Festival Camping in North Stradbroke Island

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Sep 26, 2016

North Stradbroke Island has gained a cultural festival – and some very cool eco shacks – thanks to an Indigenous enterprise, writes Fran Molloy.

Every winter on Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island, the Quandamooka people welcomed migrating whales with music and song as the humpbacks made their way to warmer waters. The ceremony was called Yura Yalingbilla (meaning “welcome the whales”) but it was abandoned decades ago, after more than a century of whaling drove these majestic marine mammals to near-extinction.

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In 2015, Yura Yalingbilla was revived as part of the inaugural Quandamooka Festival, a celebration of the island’s ancient Indigenous culture. Visitors camped on the beach at Point Lookout to watch the humpbacks pass by, often just metres from the coastline. Though the whales are a drawcard, and 15,000 people attended the festival last year, they’re not the only reasons visitor numbers to North Stradbroke – the world’s second-largest sand island, just 30 kilometres south-east of Brisbane by ferry – are on the rise.

Point Lookout, with its spectacular views, is one of eight sites managed by Straddie Camping (straddiecamping.com.au). The award-winning Indigenous enterprise was set up as a partnership between Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) and Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) following a 2011 native title determination in favour of the Quandamooka people.

In the three years Straddie Camping has been managing the island’s camp sites and beaches, it has introduced eco shacks and pop-up glamping, incorporated cultural heritage sites into its camping grounds, improved its ecological practices and provided a dozen jobs for the Quandamooka people.

To boost visitor numbers to North Stradbroke in the low season, the QYAC launched the Quandamooka Festival, which is held from July to September with a packed program of workshops, films, exhibitions and concerts.

“We’re looking to bundle unique cultural and tourism experiences as part of Straddie Camping,” says QYAC CEO Cameron Costello. “The festival celebrates country, culture and people. It lets us engage with the broader community, sharing cultures and knowledge.”

In peak times (around Christmas and Easter), Straddie Camping hosts up to 8000 people in camp sites, cabins and eco shacks. “We’re putting in overflow areas to cope,” says Costello. Some visitors are families who’ve been coming to North Stradbroke for generations; others are first-timers to the island, which is known as Minjerribah by the Quandamooka people, who have lived there for more than 20,000 years. 

Costello, a Quandamooka descendant on his father’s side, speaks proudly of his ancestors’ custodianship over the land and sea around North Stradbroke. “I look out over the bay and, for me, it’s country at its best.”

Middens, stone axes and tools can still be found on the island and ranger Matt Burns, a Quandamooka man from the Nunukul clan, takes visitors on the Goompi Trail to visit sites that have been carbon-dated at up to 21,000 years old. “We sit under a tree near the beach and show people the stone and bone tools that were used on the site where we are sitting,” he says.Burns’s cultural tours also give an overview of the island’s chequered postcolonial history, which includes a pilot station hosting South Sea slave ships, an asylum, a small leper colony, Australia’s first Catholic mission and various cemeteries. He explains, too, the area’s bush medicines and teaches visitors how to make fire using sticks.

QYAC also jointly manages the island’s Naree Budjong Djara National Park and Costello says Straddie offers Aboriginal guides for hiking trips in the park.

Rajiv Viswanathan, IBA’s head of investment, says Indigenous tourism experiences are in demand. IBA surveys show that visitors to Australia have a real interest in “culturally authentic and meaningful experiences” – and there’s a strong perception that Indigenous-owned tours and operations deliver them. 

A government authority that supports Indigenous-owned ventures, IBA cites Straddie Camping as a prime example of tourism innovation. “Where there’s Indigenous ownership, you know there is genuine engagement with Indigenous people,” says Viswanathan. “The staff of the tourism property are Indigenous and there’s meaningful engagement around tours because they’re designed and run by the traditional owners.” 

Straddie Camping general manager Mitch Burke says the IBA partnership brought a much-needed capital injection that will not only improve the sites – next year will bring upgrades to ageing amenities and a doubling of cabin numbers – but also provide work for more local people. Costello agrees: “As we grow the offerings and improve the facilities, there will be work for up to 40 to 50 people.” 

Among them is Patrick Coolwell, a community ranger and part-time traditional Quandamooka dancer, who works on the island, supervising other rangers in infrastructure maintenance and weed eradication. “Thousands of years ago, our people used to maintain the land by firestick farming – it was always maintained,” he says. “It’s a tough job but I look forward to every day, because I’m working on country. You can’t get a better feeling.” 

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