Kuku Yalanji culture and the Mossman Gorge – Apollinaire

We decided to visit a place called Mossman Gorge Centre to learn about the indigenous people of Australia. The indigenous owners of the land at the Daintree rainforest were the Kuku Yalanji people. The word indigenous means native/ aboriginal and we were going to find out how the Kuku Yalanji lived and survived in the Daintree.

The Kuku Yalanji people are Indigenous Australians, who live in the rainforest regions of North Queensland and speak the language Kuku Yalangi also spelt Gugu Yalanji. It is believed that Kuku Yalanji lived in the rainforest region around 4,000 years ago and that there were three to five clans of Kuku Yalanji people in 1770 prior to contact by Europeans.

They had high population density, lived in small huts, ate toxic plants from the rainforest and used weaponry such as wooden shields, spears and sometimes swords. They saw the landscape as humanised describing it in human terms and recognising spirits within landscape features and defined seasonal variations into five seasons.

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All the art on this post is by Kuku Yalanji artist Luke Mallie, 2015 and can be found at the Mossman Gorge Centre Gallery

The Kuku Yalanji people, like other Aboriginal people, was under the rule of the european government. The Kuku Yalanji began concentrating around the Mossman Reserve around the time of World War II and the people in the Daintree region were forced to the northern bank of the Daintree River.

As we entered the information centre we met a lovely aboriginal lady called Karen. She said that Karen was her English name, but her native name was Walbul Walbul (blue mountain butterfly). Thomas (Tom), a Kuku Yalanji gentleman would be our guide for the day. We drove to a small place where there was a little shelter and a table. I saw that there was a fire next to the table that was boiling a kettle with some tea inside. We sat down and had a traditional native bush tea which was red because usually, to make tea people just pick the tea leaves but to make red bush tea they pick the wooden twigs from the bush too. That is what made the woody red colour and flavour. Eventually, we all set off for our walk with Tom around the Daintree rainforest.

Before we entered the forest, Tom told us to walk around a fire that was burning the bark of the Bayoko tree. We were asked to spin around the fire whilst Tom said some special aboriginal words so that the spirits of the forest and the ancestors would let us in as we were now smelling like the forest.


A little while into the Daintree rainforest, Tom pointed out a shelter called a ‘Bayanbooboo’ made from tree branches that his people used to sleep under. What was clever was that the mattress was made from the same bendy branches as the structure but weaved in a way that was comfortable and also above the floor. The shelter had a diagonal roof covered in leaves for protection.DSC_0063DSC_0061
Just before we were to go deeper in the forest, Tom shouted aboriginal words to let the forest spirits and ancestors know that we were coming.DSC_0069

We stopped at a huge tree called a Tulip Oak tree. The Tulip Oak was very high with huge roots that were very tall but thin vertically. The roots were half growing out of the ground, so we had to be careful not to trip over them when we were walking! We took turns at tapping a hard rock against the trunk of the Tulip Oak tree. It gave out a very loud, hollow noise and I could feel my hand vibrate against the big tree. Tom explained to us that the aboriginal people do that when they are lost. They knock hard and the sound travels very far into the forest. Hopefully, the lost person will receive a knock back  and someone will come and find him or the knock will lead him back to his people.
Later, we stopped at a damp area were there was a spiky plant called mili mili (dendrocnide moroides). It is like a giant kneetle and Tom told us that if you go too close to it, it shoots tiny pointy darts at you! The plant can sting for days, weeks or even months. He was stung when he was a boy and it was painful for years. To heal its sting, you must remove the darts and use anything sticky you can find in the forest to do that.
Next to the mili mili was a huge patch of soft moss. Tom explained to us that the aboriginal Australians use this moss for baby nappies or mattresses as it is so soft. He also said that when it rains, the moss acts as a sponge and sucks in the rainwater so that when they are in need of a drink, they can squeeze the moss and drink the water inside! This is what the moss looks like:

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Tom then took us to a lovely spot near a river. I saw 4 rocks that the indigenous Australians would use to lay clay and water on and paint symbols on themselves. Tom got some fresh river water, took some clay from a shell container, poured it over all of the different rocks and rubbed his finger on the rocks and suddenly he had paint on his hand. He painted the different colours on each of our wrists such as red, black white and yellow.
He then showed us a small, thin tree branch called Sasparella. He ripped off strips of the bark for us to smell. It had a very strong scent and smelt just like tiger balm! He said that Sasparella is used for medical purposes such as healing aches and pains. Soap is made from the Sasperella leaf and that is what the aboriginal people used to bathe and wash with. All you had to do to get the soap was to put the leaf in water and then scrunch it up. That is when the soap comes out.
As we were coming out of the forest, we were told how teenage boys around 12 years old became men. They had to do a test to elevate from boy to man status. First, he has to find a snake and put it in a bag. Secondly, he has to climb a tree to collect pure bee’s honey. Lastly, the teenage boy has to climb a bit higher and collect a bird’s egg. The teenage boy then returns to the tribe bringing back the 3 things with him. The words that the Kuku Yalanji people use for the 3 things are:

– Korealla = Snake
– Umba = Honey
– Dibud = Bird’s egg

After the boy has shown the three elements to his elders, he has scars cut on his chest using sharp shells. If the boy fails, he has to keep on trying until he completes the task.
Finally, we passed a Daintree and Tom explained why part of its root was missing. The Aboriginal Australians use Daintrees for carving boomerangs! They carve the whole piece in one go out of one of its root (they never use more than one root per tree so not to make the tree too weak) as they are thin and curvy just like the shape of a boomerang. Native Australians used boomerangs as a hunting weapon. The purpose of the boomerang in the Aboriginal life was for hitting the target. The clever thing about the boomerang is that if it doesn’t hit the target (kangaroos, Cassowaries, etc..) it will come back to you instead of you going to fetch it once you have thrown it.



Image from ‘Regard Eloigne’

When we left the rainforest, Tom shouted some indigenous words to the ancestors and spirits of the forest again. After he had finished, he shouted, “Yallada” to them. Tom said that the word ‘Yallada’ had five main meanings;

– Hello
– How are you?, Are you well?
– I’m /very/ good, I’m feeling happy!
– Goodbye!
– Thank you


I really enjoyed discovering how the Kuku Yalanji people lived and survived in the Daintree rainforest for all these years. I hope I get to see other indigenous people on our journey across Australia.

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From Apollinaire 🎍🍁🐛

2 thoughts on “Kuku Yalanji culture and the Mossman Gorge – Apollinaire

  1. Wow – how much fun was that little expedition!!! Very cool. Tom seemed like a fascinating guy. I love that he spoke with the spirits to allow for a peaceful passage. Yallada!! Xo


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