On the map of Australia, the Cape York Peninsula looks like a small, wonky witch's hat in the far north-east – but England could slide into it with room to spare. The region's coastal dunes, forests and mountain scenery are starkly beautiful; if you believe the Aboriginal "Dreamtime" creation story the dramatic landscape is the work of supernatural beings who once roamed a barren earth bringing into being its physical features. It's the chance to learn more about Australian Aboriginal culture that has led me to join a two-week remote Queensland tour that combines sightseeing with volunteering.
While the opportunity to meet people from remote indigenous communities lies at the heart of the trip, you do have to do a bit of work, and my first stop is the Cape York Turtle Rescue Camp. Marine turtles in far north Queensland are facing extinction. At sea, they become entangled in stray fishing nets; on land, wild pigs, dingoes and monitor lizards eat the eggs they lay. It's the volunteers' job to help the rangers patrol the beach and collect data – but the big draw for me is the chance to watch the giant, gentle creatures nest, by moonlight.
The camp is a 90-minute drive from the mining town of Weipa, which itself is reached from the city of Cairns via turbo-prop plane. We head north along deserted roads and a bumpy beach track dotted with Pandanus trees. The track overlooks the Janie River, a haven for crocodiles. Indeed, the first thing I notice about the camp is that it is surrounded by wire fencing designed to keep crocs out. Inside, however, there's a cosy circle of two-person tents and a shower cubicle which pumps out water collected from a borehole and heated by solar power. I meet the staff and other volunteers: John and Libby from Queensland, Jeanne from Sydney, and Jaylene, a biology graduate-turned-turtle researcher. All of them have been to the camp before.
The project is a pioneering one: the camp is on land loaned by the Aboriginal owners, and indigenous rangers from the nearby community of Mapoon act as guides. That they even have the land to loan is the result of an immense struggle. Half a century ago, the residents were moved out to make way for a mining venture. "We weren't consulted and had no time to take our possessions," muses Aboriginal elder Danny Cooktown. He tells me that his grandmother was involved in the lengthy, but ultimately successful, fight to reclaim the township.
Aboriginal camp ranger Lawry Booth is utterly passionate about the turtles – and ensures that our nights are spent on Flinders Beach wallowing in their majestic presence. We watch as they nest, we count and measure the turtles' unhatched eggs – noting those that have been disturbed – and when a nest erupts we count hatchlings (they feel like warm, soft leather). In between the action, we flop on the sand and try to locate the Southern Cross in the brightest star-filled skies I've ever seen.
By daylight we return to the beach and spot birds, examine animal tracks, ramble in the sand dunes, or try strangely named bush tucker: bum-bum leaves, used for cooking, or the woody-woody fruit. One morning Lawry leads us to a hidden cove, where we watch two baby crocodiles playing in the water.
After a night's stay back in Cairns, the tour continues along the Bloomfield Track through the Daintree Rainforest. Our 4x4 splashes through creeks and past mountain scenery en route to the Aboriginal community of Wujal Wujal. "The name means 'many waterfalls'. There are no plurals in Aboriginal languages, so if something is important it is named twice," says my amiable driver and guide, Russell Boswell, a Queenslander with an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora, fauna, history and people of the Cape York region. At the edge of Wujal Wujal, Russell introduces me to the Walker sisters. They are from the Kuku Yalanji Tribe, and run a fledgling business taking tourists on walks to the Bloomfield Falls. Eileen, her sister Kathleen and her daughter Gloria lead me through the forest, pointing out trees and plants and their health warnings. Eat too much of the orange finger cherry, says Eileen, and you'll go blind; brush up against the stinging leaf and two years later you'll still be in agony. Then there's the umbrella tree, so called because "if you take a few leaves and burn them when it's raining, the rain will stop".
At the Falls, the sisters tell me a dreamtime story. Alas, it's impossible for me to convey in print, as it's a "women's story", and as tradition dictates for female ears only. Later Russell explains: " Stories are an integral part of Aboriginal culture and have a real currency as traditionally material possessions were negligible. The keeper of a story has a position of status within a traditional community."
Back on the road, we drive inland to Jowalbinna, a safari camp set in the midst of the Quinkan Aboriginal rock art sites. The latter are named after the ancestral spirits said to hide amidst the rocks; on the way there we pass the eerie Black Mountain, Cape York's version of Victoria's mystical Hanging Rock. Legend has it that those who enter the labyrinth of black granite boulders vanish into thin air. A pitstop at the Lion's Den pub, where bearded, big-bellied chaps prop up the bar, is spooky in a different way: a visit to the lavatory involves a walk past a room full of pickled snakes, placed there, as far as I can tell, for no good reason other than to freak out the "Sheilas".
Jowalbinna itself is in a vast clearing deep in the forest. Behind my bush cabin, wallabies hop up and down like mad things, but in the dead of night, the hopping and rustling is less welcome, given the tales I'd heard over the campfire of spirit sightings. Come sunrise, I'm nearly thrown clear from my bed by the dawn chorus: 55 species of birds have been spotted here, including the blue-faced honeyeater, kookaburra and lorikeet.
After breakfast, I meet Steve Trezise, son of Percy Trezise, the artist who discovered the sites in the 1960s. Steve is leading a morning hike around them and we inspect the ochre drawings of animals, spirits, handprints and stick figures scattered across sandstone boulders and caves in a tree-filled valley. The art, says Steve, dates back 30,000 years. I learn that the aboriginal people who lived in this valley were a tribe of hunter-gatherers, their lives measured by the rhythm of rituals linked to puberty, manhood, marriage, birth and death – that is, until the late 19th century, when gun-toting miners in search of gold arrived.
Next, Russell drives me south to Thala Beach Lodge, outside Port Douglas. It is marketed as a "five-star eco-lodge", and mangrove, rainforest, beach and woodland are among the habitats on its 60-hectare site. My bungalow overlooks the Coral Sea. Thala makes a great base for snorkelling in the Barrier Reef, visiting the rainforest and riding the Skyrail. But the highlight for me is an Aboriginal "dreamtime walk": a 90-minute guided hike through a silent, virgin slice of rainforest on a private track in the Mossman Gorge. On my last day I visit Kuranda, a popular artist's colony between Port Douglas and Cairns. In a newly opened gallery called Djurri Dadagal, I chat to Lynette Snider. She tells me about her childhood: a now familiar story of forcible removal, a struggle to survive and, for her at least, a happy ending – success as an artist and as a mother of eight.
"You'll be back," says Lynette. "I know it."
I think she may be right.
Ellie Messham travelled with Students Partnership Worldwide (SPW), www.spw.org. Paddy Pringle travelled with the author's company, 2Way Development, www.2way.org.uk. His Ugandan diary can be found in the 2007 Lonely Planet guide, 'Volunteering, a traveller's guide to making a difference around the world'. The author is director of 2Way Development
Does your holiday help?
"Volun-tourism" is shorthand for travellers who devote a proportion of their trip to helping local people. The concept has been criticised: does a week or two of unskilled labour make any significant difference? But there is no doubt that longer placements can change your life and the lives of others.
Prospective volunteers should take a critical approach in choosing the right company to manage their trip. A well-run volunteer agency will have long-term partnerships with local charities overseas, and will match the skills of volunteers to them. Many charities overseas simply wouldn't survive withoutthe input of international volunteers, who offer badly needed skills while forgoing the wage they would earn at home. For the volunteers themselves, the experience can be an access point or inspiration to a new career.
Ellie Messham, from Farnham in Surrey, was 19 when she volunteered in Uganda. She provided sexual health education and raised awareness of HIV/Aids in rural communities. Her work helped her to land her current job as a youth worker in Guildford and a trainer for the "Students STOP Aids " campaign.
Paddy Pringle, aged 28, took a career break from his job in the UK as an economics development consultant. He volunteered with a a small charity in rural Uganda involved in health, education and income generation programmes. Pringle helped to raise funds for a health centre.
"I was keen to find a placement that would give me valuable professional experience while at the same time enable me to make a real contribution to reducing poverty in Africa," Pringle said. Patient numbers went up at the centre, and the organisation he was based with was able to deliver additional health services, and finish building a community hall and staff quarters. After returning home, Pringle said: "I learnt so much, about Africa, about development issues and most of all about myself. "
The author travelled with Hands Up Holidays (0800 783 3554; www. handsupholidays.com) on its 14-day Remote Queensland tour. The price of £3,000 includes transport, accommodation, most meals, sightseeing, and four days' volunteering, but not international flights. Stays at the Thala Beach Lodge can be added. The next trip departs on 15 October, with four departures planned next year.
The easiest link to Cairns from the UK is on Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathay pacific.com) via Hong Kong; alternatively, find a flight to Singapore and connect to Jetstar (www.Jetstar.com), the low-cost subsidiary of Qantas. It flies Singapore-Cairns via Darwin, an eight-hour flight.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
Kuku Yalangi Dreamtime walks in the Mossman Gorge (00 61 7 4098 2595; www.yalanji.com. au) cost A$27.50 (£11).
Cape York Turtle Rescue Camp (00 61 7 4069 9978; www.capeyorkturtlerescue.com).
British passport holders need visas for travel to Australia. An Electronic Tourist Authority (ETA) can be applied for online at www.eta.immi.gov.au. The cost is A$20 (£8.60) for a three-month stay.
Tourism Australia's brochure request line is 0191 501 4646, or visit www.australia.com
Hands-on Holidays – Short-term Adventures That Make a Difference, by Guy Hobbs (Vacation Work, £12.99), has information on hundreds of " journeys with a purpose" around the world.