HomeTravelsTorres Strait Islands: a new way to explore Australia's most mysterious region

Torres Strait Islands: a new way to explore Australia’s most mysterious region

(CNN) — At the far northern tip of Australia lies one of the least visited and least understood regions of the country.

But that’s about to change, thanks to local Indigenous entrepreneurs like Fraser Nai.

The Torres Strait comprises 247 islands at the northern end of Queensland, near Papua New Guinea. The Torres Strait Islanders who live there are of Aboriginal, Melanesian and Australian descent. Arguably the most famous Torres Strait Islander in the west is the NBA’s Patty Mills, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets.

Many of the islands are volcanic, and set amid bright turquoise water, they create an incredible landscape. And now it just got a little easier for non-Torres Strait Islanders with a one-of-a-kind day trip from Cairns, the Queensland city known as the gateway to entrance to the Great Barrier Reef.

“We’re not in the tourism business, we’re in the people business. We happen to provide tourism experiences,” says Nai, co-founder of Straits Experiences, a locally owned and operated company that brings people into the Torres Strait. .

Torres Strait Islanders, his people are the owners and stewards of Masig Island.

As a longtime member of local government in the region, he has witnessed how giving people access to more opportunities – especially in rural areas with fewer jobs and less access to different industries – can be transformative.

But he’s also seen how Cairns and the Barrier Reef have swelled with tourists, which can lead to erosion and overcrowding, so he’s trying to walk a middle lane.

Opening up tourism in the more rural parts of the Torres Strait will create more opportunities for young people, but years of watching how other destinations have handled the industry means they can make smart decisions for the long term durability.

They also invest in one of the region’s greatest assets: its people.

“We always operate with our values,” he explains. “We work first and foremost with our community, our elders and our leaders, because it’s about them.”

Visitors are treated to a traditional musical performance upon arrival.

Visitors are treated to a traditional musical performance upon arrival.

Courtesy of phlipvids

The history of Torres Strait Islanders has been marked by struggle.

White European settlers in Australia began to engage in violent and bloody conflict – known as “border wars” – with local Indigenous communities soon after arriving on the mainland.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had their children forcibly removed and sent to live in boarding schools or with non-Aboriginal families. The government at the time claimed their removal was in the best interests of the children, but it created generational trauma for the survivors and their families.

First Nations people were prohibited from using their native language and often left their homes to settle on reserves.

Every May 26 since 1998, Australia has observed “Sorry Day” to acknowledge these atrocities and seek redemption.
With Straits Experiences’ “A Strait Day” day tour, visitors get what Nai calls “an injection” of local culture and history.

It’s a long day, but satisfying. Guests depart on a charter flight from Cairns at 6.40am and arrive on Thursday Island – Waiben in the local language – the main island in the Torres Strait.

A guide accompanies them on the flight to talk about the land and people of the Torres Islands, which includes details of the landscape and information about today’s Torres Strait Islanders and some of the economic hardships they face.

Arriving on Thursday Island, visitors – usually there are around 30 people in total – experience a full day of activities, including a scenic tour of Ngurapai (Horn Island), a visit to Green Hill Fort ( dating from the late 1800s, it was intended as a defense against a hypothetical Russian invasion), an exploration of World War II military sites, traditional music and dance performances by a local group called the Island Stars and an island-style buffet lunch.

“It’s the only part of the whole Australian country where you’ll see both aboriginal races on their own country,” says Nai.

Even for many Australians, the Torres Strait remains a place they haven’t visited and don’t know much about.

Nai says many interested tourists he meets confuse the Torres Strait Islands with the Tiwi Islands, which are an Aboriginal region of the Northern Territory. Interactions like these only further underscore his point – human connections are key to moving forward.

“We want to land in a place where people are more understanding, more empathetic, and we can have a good conversation as humans and be friends,” he says. “That’s our real mission.”

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