Your Fire-Side Invitation to First Nation Festivals

There’s no place like Queensland for combining world-class events with incredible destinations.

Celebrate culture and country at a slew of First Nation Festivals across the state in 2021 and beyond – and, while you’re in the relevant region, there are some unforgettable indigenous adventures to enjoy as well.

CIAF – Cairns Indigenous Arts Fair    

This 6-day showcase of prestigious art, design, fashion and sculpture by world-class First Nation artists takes over the tropics’ unofficial capital from the 17th to the 22nd August.

And this year, there are some exciting new venues – including The Tanks Art Centre at Cairns Botanic Gardens. It’ll host a series of events, including CIAF’s popular Fashion Showcase.

More culture than the catwalk, the event is a dazzling display of wearable art created by around 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers.  This year, the Fair’s theme is “Sacred”, with contributors asked to contemplate sacred sites and places of First Nation significance in their works.

CIAF is also about live entertainment and this year’s ambassador for 2021 is Naomi Wenitong – a chart-topping singer whose career includes performing alongside Destiny’s Child, Usher and Shaggy.

Naomi is also a mentor to young indigenous performers wanting to make it big in the industry. She runs workshops to teach aspiring artists the tricks of the trade, from stagecraft to song-writing.

The big news is: Naomi will debut some of her newly written songs at this year’s CIAF.

While you’re in Cairns, set aside at least a day to explore beautiful Mossman Gorge, about an hour north of the city.  The gorge is the gateway to the ancient Daintree rainforest– and you can book a Dreamtime Guided Walkthrough this primeval wilderness at Mossman Gorge Visitors EcoTourism Centre.

Discover ancient hunting trails in the company of community elders – and see the world’s oldest rainforest in a whole new light.  Or explore this world of deep green, tumbling waterfalls and rock pools on your own self-guided adventure.  Afterwards, you can grab a bite at the centre’s Mayi Café and browse the Art Gallery.

Laura Quinkan Dance Festival

From across Cape York, they come to dance in the dust of Gulf Country.

The little town of Laura, 4 hours north of Cairns, hosts the annual Laura Quinkan Dance Festival – a celebration of First Nation performance from dance troupes across the top end.

Held on an ancient Bora ground, the festival attracts a sea of spectators – and dancers from more than 20 communities.

The defending co-champions for 2021 are the lively performers from Mayi Wunba troupe in Kuranda. So, head to Laura from the 2nd to the 4th July to see whether they keep their crown. While you’re in the region, make sure to visit Quinkan Caves – home to one of Australia’s finest First Nation rock art galleries.

Winds of Zenadth Cultural Festival

Dance, music, song and art make up the Winds of Zenadth Cultural Festival – held every 2 years on beautiful Thursday Island.

The rich and unique culture of the Torres Strait Islands is on show in this spectacular event, happening from 11th to the 14th September. The festival is named for “Zenadth Kes”, the local indigenous name for the islands – with each and every island in the Torres Strait group represented in this festival of ‘unity’.

It’s a celebration of peoples deeply connected to the ocean, islands and coral reefs.

A visit to the Great Barrier Reef is a must-do while you’re in Queensland’s north – so why not dive into an experience that combines indigenous culture with this world-renowned attraction?

Dreamtime Dive takes you on a day-long adventure to two spectacular coral reefs on the Great Barrier Reef – in the company of young cultural ambassadors who share their song, customs, language and stories during the voyage.

You can either scuba dive or snorkel the reef – and absolute beginners are catered for in a Snorkel Safari with not one, but two guides. A marine biologist gives their ecological interpretation of coral and marine life spotted during the tour, while your indigenous guide shares the stories and cultural significance of the reef and its residents.

Even the catering is indigenous-themed: the tour includes a lunch of delicious dishes, including Smoked Kangaroo, Tablelands Beef and freshly caught prawns.

Bleach Festival

 Enjoy an extraordinary experience blending First Nation cuisine and culture during this year’s Bleach Festival on the Gold Coast.

This year, Bleach turns 10 – and a highlight of the 2021 event is a trio of outdoor feasts called “Swallow”. The first features a menu of exceptional offerings from First Nation chefs – including an entrée of fresh oysters, seafood and bush tucker, representing an ancient midden.

The feasts are all about blending culture with community: ticketed guests will share specially-crafted long wooden tables with invited friends from First Nation and other cultural communities.

“Swallow” dinners will happen under the stars at Burleigh Heads – home to a landmark that’s long been of sacred significance to the Gold Coast’s Yugembah people.

To find out more, book a Walkabout Tour at Jellurgal Cultural Centre – at the base of Burleigh Headland.

On these fascinating guided treks, a local First Nation guide will share stories of this “dreaming mountain” beside beautiful Tallebudgera Creek. The tour includes a blessing ceremony involving traditional markings, using ochre mixed on Echo Beach.

From a culture tens of thousands of years in the making – to one that shook the world in a mere decade…

The Gold Coast’s love affair with the 1960s continues – with the opening of its latest retro offering: Mysa Motel at Palm Beach. The mid-century make-over is an ideal accommodation choice when you come to Bleach – with pastel rooms; a kidney-shaped pool; and the obligatory neon sign.

Yarrabah Music & Cultural Festival 

One of Australia’s most idyllic coastal festival happens again in October in the picturesque seaside community of Yarrabah, about 45 minutes south of Cairns.

The full day event features a host of top Aussie artists alongside emerging performers – and the big sound of Yarrabah Brass Band, a 120-year tradition in this First Nation community.

The band was established by missionaries in 1901 and was a big hit with audiences across the north right up until the 1960s, when it disbanded.

In 2013, descendants of original members got the band back together – with a little help from renowned jazz musician, James Morrison. The reunion sparked the idea for an annual music festival – and the event is still going strong.

As the name suggests, the Yarrabah Music and Cultural Festival is much more than live music.  It’s also a celebration of visual arts and unique flavours – with food stalls, cultural workshops and kids’ rides.

Best of all, the event is free to attend!

Between Yarrabah and Cairns, there’s an ancient landscape well worth exploring with Mandingalbay Yidinji Ancient Indigenous Tours.

East Trinity is a wilderness reserve just a few clicks from the city as the cockatoo flies – and a half hour boat cruise up Trinity Inlet for those without wings.

The cruise is the start of a 3-hour adventure with a local traditional owner and First Nation guide – who welcomes you with a smoking ceremony before leading a 20-minute interpretive walk along a bush tucker and medicine trail.

Mandingalbay Yidinji tours also offer an extraordinary evening experience – a Deadly Dinner in the heart of croc country!

It’s an exceptional fine dining experience, catered by Cairn’s Ochre Restaurant, that takes place within a ‘croc enclosure’ – a fenced camp-ground designed to keep out saltwater crocodiles in the area. The dinner also features traditional music and entertainment, plus the option to camp overnight – if you’re game!

For a full calendar of First Nation events and festivals – including dates and details – head to

While you’re there, why not explore some of the unforgettable First Nation tourism experiences to be had right across Queensland.

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