Sonya Jeffrey, Ingan Tours

Been there, done that? Think again. In Queensland, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to hidden gem destinations. Indeed, there's something to be discovered at every turn and a friendly local to point you in the right direction.

Sonya Jeffrey, from Tully's Ingan Tours, is just one of them. A proud descendent of the Jabanbarra Jirrbal rainforest people, she knows just the place to shake the 'concrete jungle' out of visitors in search of a culturally-immersive journey like no other!

As a child growing up in Tully – officially the wettest town in Australia, recording the third highest rainfall on the planet – Sonya Jeffrey delighted in making her own fun.  

Inspired by Mother Nature's playground, she and her mob embarked on 'wild' adventures; dive bombing into secret waterholes or navigating rainforest-fringed creeks on pumped-up tractor tubes. Watched over only by sea eagles, kingfishers, cormorants, kookaburras and 'Old Man' platypus.

Little did she know, it was the start of a far bigger adventure.

Embracing the same child-like enthusiasm for life, Sonya today spearheads Ingan Tours, a 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned tourism experience nestled in Tropical North Queensland's Tully Gorge, halfway between Townsville and Cairns.

She launched the culturally-immersive venture in 2011 with her niece, Caroline, and father, Dr Ernie Grant, the last living member of his generation to be brought up the traditional Jirrbal way.

“Dad was raised in the rainforest and lived there until he was about nine, camping along the river,” says Sonya, 45.

“He's the last of the elders who's actually been taught by the old people. I learned from him and every tour we run gives people a totally different learning experience about who we are as Jirrbal Aboriginal rainforest people.”

For visitors, this translates into a life-changing journey, encompassing river walks and traditional clay face painting; rainforest adventures that take in waterfalls and a 'healing' swimming hole; bush tucker; the art of boomerang throwing and basket weaving; fishing and must-do kayak tours, complete with rapids and curious jungle perch.

For Sonya, the kayak tours hold a special place in her heart.

“As kids, the old tractor tubes only ever got us so far down Bulgan Creek,” she says with a broad smile.

“One day, Caroline and I started thinking why don't we invest in second-hand kayaks? So, we bought four different kinds of kayaks and off we went!

“There's 8km of creek and we'd never travelled right through. But in the kayaks, you can see it all and we couldn't get over how beautiful and pristine it is – like being in Timbuctoo, because everything's so quiet.”

Fishing, however, is off limits on the tour which includes lunch at Sonya's favourite 'hidden gem' location – a bend in the creek with a sandbank and deep water hole at the 4km halfway point. A place where her 'babies' gather – namely, hundreds of freshwater jungle perch, measuring a whopping 30 to 40cm.

“We found this spot as a stop for billy tea and damper, where there's a whole heap of fish swimming around. They come as close as they can or follow you in a kayak. People love that kind of connection with a fish!

In fact, Sonya says everyone who experiences the kayak tour, whether from Australia, Europe, America, the Netherlands or Norway, tell her 'it's the highlight of their life!”

“They've never seen anything like it before. Beautiful areas in our own back yard that everyone's taken for granted or just not known about.”

Indeed, tourism was barely thought about in Tully (better known as a banana and sugar cane hub) before the start-up of Ingan Tours, despite the region being home to vast tracts of World Heritage-listed rainforest as magical as the Daintree.

Aside from giving visitors an experience like no other, Sonya and her family are proud the business has grown to a point where they can provide support and employment for the local community.

In 2017, Ingan Tours HQ, which occupies heritage-listed Tully railway station, is expanding to a museum and café featuring a 'secret' bush tucker menu.

The café will be named after her Sonya's grandmother, Chloe. A feisty woman who side-stepped an arranged marriage and eloped to the Tablelands for a period with her 'true love', also leaving her legacy as the main informant for rainforest Aboriginal languages recorded by a visiting linguist in the 1960s.

Sonya is also busy liaising with Arts Queensland about design concepts and upskilling local artists to produce authentic merchandise, as well as exploring her family's dream of opening up a network of walking tracks that run through the Misty Mountains, damaged and partly hidden by a series of cyclones. Old Aboriginal trading routes that start at the bottom of Tully Gorge and wind up and over the mountains to Ravenshoe on the Tablelands.

Click here to view a video on this hidden gem experience.

Experience it for yourself

Word Count: 820
Author: Shelley Thomas

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