Go Cultural Aboriginal Tours and Experiences, Perth, Western Australia © Tourism Australia
How to connect with an Aboriginal community
Make your next holiday a memorable one by learning some of the ancient stories and beliefs of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
By Kerry van der Jagt
Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been living in the country for more than 60,000 years, making them the custodians of the oldest living culture on Earth. There are many opportunities for visitors to interact with Aboriginal culture and communities across the whole country. In fact, you can take a cultural tour in a big city, go on a rainforest experience or even visit a desert community. One of the best ways to connect with the community is to take an Aboriginal guided tour, on which you’ll uncover ancient wisdom and knowledge. And by supporting Aboriginal businesses you will not only gain insights into the culture but will also contribute to its ongoing survival.
Discover Aboriginal food
Aboriginal people have a spiritual connection to the land, where every living thing is connected. By engaging with an Aboriginal community through food – either on a bush tucker tour or a fine-dining experience – you, in turn, are connecting with the land. Take an Aboriginal guided bush tucker tour in Australia’s red centre, in north Queensland, the South Coast of New South Wales or the rugged Kimberley region of Western Australia and you’ll discover that almost every plant and tree root you encounter has a medicinal purpose.
For food-focused fun on the shore, Adventure North Australia offers tours of Queensland’s Cooya Beach, about an hour’s drive north of Cairns, where you can try your hand at traditional spear fishing. And for a smorgasbord of ancient tastes, head to Ayers Rock Resort near Uluru in Central Australia, where everything from bush food tastings and Aboriginal-guided garden walks to the Sounds of Silence dining experience are on the menu.
Connect to Country
From desert to rivers to the sea, the deep spiritual ties between Aboriginal people and place remain constant across Australia, even if local customs, lore and language vary. This is what is known as “connection to Country” – and it’s fundamental to all aspects of Aboriginal identity. There are many Aboriginal tour operators who will share their stories and explain this connection while taking you on an adventure tour of their ancestral land.
Learn about the Nhanda and Malgana peoples’ ancient cultural ties to Western Australia’s World Heritage area, Shark Bay, on a kayaking tour with Darren “Capes” Capewell, from Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures. Whether Capes is calling to his ancestors to let them know you are coming as you kayak across Shark Bay, or drawing dugongs to the surface of the water with his singing, this saltwater experience will inspire you and provide a glimpse into the complexity of the Aboriginal connection to nature.
Learn to interpret Aboriginal art
Aboriginal art is as varied as it is vivid, encompassing everything from dance to dot paintings and weaving to woodcarving. By buying Aboriginal art or engaging in a hands-on workshop you are providing significant benefits to a community. The benefits are not just economic, but cultural too, as you’ll be helping people remain connected to their Country and Dreaming stories, and social, by instilling pride and bringing people together.
There are many ways to encounter Aboriginal art in Australia. You can take a day trip from Darwin in the Northern Territory to the Tiwi Islands on a Tiwi by Design Tour, on which you’ll be welcomed with a traditional smoking ceremony before participating in an art lesson.
Another top spot in the Northern Territory is Maruku Arts, where visitors can engage with the Anangu people – the traditional owners of Uluru – through a dot painting workshop, in which storytelling is as important as the art.
Uncover ancient culture in Australia’s big cities
You don't have to head to the outback to connect with Aboriginal culture – there are plenty of Aboriginal experiences on offer right in the centre of Australia’s major cities too. From walking tours to museums and contemporary dance theatres, city-based experiences offer an understanding of how people inhabited these places before settlement, while showing how Aboriginal culture continues to thrive today.
To see Sydney’s iconic harbour through the eyes of an Aboriginal guide, join Dreamtime Southern X on a 90-minute walking tour. You’ll learn about the creation stories that shaped the waterways and the connections to Wyanga Malu (Earth Mother).
Or to understand the importance of native plants for food, medicine and shelter in the Aboriginal community, join an Aboriginal Heritage Tour through the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, or an Australian Forest Walk with Kalkani through Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
To learn about the depth of Aboriginal culture, join a relaxing walking tour of Perth’s Elizabeth Quay district with Go Cultural’s Walter McGuire, of the local Noongar people, or head to Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia to see the world’s largest collection of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Tracing ancient pathways on an urban walking tour allows you to connect with the culture of local Aboriginal communities, which you might otherwise miss in a bustling city.
Take a transformational journey
Transformational travel may be a modern buzzword, but for thousands of years Aboriginal people have practised something similar. Going “walkabout” (going on an extended walking journey), is a rite of passage for young Aboriginal men as part of their initiation into their community. It can also mean embarking on a spiritual journey at any age, to reconnect to Country and ancestors.
Aboriginal guides can lead you on anything from a two-hour hike up sacred Injalak Hill in the Northern Territory, to an overnight sensory journey through Yuin Country on the New South Wales South Coast.
In East Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, Lirrwi Tourism offers a five-day, women-only tour. Form lifelong bonds through powerful experiences, and leave content in the knowledge that your visit has helped to keep Yolngu culture alive.
Meet the stars of the rock art world
From ochre paintings to hand stencils, rock art offers insights into the spiritual and physical world of a culture that has survived for tens of thousands of years. One of the best places to see rock art is on the Cape York Peninsula in the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region. Here, perfectly preserved depictions of Quinkans (Aboriginal mythological figures) that date back up to 20,000 years line a large rock overhang near the town of Laura. You can see this magnificent rock art with Yalanji man Johnny Murison’s Jarramali Rock Art Tours.
You can look at the art, but understanding it and feeling it are two different things
On an Aboriginal Rock Art and Ranger Tour with Culture Connect in the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region you can enter rarely seen galleries, while learning about the Indigenous ranger program that is helping to rehabilitate homelands.
And at Ubirr in the Northern Territory’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, you can see X-ray art (which depicts humans and animal figures complete with bones and internal organs), early contact art (depicting the first interactions with Europeans) and art showing the peoples’ creation ancestors.
Meet the custodians of national parks
Some of Australia’s national parks are of such cultural importance that they are jointly managed by local Aboriginal communities and Australian, state and territory governments. This arrangement recognises the inseparable connection that Aboriginal people have with their Country and ensures they are involved in decision-making.
For an unforgettable New South Wales outback road trip, head to Mungo National Park, a four-hour drive south-east of Broken Hill (or about a 10-hour drive west of Sydney), where the 40,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady are evidence of the world’s oldest burial ritual. To discover beautiful gorges and Aboriginal rock art, head to the jointly managed Mutawintji National Park, 2.5 hours’ drive north-east of Broken Hill. Take an Aboriginal guided tour here to see sacred spots that are otherwise inaccessible to visitors, and you’ll also support the guide’s community in the efforts to preserve their ancient land.
In the Northern Territory, exploring Nitmiluk National Park with Nitmiluk Tours provides insights into the culture of the local Jawoyn people. A highlight of any visit to this national park near the town of Katherine, three hours south-east of Darwin, is a cruise down the spectacular Nitmiluk Gorge.
Kerry van der Jagt is a descendant of the Awabakal and Mindaribba people of New South Wales.