Grim history of famous Australian beach

“It would be absolutely suicide,” Pryor grins as we ride bucking whitecaps along the coast of Long Island.

If feels right that conditions aren’t brochure-perfect today because I’m here to venture beyond the stereotypes and make a deeper connection with one of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations.

As a Ngaro man, Pryor has a direct link to his people’s history here. Thanks to a new Whitsunday Paradise Explorer tour he and Kiwi-born skipper John Henderson have launched, visitors can for the first time understand this place from a First Nations perspective.

Their aim, says Pryor, is for guests to “get off the boat at the end of the day with a smile on your face, and learning something about the Ngaro people, the traditional owners”.

According to Ngaro dreaming, the 74 islands of the Whitsundays were formed when the rainbow serpent came here to lay her eggs. When she rested north of these islands she shed her skin, which gave the Great Barrier Reef its rainbow of colour.

At the northern tip of Long Island, Henderson brings the boat to an uneasy standstill as Pryor points across the channel to South Molle. Normally we’d stop there but the crossing’s too gnarly this day.

Best known as a popular holiday resort, South Molle’s value to the Ngaro was its stone quarry, the only one on the islands.

“It was very significant,” Pryor explains. “If we had stone tools, that made us advanced. We could build things, slice our meat and cut animals we were eating. It was a valuable commodity.”

We track east, away from the curtains of rain, to Hook Island and come to rest in a fjord-like place called Nara Inlet, where the weather calms and the sun’s warmth breaks through the clouds.

Spectacular Nara Inlet in the Whitsundays
Spectacular Nara Inlet in the Whitsundays. Picture: Tourism Queensland

Pryor hops out first to gather kindling and later returns with a bucket full of smouldering melaleuca scented with sandalwood.

“This is a very, very sacred place for the Ngaro people,” he says as I follow him up the jungled hillside trailing smoke. He claps sticks to let the elders know we’re here, calling out, “Woddamoolie! Welcome!”

“We believe that when we close our eyes for the last time that we go home,” he says. “Hence the reason why we are always talking when we go back to the bush. You let the old people know we are coming.”

The track leads to a cave shelter, the oldest known Indigenous site in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. On its walls are simple paintings of what could be turtles, or fish traps, or pandanus seeds, made with ochre and animal blood.

Exploring another side of the Whitsunday Islands
Exploring another side of the Whitsunday Islands. Picture: Kendall Hill

The cave also contains the remains of buried middens that date back at least 9000 years, according to archaeological evidence. The middens reveal a diet of shellfish, fish, turtles, dugongs and small whales.

“This was like our dining room,” Pryor says. “And down the back there’s another half-cave and that was our bedroom.”

On the descent back to the boat he points out the black flowers of yam plants that fed his ancestors, and the grassy seed heads once used to make damper. Cicadas whistle shrilly in the trees.

The last and most important stop is Whitsunday Island, known for the beauty of Whitehaven Beach but less so for an ugly chapter in our history.

Whitsunday Island is best known for the stunning Whitehaven Beach.
Whitsunday Island is best known for the stunning Whitehaven Beach

The largest island in the archipelago, this was for thousands of years the permanent home of the saltwater Ngaro clan. They lived and hunted here, journeying deep into the Coral Sea aboard canoes made from sewn sheets of ironbark caulked with hoop pine sap.

Then, in 1878, they attacked a colonial ship and its captain, sparking brutal police retaliation and the forced removal of all Ngaro from their island home.

“That’s part of the reason why we do this tour,” Pryor says. “To open people’s eyes. This is a beautiful place, but that attack that we did sealed our fates. This is part of my story, and we tell it as part of the healing process.”

Walking through the lush Whitsundays rainforest. Picture: Kendall Hill
Walking through the lush Whitsundays rainforest. Picture: Kendall Hill

During a walk through the rainforest he describes medicinal plants, and how his people used to communicate by banging rocks against the buttress roots of figs, before we settle at a picnic table beside Dugong Beach for a packed lunch and more lore.

There is an ochre ceremony that I could describe, but it is better experienced first-hand, and a spear-throwing test on the beach that I fail miserably. But it’s the stories that will stay with me. Hearing Ngaro voices on their ancestral land feels like a rare privilege.

“A big part of reconciliation is just being able to tell our stories,” Pryor says. “Because for many years we weren’t allowed to tell them.”

The Whitsunday Paradise Explorer boat.
The Whitsunday Paradise Explorer boat


Pryor and Henderson, a veteran of the Whitsundays yacht charter scene, launched their tour in February 2020. You can imagine how that went. Despite Covid shutdowns they’ve had more than 200 people come on tour with them so far, “which tells me there’s a demand for it”, Henderson says. They run tours on demand, with bonus whale sightings in winter.

This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of

About the author


Hi! I’m Ozzie!

Before joining Australia Exploring, I was a writer at Tripadvisor.

I'm looking for the best posts for you about travel adventures in Australia and around the world. This website has the purpose to inspire you to travel… travel more and better. I hope it can help you explore the world a little bit better.

I graduated from the University of Sydney. I live in California with my wife and two children.


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