12 Meaningful Ways to Experience Indigenous Culture in Australia

Get to know the world’s oldest continuously living culture through these dozen enlightening (and fun) tours.

A guide speaking to a tour group near a body of water in Shark Bay, Australia.

There are a number of ways to connect with Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander culture all across Australia.

Courtesy of Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures

Despite a (very disappointing) failed referendum in October that would have given Indigenous peoples greater political representation, Australia hasn’t completely turned its back on the world’s oldest living cultures. Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have been on the continent for more than 65,000 years, a lasting heritage represented by 250 distinct language groups. Thankfully, Indigenous tourism is alive and well and actively promoted by Tourism Australia, a government agency. Its curated list includes some 168 experiences offered by 45 businesses, a mix of tour operators, storytellers, activities, guides, and accommodations in every region. How to choose?

We know AFAR readers seek meaningful connections to places and people. They want to authentically engage with Indigenous cultures, listen to their stories, and view the world through their eyes. So two of our most frequent Australia travelers reviewed the tourism board’s list, and cross-referenced it with our own, to surface 12 of the best Indigenous-owned, -operated, and
-acknowledged experiences in Australia. Here’s how to enjoy ancient rock-art safaris, bush tucker, Dreaming (creation) stories, desert stargazing, and more.

A guest room with a balcony at Cicada Lodge in Nitmiluk National Park

Cicada Lodge serves as the perfect base from which to explore Nitmiluk Gorge National Park.

Courtesy of Cicada Lodge

1. Check into Cicada Lodge and explore with Nitmulik Tours

Owned and operated by Jawoyn Traditional Custodians, Cicada Lodge, about 215 miles southeast of Darwin in the Northern Territory’s Top End (far north), makes the perfect base for exploring Nitmiluk National Park. The Jawoyn-owned park is an Edenic land of waterfalls, river systems, millennia-old rock paintings, secluded water holes, and 13 gorges. The park’s most famous, Nitmiluk Gorge (formerly known as Katherine Gorge), is marked by towering cliffs and a river wide and deep enough to cruise. The eco-lodge’s 18 rooms have polished timber floors and balconies—some with panoramic views of the sandstone landscape above Nitmiluk Gorge—and also feature paintings and carved works by local Aboriginal artists. There’s an outdoor pool for splashing around after a sweaty day adventuring in the Outback with its sister company Nitmiluk Tours, which offers guided gorge exploration.

A flat river that runs through Arnhem Land, with banks lined by trees

Lords Kakadu and Arnhem Land Safaris is able to take visitors to areas of the Northern Territory that are normally inaccessible to other tour companies by getting permission from Traditional land owners.

Courtesy of Vladimir Haltakov/Unsplash

2. See ancient rock art with Lords Arnhem Land and Kakadu Safaris

Best known for its beauty, isolation, and outstanding rock art, Arnhem Land (a vast wilderness area in the Northern Territory) is one of the largest Indigenous-owned reserves in Australia. It’s perhaps one of the last few places in Australia where Indigenous culture is still dominant. Like Arnhem Land next door, the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Kakadu National Park is also a place of immense cultural, religious, and social significance to the local Aboriginal people.

The terrain in the Top End switches from floodplains and rock escarpments to woodlands, waterfalls, and vine-filled monsoonal rain forests—and the diversity of wildlife is extraordinary. (To wit: Visitors can encounter wallabies, wallaroos, quolls, dingoes, bats, goannas, frogs, pythons, saltwater crocodiles, and 280 species of birds.)

Sab Lord, owner and expert guide at Lords Arnhem Land and Kakadu Safaris, based in Darwin, provides some of the best tours of this culturally rich destination thanks in part to his strong working relationship with local Indigenous groups. At Injalak Hill, for instance, Lord employs Aboriginal guides who originally hail from the area. The small outfitter offers three-, four-, and five-day private safaris to Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. Guests will encounter wildlife—even crocs—up close, discover a pristine waterfall, swim in crystalline water surrounded by towering rock walls, visit an Aboriginal sacred site, and gaze at rock art estimated to be between 6,000 and 9,400 years old, engraved on overhangs and inside caves.

Depending on the length of the safari, accommodations range from glamping tents at an exclusive, permanent bush camp to comfortable private tent-cabins at a luxury safari lodge. All itineraries are bespoke, with prices available on request.

Uluru Rock at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Uluru, one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks, is a sacred site to many Indigenous Australian communities.

Courtesy of Antoine Fabre/Unsplash

3. Try high-end bush tucker at Ayers Rock Resort

“Bush tucker” is an Aussie term that refers to native foods and medicinal plants that Indigenous peoples in Australia have been eating and using for 60,000 years. Long disparaged by European settlers, dishes made of bush tomatoes, lemon myrtle, kakadu plums, desert lime, quandong, green ants, crocodile, emu, and kangaroo now take center stage in fine-dining establishments across the country. In particular, Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, has been earning a reputation in foodie circles as the bush tucker gastronomy capital of Australia.

Ayers Rock Resort, adjacent to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, offers gourmet bush tucker dinner experiences paired with modern retellings of the Dreaming stories.

The Wintjiri Wiru Sunset Dinner takes place in an open-air theater atop a dune overlooking Uluru and the many domes of Kata Tjuta, a group of rock formations formerly known at the Olgas. It’s an apt name since Wintjiri Wiru means “beautiful view out to the horizon” in the local Pitjantjatjara language. Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia created this experience in consultation with Indigenous chefs. The makers acknowledge that “as custodians of the land, the Anangu hold the Mala story from Kaltukatjara to Uluru. To share their story from Kaltukatjara to Uluru, RAMUS designed and produced an artistic platform using drones, light, and sound to create an immersive storytelling experience.”

During the dinner, guests arrive to cocktails with bush-tucker infusions of lemon myrtle, desert lime, or mulga berries and sit down to a gourmet dinner hamper filled with foods like smoked emu with saltbush chili crust. Once the sun drops over the rocks, it’s time for the show: Wintjiri Wiru is a new state-of-the-art sound-and-light show that tells the ancient story of the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) people who came to Uluru, with choreographed drones, lasers, and projections creating an immersive and contemporary rendition of the spiritual story.

Australia's King Canyon at sunset

“Karrke” is the word in the Aranda language for “bower bird,” a striking species with blue-black plumage that lives in Kings Canyon and throughout Central Australia.

Courtesy of Philippe Wuyts/Unsplash

4. Go on a guided walk-and-talk with Karrke Cultural Experience and Tours

A three-hour drive from Uluru takes you to the magnificent red rock formations of Kings Canyon and Watarrka National Park, parts of which are sacred for the local Indigenous peoples. Established in 2014, Indigenous-owned and -operated Karrkke Cultural Experience and Tours, on the southeastern fringes of the park, offers one-hour guided walk-and-talks about bush tucker foods, dot painting, and Indigenous artifacts. Owners Peter Abbott, his partner Christine Breaden, and his sister Natasha Abbott sit with participants in a shaded area to talk about native foods—edible tree seeds and grass seeds, witchetty grub (moth larva) and honey ants—in addition to medicinal plants and how they’re used by the local Luritja and Pertame peoples of Central Australia. They also explain the cultural significance of the patterns in dot art and show off local crafts made of wood or seeds, such as music sticks, clap sticks, seed necklaces, bracelets, and weapons.

A guide leading a tour group uphill in Shark Bay, Australia

Woormulla Ecocultural Journeys share stories and histories with guests that have been passed down for hundreds of generations.

Courtesy of Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures

5. Learn about the Dreaming with Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures

Owned and operated by Darren “Capes” Capewell, a descendant of the Nhanda and Malgana people, Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures is based in idyllic Shark Bay, 500 miles north of Perth. Translation: It’s a two-hour flight, or an eight-hour drive up National Route 1, or a slightly longer scenic ride along State Route 60, which hugs the Indian Ocean coastline up to the Coral Coast. The “Coral Coast Highway” is said to be one of the most beautiful drives on earth.

Capewell, who also works as a guide, runs a range of outdoor tours: kayaking and wildlife, standup paddle boarding, camping, and an evening experience. The “Didgeridoo Dreaming Night Tour” combines Dreaming stories of how Earth and life on the planet came to be, and the ancient tribal tones of the didgeridoo under a blanket of stars, accompanied by tastings of seafood and bush tucker. (Note that in some Indigenous cultures, only men play the didgeridoo; women and children are offered a traditional conch shell to play.)

6. See the night sky with Wooramulla Eco Cultural Journeys

Wooramulla Eco Cultural Journeys, owned by Yinggarda guide Rennee, is located in Carnarvon, 550 miles from Perth, or a little beyond Shark Bay. Rennee provides a variety of fun, educational tours aimed at sharing Yinggarda culture and customs. One shows visitors how hidden claypans erupt in the spring with the crazed mating of burrowing bees. Another tells the Ant Dreaming story at the spiritually significant Honeycomb Gorge (Mingah Munda), where she also points out hidden petroglyphs and other traces of her ancestors. During her Murroo Nungnah (Go See the Night) experience, she shares Yinggarda Dreaming stories of the night sky accompanied by Billy tea—a traditional Aussie campfire tea blended with Kooloo red leaf tea—and damper, a simple but classic bread.

The blue, shallow waters of the Ningaloo Coast, with a porous, overhanging rock at right

Baiyungu Dreaming founder Hazel Walgar is one of the Traditional owners of the Ningaloo Coast.

Courtesy of Andrew Tom/Unsplash

7. Visit the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area with Baiyungu Dreaming

The Ningaloo Coast, 800 miles north of Perth, is the site of the UNESCO-listed Ningaloo Reef, the world’s largest fringing coral reef, as well as the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area. It’s a place of impossible beauty and stark contrasts between the parched, rugged landscape of Cape Range National Park’s gorges and escarpments, the white-sand beaches of the coastline, and the clear, highlighter-blue waters of Ningaloo Reef. Home to whales, dolphins, manta rays, orcas, sharks, turtles, tuna, and more, it is also a place of immense biodiversity.

With Hazel Walgar’s tour company Baiyungu Dreaming, visitors to Ningaloo can see the coast through an Aboriginal lens. Launched in 2020, Baiyungu is the first Indigenous tourism operator on the Ningaloo Coast. Having worked on the Ningaloo archaeological project, excavating Indigenous artifacts found in the Western Australian desert, Hazel takes visitors to Coral Bay and into Cape Range National Park to see a shell midden littered with signs of early Aboriginal occupation. She also teaches her clients how to dig for fresh drinking water in the sand dunes, takes them to a sheltered turtle nursery, and tells the Dreaming story of the octopus and how Five Finger Reef was formed. During her Coral Bay sunset tour, guests sit around the campfire sipping Billy tea and munching freshly baked damper (bread) as Hazel recounts Dreaming stories and talks about her work on the Ningaloo archaeological project.

Rocky shore and cliffs of Dampier Peninsula

The Borrgoron’s Coast to Creek Tour explores the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm family’s four-generation-long history in the area.

Courtesy of Marty Southwell/Unsplash

8. Forage for fresh oysters with Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm

The traditional custodians of the Dampier Peninsula, the Bardi (land) and Jawi (island) peoples, have been working with their natural environment for tens of thousands of years, using sustainable hunting techniques, fishing practices, and bush tucker for both food and medicinal purposes. Here, about two hours north of Broome, you can combine a cultural experience with world-class seafood.

Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm’s Borrgoron’s Coast to Creek Tour will open your eyes to the local culture that revolves around the land and sea. A two-hour walking tour (some level of fitness required) takes you through mangroves and over the rocks of King Sound at low tide, where you’ll be able to put your learnings to practice as you forage for fresh oysters. Pair this with a pearl discovery tour, “sea safari,” or sunset dinner cruise.

A simple hut, with interior lit at night

Guests stay in Aboriginal-inspired lodgings during a trip on the wukalina walk, one of the Discover Aboriginal Experiences in Australia.

Photo by Adam Gibson

9. Hike Tasmania’s rugged coast on the wukalina Walk

“Completely owned and operated by Tasmania’s Indigenous palawa community, the four-day, three-night wukalina Walk is a unique way to explore the island’s rugged northeast coast and gain insight into Australia’s Aboriginal heritage,” writes AFAR contributor Eric Rosen. (Note: The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre has reconstructed an Indigenous language, now called palawa kani, using only lowercase.) “My journey began with a hike to the peak of wukalina (aka Mount William). Six fellow travelers and I enjoyed a picnic lunch with views stretching from the Furneaux Islands in the north to the Bay of Fires in the south. A few hours later, we tramped into Krakani Lumi, a secluded camp a few hundred feet from the shore. Eco-chalets were inspired by traditional palawa huts, with pitch-black walls and domed interiors. The next morning, we walked along the white-sand beach to shell middens where ancient clans came to feast.

“Before a final goodbye back in Launceston, I spoke to Clyde Mansell, the community elder who spent over 15 years setting up the wukalina walk. ‘The experience and scenery are just beautiful packaging,’ he said. ‘The real purpose of the walk is to keep the community’s young people engaged with our culture and provide them with jobs in hospitality.’”

Aerial view of a section of the Great Barrier Reef, with yellow and purple coral

Dreamtime Dive and snorkel was given an Advanced Eco accreditation by Ecotourism Australia, which means that the company operates with little impact on the local environment.

Courtesy of GeoNadir/Unsplash

10. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef with Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel

  • Location: Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel Wharf, Reef Fleet Terminal, 1 Spence St., Cairns City, Queensland | Find on Google Maps
  • Book now: $140 adult, $90 children, age three and under free. dreamtimedive.com

“Some 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have a continuing connection to the world’s largest coral reef system, and in 2018, Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel launched trips led by Indigenous Sea Rangers who share cultural knowledge passed down from their ancestors,” writes AFAR contributor Sarah Reid. During the day trips from Cairns to the Outer Barrier Reef, “guests listen to evocative creation stories about how the reef came to be, and learn about hunting practices, such as seasonal harvesting, that have safeguarded the reef’s biodiversity for millennia.” This adventure acknowledges the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji, Mandingalbay Yidinji, Yirrganydji, and Gunggandji cultures.

Aerial view of a river surrounded by trees in Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve

Worn Gundidj at Tower Hill has been in operation for over 20 years.

Courtesy of Enguerrand Blanchy/Unsplash

11. Go inside Tower Hill volcano with an Indigenous guide

Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve sits inside a 30,000-year-old dormant volcano about 170 miles southwest of Melbourne, just north of the Great Ocean Road and the iconic Twelve Apostles, a collection of limestone stacks jutting out of the water. The verdant reserve, once a denuded wasteland thanks to the devastation caused by early settlers, is a haven for Australia’s most iconic species: emus, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas. Many of the 200-plus kangaroos and koalas live around the visitor parking lot, so they’re not hard to spot. The parks’ boardwalks, nesting boxes, and bird hides make it easy for bird-watchers to get a glimpse of birds like chestnut teals, musk ducks, and spoonbills.

Worn Gundidj, an Aboriginal social enterprise working in partnership with Tower Hill, offers a two-hour interactive tour. Guides lead visitors around the animals’ natural habitat while providing insight into Indigenous traditions like how to identify edible and medicinal plants and how to properly throw a boomerang.

A cliffside view of Wilpena Pound in Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park

Wilpena Pound Resort is the only hotel within the boundaries of Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.

Courtesy of Rowena Shaw/Unsplash

12. Experience a “Welcome to Country” ceremony at Wilpena Pound

To the local Adnyamathanha people, Ikara, known as Wilpena Pound in English, is a sacred site. A crater-like elevated basin in the remote desert wilderness of South Australia’s Ikara-Flinders Ranges, Ikara is not as well known or instantly recognizable as Uluru, even within Australia, but it’s arguably just as spiritually moving. And at 800 million years old, it’s 250 million years more ancient than Uluru.

Ikara is remote—not near any major city or airport, about 275 miles north or a five-hour drive from Adelaide. Once there, getting around is a challenge without a four-wheel drive. It’s also possible to travel by small plane from Adelaide, but it may be necessary to change planes in Port Augusta.

Wilpena Pound Resort, located in South Australia’s Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, is the only accommodation within the park. While not Indigenous-owned, the resort falls under the aegis of the Traditional Custodians, the Adnyamathanha, who offer guided walks and cultural experiences like a complimentary “Welcome to Country” ceremony. It is normally performed by an Aboriginal Traditional Owner for people visiting their land; visitors may experience a welcome speech, traditional dance, and a smoking ceremony. Other activities include a rock art tour, a tour of Sacred Canyon, or a sunset storytelling experience.

Read Before You Go

Celebrated Australian Indigenous lawyer and author Larissa Behrendt is brilliant at creating engaging, accessible stories with social justice issues at their core. One of her latest novels, After Story (2021), doesn’t even take place in Australia; it follows an Indigenous lawyer and her mother on a rare vacation together, hitting England’s great literary sites. As their trip unfolds and painful memories come to light, we witness Australia’s worst prejudices—and a funny, hopeful outlook on the future of Indigenous culture.

Laura Dannen Redman is AFAR’s editor at large. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home. She’s based in Brooklyn with her equally travel-happy husband and daughters.
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