My first hike in Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Australia, can’t be found on a map. My local guide Greig Taylor from Lord's Kakadu and Arnhemland Safaris took me to one of his most cherished places within the park, a hidden rock cove not too far from Barramundi Gorge. After walking deeper into this secluded locale, I caught a glimpse of swimming holes set beneath stone outcroppings before reaching a cliff.
Gazing up at the rock ceiling above me, I was astounded by the visions of kangaroos, sacred ceremonies, and other mysterious scenes. It was a first and unforgettable up-close look at the spectacular Aboriginal rock art, dating back some 20,000 years, found in a vast region known as the Top End.
How did I get to that moment? It started with a five-hour flight from Sydney to Darwin, the Northern Territory’s capital city. It’s a good jumping-off point for exploring the Top End, which runs like a ribbon through the north of Australia, extending past Darwin in the west to Arnhem Land in the east.
Setting out from Darwin for the breathtaking sights of the Top End means venturing off the beaten path into a region where the Aboriginal people are custodians of the land. After overnighting at the luxurious Wildman Wilderness Lodge in the Mary River National Park wetlands, I continued on to spend nearly a week immersed in Aboriginal culture—the oldest living culture on Earth—and it left me feeling wiser and humbler.
I paired my exploration of Kakadu National Park, which counts about 5,000 rock art sites, with a visit to West Arhem Land’s Injalak Arts, where I observed craftsmen reinventing their ancestral traditions of storytelling by way of canvas designs, placing descriptive stories and images on cloth.
I watched as the artisans painted their culture’s legacy before me, and listened as they detailed their process of mixing colors by extracting hues of red, black, and yellow from a mineral named ochre found abundantly in this area.
After discussing the role of art in present-day Aboriginal life, artist and local guide Roland Burrunair brought me to the top of neighboring Injalak Hill to admire a prominent rock art gallery. He shared how his grandfather taught him to paint, a dedicated art form that involves long, deliberate strokes from a tree frond brush. Then we sat down to lunch in a setting with a sweeping view of the billabongs and savannahs where the Aboriginal people’s creation spirits once roamed, an area Burrunair holds dear.
It was easy to hop around the places I wanted to visit in the Top End thanks to its beautifully maintained system of national parks, trails, paved roads, and waterways. To view the landscapes and native wildlife from the water, I joined two cruises. The first, a Yellow Water Cruise took me down the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park, and the second, a Guluyambi Cruise, ventured along the East Alligator River in West Arnhem Land. Neither waterway is actually home to alligators, only saltwater crocodiles that thrive in abundance amid a multitude of colorful bird species. (The naming errors can be traced back to 1820, when Lieutenant Phillip Parker King, an early explorer of Australia’s coastline, believed he was viewing alligators instead of crocodiles in the estuaries.)
I loved both the adrenaline-pumping adventure and contemplative cultural experiences offered up by the Top End, and especially the chance to connect with the local Aboriginal people who use the land’s bounty to further their creative legacy. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path, I think you’ll find, as I did, that the experiences here leave you with a shifted perspective and a richer understanding of an untamed part of the world.
Feeling inspired? Down Under Answers specializes in travel to the Top End, with itineraries that include Top End Adventures, Cultural Contrasts of the NT, Nature and Birding Australia, and In the Footsteps of Ancient Tribes and Pioneers.