Guide to Arnhem Land
Bordered by Kakadu National Park, the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land is a vast, unspoiled wilderness area of more than 97,000 square kilometres (37,452 square miles). Rich in Aboriginal culture, Arnhem Land offers unique indigenous experiences, rock art and some of the best fishing in the world.
By Stephanie Williams
Arnhem Land is wild, spiritual and diverse, with rugged coastlines, remote islands, rivers teeming with fish, lush rainforests, towering escarpments and savanna woodlands. Wildlife is abundant throughout East and West Arnhem Land. There are lots of saltwater crocodiles and the area provides an important conservation habitat for dugongs, nesting turtles and migratory birds.
The traditional owners of Arnhem Land are the Yolngu people, who have occupied the region for at least 60,000 years. This is the land where Australia's most famous musical instrument, the didgeridoo, originated. It’s now also home to wilderness and fishing lodges, and safari tours.
- Go fishing on a deep sea charter or inland cruise
- Visit a local community to learn about Aboriginal art and culture
- See the sun set from the luxury of a wild bush retreat
How to get there
Nhulunbuy and Jabiru are good bases for exploring this part of Australia. Daily flights connect Nhulunbuy with Cairns (one hour and 45 minutes) and Darwin (one hour and 20 minutes). The region can also be accessed by 4WD along the Central Arnhem Road, which connects to the Stuart Highway south of Katherine. From Darwin, it's a 253-kilometre (157-mile) drive to Jabiru via the Arnhem Highway. Access from the south is via the Kakadu Highway. To visit Arnhem Land, you'll need permits from the Northern Land Council and/or the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, depending on which parts of Arnhem Land you're going to. Joining an organised tour with an operator that has permission to enter the region is highly recommended.
Things to do and top attractions in Arnhem Land
Enjoy some of the world's best fishing
Arnhem Land is recognised as one of the best fishing destinations in the world, but the only way to legally fish much of the area is through accredited operators such as a lodge or tour company. This is remote country that is accessed by 4WD, regular scheduled flights to remote Aboriginal communities or private charter flights. There are fishing lodges dotted through the region, including Barramundi Lodge with its safari-style suites, and the eco-friendly Banubanu Wilderness Retreat on Bremer Island. Fishing enthusiasts head to the Cobourg and Gove peninsulas for barramundi, or Groote Eylandt for game fishing species such as marlin and sailfish, mainly between November and March.
Learn about Aboriginal art
Arnhem Land's connection to Aboriginal culture is strong. You can gain an understanding of this unique landscape and its fascinating people through art and cultural tours. You'll find contemporary Yolngu art expressed as milkwood carvings (unique to this region), bark paintings, screen prints, woven baskets and mats. The art is more traditional at Yirrkala, one of Australia's best known community-based traditional Aboriginal art museums. On the western side of Arnhem Land is Gunbalanya (Oenpelli). Call in to the famous Injalak Art and Craft Centre to see artists at work and buy baskets and paintings. Join a tour led by an indigenous guide to Injalak Hill to see ancient rock art and hear Dreamtime stories come to life around you.
Forage for bush tucker
Bush tucker describes the food native to Australia. You can learn about how Aboriginal people forage for bush tucker, as well as pick up some hunting techniques and bush skills, on a tour with the traditional owners of the land, starting from Jabiru. Or you can hire a 4WD and explore the white sand beaches of Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem), just a few hours drive from Nhulunbuy. The clear waters are perfect for scuba diving and snorkelling, and you can fish from the beach.
Absorb the epic landscape and history
Arnhem Land is one of Australia's last true wilderness areas, untouched and wild. Throughout the year, Arnhem Land's landscape undergoes spectacular changes. The most popular time to visit is in the dry season (April to September). The wet season brings dramatic weather conditions and some parts of the park are closed. Helicopter tours and light aircraft flights are an excellent way to take in the vast expanse. There are many significant historical sites in Arnhem Land, including the ruins of an early European settlement in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the remote Cobourg Peninsula. Take a guided tour to see it all.
Stay in spectacular wilderness lodges
Accommodation in Arnhem Land is limited, but there are some excellent wilderness lodges throughout the region. Fishing is a big pursuit in these parts and most lodges offer fishing expeditions and equipment. For a true bush experience, book a tour with Venture North and stay at Cobourg Coastal Camp. This safari-style camp overlooks the bay of Port Essington, which offers stunning sunsets as you relax and enjoy a dinner of freshly caught seafood. Alternatively, you can sleep under the stars at one of Arnhem Land's many secluded camp spots.
Discover local festivals and events
In August, listen out for the yidaki (didgeridoo) call announcing the start of Garma, the largest and most vibrant annual celebration of Yolngu culture. It's also an economic forum bringing together political leaders, economists, media and big thinkers who are interested in improving life for Aboriginal Australians. Each night, this gathering of about 2,500 people erupts with music and storytelling, and the famous nightly bunggul (traditional dance). The Yolngu retain strong cultural and spiritual links to the land, so you'll find the festival to be an authentic Aboriginal experience.