Words by Kate Richards | Images by Tourism and Events Queensland
The Laura Quinkan Dance Festival is guaranteed to saturate your senses...
It’s a three-day celebration where the indigenous communities of Cape York come together and share their rich culture and stories of the land through dance and song. BUT understand this, the Laura Quinkan Dance Festival is not refined, shortened, or watered down to suit tourists’ sensibilities. It’s the REAL THING. Its Indigenous community pitted against Indigenous community. For them it’s an opportunity to involve all ages from lil’ ones to the elders, to compete and hopefully take their mob.
THE RHYTHM OF THE DIDGERIDOO, CLAP STICKS AND CHANTING, EACH DANCE TROUPE PERFORMS CENTRE- STAGE ON A DUSTY AMPHITHEATRE “SURROUNDED BY AN AUDIENCE EAGER TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE STORIES OF THEIR LAND.”
Of course, it’s not all about winning for the communities. It’s more than that. Not only do they get to showcase and celebrate their culture and songlines, through dance and their art, but they also gain recognition from their peers. Accompanied by the rhythm of the didgeridoo, clap sticks and chanting, each dance troupe performs centre-stage on a dusty amphitheatre surrounded by an audience eager to learn more about the stories of their land.
The dances take place on sacred Bora ground. Bora are ceremonial grounds where local tribes traditionally gather for important ceremonies, which often includes dance. All ages get involved, from youngsters who can barely walk through to the elders in the community who lead the dances and sing the stories, helping to pass down their traditions to the next generation. Occasionally multiple dance groups enter the amphitheatre and the audience is called upon to join in, learning how to shake a leg and rock the baby, dependant on what sex you are.
The Amphitheatre is part of the Festival Village, and nearby stands a large canopy where people gather. Surrounding are food trucks, market stalls - which sell genuine Aboriginal art straight from the communities (no middleman here) - as well as an art gallery to browse in. This is also where cultural workshops happen, where you can select, sand and paint your own didgeridoo, try some weaving or even sing and dance along to the occasional jam session that happens under the big tent.
It’s an interesting crowd of people that attend the festival. Avid campers (often on their way to or from Cape York), young families, the grey nomads, backpackers, hippies plus of course all the indigenous people from the nearby communities. But this mix seems to work well. While the days are filled with the traditional owners of the land performing, the nights are filled with the audience having their opportunity to get up and dance. Bands such as Mau Power, Zenith and Yothu Yindi took to the stage at the last festival and on the final night you could see an eclectic mix of people dancing together in a friendly ‘mosh pit’.
The journey to Laura is itself an adventure. From Port Douglas it’s a three- hour drive along (thankfully) a sealed highway, with a smattering of pubs and roadhouses along the way. Don’t forget to pull in at Bob’s lookout along the Mulligan Highway to get great views and a lay of the land that you’re driving through.
There is limited accommodation in Laura itself, but the Laura Festival is really set up as a three day camping event for visitors. Camping is basic and amenities (such as showers and portaloos) are transported in to deal with the burgeoning number of people who descend to watch this unique festival that is held biannually. Another option is Tent City which you can pre-book and basically it allows you to pretty much arrive empty handed in terms of your accommodation, perhaps more suited to the unseasoned bush campers among us. Further afield you have Cooktown which may serve up more comfort but the downside, it is a good one and half hour or so drive. For us bush camping was the go and we loved it, as you truly felt submersed in the experiences of the Laura Quinkan Festival.
Another gem close by is the UNESCO recognised Quinkan Rock Art which is estimated to be between 15,000 to 30,000 years old. It is one of the oldest and largest Indigenous art galleries in the world and is rated as one of the top 10 rock art sites.
Interpretive tours with traditional owners are available. Rich in history, they are well worth taking the time out to visit while in the area. Split rock is both eerie and breathtaking. You can also take a self-guided walk around Split Rock, but just remember to leave a donation.
If you drive into Laura (15min north) you should also check out the Quinkan Cultural Centre. Home to an interpretive display showcasing the overall history of the area, it also covers a variety of aspects including Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal heritage and the natural environment. You can also book guided tours to the rock art sites at this centre.
One thing you need to be aware of is that the Laura Quinkan Dance Festival is a dry affair with NO ALCOHOL allowed in. Personally, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope! For me, chilling and having a few coldies at the end of the day is all part of the camping adventure. But I must admit, it proved to work well - friction was non-existent and once the evening festivities were out of the way pretty much everyone just crashed and burned.
Over the course of our three days we witnessed the celebration of culture and appreciation of the history of the Laura Quinkin Dance Festival through and through. Educational, fun, it certainly was, and is one that should slide into your travel bucket list of authentic experiences. An amazing weekend away and one our whole family will not forget.
The next Laura Quinkan Dance Festival will be held from Friday 7th July – Sunday 9th July 2023 and I have no doubt will sell out quickly - you have been warned.