The Walk of Life

Willie Gordon is the larger than life character at the forefront of Guurrbi Tours.

Willie Gordon is the larger than life character at the forefront of Guurrbi Tours.

By Chris Bates

Some blokes are pretty good at feeding people a line; like those crafty buggers who sell real estate and used cars. You know the mob, they’re the type you visit with a back-up escape plan because you’re dead certain the mongrels will cast some psychology-of-selling spell over you, rendering your usual common sense utterly useless.
Then there are the blokes that are pretty good at selling a concept. Take me for instance, everyone thinks I’m a decent, laid-back fella. Truth is I’m an anxiety-ridden arsehole – proof that bullshit baffles brains.
Willie Gordon of Guurrbi Aboriginal Rock Art Tours, on the other hand, is a different kind of salesman. This smart fella has figured out how to sell your soul – and here’s the clever bit – he sells the bloody thing to you.
I’d seen Willie’s noggin plastered over a ton of literature during the last few years in newspapers and magazines across the country so I knew that the big man was running a much-loved travel experience. What I didn’t know was that I’d be in Cooktown early one morning, lining up to march in his steps with nine others. Now let me explain something; I’m not the kind of man who goes in for that ‘Must-Do’ experience stuff. My ‘Must-Do’ experience when visiting a new town is: locate the nearest bakery, drive to the nearest park, hoe into the nearest meat pie, then sit back and have a quiet chuckle as the locals make their way to work. It might not sound like a great travel adventure to most but it sure as hell beats watching some grinning idiot eating a meat pie while you make your way to work.

Willie Gordon shows how to use 'bush soap'

Willie Gordon shows how to use 'bush soap'

In fact, if it wasn’t for this magazine you’re reading – and its owner’s constant bloody whining – then I probably wouldn’t have ventured out on one of Willie’s tours. But boy, am I glad I did. You see the top thing about Willie is that the man has a real sense for this kind of experience … and thankfully that sense has a reservation for a good dose of Aussie humour.
“Just a word about photography,” he says, effectively stalling the group as everyone rummages through daypacks and cars for cameras. The topic of photography immediately raises a cultural concern in all about offending the spirits of Willie’s ancestors.
“Take anything, anywhere, all day … just as long as it is on my good side,” he says with a smile.
Willie is a larrikin; an Indigenous Nugal-Warra elder with a twinkle in his eye when it comes to playing a joke on the typical white fella collective guilt and shame. There’s no lecturing about colonial misdemeanours and no brow-beating about in-depth racial politics – which is not to say that Willie skirts the subject. He talks freely, but like a good psychologist, he has the rest of the party talking more freely about themselves. This makes Willie an individual with a rare skill – he can transcend cultures. An easy-going character who is a welder by trade, Willie can slide between white and black worlds, whether that means he needs to speak the Queen’s English, Kreole or converse in dusty Ringer-talk, the lingua franca native to Northern Australian cattle stations. It’s an envious talent.

Willie Gordon shows some of the local artwork.

Willie Gordon shows some of the local artwork.

The tour begins in a follow-the-leader-like fashion – Willie out front with his ten guests trailing behind. The short, and not at all arduous hike through the granite and bush countryside, allows for numerous stops; the first of which enables the group to rest on a small knoll and take stock of the surrounding vista that is native to our guide’s nearby home town of Hopevale. In the distance several landmarks can be taken in, including the impressive ochre escarpments that loom large within Lakefield National Park. It is upon this new knoll of knowledge that Willie steps back into the world of his ancestors and brings forth details of a past life for the group. The topic of eating native flora and fauna is easy to digest and we are soon on the hoof again to other locations on the trail. Celebrated spots that act as a natural canvas to artwork that originated many thousands of years ago. Standing alongside or under monolithic rocks very rarely yields the kind of awe one gets when combining the experience with an Aboriginal painting and the silence of the Aussie bush. Duly immersed with blank faces, the group suddenly seems to represent a human canvas upon which Willie can begin to paint his yarn. The salesman has us hooked.
It is from this point on that the tour makes a profound imprint on each of the tour members. That there is something greater than a mere ‘tour’ happening here is obvious. Looking around at the other travellers’ faces reveals that they too are feeling what I am – the journey we are on is now about us. It seems the wiley Willie Gordon has managed to weave the stories of an indigenous past with our own complicated modern day lives.
“We can’t change the past,” says Willie. “But we can change the future.”
This simple statement catches each of us assessing our own lives and the place we occupy within it. Family, jobs, love, marriage, death. All at the forefront of our minds as we stand in the quiet bush, stranded between two worlds.
Nowhere is this assessment more evident then when we are led to a birthing chamber. Stooping low we navigate ourselves onto some rocks to witness the painted scene above. The chamber’s ceiling gives Willie’s words of comfort to all the mothers present, a very different relief to pain.
“You have a gift,” he tells the women.
The moment is immense. One that leaves me with a desire to experience the all-protective maternal instinct, the hardship, the unbreakable bond with child. Immediately I am home-sick for a chance to be with my long-suffering wife and twelve month old son. A look at the other males in the group suggests I’m not Robinson Crusoe. We’re all feeling a touch of soppy emotional stuff. Which makes a change from our usual well known lives of boy-like selfish idiocy.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take long before the spell is broken. A distinct bird-call sounds in the distance.
“What’s that?” asks someone seeking to identify the species.
“That’s a bird,” says Willie with his typical dry wit.

Read more in the 2008 Cape Yorker magazine. Order your copy online today.