Cairns with kids: Tjapukai Nightfire

Raffles gets his face painted at Tjapukai

Given their mother’s rampant “bleeding heart hippie” tendencies and outspoken belief in the need for an egalitarian society, there was never a chance our kids would grow up without at least a little respect and recognition of Australia’s First Nations people.

But Raffles has surprised me with his passion for Indigenous culture. We’re more than happy to indulge his cultural quest for knowledge and, wherever possible on our travels around Australia, expose him and ourselves to the local Indigenous traditions.

Through immersion, he is learning the stuff of this country’s history in a way that can’t be acquired in a classroom. He has seen incredible artefacts and symbolic artworks and listened intently to beautiful stories. He has embraced indigenous culture through his belly. He’s learned how to make tools from nature and explored the bush with traditional teachers who have happily passed on their almost scientific knowledge of plants. And along the way, he has learned incredible lessons of equality and respect, which I hope he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

It turns out that in Cairns, opportunities abound to explore the past, present and future of Indigenous Australia. Needless to say, Raffles is as keen to get in touch with the local Aboriginal culture as he is to loll about in our hotel pool or leap over crocs.

When we explain to the wonderful staff at the Holiday Inn Cairns Harbourside what Raffles is seeking, they tell us about each of the many indigenous experiences open to a small curious boy and make enquiries for us about last minute availabilities. While he is tempted by both a Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk through pretty Mossman Gorge and joining the Kubirri Warra brothers of Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours for a mudflat and mangrove walk, the time and distance are prohibitive on this short stay, and will need to wait until our next visit.

Instead he chooses to immerse himself into the world’s oldest living culture in the dark of night at Tjapukai, a cultural centre just 20 minutes from the hotel. Lover of all things theatrical that he is, Raffles is extremely excited at the prospect of dinner and a show but I must confess that I don’t share his enthusiasm. With all its advertised razzle and dazzle, I can’t help but suspect Tjapukai Nightfire will be lacking a certain authenticity. I am happy to be proved wrong!

Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, the largest employer of indigenous Australians of any tourism enterprise in the country, prides itself on authenticity. And though I’m fairly certain greeting guests with trays of sparkling wine and juice is not an ancient skill passed on by the elders, or remotely authentic, the stories they share are. And it is fun.

The kids are both chuffed on as their faces are ceremoniously daubed in colours to link them to traditional lands.


Mr Eats World and I manage to sneak in a couple of moorish slow-cooked emu canapés and then we too are on the receiving end of the paintbrush while our peckish, ochre-smeared son heads off to stalk the waiters… with serious intent.

Cairns with kids: Tjapukai Nightfire

The deep growls and rumbles of a didgeridoo sounds as the Bama people, the traditional custodians of the land we are on, officially welcome us and the Dreamtime legends begin to unfold.

Raffles is entranced. He devotedly follows his Indigenous Pied Pipers across a bridge to the rainforest theatre for more stories and to watch the Tjapukai dancers perform.

Indigenous performer at Tjapukai NIghtfire

In no time Raffles is on stage with them, clapping, dancing, whooping and generally carrying on. It was always going to happen. He is rewarded for his fine efforts with a message stone painted with an intricate sting ray totem (a symbol of stealth and power in Aboriginal society that will safeguard him against evil spirits and offer him good luck).

Raffles takes to the stage at Tjapukai Nightfire

Ironically, it is the performers who are going to need a little luck in getting our enthusiastic wee show pony off the stage.

After the show, we’re led along a fire lit path to a clearing where we’re all handed Aboriginal clapping sticks. And then we too join the performers clapping, stomping and chanting as they have us form what they call a ‘Rainbow Serpent Circle’ around a fire pit.

Fire ceremony at Tjabukai Nightfire

The didgeridoo continues to share its haunting stories as the performers light a ceremonial fire… sans matchsticks.

Didgeridoo player at Tjabukai

The mesmerising hum of the music has the crowd in a happy trance and while Sugarpuff is focuses intently on working her clapping stick magic, Raffles is drunk on the atmosphere and leaping about with unrestrained joy to the beat.

Raffles drinks the Kool Aid at Tjapukai NIghtfire

That is until a spectacular fireball shoots towards the stars and leaves him, and all of us, momentarily started and still. The shock and awe doesn’t last and he’s soon back dancing to the beat of his own inner drum.

An exploding fireball marks dinnertime at Tjapukai

On a high from the performance, we once again find ourselves following our hosts along the cultural park’s fire lit bridges to the Flame Tree Bar & Grill for dinner and Raffles second performance for the evening – his best impression of Monty Python’s gluttonous Mr Creosote.

He piles his plate high with fresh local prawns, mussels with finger lime, native spiced salads, baked local fish and slivers of kangaroo. Rapturously trying all the new and intriguing flavours on offer, Raffles is in his happy place.

MUssels with finger lime at Tjabukai NIghtfire

Thankfully there is no wafer-thin mint on the dessert table and he passes on exploding, instead heading off to digest his mighty meal over a chat around the fire with his new buddies, the Tjapukai Nightfire warriors.

Raffles and his new pals at Tjapukai

For my little idealist, it proves the perfect ending to what has been a magical night.

NOTE: Tjapukai was permanently closed as of January  2021

Disclosure:  While The Eats Worlds were guests of Holiday Inn Cairns Harbourside, our visit to Tjapukai Nightfire was independently paid for.

14 Comments on Cairns with kids: Tjapukai Nightfire

  1. Sally@Toddlers on Tour
    March 18, 2016 at 11:03 am (8 years ago)

    I think the Australian Indigenous culture is so interesting, their nomadic lifestyle really ensured that they looked after the environment. I trying was explaining this to my young Mr7. But going to shows like this help so much more for the kids to understand rather me just rambling on.

      March 19, 2016 at 12:12 pm (8 years ago)

      I think immersion is the best way. Raff has had some amazing experiences.

  2. Kirsty @ My Home Truths
    March 18, 2016 at 5:50 pm (8 years ago)

    I’ve never been to Cairns so I’ll have to put this on our list when we finally get up there. It’s so good when kids are independently interested in other cultures. My older daughter is the same. She loves the stories, the traditions and the rituals. BTW Raffles sure looked like he was getting into things there Aleney – what a little character!

      March 19, 2016 at 12:14 pm (8 years ago)

      That’s great to hear. Raff loves it and yes, he does go method at these things. Funny boy that he is 🙂

  3. Amy @ HandbagMafia
    March 18, 2016 at 7:31 pm (8 years ago)

    I’d love to do something like this- great pics!

      March 19, 2016 at 12:12 pm (8 years ago)

      There’s plenty of great indigenous activities in Sydney

  4. Ana
    March 18, 2016 at 8:59 pm (8 years ago)

    Its so important for Australian kids to learn our history – love this

      March 19, 2016 at 12:13 pm (8 years ago)

      It was. You can tell by his face how much fun he had

  5. Lorraine @Not Quite Nigella
    March 19, 2016 at 11:27 am (8 years ago)

    It’s so wonderful for kids to learn more about indigenous culture. I remember learning a bit at school but this way is much more memorable and interactive and fun!

      March 19, 2016 at 12:15 pm (8 years ago)

      We don’t learn enough in schools. I think places Tjapukai are as important for locals as for overseas visitors.

  6. Shannon@ my2morrows
    March 19, 2016 at 4:09 pm (8 years ago)

    Wow. This looks like an awesome experience. Its so great he’s so captivated and wants to learn more about our most important part of history. Xx

      March 21, 2016 at 10:19 am (8 years ago)

      IT is great. Here’s hoping his little sister follows in his curious footsteps. 🙂


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Hey, I’m Aleney! A mum, award-winning travel writer, magazine editor and gallivanting glutton. He’s Raff, the “boy” in boyeatsworld, and a fearless foodie, adventurer and eco-warrior. Along with his all-singing, all-dancing, all-adventurous sister, Sugarpuff, we’re exploring the world’s colour, culture and cuisine on a food safari for the junior set.

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