Purely from the heart: Traditional Owners host international river rafting comp with a difference

A water story, one about a water-hoarding blue tongue lizard and a kingfisher who creates rivers, is colliding with a story about the best river rafters in the world in the most spectacular way.

More than 300 athletes from 49 countries have descended on Far North Queensland’s Tully River for the World Rafting Championships.

The Championships have come together with the help of a Traditional Owners Working Group (TOWG), assembled for the event.

“It means a lot to us Indigenous people,” Clarence Kijun of the Jirrbal tribe said.

“We want to promote to the world our culture, to let them know we’re still around and proud.”

Mr Kijun has been part of leading TOWG—comprised of Gulngay and Jirrbal Traditional Owners—to make key decisions on how the event would run.

Through the World Champs, the elders have an audience with the world, and they’re using it to tell the story of the blue tongue lizard who hid all the water underneath a rock.

“In the beginning, the blue tongue lizard was the water keeper. The other animals tried to find where he was hiding the water,” Mr Kijun explains.

They found the water under the big rock. They asked the white-tailed rat to sneak up on the lizard. He nudged the rock, and the water came out of the ground.

“And then the kingfisher put his beak down and carved out the Tully River and all the rivers. Like a surveyor to show where the river has to run,” Mr Kijun finishes.

The story is depicted on the event shirts, which have been selling fast in the first days of the Champs near Cairns.

“This Traditional Owners Working Group—I’ve enjoyed working with all of them,” World Rafting’s Indigenous Project Officer, Sonya Pakaw said.

“Every week, they’ve never missed a meeting. The flow, professionalism, the passion, the teamwork. We’ve made decisions on marketing or whatever is required, and quickly move to the next item.

“We realise that this is a world event, and Tully is never going to get anything like this for a long time.”

Ms Pakaw said both the members of the TOWG and the International Rafting Federation had the same vision for the week-long competition.

“As rafters, they have an intimate relationship with the natural world,” she said.

“The vibe from the rafting community and locals has been great. They understand that rivers give life and they’re critical to the stories of Indigenous people.”

For the athletes, the connection with the Traditional Owners has been vital.

Australian Open Men’s team representative, Riley Best, said his teammate Chris approached elders of both tribes to ask how the event will be received by the local Indigenous people.

He said they were greeted with gratitude and it opened up new lines of communication between the athletes and Indigenous elders.

“Chris and myself were at the Stop Adani protest in Brisbane and we were there thinking, ‘What do the Indigenous people of North Queensland think about this event being on the Tully River?’” Best said.

The Australian team were offered the chance to wear the local tribe’s shields on their helmets and paddles.

“I’m so proud and so happy with the way things are going and coming together,” Mr Kijun said.

The event started on Monday and will run into next week. The members of the TOWG have been working for 12-weeks to bring their side of things together, and they kicked things off with a welcome to country.

“This group, we’ve done this with no funding. We’ve had small donations, but the members are volunteers. So, this has been purely from their heart,” Ms Pakaw said.

The local council and other community groups are hoping the TOWG will stay together and preside over other local decisions and events in the future.

“I think they’ll definitely stay together,” Ms Pakaw said.

The athletes are competing in their division across four different disciplines. Teams will accumulate points in each discipline, and the team with the highest points at the end of the week will win.

“We are a team of six guys who have been working on that river for 10-years, working on the Tully as raft guides,” Mr Best said.

“Everyone’s loving the rainforest, loving the river. It’s quite a different river. On the Tully, it’s known as a low volume technical river. Overseas the teams are used to glacial fed rivers which have a lot more water. This is quite different.”

By Keiran Deck

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2 Comments on Purely from the heart: Traditional Owners host international river rafting comp with a difference

  1. My family have Jirrbal heritage through my grandmother’s mother. I have two Aunties in their 80’s who had NO idea that this event was happening. There’s also some Jirrbal family descendants on Palm 🌴 Island.

  2. SOOO good to see the TOWG involved in this event. What a great move and a welcome change to how we see our relationship with recreation, culture and the environment. Fantastic.

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