Crown of


During a recent two-month stay in Aurukun, I became friends with Hans Poonkamelya, an artist, traditional owner and elder from West Kendall River between Aurukun and Pormpuraaw on western Cape York Peninsula.


It doesn’t happen very often, but this was an instant friendship. Instant trust. I told Hans about my arctic upbringing and travels and he told me about his life in and out of the bush, about the struggle of his people, about loss and love and inarticulate yearnings. He explained his totems, his language and other things that go beyond normal perceptions, such as night journeys and spirit beings. 


He was so good-natured and generous to me. Here I was, a pandemic-struck travel professional, undergoing a process of self-redefinition and in search of a new destination - in search of Undiscovered Australia! You could call it innovative and opportunistic, but innovation is a form of transformation, and when you are pandemic struck, you have to take the opportunities that present themselves and create something new. My intentions were pure. Cultural tourism can offer amazing authentic experiences for visitors while creating employment in remote indigenous communities. Shared resources, shared earnings, it's a win/win scenario.

Out of the goodness of his heart, Hans wanted to help me achieve that goal. He willingly gave me his time and showed me his country, his story, his dreaming. He posed for my photos, gave video presentations and gave me permission to publish. And yet, being very traditional and strict on law, culture and the ways of the bush, he would at times tell me off when I unknowingly crossed a sacred boundary. There were limits to how much I was entitled to know.


I found him fascinating! Wise, insightful, protective, light-hearted, strict, psychic and secretive. But most of all, at least to me, Hans is a man of art, dreaming and ceremony. Raised in the bush, he is entitled from birth, to wear the feathered crown of the kugu-muminh clan.

He talked about the dance, song and ceremonies of his forefathers and told me there had been a documentary made in the 60's. I found it on youtube and we watched it together. He knew several of the people featured in the film, some were close relatives.


During my time in Aurukun, Hans brought me many gifts. One was a headdress made of feathers. He called it the "crown". It is used for traditional dance.


He also gave me a "law pole" decorated with his clan dots. It was carved out of milkwood.  Hans said that when he was young they used to place a law pole in front of their home when they were away. People would know, and no one would enter the home. Mysteriously he placed a song within the law pole and said it would protect my home. From a traditional point of view, law poles were made for ceremonies and left behind to the elements in the tropical forest. Sometimes they were sculpted to represent characters from the Dreaming.


Another gift I received from Hans was a pair of painted mud shells. Mud shells are used for many tasks. A mud shell can be used as a cutting tool, a spade, a plate or used for drinking water. 


The headdress was made up of a traditional band of feathers attached to a round piece of milkwood which Hans decorated with giddy giddy beads (abrus precatorius). These bright red beads are highly toxic seeds. In wik-mungkan  language they are called puukuw. They are used for many decorative purposes e.g to decorate firesticks, woomeras and umbilical cord pendants. For necklaces they are first boiled, then a needle is put through before threading.














Hans used ordinary glue to attach them to the round wooden base. Traditionally, they would have used plant resins collected from trees and boiled them in a tin with animal fat or beeswax to make a fixative.


For dance ceremonies, they would tie the headdress to the head with a bush string fixed to the base of the feathers.




 Giddy giddy beads are collected from a native shrub. In Wik language it is called Kuuy puukuw - a small-leafed vine (abrus precatorius) with pods yielding red seeds. The pods open around August each year and the seeds drop to the ground.

The hard-shelled seeds are highly valued in native jewellery around the world because of its bright colour. However, jewellery-making with giddy giddy seeds is somewhat hazardous. One pinprick when piercing and threading the bead can be fatal, that's how poisonous this little seed is. Hans warned me to never ever put it in my mouth and chew it.

Australia is home to the oldest living culture on Earth and Aurukun is a very traditional community. With Hans as a guide, I was able to gain a deep appreciation of this mythic place.  Every part of this land has a story, perhaps also a dance and a song. Hans was keen to share his story and give an insight into his culture. Because of Hans, the landscape came to life and this allowed me to journey into regions I otherwise would never have ventured.


There is a strong interest and support from the community for cultural tourism. I sincerely hope that one day soon, I will be able to offer you the traveller, an experience similar to the one I had in Aurukun. For me, it truly was Undiscovered Australia. The experiences I had will occupy a luminous place in my memory and I have returned home somewhat, changed.

My friendship with Hans is ongoing. I spoke to him on the phone last night, he wanted to know where in the house I put the crocodile carving he made for my hubby. 


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