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
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 stories and modern-day survival as you visit sacred sites and thriving Aboriginal communities.
This itinerary requires vehicle hire. Due to the potential for travelling on unsealed roads and rules around after-dark driving, it's important to understand your car hire policy. Check your policy for restrictions on driving at night, as well as whether a 4WD is needed in destinations you plan to visit.
What to expect
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. The Wintjiri Arts and Museum, located within the resort, exhibits the works of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artists in residence. Watch the artist at work and purchase some of their artworks as a unique souvenir. The retail area showcases local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander products including jewellery, postcards, cushions, textiles and kitchenware. In the afternoon, enjoy a free performance of the dances and songs used in traditional ceremonies, performed by talented Indigenous dancers. Alternatively, join SEIT Outback Australia on an afternoon tour where you meet the Traditional Uluru Family in their homelands and experience their culture and family history (this tour departs at 7:00am during the summer months). 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 sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta change colours with the setting sun.
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 carpark. This two-kilometre (1.2-mile) hike along the base of the rock is full of insights about the traditional culture of the local Anangu Aboriginal people 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. Alternatively, join a Maruku Arts exclusive tour and be guided by an Anangu who will tell you the stories of this unique landscape and explain the connection between the art, culture and land. Followed by a hands-on painting session, this experience will give you an exclusive insight into the meaning behind the art and the traditional Anangu culture. 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 people interpreted the constellations, and how they used the stars to forecast what the coming seasons would be like.
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 Aboriginal 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.
Australian Aboriginal art is the oldest living art tradition in the world, known for distinctive styles such as X-ray animals and dot paintings. Aboriginal 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 artwork 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.
About 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the coast of Darwin you'll find the Tiwi Islands, a 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.
Collect your hire car and travel 50 minutes from Darwin towards the Mary River Region, the gateway to Kakadu National Park, and turn at Pudakul for your 10:30am 2-hour Culture Tour with Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours. Set within a dense pocket of tropical bushland on the Adelaide River floodplains – an area bursting with birds, plants and flowers – Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours is a family-run business headed by Graham Kenyon, a knowledgeable former Northern Territory park ranger. Along with his wife and daughters, Kenyon runs two-hour immersion tours on Aboriginal Limilngan-Wulna land. Here, his family enjoy strong ties: they’re the traditional carers of its Beatrice Hill (or ‘Ludawei’ as the area is traditionally called) long-necked turtle dreaming story. Enter their wild, pristine patch of the wetlands, and settle in for an intimate lesson on local bush tucker and medicine, making baskets and bags, throwing spears and playing instruments such as the clap sticks and Didgeridoo. Afterwards, relax and chat over shared damper (traditional bush bread, cooked on an open fire) and a cup of tea.
This afternoon travel for about 2 hours to Jabiru and book into your Anbinik Suite. From here, choose between adventure or relaxation; the staff at Anbinik can discuss your options. Visit the Bowali Visitor Centre just outside the township of Jabiru and enjoy its displays that explain Kakadu’s ecology from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives (also purchase your Kakadu National Park Pass from here), enjoy the views from Nourlangie Rock or Ubirr or just relax and enjoy dinner at Anbinik’s fabulous Thai restaurant.
This morning, take a moment to marvel at the sights of Kakadu. Take a scenic flight over the park to gain an aerial view of its spectacular waterfalls, floodplains and escarpment country. Drive 41kms (25 miles) from Jabiru to the Border Store, arriving by 2.30pm. Store your vehicle in the Border Store’s compound and get your luggage ready by 3:00pm for your Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge two-night experience, run by Kakadu Cultural Tours, who are owned by the Djabulukgu Association (representing the traditional owners of Northern Kakadu and parts of Western Arnhem Land). This tour brings you to a secluded lodge located in a remote and restricted part of Kakadu. Known as Cannon Hill, this area is a renowned part of the park with significant importance to the local Aboriginal people, many of whom still live nearby. You’ll gain access to Cannon Hill, a registered sacred site, and its surrounds, which are teeming with bird and marine life. This afternoon, enjoy a guided sunset rock art tour followed by a three-course dinner at the lodge.
Your Kakadu Cultural tour continues as you embark on the Arnhemlander Cultural and Heritage 4WD day tour. Today you’ll experience vast flood plains, towering escarpment, rock art sites and Aboriginal artists at work. Journey across Cahill’s Crossing on the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land to Injalak Arts, a non-profit Aboriginal-owned community art centre with around 200 active members. Injalak has become famous for its hand-printed bolts of linen and silk emblazoned with colourful designs of creation spirits. Peruse its stunning fabrics, paintings, woven baskets, wooden sculptures, jewellery and books. There is also time to watch Aboriginal people painting and weaving pandanus baskets. All arts and crafts sold include a Certificate of Authenticity. Enjoy lunch in the scenic location of Inkiyu Billabong, with calm waters and magnificent views. Tonight, you'll have the opportunity to do another sunset tour around the camp, visiting different sites from the previous evening before heading back to the lodge for dinner.
At 9:00am, set off on a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise on Kakadu’s scenically spectacular East Alligator River. Take in the World Heritage wilderness that surrounds you as you float slowly up stream, counting the crocodiles as you pass by. Your Aboriginal guide will give you a view into their culture, telling stories and explaining the river’s abundant food chain, traditional uses for plants and animals and survival skills passed down through generations. Step off your cruise on the Arnhem Land side of the river, where you’ll experience a display of traditional hunting and gathering implements. The cruise is limited to just 25 guests, so you’re sure to enjoy a personalised cultural experience.
After your tour has ended, enjoy the scenic 303-kilometre (188-mile) drive to Katherine, keeping an eye out for spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes. There are plenty of stops along the way for those with extra time. Take a break in Cooinda for a Yellow Water Cruise that puts you face-to-face with magnificent lily-laden wetlands, home to 60 species of birds and a plethora of buffaloes and crocodiles. Here, you can also visit the nearby Warradjan Cultural Centre that showcases collections encompassing Aboriginal Art and Kakadu history.
From Katherine drive 30 kilometres (19 miles) to Nitmiluk National Park, a stunning network of 13 gorges, through which snakes the Katherine River flanked by sheer, towering cliffs and home to the Jawoyn people. Rock art sites dot the park, and Jawoyn stories bring the silent gorge walls to life. Nitmiluk Tours, a 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned company, lets you enjoy the best of Jawoyn country and culture via its smorgasbord of cruises, hikes, cave tours, swims, canoeing trips and scenic helicopter flights – not to mention its accommodation offerings, which include everything from a camping ground and chalets, through to the luxury Cicada Lodge.
Start your day at the Sugarbag Café in the Visitor Centre. The café is open for breakfast and lunch and showcases spectacular views over Nitmiluk Gorge from the outdoor deck. Prepare yourself for all the wonders of Nitmiluk Gorge and National Park by visiting the Display Centre and Heritage Museum in the Visitor Centre. Then, choose from the abundance of activities offered by Nitmiluk Tours, including canoe trips, helicopter flights, swim tours and cultural cruises that focus on Jawoyn customs, beliefs, and rock art sites. Watch the gorge turn all shades of mauve and red during a sunrise or sunset dinner cruise. Helicopter flights are a fabulous way to exclusively explore the park’s 13 incredible gorges and its rock art, as well as experience a refreshing swim in wilderness rock pools, one with its own therapeutic plunge pools. Canoeing at your own pace along the gorge is a very relaxed way to fully immerse yourself in the beauty of Jawoyn country. Take time to wade in the shallow pools, pause at quiet beaches and explore walking trails. Walkers have plenty of trails to choose from and waterfalls to see, but the ultimate trek is the 62-kilometre (38-mile) Jatbula Trail.
If you find yourself closer to Katherine, Nitmiluk Tours also conducts guided walks through the fascinating Cutta Cutta Caves. Alternatively, peruse the plentiful art, Didgeridoos, artefacts, gifts and books at the Top Didj Art Gallery before joining a morning or afternoon Aboriginal artist-led experience, where you'll create your own artwork using Aboriginal symbolism, illustration and story-telling techniques. Spend a few days near Katherine or drive about 290 kilometres (180 miles) back to Darwin.