We’ve got the language recorded but our language is what’s missing most, day to day. That’s a tragedy because that connects us a little bit more to our culture.”

At some point during the day, when they’re on the water and the moment is right, Pryor tells a Dreaming story, “that gives our connections to the islands”.

What is the story? Pryor won’t tell. That’s for the tour, when the water is lapping on the side of the boat, the islands stretch out before you and the spirit of the Ngaro is all around.

NGARO INDIGENOUS CULTURAL TOURS

Departs Airlie Beach Coral Sea marina boat ramp or Shute Harbour about 9am, return 4pm.

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