Portrait

A walk through Kuranda, Queensland, with Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen. By Romy Ash.

Indigenous fire educator Victor Steffensen

“Sorry about the tools, eh,” says Victor Steffensen as I climb into the dusty cab of his LandCruiser. Steffensen reverses into the main street of Kuranda in Far North Queensland. He waves to a group of men who are chatting in the deep shade of a Moreton Bay fig tree. “Kuranda mob,” he says, his friends’ kids, grown up. He drives slowly. Town feels sleepy, quiet, already hot at 10am. Groups of tourists flock together, looking dazed. The heat is unusually dry for this time of year, and it’s unusually hot. The next couple of days, maximum temperatures hit the low 40s. Queensland catches fire; firefighters battle 110 fires across the state.

Steffensen is an Indigenous fire practitioner, an educator, a filmmaker. He says he didn’t choose fire, it was more like fire demanded to be chosen. As step one when looking after the land. He runs fire workshops across Australia, on country, in partnership with Indigenous communities.

To a workshop he brings a box of matches. “That’s all we need, a box of matches – and then the knowledge, so that we know that we’re safe and where the fire will go out. A lot of times we don’t need fire trucks. Sometimes we’ll use the fire trucks if there’s rubbish under the grass, or if it’s a bit more developed, but even in developed areas the fire trucks have never had to use water because it’s gone out in the right place. So a lot of the time when the rural fire brigades come, they come to a totally different experience. This is a wholly different fire. They don’t get to use their toys, their water. They start to take their hats off. They start to take their coats off, then they drop their rake on the ground and hose, then they start walking in the bush and chasing butterflies, start learning about the plants, and why the fire is gentle, why it’s of no concern.  

“And then they see – because it’s an Indigenous burning, we’ve got community there too – and so they see little kids walking along with the fire, and they see mothers and old people with walking sticks going into the fire and walking with it. Looking at the outcome, the burnt country, we teach, we talk about the indicators and sharing knowledge. You just get this whole sense of happiness and peacefulness and beauty.

“I’ve seen people change so many times. I have people come up to me, after just an hour on the land, listening, say to me, ‘I’ve been doing it wrong all my life. I thought I knew the land, but I didn’t.’ I had so many old fellas come up to me and say that, and for them to say it, it’s just incredible. What they’ve done in the last couple of 100 years to the landscape has not been good. They start to realise that when they see the land for the first time, through the eyes of Indigenous culture and, really, it should be the culture for every Australian. It’s so important.”

We don’t know yet that Queensland is about to catch alight, but Steffensen speaks about the hero culture of firefighting in Australia, how there’s funding for firefighting, but a real lack of support for Indigenous management of the land through traditional fire practices. He says, “Giant fires are running around in the country and killing people and burning and burning and burning and, you know, that’s all based on mismanagement of the country.” 

As we drive, the road follows the railway and the Barron River with the Skyrail passing through the canopy overhead. 

“That’s my old house over there, see, under the big trees,” he says.

“The jacaranda?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been down here for years. This is the old school. I used to walk to school – well, just jump the fence, go to school every day.”

We park at the old school and find some shade at the edge of the oval. Steffensen is tall, he folds himself down to the grass. Takes his cap off, runs his hands through sweat damp hair, and then puts it back on again. We sit cross-legged on the grass. It’s so dry it crunches beneath us, but it’s cool in the shade with a breeze blowing across the river. March flies buzz around us and Steffensen shoos them away gently.

“There used to be hundreds of kids here when we were growing up. This whole field would be full at lunchtime, large Indigenous community and hippie community – lots of hippie kids, always barefoot, the whole school was barefoot and playing big games of football and Red Rover. Every day of my life growing up there was someone running on this field. And now there’s not a soul walking on the grass. Things change, eh. It was always loud, it was alive, this place was alive, now there’s just silence. Kuranda town…” He sighs, but then says, “Everything changes, for better or for worse. Making a change for the better is the challenge. 

“My mother, she’s from Croydon area, she’s Tagalaka lady, descendant. It’s on my mother’s side, my Aboriginality. All sandstone country. I love sandstone country. All that sandstone country it’s beautiful. But Kuranda was a place where Mum and Dad landed and where I just happened to grow up right from birth, so this is home as well. But right across Far North Queensland, it’s all home.”

When he was a young man Steffensen lived for 15 years in Laura on Cape York, learning from two elders. He started filming on a camcorder, recording what he describes as an incredibly complex “map of knowledge”. It was here, with the elders, he lit his first fire, illegally. “No one would give us a permit.” He watched the fire do exactly what the elders said it would, and in the coming months after the fire he saw the land renew itself, the return of native grasses, the return of missing animals. 

When he works with community he says, “a lot of them say, our elders have passed, we don’t have our knowledge anymore, but I always say to them, yes you do. The most important elder is still there – and that’s the land. All the knowledge is in the land. That’s where the knowledge comes from, it comes from the land.”

He speaks for a long time. The shade moves. I listen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Fire walk with me". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.