Spearfishing and hunting in the mangroves of Cooya Beach

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Cooya Beach
Cooya Beach

I’m wading through knee deep water on the beach off the coast of Mossman, just north of Port Douglas in Tropical North Queensland.

The world’s biggest reef just lies out to the horizon and looking back are the rainforest clad mountains. Just a little further north lies the oldest rainforest in the world, the Daintree.

I’m doing my best to move stealthily through the water, like a cheetah on the prowl. Not making a sound is proving to be very difficult and I feel responsible for the fish quickly scurrying away.

My spear is raised and my eyes peeled on the tops of the water for underwater movement or the glint that indicates dinner ahead.

For the next 30 minutes I see nothing. My guide, Brandon Walker, however with eyes of an eagle sees every slight tail-swish underneath.

You can’t hear him stalking, only the soft thwack of his spear as it leaves his hand and travels far in the distance to land with a soft splash in the water.

“They saw me. Two of them darted off as my spear was mid-air.”

How the hell did he see that?

Spear fishing at Cooya Beach Cairns (19)
Ready for spearing

Brandon and his brother, Linc, are traditional custodians of the Mossman and Cooya lands. Cooya Beach, were we now standing, is the traditional hunting grounds of the Kuku Yalanji people. I was spending the afternoon with Brandon on his cultural habitat tour learning how to hunt.

“How big do the fish have to be?””

“Plate size.”

Our prizes would be later cooked up in Brandon’s family home across the street. After our spear fishing expedition Brandon would us move to the mangroves on the shore for mud crab hunting and mussel collection.

There wasn’t much prize collection coming from me though.

Spear fishing at Cooya Beach Cairns (1)
Father and daughter moment

Brandon’s daughter, Faith and his two nephews joined us. Faith wants to take over the business from her Dad.

“She’s fearless.” the pride behind his warm smile obvious

“I chased a sting ray the other day.” she boasted. I’d be boasting that too.

I watched as she dived into the water to pull out rat tails—another new marine creature discovery, a shell with the distinctive 80’s fashion faux pas hanging down the back. Brandon showed me how to follow their snail trail in the sand and pull them out from their hiding place. I kinda failed at that one too.

Brandon pointed ahead. “There see that. There’s a few fish out there.” I pretended to see what he was pointing at through my squint, but all I see was bobbing water and the odd glint. How on earth does he see that?

Spear fishing at Cooya Beach Cairns (3)
Yep apparently there are fish out there!
Spear fishing at Cooya Beach Cairns (4)
Time for dinner

Again and again Brandon’s spear sailed through the air. Again and again I saw nothing. Only once the spear splashed down did I see the water bubbling over as the fish jumped out of the way.

“Got him.” Brandon victoriously pulled back the spear, but only a few scales were stuck to the end. “Shaved five gills of his head. Still got away.”

Noticing my pretty pathetic hunting skills, Brandon stopped to show me how to throw the spear and give me a little practice. He was patient and supportive and took me through each throw step-by-step until I eventually got it. Sort of.

“Come on we’ve got to get you some dinner Caz. Let’s have a few more gos.”

The end of his spear twanging back and forth in the water showed we finally caught our prize

“”Got him. Right through the heart. It’s a mullet too. Our favourite. Let’s go into the mangroves now.”

“Yes!” The kids raced on ahead.

Heading to the mangroves
Heading to the mangroves

“Mangroves are great with kids, they can get into all the tight spaces to catch our food.”

We squelched through the soft mud, using our spears as walking sticks, and clambered over tuberous mangrove roots snaking above the mud – it was eerie, the perfect death trap.

Mosquitoes swarmed around us the deeper we went in and the more pungent it became. Mud squelched between our feet and caked our legs. I thought of how soft my skin would be once I washed it off—nature’s perfect free spa treatment.

hunting in the mangroves with Brandon Walker (2)
Looking for periwinkles
Mangroves Mossman Cairns
The eerie and smelly mangroves
Digging for something
Digging for something

We were using our toes and feet to feel for the rounded, hard surface of a mussel at the roots of the mangrove trees. Brandon and his children were good at digging them out, Brandon always helping me to dig out my share by pointing with his toe his latest find.

“Gotta catch your own snacks around here Caz.” He pulled a periwinkle off the mangrove and showed me the yellow underbelly. “If it’s yellow you know it’s safe for eating.”

The periwinkles I could catch no worries and the oysters,which were in abundant supply. We picked a few off for trail mix as we walked trudged on through.

mud crab hunting in the mangroves
Trying unsuccessfully to catch a mud crab– come out crab!
digging for mussels in the mangrove
Big, beautiful mussels

“When I was a kid my mum would bring us in here with hessian sacks and we couldn’t come out until it was full. Kids these days have it easy, especially when it comes to catching their own food. MacDonald’s and fast food are killing off our community. I want to teach my kids to hunt so they can always provide for themselves. Eat well from an early age.”

And Brandon’s kids were eating well. They join him as much as they can on his tours and love to hunt with him. I admired what he was teaching his children and the joy on their faces as they clambered and dug and dived under the water was inspiring to watch. If only all children had such a playground and supermarket to shop in.

“Dad calls me big Eyes” Faith told me. Her big eyes were certainly working as her and Elijah climbed over the mangroves squealing “Found another mussel Dad. That’s 7.” Mussels and periwinkles were her favourite.

After our afternoon tea bucket was full we walked back onto the sandy beach around the edge of the mangroves. Brandon shared with me more about the area and his culture.

What a playground!
What a playground!

He pointed out an abundance of coastal resources, including the beach hibiscus flower, which prevents dehydration, and the beach lettuce berry, which contains liquid that soothes sore eyes.

Brandon is so in tune with nature. When seasons and tides change, schools of barramundi prawns and sharks come into the mudflats and the rocky headlands around the bay. He knows precisely when they’ll be here and how to catch them.

“Mango season is my favourite. I take the kids and we pick mangoes off the trees and eat them up the creek. When the tide goes down we choose a sandy bank and throw the seeds on it, the crayfish come out and eat the seed and we jump and have crayfish for dinner.”

His grandfather mostly taught him how to hunt and to know what source of food was in the area and when.

“He’s the one that taught me the mango trick. “

His grin widened as he told me about his catch the previous night—turtle. Aboriginal people have the rights to hunt turtle-as they have since the dreamtime beginning. He explained in detail how the turtle had to be killed to ensure that meat was not poisoned by the seeping gall bladder. It was pretty intense.

“Aren’t turtles sacred to the Aboriginal people?”

“Yes. That’s why as a sign of respect, the hunter must be the first to try the meat. He has to test to make sure it is not poisoned so he does not kill the whole village.”

I gasped, “That is some job.”

“I’m very careful with how I kill it, so I feel safe.”

A man walked by with his dog, they waved.

“If I didn’t listen to the weather man I’d be out on that reef today.” He said. “It’s perfect out there today.”

They both looked out to the horizon line.

“If I wasn’t working today I’d be out there.” Brandon stated shaking his head

“Why what’s so good today?” I asked—obviously I had no clue about weather, fishing, and reefs.

“It’s so still and calm. The tide is barely moving. It’ll be clear for fishing.”

His spirit perked as he shared the coming evening’s night fishing adventure with his brother and the kids.

“We putt along with the motor and spear fish from the boat. The kids come, and we put mattresses out for them to sleep on. They love it.”

I was in awe. Spear fishing from a boat in the darkness. How the bloody hell does he do it?

Tonight they were hunting for more turtle. Brandon’s cousin’s 35th birthday was the following week. “A turtle can feed 250 people. “

In Brandon’s family, 160 relatives live in the local community.

The weather mountain
The weather mountain

He pointed to the mountain peak in the distance. “If you come out here every morning and look at that mountain, you’ll know what the weather will be. Forget the weather man, he knows nothing. If it is clear, you’ll have a clear day, it if’s cloudy on top, she’ll blow.”

“Never wrong?”

“Never”

I trusted Brandon. He was not wrong when he said the water we were wading through was safe from stingers and crocs. Hundreds of years of hunting and gathering practices passed down from generations told him so.

Just like traditional cooking.

“My mum does all the cooking. She taught me how.” His mum’s house was opposite the beach front and was where we went to cook up our afternoon snack. From supermarket to kitchen in 10 steps.

She sat with Aunty and we made small talk over a bowl of fish soup.

“When I’m sick, this is the only thing I can eat.” Aunty told me. “Clears me up straight away. It’s so good”

mullet fish soup
Mullet fish soup

And it was. Light, fresh and tasty. I wasn’t even bothered that the head of the mullet and its guts were creating most of the wholesome flavour. Aboriginal people do not like to waste the animals they have been fortunate to use for food.

I watch as he prepares the food in the kitchen.

He breaks apart the still alive crab and points out its small beating heart slowly starting to fade. I feel sadness. He throws it in with the mussels and other tiny morsels of marine life we’d be eating.

How disconnected we become to the cycle of life when we rely on supermarkets to source our food? We pay no attention to where our meat comes from and the sacrifice of one life for our own. I tried to grasp onto the gratitude rather than the feeling that I was a cruel killer.

In the pan, Brandon began cooking the mussels, periwinkles, cockle shells and crab heart with a mixture of butter, chili, garlic and coconut oil. It was creamy and delicious. I’d never eaten fresher seafood and the taste made it more exquisite because I had a hand in catching it.

cooking seafood
Yum!

Next up was his people’s favourite fish: mullet rolled in flour and salt and pan fried. It certainly tasted a million times better than the mullet Mum cooked us when we were young (sorry Mum) Now I understood why it was their favourite.

“The fins are like crackling. Mum and I fight over it.” I left it on the side of the plate not wanting to disrupt the ensuing argument.

It was time to go, but not before Brandon’s shared a plate of pan fried turtle.

I knew this was an honour so joined in with eating it as a way of paying my respects and gratitude. The meat was tender and light and I savoured each with respect to the turtle.

turtle meat
Turtle

Honour and respect. That is what life should be about shouldn’t it? Giving thanks to all that cross your path, animal or plant, for the lessons and the life giving sustenance they provide.

Brandon believes so passionately in sharing the traditional lives of his people with those passing by. It is a uniquely different perspective of the Port Douglas area—a quiet step away from the adrenalin, but a dirty and raw experience that brings you back to basics as you interact with this beautiful land and go about being an active participant in your body’s evolution.

Spear fishing at Cooya Beach Cairns (5)
Spending each day doing what you love + making a difference = JOY

“This is all I ever wanted to do with my life.” Brandon told me, spear in hand as we patiently waited for the fish to come and lose the game.

I walked beside him, wide-eyed and curious, surrounded by land and sea—some of the most stunning in the world. I understood why his heart showed through his smile and eyes sweeping out the reef beyond.

It was a heart that spoke of purpose and belonging. Knowing that you were spending each day overfilling your own cup so you had plenty more to help fill others.

[ybox_title]Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tour Facts[/ybox_title]

Where: Cooya Beach, just north of Port Douglas

When: Departs daily, 9.30am & 1.30pm. 2 hour duration.

Cost: Adult: $75 Child (5-15): $45

Website:http://www.bamaway.com.au/KukuYalanji.aspx

Disclaimer: I spent the day with Brandon as a guest of Tourism Queensland

7 thoughts on “Spearfishing and hunting in the mangroves of Cooya Beach”

  1. Great post! I love this kind of writing – it’s a bit of a different style for you guys, I think, but you’ve done a fantastic job!
    Oh, and it sounds like an awesome adventure. What a life Brandon has!

    1. Thank you Michael! That gives me a huge boost coming from someone I respect so much as a writer. I’m usually not confident writing like this but am pushing myself more. It was a fun experience which made it easier!

  2. Alyssa Levinger

    It’s experiences like this that people miss out on when they are traveling abroad. Really diving into a culture and spending a day in their shoes is something you’ll never forget. For some people traveling to a tropical place like this would be all about relaxing on the beach. I mean, who doesn’t love relaxing on the beach- but an experience like this will last a lifetime. I love how you were able to experience every aspect of the day, and the different types of hunting- all leading up to the preparation and enjoyment of the food.

  3. That looks like a fantastic adventure, great pics! There is an abundance of food there IF you know what you are doing. I would love to go there and try it.

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