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Cairns Festival - Things that bite in Far North Queensland

by John Curnow on 18 Jul 2012
That wonderful natural wonder of the world known as the Great Barrier Reef. John Curnow ©
Australia is well known for having lots and lots of things that bite. There are crocodiles and sharks. Snakes and mosquitoes. Stonefish and stingers. What a charming list and these are but a few of the gems around the country. Yes indeed, it is simply wonderful stuff here in the land of plenty, and if the bite doesn’t get you, then the venom or infection left behind may well do so. However, it is not just the creatures that you can concern yourself with, for there is more than enough to get your teeth into around Cairns this Winter and just about at any time for that matter.

Now if you’re Australian, your own backyard might be a bigger one than some other countries’ entire land masses, but a recent trip to our very own backyard provided some interesting alternative theories to a lot of things that you might not have seen. Additionally, and as an aside, in tough economic times, it’s important to give regional areas a hand.


Here’s an interesting notion. Think of Far North Queensland (FNQ) a little like a sushi train. Certainly, you can just drop in for the classic rainforest and reef elements like the bulk of the tourists from the many and varied countries of origin. However, if you’re there for work, on a corporate incentive programme, keen to play golf at an oasis like Paradise Palms or heaven forbid, try and find a spot to go fishing, then the Cairns Festival from August 17 to September 2, 2012 will certainly open your eyes and mouth to the many other cultural aspects that the area is also famous for.

The Cairns Festival itself has a AU$5.5m impact on the town, which is a wonderful achievement for its 170,000 plus citizens. Now when you consider that three years ago, Arts Nexus commissioned Bill Cummings to do an Economic Study to provide the value of art and cultural affairs to the entire region (FNQ) and he concluded that $300m was what the creative industries like Art, Architecture, Graphics, Sculpture and Landscaping contributed. At that sum, it gets the industry in towards sugar cane and not that far off commercial fishing. So, it is interesting to note that as a hub Cairns has well and truly moved on from being just backyard activity and this is a direct result of a concerted effort towards commercialisation.

Accordingly, you get to appreciate that there are so many things with bite going on in the region, from economics to epicurean, so strap in as we take a look at some of them. During the Cairns Festival, you can partake in Jazz, Ballet, Music, Comedy, Visual Arts and the ubiquitous parade in and around Cairns, from its delightful Esplanade to the expansive lawn and pool area. It is not just during Cairns Festival time that you can see this regional hub prosper, however. Like many a city, Cairns is also finding uses for its nooks and crannies. The Choice Australia laneway has provided Torres Strait Islander painter, Glen Mackie (Kei Kalak), with the perfect space to produce a 20m mural, depicting sea life as seen by an Islander, with Dugongs and Sharks aplenty.

The Cairns Council, as part of its Creative Partnerships Teams, has seized the opportunity, as well. They are providing other, unused spaces at minimal rent for three months to give all manner of artists the chance to experience studio and business life at the same time, whilst adding to the cultural flavour and atmosphere of the tropical town. Effectively, they’re mini pop-up galleries and whether they’re permanent fixtures like Glen’s mural, or ever-changing galleries and havens, they will go a long way to adding the same kind of ambience that cities like Melbourne enjoy as result of their laneways and cultural spaces.

Over at the Canopy Artspace at 124 Grafton Street, there is a myriad of styles and activities on offer. Alick Tipoti with his sorcerer masks can have you transported to the wilderness in a nanosecond. Well, in your mind anyway. The tremendously striking and delightful vibrant paintings of Arone Meeks with their deeply spiritual concepts and luscious techniques will have you returning time and time again for another look as you absorb the artist’s intentions. Other items like Ken Thaiday Senior’s hammerhead shark headdress will have you in no doubt as to what he’s trying to tell you and the amazing little figurines from the Aurukun people on the Gulf of Carpentaria will truly make you think you are part of some of Gulliver’s travels. Elsewhere inside the Canopy Artspace, Ink Masters will amaze you with the prints they make and you will get to fully appreciate the time this craft takes. Inkfest runs for the entire duration of the Cairns Festival, so there’s plenty to go around.

Whilst on the subject of visual arts, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) is a separate, but not mutually exclusive subset of the Cairns Festival and bolts on to beginning of it, running from August 17 to 19, 2012 at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal, which is at the harbour on Trinity Inlet. This year will be its fourth incarnation and feature new visual and performance art from more than 300 participants, representing 24 Indigenous art centres and commercial galleries from right across FNQ. To date, it has already attracted over 33,500 visitors and reaped in some $4.3m.

‘If you think Indigenous art is all about dots from the desert, CIAF will significantly change that view’, said Avril Quaill, the Artistic Director for CIAF and a former curator of the National Gallery of Art. CIAF provides a platform for recognition for Queensland Indigenous artists, giving them a chance to go into global markets. ‘Indigenous artists in North Queensland have their own art styles, traditions and languages, with influences from the environments in which they live. The colours are stronger and the themes are different. Whereas Australia's Central Desert art is based upon browns, ochres and siennas, stemming from the natural pigments found in the middle of Australia, here in FNQ it's the brilliance and iridescence of the rainforest, the reef, the islands and Queensland's strong light. It's very alive and stylistically exciting’, Avril added. Dedicated dealers and collectors from around the globe to home enthusiasts seek these works out to add colour and vibrancy to their walls.

So with such a diversity of activities on offer, you may wonder who or more importantly what might be big enough to sink their teeth into the Cairns Festival. The answer is the James Cook University. Dr Stephen Weller is the Head of the Cairns Campus explains, ‘The festival is iconic for Cairns and for some it is the only reason they come to Cairns and one of the reasons they come back. It really is a key attraction for the region. For sure it fits in with some of our disciplines, such as the creative arts faculty, but it was the figurehead notion that was and is the reason for our involvement. We want to engage with what we with think is the peak of cultural, tourism and social activities. JCU is very much about aligning with the region and so to link with the Cairns Festival anchors this in peoples’ minds. We have a strong tropical agenda here, as we are one of the few Universities to be located in the tropics, from all around the globe.’

The Cairns Festival began some 51 years ago and in 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Cairns Campus of the JCU, so there will be a celebration week in the lead up to festival. JCU Cairns currently attracts 10% of its 4000 students from Interstate, a further 10% come from overseas and another 10% from other parts of Queensland. Significant expansion to 10,500 students in addition to the 12,00 at Townsville, including a Singapore Campus, is underway with a new $25m research institute as just one example. Like all education facilities today, online components are a part of life for the students.

Now given JCU’s location and relative uniqueness amongst the world’s universities, you’d expect there to be some interesting and important projects underway. You’d be correct, too. Professor Scott Ritchie is leading a team to look at ways of not allowing mosquitoes to carry the deadly virus that leads to Dengue Fever. This is all possible as a direct result of funding assistance from the Gates Foundation. Dengue may not be a huge problem in Australia, Ross River Fever may be more so, but globally it is a significant problem. Therefore, it is kind of wonderful to see the custom-built, special outdoor area resembling a typical tropical backyard to study the impact of various batches on human targets, who incidentally, are paid to get bitten.


Professor Darren Crayn is the Director of the Australian Tropical Herbarium and they are presently the custodians of some examples, which were cut by Joseph Banks’ very own hand when Captain James Cook beached Endeavour at Cooktown to affect repairs before returning home to England. In Australia, we know that drought bites when it hits, so how about a low water requirement rice crop? For some, the bite of caffeine in coffee is too much or not to their liking, so a naturally derived decaffeinated coffee may well be the answer. Well it is all true enough, and the herbarium has examples of both crops, which are low yield when compared to their cousins, but with fresh, clean water in ever increasing demand around the globe and the desire to live a more natural life wherever possible also becoming more popular, these two plants may hold keys to a more sustainable and beneficial future.

The Marine Research Aquarium is under the stewardship of Associate Professor Jamie Seymour. The team is famous around the globe for some of the best close in action shots of the magnificent creatures to be found in FNQ. Indeed, Jamie has been the recipient of more than one bite from Snappy the 0.5m crocodile who was a star in a recent BBC documentary, which came on the heels of their work with sharks. Jamie has also taken his share of stings from the ultra-venomous stonefish, so it is a good thing that this facility is also the leading provider of venom to the laboratories that make the anti-venom. Given the specialist and unique work performed here, it is not surprising that they have been granted a rare permit to work with sea snakes in captivity, which is fantastic given that they are the most venomous of the type on the planet. The interaction between academia and the commercial world is not limited to TV shows either, for they also conduct tests on lures and other equipment as a way of securing the all important funding.

Speaking of securing dinner, if catching it for yourself is out of the question, then you may want to visit Hanuman on the ground floor of the Hilton. Jimmy Shu is a wonderfully enigmatic restaurateur whose passion for spice weaves predominantly but not exclusively through Thai, Indian and Nonja styles. If you were around Melbourne in the late 80’s and early 90’s, then you’d be familiar with the signature oyster dish, which was on offer at Isthmus of Kra in South Melbourne. Never fear though, for there is always a new range of fresh, seasonal items on offer from the team as a result of Jimmy’s continual travels. Jimmy will be conducting a Secrets of Spices luncheon as part of the Cairns Festival, so if you’re there on September 1, this is a great way to learn from the man in person.


Of a morning, Cairns harbour is awash with all the vessels leaving for the day to set forth on the many adventures on offer in the region. Previously, I have been lucky enough to dive on the outer reef. If you’re wanting a reef experience, but perhaps without the trek, then Green Island is very close and you can be there in just over an hour. On offer is some delightful shallow water snorkelling, underwater viewing opportunities and it is always nice to be able to circumnavigate an island in 20 minutes by foot. Naturally, sitting on a tropical beach is always a path to inner peace, as you contemplate nothing at all.

A helicopter service is available if you’re after something more express oriented and there is a hotel on the island if you really wanted to immerse yourself in the luxury of it all, without having to travel to extremes. This is the only way to stay overnight, however. Now if you’re hungry and on a day trip, look out for the Japanese Curry on offer at the buffet lunch on board the Big Cat of Green Island Tours. Apart from the joy of floating along with the magical Green Turtles of the area, this was certainly a highlight.

More information on how to sink your teeth into FNQ can be obtained from the www.cairnsfestival.com.au!event_website and CIAF website for indigenous art. However, please remember that if you cannot make it during August and September, the people and creatures of FNQ will be biting into their work, culture and food, 24/7.





Cairns Festival website

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