From the air, you can barely see a road or any other sign of modern infrastructure. An expanse of bloodwood and eucalypt stretch out beneath us. Occasionally a reflective deep blue lagoon interrupts the regular pattern of savannah.
Bungie, as our chopper pilot is professionally known, steers us across Olkola country in south central Cape York Peninsula. Michael Ross, senior Traditional Owner and Chairperson of the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation, is taking myself and photographer Kerry Trapnell out into the middle of Olkola country.
Beneath us, the modest peaks of the Great Dividing Range, at around 200 meters in height, stretch unbroken towards Laura, a town internationally renowned for its rock art. Michael tells us over the headset, with a little sign language, that there are hand prints and other forms of rock art in the sandstone caves and overhangs throughout Olkola country. Later he adds that it is yet to be properly documented and explored.
Pushing out into the Western Cape there is little topographic relief. The landscape is almost flat and the soft carpet of open woodland continues – broken only by a network of rivers, creeks and lagoons – until the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The headset crackles with an instruction from Michael to head in a general direction and on his instruction we pull up in one location and circle around. Beneath us, ancient bora grounds marked with circles of dark rocks contrast with the near white soil. These invaluable arrangements of small rocks are a poignant reminder that the Olkola, like many other Indigenous people, never gave up their country, but had it literally taken from underneath them.
Once on the ground, Michael and I settle into a conversation about Olkola country, his years of work in getting it back and what his favourite places are.
Born and raised on Cape York, Michael worked as a ringer mustering cattle down the Cape’s west coast to the stock yards at Mareeba. He tells me his political life started in the 1990s when Olkola came into possession of the Glen Garland pastoral lease.
The purchase of Glen Garland proved to be a catalyst drawing Michael into politics and negotiation. It was here in 1993, at one of the first gatherings of Olkola people on their country since dispossession, that Michael was instructed to get the rest of their land back. “That was the first move of getting Olkola people back on country” Michael tells me.
Over the years Michael has worked for ATSIC, Chaired the Cape York Land Council and now heads up several organisations including the Olkola Aboriginal Corporation. He has worked long and hard supporting many Traditional Owner groups to get their land back. Now, Michael says he feels optimistic that the tables are finally turning for the Olkola people.
“We don’t have to get permission, we’re going home…” he says, reflecting on the fact that the last century of land tenure arrangements largely excluded Olkola people from their own country.
In 2010, the Queensland Government returned the 42,510 hectare Mulkay pastoral lease to the Olkola. “…the Olkola people decided no, we don’t want that as freehold we want that as national park. We named it Alwal National Park for the golden-shouldered parrot,” says Michael, explaining that its sacred country.
The historic hand-back of five pastoral properties to the Olkola people last December totalling 633,630 hectares brings their total land-holdings to 766,272 hectares, which is most of their ancestral homelands. It was also one of the largest single handovers in recent years.
“That’s a big piece of land. We have to plan what security we get from that land. How can we work that land and also protect it. This land needs protection…”
Part of the new tenure arrangements under Olkola ownership includes 373,320 hectares of new parks of which the majority is the Olkola National Park, jointly managed by the Olkola land managers and Queensland Government.
But of course there are challenges.
“You get your country back and then you start looking at finance… then you look at enterprises, what can happen here… my belief and my wishes are that the Olkola will be self-sufficient” Michael says.
Before we head off, Michael shares a thought about a place close to his heart;
“…that’s in my Mother’s country… the spring mounds. I could sit in that place a long time. It’s something special about it, that’s one of my favourite, probably my first favourite place. It’s a high priority.
“I’d really like to protect it and really like to do the best thing I can for that area because of cultural value, I can’t put no limit on the cultural value. It’s very important to me and it’s important for that area and the kangaroo-rat that created it. The spring mounds are very very special. And I like to keep it that way.”