More than 40 different Aboriginal groups reside within Australia’s Northern Territory and their ancient stories, traditions, and art are proudly shared with visitors — from the tropics and islands of the Top End to the Outback of the Red Centre. You just need to know where to find it all.
We partnered with Australia’s Northern Territory to bring you five spots that offer travelers an amazing peek into the Aboriginal culture for an experience you won’t soon forget.
1. The Top End
The Top End of Australia encompasses a large expanse of the country’s Northern Territory and includes the capital city of Darwin and the famed Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park , and Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal culture can be found throughout this region, not just in museums, but also in the cuisine, festivals and the topography itself.
Dual listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its outstanding natural and cultural values, Kakadu National Park is renowned for its breathtaking beauty and also boasts the highest concentration of Aboriginal rock art sites in the world. Rock art, which includes painting, engraving or carving, can be found throughout Australia and often depict mythological or spiritual content.
A great way to experience this ancient practice is to book a Kakadu, Nourlangie and Yellow Waters Tour by AAT Kings. During the guided day-long experience, travelers will visit Nourlangie Rock, a dramatic sandstone monolith nicknamed the “desert museum” for its remarkably preserved examples of ancient Aboriginal rock art. The tour also includes a boat cruise along the Yellow Water billabong where guests will hear more about the traditional land owners (and may get some views of the native crocodiles). There is also a stop at the Warradjan Cultural Centre, where visitors have the opportunity to gain an even deeper understanding of Kakadu’s Aboriginal heritage.
“If you have limited time available, as we did, this trip by AAT Kings provided an excellent overview of Kakadu,” said one visitor. “Our tour leader, Drew, was exceptional. His knowledge and love of the Kakadu area, people and landscape, and his ability to share this with his passengers was outstanding.”
Also located within the Top End is Arnhem Land, one of Australia’s most awe-inspiring natural destinations. There are several famous Aboriginal art centres in Arnhem Land that are worth a visit, including the Yirrkala Arts Centre and Mulka Project, which represents local artists who exhibit and sell their own creations.
If you’re more interested in exploring the outdoors, consider booking a full-day hiking tour of Arnhem Land’s Injalak Hill by Top End Day Tours. A guide will show your small group excellent examples of rock art on Injalak Hill. This area has some of the best rock art examples in Western Arnhem Land and the view from the top of the hill is simply breathtaking. The tour ends at the Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre where visitors have the opportunity to observe artists in action, as well as purchase one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
“Our guide told us that we were entering a different and timeless world and how right she was! The landscape is quite different, and the experience of interacting with indigenous people, and learning about their culture was a deeply moving experience,” said one traveler. “The trek up the hill was nicely broken up with rest breaks and cultural stories, and lunch at the top looking out over the floodplain, billabong, and nearby rocky hills was simply breathtaking. The quality of the artistic craft in the shop was top class. Highly recommended.”
For a family-friendly experience near Darwin, a Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tour is a great choice. This tour company is owned and operated by a family of traditional land owners and offers many fun and educational activities such as spear throwing, a native cuisine walk and talk (often referred to as bush tucker), and arts and crafts.
“Pudakul is a very professional, down to earth family business introducing people to their culture and their land. Our kids loved it!! The stories, spear throwing, didgeridoo and weaving pandanus were informative and fun,” said one visitor. “If you want to experience Aboriginal culture, we recommend Graham, Lynette, Jade and the other guides at Pudakul.”
Katherine is located about 320 km (199 mi) south of Darwin and marks the convergence of the traditional lands of the Jawoyn, Dogoman and Wardaman people. It has been an important place for Aboriginal Australians for thousands of years and this can be seen throughout the region–from galleries to festivals to cultural experiences.
A great place to start your educational journey in Katherine is at the Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery. Here, visitors can book a tour with Manuel Pamkal, an award-winning interpretive guide and member of the Dalabon tribe. Visitors rave about his first-hand knowledge of tribal life and his description of what it was like growing up in the bush. This unforgettable experience provides many hands-on activities that all ages will love.
“Highly recommend this experience with Manuel. He shares his culture and life experiences while showing you how to paint in the style of his people,” said one visitor. “We also managed to light a fire using fire sticks and throw spears. Kids loved the experience.”
A visit to Katherine should also include a trip to Nitmiluk National Park, a region of rugged beauty, history and culture with the gorgeous ‘Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge’ as the centrepiece. Nitmiluk Tours offer a number of cultural experiences throughout the area, including a variety of informative boat tours or a Cutta Cutta Caves guided tour through a unique tropical caves system.
As one guest said about their Nitmiluk cruise, “Excellent tour of this iconic and timeless place. Easy online booking and only a short drive from Katherine itself. The scenery speaks for itself but the tour was highlighted by the expert commentary of the indigenous guide who was very knowledgeable and pointed out things we otherwise would have missed.”
3. The Red Centre
The Red Centre, which includes the iconic town of Alice Springs, is widely considered to be the spiritual heart of Australia. With breathtaking mountain ranges that are millions of years old, this region also boasts an Aboriginal history rich in art and story.
In Alice Springs, visit the Araluen Cultural Precinct where you’ll encounter an array of galleries, museums, sculptures and sacred sites offering a fascinating glimpse into the heritage of the traditional land owners. Known as “the keeping place of stories,” the Araluen Arts Centre in the cultural precinct is a must-see. “We loved this place,” said one visitor. “Really well curated exhibition full of Aboriginal art.”
The nearby Kathleen Buzzacott Art Studio is also well worth a visit. Owned and operated by an Aboriginal family, the studio is located on the traditional Arrernte Land in the stunning West MacDonnell Ranges. Visitors are invited to join the ‘Yia Nuka Aboriginal Cultural Experience’ led by Kathleen Buzzacott herself. Learn about ancient traditions–like the art of jewelry making, seed collection and bush tucker–and how they translate into the modern world.
While in West MacDonnell National Park, consider booking a West MacDonnell Ranges Small Group Day Tour by Outback Elite Tours. This prehistoric mountain range is broken up by a series of gorges and chasms and is dotted with beautiful waterholes. Known as “Tjoritja” to the local Arrernte tribe, this area is rich with ancient creation stories, sacred sights, wildlife, and plants found nowhere else in the world
“Our guides were great company and their genuine love of the country, their vast knowledge about the local indigenous culture, the terrain, the wildlife, the geological formations and just about everything else that makes this region so inspiring…they have given us such lasting memories,” said one guest.
A trip to the Red Centre is not complete without visiting Watarrka National Park. Best known for the spectacular sheer walls of Kings Canyon, the scenic landscape of this park also includes rugged ranges, cliffs, rockholes and gorges. But, beyond the beauty is a rich Aboriginal history. The Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience is a one hour tour, during which, the knowledgeable guides provide a view into the customs of the traditional land owners’ hunter/gatherer way of life. This is a hands-on experience, with a variety of bush tucker displays.
4. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
For traditional land owners, the World Heritage-listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park holds a special cultural and spiritual significance. Uluru, one of the greatest natural wonders on Earth, can be found in this park. At 348 meters (1,142 ft.) high, this imposing monolith is believed to be about 550 million years old. Also home to the 32 weathered rock domes known as Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas), this national park should definitely be on your must-see list.
Beyond seeing the iconic rock formations with your own eyes (pictures can’t do them justice!), it is highly recommended that you learn about the ties this land has to the Aboriginal people. A great place to start is at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre where visitors can hear more about the traditional land owners, the Anangu, as well as the park’s natural environment. There are many exhibits, art galleries, displays, and several community-owned shops to explore.
“So much history of the area and the first people of Australia,” said one visitor to the Cultural Centre. “Amazing how they could live off this semi-arid land…brought tears to my eyes to watch when they were given back their land. Amazing centre. The artwork and carvings are beautiful.”
One thing not to miss is the dot painting museum at Maruku Arts. All works are created by local Anangu artists and include traditionally crafted punu (wooden carvings) as well as paintings and jewelry. Approximately 900 artists make up the collective that is Maruku and proceeds from sales benefit the artists, their families and their communities. For a unique experience, book a dot-painting workshop and learn how to create this traditional art.”
Once you’ve absorbed the cultural significance of the park, see Uluru up close and personal with a guided walk around the base at sunrise. SEIT Outback Australia will take care of all the details, from transportation to food to the small group tour itself, and you will get a sunrise experience you won’t soon forget.
As one guest said of their Uluru base walk, “SEIT are a wonderful tour group, who have educated, knowledgeable and culturally respectful guides who take the time to tell you the local stories of the Anangu people, and also the geological history of the area. It is a morning well spent, and one that will live long in my memory.”
5. The Islands of the Northern Territory
For a taste of history in the northernmost parts of Australia, head to the islands. Just 80 km (50 mi) north of Darwin, the traditional land owners of the Tiwi Islands are famous for their bark paintings and wood carvings. Hop aboard the SeaLink Ferry in Darwin for an unforgettable day tour to the Tiwi Islands. Learn about the local history, along with the unique rituals still practiced by some residents today. You can also try your hand at traditional art during a class led by local artists at Tiwi Design.
“What a special place this is with friendly people,” said one tour group member. “We were welcomed with a smoking ceremony and traditional dance. The history of the Tiwi Islands was a real eye opener. Wonderful day visiting the Church, the museum and the art centre where we were able to make our own special screen print art on a t-shirt to bring home. Loved this tour and would do it all again.”
Last, but certainly not least, if you’re looking for a truly immersive experience with the Aboriginal people of Australia, head to the remote land of Bremer Island and book a stay at the Banubanu Beach Retreat. It is an eco-sensitive tent retreat built in partnership with the traditional land owners, the Yolgnu, to ensure guests experience and appreciate the natural wonders and the culture of East Arnhem Land. With only six luxury tents (think glamping at its finest!) on the retreat, it’s almost like having your own private island. Learn how to make fishing spears and then try your hand at fishing/crabbing in the time-honored way. Or learn to weave a traditional basket and hear the meanings behind the paintings on shells and other artefacts.
“Banubanu resort is paradise. The island is beautiful, surrounded by clear, azure ocean…and stylish, comfortable safari style tents on the beach looking out towards the sea,” said one guest. “Trevor and Helen, the hosts, live on the island and were keen to share their local knowledge with us and make us feel at home. We really enjoyed their hospitality. This place is a must to visit.”