Indigenous Australians have been looking after the Great Barrier Reef for millennia – and are now inviting travellers to gain insight into their ancestral knowledge.

“Only a few hundred people have seen this place,” said our Aboriginal guide, Balngarrawarra man Vince Harrigan, as we gazed at a sandstone rock shelter plastered with plump barramundi, cross-hatched crocodiles and eerie spirit figures painted by his ancestors long ago.

The ancient rock art galleries we’d hiked to is one of hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of Aboriginal cultural sites hidden in the wild, tropical savannah of Normanby Station, a sprawling cattle farm near Cooktown on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, Australia’s closest mainland port to the Great Barrier Reef.

By sharing this one with tourists as a guide with Culture Connect, Harrigan doesn’t only provide his family with a sustainable income stream. With half of the full-day Rock Art & Ranger Tour dedicated to visiting Balngarrawarra ranger projects, it’s also an opportunity to showcase how traditional knowledge is being used to prevent sediment runoff from being flushed down the Normanby River and onto the World Heritage-listed reef – where it’s thought to create the ideal environment for coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish to thrive.

“After more than 100 years of cattle and feral animals roaming this country, the erosion gullies have been getting bigger and bigger,” explained Harrigan, who has been working alongside erosion experts from Queensland’s Griffith University to remediate them. “We’ve been using traditional land management techniques like burning to get native grasses growing back to stabilise the soil.”ADVERTISEMENT

The Balngarrawarra rangers are supported by the Queensland Government’s Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger Program, which provides jobs and training to bolster stewardship activities that have been conducted by the 70-odd traditional custodian groups living alongside the 2,300km-long Great Barrier Reef for tens of thousands of years. An increasing number of these custodians are now inviting travellers to gain insight into their ancestral knowledge through tourism, showcasing the importance of reef protection for cultural as well environmental reasons.