Sails in the Desert, Ayers Rock Resort, Uluru region, Red Centre, Northern Territory
Immerse yourself in Australia's oldest cultures amid spectacular landscapes on this adventurous itinerary, which includes visiting remote communities and foraging for bush tucker.
By Ute Junker
What to expect
- Visit sacred sites in the central desert, including the mighty Uluru
- Be welcomed by remote communities in Arnhem Land
- Discover ancient rock art in Kakadu National Park
- Time: 10 days
- Distance: 3200 kilometres (2000 miles)
- Transport: Plane, road, boat
- Nearest City: Yulara (start), Darwin (finish)
- Price: $$$
The Northern Territory is a place steeped in Aboriginal culture, from its rugged sandstone escarpments and tranquil waterholes in the north, to the mesmerising beauty of the Red Centre. On this diverse itinerary, learn about ancient Dreamtime myths and modern-day survival as you visit sacred sites and thriving Aboriginal communities.
Day 1: Yulara (Uluru)
Pick up your hire car at Ayers Rock Airport and head to the Ayers Rock Resort, where accommodation ranges from the five-star Sails in the Desert resort to family apartments. A free tour of the resort's Wintjiri Arts and Museum will give you insights into how local Aboriginal tribes traditionally lived on this land, as well as an overview of the area's history and geology. In the afternoon enjoy a free performance of the indigenous dances and songs used in traditional ceremonies, performed by talented local Aboriginal dancers. Then buy the ingredients for a picnic at the resort's supermarket, and drive out to one of the sunset viewpoints to watch the sacred indigenous sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta change colours in the setting sun.
Day 2: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Drive to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and buy your park pass at the entry station. After having a look around the Cultural Centre, join the free, guided Mala Walk, which departs from the Mala Walk car park. This two kilometre (1.2 mile) hike along the base of the rock is full of insights about the traditional culture of the local Aboriginal people, the Anangu, and includes the chance to view some of their ancient rock art. If you are feeling energetic you may want to continue around the base of Uluru, but be aware that the full walk is 10 kilometres (six miles) long. Rest this afternoon before heading out tonight for an Outback Sky Journey. The clear desert skies are perfect for stargazing. Your astronomer guide will show you how Aboriginal tribes interpreted the constellations, and how they used the stars to forecast what the coming seasons would be like.
Day 3: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Uluru is not the only big rock worth a visit. Kata Tjuta, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Uluru, is just as magnificent. From afar, its 36 beehive-shaped domes look impenetrable. However, the 7.4 kilometre (4.6 mile) Valley of the Winds Walk takes you through the grasslands and tree-fringed creek beds hidden amid the domes. Start your walk at sunrise – it takes about four hours, and temperatures can soar in the middle of the day. This area is such a sacred site for the Anangu that almost all types of photography are banned, and it's easy to see why when you're here – there's a palpable sense of something spiritual in the air. This afternoon, relax at the resort, perhaps exploring some of the on-site art galleries, where you can meet indigenous artists and buy artworks, or in the excellent on-site day spa. Dine tonight at the Sounds of Silence experience, an unforgettable meal featuring native Australian ingredients, which takes place amid the desert's red sand dunes.
Day 4: Uluru to Darwin
Australian indigenous art is the oldest living art tradition in the world, known for distinctive styles such as X-ray animals and dot paintings. Indigenous art is about more than just beauty, however; it is also an important tool for transmitting information. Today you have the chance to create your very own indigenous-inspired art work at a dot painting workshop in the resort, hosted by an Aboriginal Anangu artist. Alternatively, take a free bush tucker tour of the resort grounds and learn more about the plants and animals essential to the local diet. In the afternoon, board your plane for Darwin and check into one of the city's many hotels, ready for the next stage of your adventure.
Day 5: Darwin to Tiwi Islands
About 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the coast of Darwin you'll find the Tiwi Islands, a hauntingly beautiful cluster of mostly undeveloped islands where the Aboriginal people have their own distinctive culture. Only two of the islands are inhabited. A one day tour of Bathurst Island starts with a two hour ferry ride from the Cullen Bay Ferry Terminal, five minutes from Darwin's city centre. Enjoy some billy tea and damper as local women welcome you with a smoking ceremony. They will also perform totem dances and demonstrate local weaving and painting techniques. Visit the local museum to learn more about Tiwi Dreamtime stories and the impact of missionaries, and stop in at the local arts and craft cooperatives. A burial site marked by distinctive Tiwi burial poles is your last stop before you head back to Darwin.
Day 6: Darwin to Kakadu National Park
This morning you'll set off on Venture North's five day luxury 4WD tour of the traditional Aboriginal territories of Kakadu, Arnhem Land and the Cobourg Peninsula. After being picked up from your hotel you'll drive from Darwin to Kakadu National Park, stopping along the way for a cruise on the stunning Corroboree Billabong – home to whistling ducks, magpie geese, brolga and more saltwater crocodiles than anywhere else on Earth. From here it's on to Kakadu, Australia's largest national park, which sprawls across almost 20,000 square kilometres (7700 square miles). Kakadu is the traditional home of 19 clan groups, and you'll gain an insight into their heritage on the one kilometre (0.6 mile) walk through monsoon forest, which leads you to the lovely Maguk (Barramundi) Gorge, where a waterfall plunges into a clear pool in which people have been swimming and fishing for millennia. Take a refreshing dip before heading for your sunset stop at Nawurlandja Lookout, where you can enjoy spectacular views across the rocks, billabongs and escarpments of Kakadu. Tonight you will sleep in a bush bungalow at Anbinik Kakadu Resort, within the park.
Day 7: Kakadu National Park to Cobourg Peninsula via Arnhem Land
Arnhem Land is one of Australia's most pristine wilderness regions, home to several flourishing Aboriginal communities and a landscape of floodplains filled with waterlilies and wild birds. Your guide will have received permission from the local Aboriginal people for you to cross over into Arnhem Land, where your first stop is the town of Gunbalanya (also known as Oenpelli), an Aboriginal community of about 1200 Kunwinjku speakers. Meet local artists at the Injalak Arts and Craft Centre before being guided through the surrounding bush by a member of the local community to an ancient rock art site. Return to your 4WD and continue through the wilderness to Cobourg Peninsula, about four hours away. Expect to ford several creeks before arriving at the Cobourg Coastal Camp, where dinner will be served on a clifftop beside an open fire as the sun sets.
Day 8: Cobourg Peninsula
Like so many Aboriginal inhabitants before you, you'll wake up with the birds this morning before heading out for a day at sea, exploring Cobourg Marine Park. The clear waters are home to a huge array of marine life. You might see dolphins, stingrays, sharks, crocodiles, and at least some of the six species of marine turtle that make their home here (they're a traditional food sources for the local Aboriginal people). You will also get to explore the fascinating ruins of the Victoria Settlement, a doomed township that lasted just 11 years as the British attempted to settle northern Australia. The settlers' decade-long survival was thanks in part to the trade they established with local tribes, who bartered their catches of fish and shellfish. As you walk around the area you'll gain insights into how these two cultures related for the first time. Relax this afternoon before enjoying a fresh seafood feast for dinner.
Day 9: Cobourg Peninsula
Today you'll take a 4WD through Cobourg’s magnificent wetlands, where, according to local Aboriginal beliefs, Creation ancestors first entered Australia before travelling across the country, creating people and places as they went. Many species, from turtles to waterbirds, use the area's swamps and billabongs as breeding grounds and nurseries, and you will see how the wetlands provided Aboriginal tribes with a rich variety of food, from the sedges, grasses and waterlilies that they ground up and baked to make bread, to protein-rich yams, fish and crustaceans. This afternoon, you'll try your hand at the traditional hunting method for catching mud crabs (with a spear), go fishing in pursuit of a barramundi, and perhaps gather some mussels. Whatever you forage will be cooked over the campfire as a tasty snack.
Day 10: Cobourg Peninsula to Darwin, via Kakadu National Park
It's an exciting day on the road today as you head back towards Darwin, exploring some interesting sites along the way. Highlights include a picnic lunch on the banks of the mighty East Alligator River, marking the border between Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park, and a visit to one of Kakadu's most memorable sights: Ubirr Rock. Known for its spectacular views over Kakadu and its wetlands, Ubirr is also home to some of the park's most striking rock art. From X-ray paintings to depictions of creation ancestors such as the Rainbow Serpent, you'll see images that have been used to teach tribal lore to ongoing generations of Aboriginal people for at least 20,000 years. You'll arrive back in Darwin at about 7pm – just in time for dinner at a local restaurant.
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