Open for Business

By Jo Stewart

Isabella Falls
Isabella Falls
Since regaining control of their land in 2014, the Olkola People have been hard at work developing a sustainable tourism business based on welcoming people to their country in south-central Cape York

The Eagles blare out of our 4WD’s radio as we rattle up the road. “Take It Easy” is our theme song as we jolt up the bumpy, dusty highway on the way to Cape York. Joined by a small group of travellers from Australia and beyond, we are travelling to Olkola country located in south-central Cape York. We’re to be one of the first groups to take part in a new tourism venture run by the region’s traditional owners in partnership with Intrepid Travel, and we’re all excited to be somewhere so geographically and culturally removed from our own lives.

Getting to this remote part of Queensland isn’t exactly easy, but that’s the point – to go somewhere far from the traffic lights and white noise of the city. Off the grid and difficult to access without a 4WD and some know-how, Olkola country has no wi-fi or phone coverage, so is the perfect antidote to the modern ills that plague many of us. When you’re in Olkola country, you’ve got no choice but to “take it easy”.

Traditional owners Johnny Ross and Jack Lowdown are travelling with us, along with a member of the younger generation, Kerenza Royee. Two local drivers take care of the logistics, leaving the traditional owners free to do their work welcoming us to their country and sharing their knowledge. After being picked up from Cairns, we drive all day to reach Olkola country but it’s a fun road trip marked by stops at out-of-the-way towns and tiny general stores run by loveable locals.

After a long, hard fight led by traditional owner Mike Ross, the Olkola Corporation (Olkola country’s representing body) is now working towards building sustainable businesses that deliver positive outcomes for the Olkola community whose ancestors were displaced from their land more than 100 years ago. With control of more than 8000km2 of land, the Olkola People aren’t interested in leasing it to mining companies, instead they are turning to tourism to build a future for their people.


Ancient rock art with Traditional Owner Jack Lowdown

Forming a partnership with small group adventure tour company Intrepid Travel, the Olkola People have started a small-scale tourism enterprise designed to get their people living and working back on their land. They believe through tourism they will be able to forge new connections with their country, create sustainable employment opportunities for the community and protect their land and the myriad native species it sustains.

Our small group consists of people from all walks of life; from a nature-loving, retired couple from Bendigo, to a septuagenarian from Mullumbimby who delights us with wild stories from his droving days, and a Swiss nurse who has seen more of Australia than most Australians.

On arrival, we settle in to our comfortable tents that are set up on the grounds of a former cattle station called Killarney Station. There’s a modest shower and toilet block (complete with a friendly frog that lives in the toilet), an open-air dining hall knocked up using timber and sheets of metal, and of course there’s a campfire, too.

During a pre-dinner wander along the bush airstrip located next to the station, galahs race across the sky as the sun bathes the surrounding bushland in a perfect, golden light that could never be replicated elsewhere in the world – not even by a big-budget Hollywood film crew with all the lighting tricks, gear and experts at their disposal.

After a quiet night by the fire getting to know each other, we retreat to our tents and collapse into the kind of deep slumber only possible in the bush. There are no planes taking off overhead or mobile phone notifications pinging during the night. The airwaves have been replaced with the gentle chatter of frogs and birds, and that’s about it.

Each day begins in a similar fashion. After breakfast, we venture out in 4WDs and spend the day learning about bush tucker, spotting native wildlife, lounging by creeks with cups of billy tea, and looking at rock art seen by very few. Some spots are well known to the elders; some are being rediscovered.

One day, Lowdown spots something in the distance and signals for our driver to stop so he can take a look. Turns out we’ve stumbled across remnants of an old cattle mustering yard he used to work at when he was young. From a distance, it’s incredibly hard to see, as what remains of the mustering yard is nothing but a pile of decaying wooden planks and rusted barbed wire, but somehow Lowdown spotted it amid the thick scrub.

This discovery gives way to a conversation about Lowdown’s past life as a cattle drover. Explaining that he worked long hours out on the land, doing difficult, dangerous work such as capturing bulls, yet was rarely paid for his work (and was often made to eat outside, not inside with the white drovers), there’s no doubt that he has lived a challenging life. Despite this, he admits he’d still love to be able to catch a bull with his mates like he did in the old days.


On this journey, everything we learn is a by-product of what is happening at the given moment. Not scripted or planned, but improvised in response to our environment. At one point, Ross is suffering from a head cold, so we learn firsthand how green ants can be eaten (or crushed up and inhaled) to relieve blocked sinus passages. Another time, we stop the car to pick bush oranges from trees he spots by the side of the track.

Our lunch stops are always gloriously long and give us plenty of time to laze about, share stories or go in for another piece of damper, still warm from the coals it was cooked in. Each day we typically lunch by a creek, and with no one else around in this sparsely populated corner of Australia, we feel like we’ve got all the space (and time) in the world.

One day we decide to go fishing after lunch. A crocodile suns itself in the distance, keeping a watchful, beady eye on us as we set up our lines. Remembering horror stories of people who have fallen afoul of hungry crocs in this part of Australia, I ask if it’s safe to fish by the creek’s edge. “Ahhh, it’s not a saltie. It’s only a fifty stitcher, don’t be worried love,” says Ross, who goes on to explain he refers to freshwater crocodiles as ‘fifty stitchers’ due to the number of stitches you’ll receive if they latch onto your arm or leg. While not a particularly comforting thought, it’s good to know that only freshwater crocodiles are found here and not their terrifying saltwater-dwelling cousins.

Sitting on the banks watching the others fish, I see Ross reel in a medium-sized saratoga with glistening green-tinged skin. Soon after, someone else starts to pull in a mysterious dead weight. We speculate about what’s on the end of the line. A log? A turtle? Just when the suspense is about to kill us, a freshwater crocodile emerges from the water, snapping with wild fury. It hits the sandbank and lets itself off the hook before anyone has the chance to even contemplate the situation. We all collapse onto the sand in laughter at the comical sight of someone unexpectedly reeling in a crocodile on a handline.

Cheeky, bait-stealing freshwater crocs aside, this land is home to an astonishing diversity of native species. While all the native flora and fauna are under the protection of the Indigenous Land Managers employed to care for the land, a little bird called the alwal is receiving most of the attention. Also known as the golden-shouldered parrot, the alwal is the totem of the Olkola People and, like many other Australian native species, its numbers are dwindling. Its struggle for survival runs parallel with the story of the Olkola People’s fight to regain the connection to the land taken from them with the arrival of European settlement centuries ago.

Since they’re only found in Cape York, seeing a golden-shouldered parrot in the wild is a rare treat. With only a few thousand left in the wild, I was stunned to see a large flock munching on seeds in the distance. Falling quiet, I’m mesmerised by these iridescent beauties who are clueless about how much they are admired. We bump into a local land manager who tells us they are working with the Australian Conservation Foundation and Bush Heritage Australia to learn more about their breeding habits in order to help their numbers flourish.


Bush foods held by one of the Traditional Owners

Despite many opportunities to learn about each other during the day, the memorable moments of deeper connection (and belly laughs) with my fellow travellers come around the campfire at night under the stars. On our final night, Ross strums an acoustic guitar that may be missing a few strings but still does the job. Singing everything from folk songs from his childhood to Slim Dusty classics, Ross isn’t afraid to admit he ‘’cried like a baby” when he found out his “mate” Slim had passed away back in 2003.

Heading out of Olkola country on the last day of our trip, we journey towards Cooktown where we will spend our final night before returning to Cairns. After dropping Lowdown off at his home in the town of Laura, Ross takes us for a tour of the Quinkan rock art site, considered by UNESCO to be one of the top 10 rock art sites in the world. Ross tells us that, despite this, there are contentious plans to disturb the area with a goldmining operation, something that the traditional owners are very concerned about. So, it seems, the eternal struggle between profit and preservation is being played out right across Australia.

Back in Melbourne, I begin to think that the story of Olkola country being returned to traditional owners is reminiscent of the Paul Kelly song “From Little Things Big Things Grow”. Although he was singing about the Gurindji strike in the Northern Territory, the theme of Indigenous land rights and discrimination applies to the Olkola People also. Apart from the literal meaning behind the song, the poignant title hints at what this tourism enterprise could lead to. Over time, hopefully, more people will make the journey into Olkola country, and from this little thing a big thing will grow.

Take this chance to discover the beautifully unique environment of Olkola country on the six-day ‘Journey into Olkola Country’ trip, which runs from July to September each year, departing from Cairns. From $2845 per person (land only), the trip cost includes ground transportation, accommodation, access to expert local guides and most meals. Tents are provided but guests are expected to bring their own sleeping bag, pillow, towel, water bottle and head torch. For more information, head to





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