Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park

I remember back in my Texas elementary school days doing a Social Studies project on Australia complete with making a Bottle Tree out of a glass Coca-Cola bottle and masking tape, doing a report on the platypus and loving how the Aboriginal word "Pitjantjatjara" rolled off my tongue. So when we finally did get around to traveling to Australia last January, learning more about Aboriginal culture was high on my bucket list. (So was seeing a platypus in the wild, but no luck there.) An extra day in Cairns, one of the gateways to the Great Barrier Reef, gave us a chance to pay a visit to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park.

Traditional aboriginal paintings in the Magic Space depict the Dreamtime

We arrived around 9 a.m. when the park opened for the day. On their website, they list an array of showtimes, but we found that the shows are well organized so that everyone just exits one and walks directly to the next without having to worry about start times. They presented a ton of information at each session, but kept us moving to the next one after 20-25 minutes so that no one, not even the little ones, got bored.

After buying our tickets, our first stop was wandering around the Magic Space while we waited for the shows to begin. This small museum gallery is filled with Aboriginal art work and stone-age artifacts of the Tjapukai people.

The crowd was then welcomed into the Creation Theatre to hear more about the Dreamtime, their animistic mythology about how the world began. If you want to learn about someone, the beginning seems like a good place to start. A combination of live actors and projected movies introduced us to their spirit world. Headphones at each seat could be set to different languages so visitors from all over the world could understand the stories. Legend says that nearby Barron Gorge was created by Buda-dji who took on the shape of a giant carpet snake and slithered to make the rivers and creeks that run through the land. We learned about societal norms like people being born into their fathers' tribe, categorized into Wet or Dry, and having to marry someone from the opposite group.

Weika (Quiet One) tells us tales of the Dreamtime and plays a mean didgeridoo.

In the next indoor theatre, we were treated to a didgeridoo performance combining this traditional instrument with modern Australian music. If you've never seen a didgeridoo in person, it's essentially a hollow log with beeswax around the mouth end. They take about 4-6 months to make. Aborigines would knock on tree trunks to listen if they were hollow or would sometimes just stick a cut-off trunk in a termite mound and let the insects get to work.  Shorter logs make a higher pitch. To play a didgeridoo, blow out through the mouthpiece while vibrating your lips. Moving your tongue up and down makes the didgeridoo's characteristic bouncy noise. Use your voice box to change the tone, kind of like a kazoo, and do cyclical breathing where you inhale through the nose while exhaling through the mouth. Sound complicated? It is! I am totally terrible at playing the didgeridoo, I've discovered.

A didgeridoo looks like a simple instrument, but I found it takes quite a bit of skill to play.
This guy's had more practice, fortunately.

Exiting the building, we made our way out back to the outdoor rainforest amphitheater for a corroboree, an traditional Aboriginal song and dance show.

Corroboree show

The performance was quite entertaining, but I'm sure that my kids thought the best part was the fire making demonstration. No matches, lighters or thunderbolts were used, just materials that can be found in nature.

How to make Fire

We then made our way over to the Bush Foods and Medicine presentation. One of the performers from the corroboree explained how Aborigines would gather bush tucker, food from the land. Living in the rainforest, the food was plentiful but required knowledge of how to select and prepare the plants and seeds they found.

The cocky apple (Tjapukai name: "barrdjal") is an edible but bitter and stringent fruit that was easily found in the area. It was quite a versatile plant in that the tree contains a chemical poisonous to fish. So, the Aborigines would crush the leaves and roots then throw it into pools of water to kill off the fish which were then safe to eat. Concoctions from the bark could also be used to cleanse wounds like boils or sores. This type of knowledge was passed down through the generations.

The very versatile Cocky Apple

The best part of the park visit was getting to try our hand at spear and boomerang throwing. For spear throwing, we were all led out to a large field with bales of hay covered with Aboriginal drawings of animals native to the area.

That kangaroo is at a standstill. How hard could it be to hit it?

Throwing a spear was more complicated than I expected since I first had to hook a tool called a milay to the end of the shaft opposite the point.

Attaching the milay to the spear

Holding both the milay  and the spear in one hand, I then had to throw my arm forward while releasing the spear  but keeping ahold of the milay to help propel the spear forwards.

The spear hunter at work

I think my hubby was a little miffed that nobody was worried enough to get out of the way when he threw his spear. They just continued walking through the field picking up the other spears. However, let's just say that it's good he keeps the family fed through the roundabout "work job, earn money, buy food at store" method than the more hands-on spear hunting way.

Learning how to throw a return boomerang was tons of fun, too. Isn't that the classic Australian tourist experience? If you're right-handed, hold it in your right hand at a 1:00 angle (11:00 angle for lefties). Pull your arm back, then whip it around to the front at the 1:00 angle. Let go without snapping your wrist, then follow through. Got that? Now you're ready to go and hunt some kangaroos in the wild. (Or not.) As with the spear throwing, it's a good thing that my family is able to go to a grocery store or market to obtain our meat because we'd starve if we had to depend on our boomerang skills.

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? A stick

Our visit to the Tjapukai Cultural Park ended at the gift shop. They had a lot of high quality merchandise available here for guests looking to bring home a didgeridoo, boomerang, painting, CD or just a souvenir T-shirt. Profits benefit the local Aboriginal community. I was dying to buy a didgeridoo but didn't think that one would fit in my luggage. I was so glad to find out they had a shipping service that could send one to me anywhere in the world. I picked out the one I wanted, paid for it, and it appeared on my doorstep in Malaysia a few weeks later. Now that I've had a few months to practice, I'm rather sorry to report that I am still as horrible as I was in the beginning. It's pretty to look at, at least!

So many didgeridoos, so little time
I bought the green one on the far left.

I highly recommend Tjapukai if you are in the Cairns area. After spending a couple hours there, we walked away feeling both entertained and informed. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway Depot is located right next door. We walked over and spent the remainder of our day taking the cableway up to Kuranda and then the Scenic Railway back down to Cairns. This is a popular itinerary, so it's easy to find a package deal including tickets for all three activities. Tjapukai also offers a Night Tour and Buffet Dinner for visitors who want to squeeze it in after flying in or a day at The Great Barrier Reef.

  • Arrive at 9:00 a.m. if you want to have time to do the Skyrail Cableway and Scenic Railway afterwards.
  • In order to see everything at Tjapukai by Day, arrive no later than 2 p.m.
  • Tickets for the Day Tour are AUD36.00 for adults, AUD18.00 for children ages 4-14 years, and Free for Children ages 3 years and younger. A Family Package for 4 people is AUD90.00.
  • Their website also offers a variety of combination packages including a buffet lunch, transfers from hotels in Cairns or the Northern Beaches, the Cairns Tropical Zoo and/or admission to the Skyrail Cableway and Scenic Railway.

Related Posts:
Why My Kids Love the Sydney Opera House
The Allure of Uluru (Ayers Rock)
It's the Great Penguin, Charlie Brown (Kangaroo Island)

This post is part of "Travel Photo Thursday" on Budget Travelers Sandbox and "Oh, The Places I've Been!" at The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Did you try the cocky apples? I wonder if they are sweet or sour. The name would suggest sour :) Great stop - long for Australia!

    1. We didn't get to try the bush tucker ourselves. The cocky apple supposedly tastes like a quince.

  2. What a unique and fun experience to do with children, it looks well done - great pics to!

  3. What a great way to learn about a culture - I love that you got to try some hands-on activities. I've always wanted to try a digideriedoo, though I suspect I wouldn't be any better at it then you.

  4. "people being born into their fathers' tribe, categorized into Wet or Dry, and having to marry someone from the opposite group"

    I love this little piece of cultural norm. It reminds me of Plato's theory that an insie can only love an outie because that indicates that you are a split apart.

  5. What a unique park and such a great place to spend the day as a family. I love that they have all those interactive and hands-on activities for everyone. I've always wanted to try a didgeridoo. We have a boomerang souvenir from Oz but never got around to practicing throwing it. We're hoping to stop by Cairns next summer so glad to have this resource and will definitely go here and the other nearby activities if we do.

  6. Glad you experienced this, Michele, and taking us with you. A visit to the Aboriginals is on my bucket list as well, I'm fascinated by their art. I've never seen a didgeridoo up close and didn't realize it was made so simply. Makes it even more interesting. Thanks for the tour!

  7. Wow that looks like a lot of fun. Lucky your kids to experience this!

  8. I am happy for you that you could check off an item on your bucket list. I remember as a kid all the places in the world that I wanted to visit and Australia was on it.

  9. You do the most interesting things with your kids. This spot sounds fantastic from the educational, cultural and entertainment perspective. In the Amazon jungle we had a chance to try blowing (poison) darts and again we were all happy we had real jobs to put food on the table.

  10. A wonderful story of your day out, and some great tips! We didn't get there when we went to Cairns, but I'm definitely putting it on my list for next time now it comes so highly recommended from you :)

  11. What a wonderful adventure for your children (and your hubby). Great blog. Fun and interesting reading it.

  12. Looks like a very educational experience.

  13. Sounds like a fascinating adventure~
    I would love to get to experience it one day.

  14. Hi Michelle, it certainly is an educational and entertaining tour. I'm interested in aboriginal cultures and would love to do this myself. It's great that your family got try the games, tools and instruments. It must be a fascinating experience. That didgeridoo is definitely a great souvernir. I love that painitng of the Dreamtime.

  15. Hi Michele...this is just fascinating! When I was in Cairns (many many years ago) I'm pretty sure this didn't exist. I love the costumes and the body painting. I got a chuckle out of your husband's spear throwing skills!

  16. Love the way you described a boomerang that doesn't return. Hahahah...I have been guilty of throwing sticks instead of the boomerang during my 2 previous visit to Australia too.

  17. This is an amazing post!

    Wonderful to have you at "Oh, the PLACES I have been!"

    - The Tablescaper

  18. What a fascinating place! I would love to experience something like this. I married an Aussie and told him the boomerang/stick joke and he was amused. :-)

  19. Great post...sound like you guys had a blast and it looks like a very cool experience. Those paintings are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

  20. Great post...sound like you guys had a blast and it looks like a very cool experience. Those paintings are amazing! Thanks for sharing.


I read each and every comment. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Comment moderation is on, so your comment may not appear immediately.

Web Analytics