Travel: Paradise - and you can eat the ants

Sue Nelson in Pajinka, Australia, where the Injinoo community bought back its land. And then set up a resort
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The Independent Travel
TWO LEAVES are curiously joined together by their edges and inflated into a glossy green pouch. "The nest of the green ant," explains Rusty, who crushes both leaves and ants with the palms of his hands, rolls them into a ball and inhales deeply. "Smell."

I'm reluctant to get too close, as I've met the nest's inhabitants before and they've a ferocious bite. Luckily the fragrant mix of lemon and lime is tempting. "If you have a cold you scrunch the ants up and take a deep breath to clear the nose - but not too deep because it may knock you out," says Rusty. "It's strong. And if you put them in hot water and drink it, it will keep the throat clear. Good for singers." Then he adds: "You can eat them too. Just bite the tail off."

George "Rusty" Williams is no ordinary guide. A serene, kindly man in his late sixties, wearing jeans and a freshly pressed shirt, he is an Aboriginal tribal elder. He's also a member of the Pajinka Wilderness Lodge executive committee, which is owned and effectively staffed and managed by the Injinoo, one of three Aboriginal communities native to the Cape York area of Australia.

This is Pajinka's fifth year as an Aboriginal-run lodge and, according to David Byrne, policy director of the Cape York land council, it is "the jewel in the Queensland government's crown of indigenous tourism".

Byrne first met the Injinoo on a camper van trip to the peninsula in 1983. "I didn't know they existed," he admits. Neither did most of the lodge guests. Pajinka was then part-owned by several airlines, but Byrne helped the Injinoo to buy back their traditional land. Now, at the northernmost tip of Australia, 1,200 hectares of savannah, beaches and tropical rainforest belongs to its original inhabitants.

At 5.30am the Injinoo's rainforest is silent but expectant. The sun is about to rise and only a few moments of dark remain. Tony Dorr, Pajinka's naturalist, leads me by torchlight to a towering tree. There's a ladder attached, so we climb for 50 feet or so until we reach a circular wooden platform. This is the bird hide which, being level with the rainforest canopy, is the perfect auditorium for an early morning concert.

The first performer arrives with the brightening sky. A solitary warble pierces the air. "That's a grey whistler," whispers Tony. Another chirp echoes across the treetops. "An oriole," he says. As more birds chime in he identifies each in turn, from a yellow-billed kingfisher and a yellow- spotted honey-eater to the distinctive wolf whistle of a rifle bird, the most striking bird of paradise in the rainforest. By the time the sun is up a cacophony of birdsong echoes across the tree tops.

A dawn chorus is an exhilarating way to start a day at the lodge, but guests can do as little or as much as they want. There are mountain bikes and fishing boats for hire, plus numerous field trips and tours. One of the easiest walks is to the tip of Cape York. This is something of a national quest, which is why the occasional passing cruise ship will allow passengers to disembark so they can stand on the rocks, overlooking the Torres Straits Islands, at the point where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet.

Pajinka lies a few hundred yards away, behind a pristine beach. Pandanus palms fringe a wooden reception building, and its 24 cabins - each with a verandah but no phone or radio - nestle in the rainforest. As there's a restaurant and bar next to the pool, this is a wilderness for softies.

Getting there, however, is certainly an adventure. The journey starts at a tiny Second World War army hut. This is the airport at Bamaga, where passengers walk through a door labelled "Arrivals" and emerge, on the other side, under a sign saying "Departures". I was met by Rusty and a 4WD, which took us thundering past eucalyptus trees along a track of vibrant orange soil. "From the ochre," he explained. The landscape is dotted with orange termites' nests, rising like misshapen 10-foot-high skyscrapers.

Thankfully the hour's rough drive is cured by lunch. And what a lunch: a seafood platter with mounds of delicious Moreton Bay Bugs, whose flesh is a cross between king prawn and lobster. "The food is great because I'm a chef myself," says food and beverage supervisor Delma Magala.

Part Injinoo and part Torres Straits Islander, Delma was born on nearby Thursday Island and has worked at Pajinka for six years. The Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC) funded her three months at a catering college in the south of France, and she peppers her speech with the occasional "oooh, la la".

"It's like a dream that Pajinka has come back to the Injinoo," says Delma, "because there aren't many places in Australia that are run by indigenous people."

The lodge's community ranger, Philip Bowie, agrees. "I became a ranger because of the feelings in my heart towards my community. My bloodline is from here. I see it as an opportunity to serve the people, and a privilege to tell guests who come here what this land is and who belongs to this land."

For some guests, myself included, the lodge offers the opportunity to meet Aborigines for the first time. It's a positive experience, as everyone is friendly, easy going and more than happy to chat. There are other guests, of course, who are simply here for the wildlife: 40 species of mammals, 60 reptiles and a third of Australia's bird species are found in Cape York. On one afternoon walk I saw goulds, bronze cuckoos, Rufus fantails and the magnificent black crest and red cheeks of a palm cockatoo.

It's even better at night. Shortly after a barbecue to end all barbecues, Tony Dorr drives me away from the lodge. I am given a spotlight which sends a cylindrical beam through the car window and into the rainforest. "Let's see if we can see Skippy," he says.

But there's not a kangaroo in sight, just the flash of a white-tailed rat, so we set off on foot and within minutes hear the sound of ducks near a waterhole. But we're after something else. "They're tawny rocket frogs," says Tony, locating one with his torch. "They're only found in the Cape. Watch his little pouch expand as he calls."

Stepping carefully through the undergrowth, he gives instructions on how to spot wildlife at night. "Look for eye shine with the torch. You can't miss it." This is easier said than done, but luckily I'm with an expert. Otherwise I'd have walked straight into the web of a golden orb spider - spider and all. Meanwhile, Tony has spotted a pair of Papuan frogmouths. These are extraordinary birds, resembling owls with a mouth, as the name suggests, exactly like a frog.

Tony stops suddenly. "Now that is either a sugar glider or a striped possum." I keep the light trained on an animal perched high on a branch while Tony examines it more closely with his binoculars. "Oh, man. See that black and white stripe on its back? That's a striped possum. Not many people see these as they're only found on the peninsula. Oh, wow!"

Back at the only licensed bar in Cape York, Tony is still on a high. "Do you want to go down to the beach and look for crocodiles?" I give him a look. "It's OK, you'll be safe," he grins. "You're with me."

Tony, like Pajinka's manager Alan Gerrie, is one of the few white members of staff at the lodge. Gerrie is aiming for an all-Injinoo staff - about four-fifths are Aboriginal now - and has six Injinoo staff studying for an associate diploma in management so that Pajinka's staff will be fully indigenous in three years' time. He will then be out of a job. However, Gerrie has made Pajinka profitable, which its former airline owners could not. He supports the aims of the community and so, with 20 years' tourism experience to offer, he is working for free.Meanwhile the lodge is repaying a bank loan which, along with an ATSIC grant, helped the Injinoo buy back their land.

Philip Bowie knows why his community has made Pajinka a success, although some other indigenous ventures have failed. "Pride," he says. "They're proud of this land and proud of the lodge and this was a chance, not necessarily to make money, but to welcome people here so that they can experience the Injinoo culture."

pajinka fact file

Basics

Pajinka Wilderness Lodge, PO Box 7757, Cairns 4870. Tel: 0061 70 313 988. Tailor Made Travels Ltd (Tel: 01386 40891) is a UK agent which takes bookings.

Cost

A$180 (pounds 75) per person per day including all meals. Tours and field trips range from A$15 to A$60.

Getting there

Sue Nelson flew to Australia with the Virgin/Ansett alliance, which involves flying Virgin Atlantic to Hong Kong and connecting with Ansett Australia to either Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne. For reservations Tel: 01293 747747. The nearest airport to Pajinka is Bamaga, accessible on Flight West Airlines. Cheap fares to Australia, with great late-availability deals, can be obtained through Austravel (Tel: 0171 7347755).

When to go

The dry season (May to October) is probably the best time, but some people also recommend the wet or green season from November to March.

Essentials

Sunhat, sunscreen, insect repellent, long-sleeved shirts and walking boots. Visas are required for Australia: for cheap and instant visas, call the Visa Australia Company on 01270 842474.

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