Tropical paradise in East Arnhem Land
In a stunning landscape, spanning tropical islands to red deserts, this region of the land Down Under offers rich native heritage and history for a refreshing and rejuvenating trip.
At upwards of 500,000 square miles and home to many vibrant Aboriginal communities, the Northern Territory is ripe for exploring its fascinating cultural treasures and vast, largely uncrowded terrain. The third-biggest state in Australia, it has a population of just 246,500 that includes the highest percentage of Aboriginal Australians anywhere in the country and more than 100 native languages and dialects. As the oldest living culture on the planet that goes back an estimated 65,000 years and is deeply rooted in the land, Aboriginal cultural experiences and history in this region make for an enriching lens through which you can also revel in its awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife.
Yes, this is the land of crocodiles, kangaroos, and wallabies. (Only in Australia will you find an attraction unabashedly called the Cage of Death, offering a safe crocodile dive right in the heart of Darwin, the Territory’s capital city, and channeling the adventurous spirit antipodeans are known for.) As its name suggests, the NT, as locals call it, sits at the top of the continent. With endless blue sky, spectacular rock formations, and wetlands, it embodies the quintessential outback and more, from the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land to the Anangu people who reside near Uluru. Traveling here offers a chance to experience authentic Aboriginal culture and discover the landscape in a different way—all while on an adventure of a lifetime.
The lack of nature in our modern lives stands in stark contrast to Australia’s native way of life. For thousands of years, Aboriginal communities have had a deep reverence for the environment, or a “connection to country.” Country is not so much a claiming of territory, but a sense of belonging, and while there is no direct English translation that fully captures it, immersing yourself in the soul-stirring natural beauty of the Northern Territory with an Aboriginal guide brings you closer to understanding.
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In the bush and outback, Aboriginal-owned tour companies offer a special insight into the landscape, coming from thousands of years of knowledge passed down through generations. About three hours from Darwin, Kakadu National Park—the country’s largest national park—is breathtaking, rugged, and remote. It’s a spectacular introduction to the NT’s rocky landscape, thick rainforests, and hidden gems like Maguk’s plunge pools, as well as some of the oldest rock art in the world. These ancient artifacts speak to the longevity of Aboriginal culture but only paint part of the picture.
To gain a deeper understanding, embark on a two-hour Yellow Water Billabong cruise led by Bininj Aboriginal guides through magnificent wetlands. Stay at the Cooinda Lodge Kakadu, owned by the local indigenous community, for easy access to countless points of interest and natural attractions throughout Kakadu National Park. Along with lodge rooms, the lodge offers outback retreat canvas tents for a glamping experience.
Making art has been part of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered Aboriginal rock paintings which are 20,000 years old, making them among the world’s oldest recorded artworks. Today creating art remains an integral part of Aboriginal culture throughout Australia. In 2020, an Aboriginal artist won Australia’s most prestigious art prize.
In Darwin, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) sits on Aboriginal Land and hosts its own prestigious art awards, the annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA). At this cultural institution, you can explore a showcase of traditional art and modern pieces.
Browse artwork from local Aboriginal artists at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets (mindil is an Aboriginal word coming from Larrakia language meaning “sweet nut grass.”) The market is famous for its global mix of street food, including Indonesian, Malaysian, and Sri Lankan to Turkish, and Greek. Or head to the Mbantua Art Gallery in Alice Springs, one of the many galleries in Darwin, and Didgeridoo Hut and Gallery about a half hour from Darwin to shop for Indigenous artwork. (Pro tip: the Didgeridoo Hut does not have regular opening hours so be sure to call or email ahead to make an appointment.)
Within Aboriginal art, there are also geographic distinctions in styles. In the Top End, there tends to be a focus on figurative paintings of animals and nature, while heading toward the Red Centre, there is a shift toward the modern style of dot-painting. Dot-painting most associated with Aboriginal communities is almost like an irreverent type of street art. It began after European settlement as a way for Aboriginal communities to code their sacred knowledge from settlers and communicate information.
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In the central and western deserts, Maruku is an Aboriginal art collective representing some 900 artists, who are inspired by maintaining their culture for future generations. In Uluru, their Maruku@Uluru gallery offers authentic Anangu cultural experiences, as well as a place to purchase local artwork. The space functions as a not-for-profit and all funds are returned to the Anangu people.
For outdoor adventure and art, head to Watarrka National Park for the Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience and Tours. Learn about the traditions of the local Luritja and Pertame people, including dot painting, jewelry-making, and traditional medicines.
Traditionally, Aboriginal communities sourced ingredients right from nature, such as sweet bush honey and green ants, which have a lemony tang that Australian chefs have been infusing into gin, goat cheese, and artisan chocolates. For an introduction to Aboriginal foods in Darwin, head to Aboriginal Bush Traders Situated on the esplanade in the central business district, this café serves bush-inspired food, along with a retail space selling ethically sourced and sustainable products supporting local Aboriginal communities.
Outside of Darwin, explore outdoor dining experiences inspired by Aboriginal flavors. In the Katherine area, sample a fusion of Aboriginal and European flavors at Marksie's Stockman's Camp Tucker Night. At Uluru, the otherworldly landscape is the setting for the outdoor Tali Wiru culinary experience. Meaning “beautiful dune” in local Anangu language, it’s an elevated spin on dining under the desert sky. The four-course meal is infused with ancient native herbs and spices—the experience is an elevated experience, complete with champagne and a live didgeridoo performance.
For anyone who recently caught the rom-com Top End Wedding on a streaming service, the glimpse into modern Aboriginal life is a primer on the natural beauty of the Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land, as well as on a traditional wedding, song, and dance. Among the scenery shown, Katherine is a gateway to Nitmiluk National Park and the nearby small town of Mataranka is known for its turquoise thermal pools. In Nitmiluk National Park, discover the land of the Jawoyn people through Nitmiluk Tours, an Aboriginal-owned and operated business, offering excursions through Nitmiluk Gorge and other natural wonders. Their luxurious, 18-room Cicada Lodge is decorated with Aboriginal artwork, weaving the present with the past.
For those seeking different, it’s uncrowded, unrushed experiences like these in the Northern Territory that make it one of the world’s most visually captivating, naturally beautiful, and culturally rich destinations.
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