The four-day wukalina Walk takes travelers across the northeastern coast of Tasmania, and into the heart of local palawa culture. Tayla Gentle laces up her boots and retraces tens of thousands of years of history on this Aboriginal-owned-and-operated experience.
Content warning: This story contains references the mistreatment of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, including sexual abuse, that readers may find distressing.
Yesterday, I was chewing on snake tongue grass. This morning, I walked a chalk-white beach picking saltbush for dinner. And right now, I’m rubbing muttonbird oil into my wrinkle lines because it’s a traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal moisturizer. At least, that’s what my palawa guide, Uncle Hank, tells me.
Before this week. I’d never chewed on snake tongue grass, picked saltbush or even heard of the muttonbird—a small, quail-sized bird that flies all the way from Antarctica to roost at the tip of Tassie— let alone grilled one on an open fire and used its fat as a skincare product.
But I’m on the wukalina Walk, a four-day Aboriginal-owned and operated trip across the pristine northeastern coast of Tasmania, and I’m quickly realizing that this is a cultural deep-dive like I’ve never experienced before.
I’m joined by three palawa guides—Uncle Hank, a respected elder; Jam, his softly-spoken assistant guide fluent in all things flora, fauna and palawa kani (local language); and young Ash, a protégé of sorts, here to learn more about the traditional ways and train to be a guide. As a trio, they’re calm, articulate and incredibly willing to share their culture and living history.
Because that’s what it is—a living history. Despite what the books might say, Tasmanian Aboriginal culture didn’t die with Truganini, ‘the last Aboriginal’, back in 1876. It still exists, and thrives, today. A fact that should be more celebrated considering it had to claw its way back from the brink of nothingness after unwanted European settlement and a brutal, three decade-long massacre.
Standing atop wukalina Summit, or ‘Bill’s Hill’ as Hank likes to call it, it’s hard to imagine anything as barbaric as The Black War—where palawa people were murdered, enslaved, kidnapped and raped in their thousands—happening here between 1803-1830.
From our panoramic vantage point, Mt William National Park is peaceful. It’s a haven of honey-scented banksia and ancient grass trees, marsupial meadows and cerulean seas. And yet on the horizon, I can just make out truwana (Cape Barren Island) and Flinders Island, where palawa people were forced into reserves, onto missions or married off to British and American colonizers.
Hank tells me that wukalina actually means ‘woman’s breast’, and is considered a sacred place of nurturing. “We used this summit as a smoke signalling site—we’d light fires as a way to communicate or to warn the women when sealers were coming,” he explains.
At night, I go to sleep beneath possum fur, lulled into dreaming by the sound of the nearby ocean, and in the morning, I wake with the sun feeling rested and at home.
Later that day, as we follow a trail through dense coastal scrub to krakani lumi, our beautiful beach-side standing camp, I listen as the men share some of the other ways the palawa people communicate—both with each other and the land.
I learn that there’s a small yellow bird who gives a warning chirp when a snake is nearby, and that you can learn a lot about coming weather patterns from a jumping jack ant’s nest. Life here is just so interconnected; everything has its role to play, if you only pay attention.
Plants I’ve known and ignored all my life suddenly serve a purpose. Like the bright pink pig face flower, which is both hydrating and a laxative depending how you eat it. And bracken fern, which is the perfect anti-itch to any mosquito bite. “Nature can give you the pain but it also gives you the medicine,” says Jam.
Along the way, Hank points out an echidna ambling across the trail and a tiger snake slipping into the brush. Jam shows me the difference between pademelon tracks and Tassie Devil prints in the sand. We talk for a long time about the importance of bringing back cultural burning, as a way to regenerate habitats and protect the land.
“Cultural burning is when you listen to what the land wants, and you give it that fire,” says Jam. “We can’t burn the exact same way the old mob did, but we can take that knowledge and translate it so it works today.”
After a feast of muttonbird and fresh oysters, scallops doused in wattleseed, and crispy saltbush chips, I’m officially welcomed to country. Standing beneath the southern Milky Way, I breathe in the cleansing, soft black peppermint smoke and listen to the Dreamtime creation story of palawa—the first man and guardian of the island.
It’s said that palawa was created from the body of a kangaroo and he, and all his descendants, are eternally responsible for taking care of the island. A responsibility that’s still taken seriously by descendants like Hank, Jam and Ash.
You could call krakani lumi, a ‘glamping’ experience but that would be doing the camp a disservice. The dome-shaped community base is entirely eco-friendly, designed to leave no trace and is architecturally inspired by traditional Aboriginal huts.
Ash tells me that krakani lumi means ‘resting place’ and it couldn’t be more true. At night, I go to sleep beneath possum fur, lulled into dreaming by the sound of the nearby ocean, and in the morning, I wake with the sun feeling rested and at home.
“I can’t quite put it into words, but sharing my culture with you—and with others—it’s about acceptance, and it’s about healing.”
After sanding back clap sticks and slathering them in red ochre with Hank, I follow Jam and Ash north up the empty, kelp-strewn beach to an ancient cultural living site. Sitting snug above the beach and protected from the foaming waves by sand dunes, this site is at least 8,000 years old and would’ve been a place of ceremony and gathering for the old mob.
Today it’s a spongy stretch of black soil dotted with thousands of fragments of bone and shell, all of which have been brought here by palawa families over time. “It’s basically a menu,” Jam says, pointing out an abalone shell and a seal tooth. This place is a tangible smorgasbord of artifacts left behind by their ancestors. And it boggles the mind.
On our third day, we make the long trek south from krakani lumi to larapuna—a parcel of land in the Bay of Fires region that’s been given back to the local palawa community on a 40-year lease. An insulting clause considering white owners of settlement-era shacks are given 99-year leases.
The entire 17-kilometer trek is along the beach, and it’s a meditative experience. For a while, we walk in silence, my mind left to imagine a time, more than 12,000 years ago, when the sea levels were so low that you could walk between Victoria and Tasmania, across a fertile hunting ground packed with kangaroos and emus. For long stretches, I simply listen as Hank and Jam tell me stories of their families; of going muttonbirding and growing up palawa in Tasmania.
After Hank’s mum passed away, he says he felt a pull to learn more about his culture. “My mum had died and my dad was a white fella and he couldn’t give me anything, so I spoke with some elders and they told me to go find some fellas on the mainland,” he tells me. “It was the best education I could get, and if I didn’t do it I would’ve been lost. I would’ve gotten into trouble. I went walking around country for seven years and it’s how I found my Aboriginality. It’s how I was able to bring it home.”
It’s this question of identity that’s at the heart of many conversations that I have with Hank, Jam and Ash. Thanks to brutal colonization and life on reserves, many palawa people today are considered ‘white-passing’, and Hank is passionate about helping the younger palawa generations explore and embrace their roots and culture. “My grandson is as white as anything, and he really struggled with his identity. I told him, it’s not what you look like—it’s what’s in here,” he says, pointing to his heart.
When we walk onto larapuna land, I can tell it’s a special place. It has a palpable energy. The grounds are serene and green, with wallabies and wombats. In front of me, the larapuna lighthouse stands sentinel against the striking Bay of Fires, with its white-sand beaches and orange-lichen granite boulders.
We stay in the lush lighthouse keeper’s cottage and dine on wallaby lasagna and Tasmanian wines while outside a sunset blazes. The next morning, we climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse; I’m silenced by the view.
This right here, this is palawa country. In all its natural, wild beauty. And just for a second, I get a real glimpse into the intensity of love, connection and gratitude that the palawa people feel for this land; this island that they’ve been protecting and nurturing for tens of thousands of years.
When I ask Uncle Hank why he chooses to be a guide on the wukalina Walk, he tells me it’s for the healing. “I can’t quite put it into words, but sharing my culture with you—and with others—it’s about acceptance, and it’s about healing,” he says, looking out across the mighty Bass Strait.
And I admit, there’s something inside of me that feels healed too.
Inspired? Experience the wukalina Walk for yourself in 2021.
The writer traveled as a guest of the wukalina Walk.
Tayla Gentle is a freelance writer and producer specializing in adventure travel. Her work has featured in outlets such as Lonely Planet, AFAR, AWOL and Red Bull Australia. Her spirit country is Myanmar.