From a smoking ceremony in the Tiwi Islands to a tipple at the tip of the continent, Jane Nicholls finds her sea legs in a part of Australia that feels (and sounds) like a foreign land.

We have just arrived at Badu Island (pictured above), the second largest of the Torres Strait Islands, and Laurie Nona is laying down some ground rules. “Badu is a community that’s not used to tourists and this is the first time we’ve had this number,” he tells me and my fellow passengers, a group of nearly 60 people.

coral explorer top end cruise map

The cruise travels from Darwin to Cairns via Arnhem Land, Cape York and the Great Barrier Reef

We’re nearing the end of our 12-day journey across Australia’s northern seas, in which we’ll cover 1530 nautical miles. Laurie is the general manager of Badu Art Centre, a renowned artist, regional councillor, chief organiser of our visit to Badu – and a former Queensland cop. He firmly believes the economic benefit of tourism is vital to helping the locals preserve their culture but he’s nervous about the impact, too. Laurie reminds us that his people are reserved (the community here is 1000 strong) and asks us to seek permission before we take photos. It’s not the first time on this journey that I’ve had to check myself. Like most passengers, I’m technically in my home country but so often it feels like I’m entering a foreign land.

This cruise goes way beyond sightseeing: as we loop through the extremities of north-eastern Australia, sailing from Darwin to the Tiwi and Torres Strait islands, we’re heading straight into the human heart of Australia’s beginnings. There’s the Wurrumiyanga community on Bathurst Island, one of the Tiwi Islands just north of Darwin, where our guides and their mothers serve us damper and strong tea. They entertain the group with stories, songs and dances and then coax us into joining in during a smoking ceremony held to ward off evil spirits. Days later, on a blue-sky afternoon, our ship squeaks through a skinny gap – known variously as the Gugari Rip or the Hole in the Wall – to reach Gove Peninsula in eastern Arnhem Land. Coming ashore in Nhulunbuy, we stop at a nursery and community store, the first such outlet run by the local Yolngu people, and line up to buy iced coffee and ice cream, shell necklaces and art. Although most of the towns we visit are tiny, they have museums and local guides to explain their history, legends and customs. Because Australia’s Indigenous peoples traditionally told their stories through art and songlines rather than in dusty books, assembling them into displays with English explanations has been no small feat.

coral explorer cruise ship passes through gagari rip

The Coral Discoverer passes through the narrow Gugari Rip

Bringing cruise ships to these parts is a sensitive undertaking and, thankfully, operators who don’t respect that simply aren’t granted landing rights. Most ports of call in these far-flung places can only handle smaller ships. Our cruiser, the Coral Discoverer, accommodates only 72 guests. 

The trip is run by Cairns-based company Coral Expeditions, which has been exploring Australia’s remote regions since 1983. Last year, it gave its Cape York & Arnhem Land cruise an artistic bent, enlisting Thursday Island-born artist Brian Robinson to give lectures on board and lead etching and carving workshops. Brian has an infectious giggle that seems at odds with his towering frame and fame – his Woven Fish and Reef Guardian sculptures are public-art icons on the esplanade in Cairns, where he lives and works. His enthusiastic presence makes us alive to the power of the art we see on the cruise (he’ll sail again in October). By day nine, when we get to Brian’s old stomping ground of Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, I realise that although the legends of the various communities are distinct, common threads run through them. The Dreaming stories build on societal structures, steering people away from intermarriage and directing wise stewardship of the land and the sea and its creatures, which in return sustain the people. Tools, weapons and ceremonial wear have both similarities and great gulfs between them: on the Tiwi Islands, for example, there are no boomerangs or didjeridus.

Maningrida indigenous woman demonstrating how to weave

Doreen Jingarrabarra gives a weaving demonstration in Maningrida.

On Elcho Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, Jane Garrutju, an Elder, tells us how she’s learned to “walk and work in two worlds, to keep my identity strong and be able to engage with the Western world”. The fame of her artist husband, Gali Yalkarriwuy Gurruwiwi, best known for his morning-star poles, has taken them around the globe. Didjeridu master Nelson Dhapan Yunupingu gives us an impromptu performance at the arts centre (locally, the instruments are called yidakis). At the new Maningrida Arts & Culture centre, in the heart of Arnhem Land, we meet Doreen Jinggarrabarra, who’s described by our guides as “the queen of string”. She shows us the ins and outs of pandanus weaving, including collecting, splitting and drying the plants and dying them using colour obtained from roots. The women’s beautiful fibre-art creations are even more awesome when you have a sense of the tedious wrangling of raw materials involved. Also in Maningrida, at Bábbarra Women’s Centre, artist Lucy Yarawanga tells us that the members’ work has recently gained international attention. “Just the other day we had our first European order – from Paris!” The women, who speak a range of 12 languages, create stunning screen-prints depicting ancestral Dreaming Stories, spirit beings, bush foods and crafts. The sea sparkles as we eventually cruise to Laurie Nona’s Badu Island.

A few muscly looking cumulus clouds float about but they’re all puff and no rain. While waters can be bumpy in some seasons, operators plan their cruising calendars to avoid the roughest months. The seas – starting in the Timor, moving to Arafura and finally the Coral – are calm for our entire journey. (Though I should point out that I’m widely known as the weather karma queen; feel free to check if I’m available for your chosen voyage.) After some exploring and shopping at Badu’s buzzing art centre, we head across the road to the giant hangar that serves as the island’s sports pavilion. We’re treated to traditional dancing and a feast that includes the best ceviche I have ever tasted, made from golden trevally. Next up, we have a swim in the clear-asglass sea in front of Laurie’s home, capping off one of my favourite days of the trip.

 Ranger Danny Gordon shows tourists indigenous rock art on Stanley Island

Ranger Danny Gordon explains stories behind rock art on Stanley Island, Queensland

As a recent convert to cruising holidays, I suspect I’ve been spoiled by small ships such as Coral Discoverer. The cabins are furnished like a hotel and while the bathrooms aren’t huge, they have clever touches, such as a ledge beneath the sink for snorkel gear. There are no horrors such as assigned seating or parlour games and within a day, we have identified like-minded people and save seats for each other at meals. At night, there’s usually a movie or documentary screening in the lounge but most of us are too tired to stay up. A week in, we all know everyone’s names and we’re starting to share deeply personal stories.

cape york northern tip of australia

Cape York, the northernmost point of mainland Australia

When we set out, 11 nights seemed like a languorous stretch of time. But suddenly we’re in the last days of our cruise and we find ourselves getting a bit emotional when the cheerful young staff carry bottles of bubbly and orange juice ashore at the tip of Cape York. We walk a short way to a sign that proclaims, “You are standing at the northernmost point of the Australian continent”, and we duly line up for photos. Then it’s time to sit quietly with our flutes of fizz, drinking in the sunset – all purples and oranges reflected in the eddies of the incoming tide. My teenage daughter, Rosie, skips like a rock wallaby high up on the granite boulders behind us, where she finds memorial plaques affixed to the rocks. There’s a little bit of magic in just being here and I think we’re all feeling pretty lucky.

By the last leg of the cruise, we’re in the sway and revelling in nature as we head down the eastern flank of Cape York and duck into the Great Barrier Reef. Every place we snorkel is sublime and there’s no-one else around – apart from that turtle whose tracks showed she’d beaten us to the beach early one morning, when we arrived on Forbes Island.

It’s been both a holiday and a spiritual journey – and I say that as someone who’s not usually into the touchy-feely. Meeting the traditional owners and seeing firsthand how they’re striving to preserve their culture, the environment and their many languages has been enlightening and inspiring. By the time I disembark in Cairns, I’ve acquired several paintings, sculptures, prints and textiles. I’m glad to have them, not just for their beauty but for how they’ll keep alive my memories of this astonishing part of Australia and its people. ​

darwin sunset pink and orange

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Photo credits: Jamie Anderson & Jane Nicholls

SEE ALSO: Indigenous Australian Travel Experiences

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