7 ways to experience Ancient Aboriginal culture in Australia’s Northern Territory

Nowhere in Australia has a higher proportion of Indigenous residents than the Northern Territory, making this ancient region the perfect place to explore Aboriginal culture

Team Wanderlust
01 February 2023
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Discover Northern Territory

1. Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery

Top Didj Cultural Experience and Art Gallery (Tourism NT/James Fisher)

Sitting just outside Katherine, and easily combined with a visit to spectacular Nitmiluk Gorge, the Top Didj Cultural Experience & Art Gallery has earned a sterling reputation since opening in 2009. Created with the express aim of granting travellers the chance to connect with the area’s millennia-old Aboriginal heritage, it offers hands-on activities such as spear-hurling, fire-lighting and boomerang-throwing, as well as giving a space for local Indigenous artists to share their stories.

The Art Gallery holds works from Jawoyn, Mali and Dalabon artists, as well as an extensive collection of Indigenous paintings from other parts of the Outback. Its cultural experiences, meanwhile, include the chance for travellers to spend two and a half hours making their own traditional hand-painted artworks under expert tutelage. The results are colourful and characterful, providing a handsome memento of this wonderful part of the region.

2. Maruku Arts

Maruku dot-painting workshop (Tourism NT/The Salty Travellers)

Aboriginal art doesn’t come much more authentic than that created by the Maruku collective. Owned and operated by the Anangu people, and with a past stretching back 30 years, the not-for-profit group comprises some 900 artists from the communities in and around the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The name Maruku translates literally as “belonging to black”, and the variety of artworks being made ranges from vast paintings to delicate wooden carvings.

As well as a gallery close to Uluru, and a smaller market stall in the nearby town of Yulara, the collective also offers various unforgettable cultural encounters. These include a dot-painting experience, in which you’ll learn more about traditional Aboriginal symbols and tools, and a cultural walk around Uluru, with cave art to explore and deep insight given into age-old customs and beliefs. Maruku’s work benefits not just the artists themselves, but the families and wider communities of the region.

3. GOCA and MAGNT

Gallery of Central Australia (Tourism NT/Tourism Australia)

Learning more about Aboriginal art is one of the most tangible ways of understanding the ancient culture that has underpinned life here for tens of thousands of years. You’ll find innumerable excellent Indigenous boutiques and workshops across the region, but two galleries really stand out for their quality and scope. The first is the Gallery of Central Australia, a superb showcase of artworks next to the Desert Gardens Hotel near Uluru. Items are for sale, allowing you to obtain some truly magnificent pieces.

The second is Darwin’s multi-award-winning Museum & Art Gallery Northern Territory. This large bayside venue covers multiple aspects of local art and culture and has a dedicated and extensive collection of Indigenous artworks, including pieces by big-name artists. It’s also home to the prestigious annual National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards – the exhibition generally runs from August to January, and makes for a hugely rewarding visit.

4. Tiwi Islands

Meet the locals of the Tiwi Islands (Tourism Australia/James Fisher)

Lying some 80km off the Darwin coastline, the islands of Bathurst and Melville – jointly known as the Tiwi Islands – are one of the most intriguing destinations in the Northern Territory. The islanders are famed for their arts and crafts, as well as their unbridled passion for Australian Rules football, and due to their offshore location the islands had only limited contact with mainland inhabitants until the 19th century. This in turn gives them a unique cultural appeal, as well as a distinct language.

Boat tours out from Darwin allow you to experience the individuality of the two islands, from their traditional fishing lodges and scenic seascapes to the vibrant artworks, fabrics and textiles that the local artists are famous for. Each March sees visitors flock across from the mainland to the island’s Aussie Rules Football Grand Final – an unforgettably exuberant experience if you can make it. It’s also the only day of the year when visitors don’t require travel permits.

5. Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Tours

Enjoy an insightful tour (Tourism NT/Archie Sartracom)

For an immersive and authentic Aboriginal experience, this is a brilliant option. Located close to Kings Canyon, on the edge of Wattarka National Park, Karrke is an Indigenous-owned outfit in a tiny Aboriginal community on ancestral lands. Taking its name from the Aranda word for the western bowerbird (a pink-crested species that frequents the area), Karrke aims to preserve – and, of course, share – cultural knowledge and local heritage.

Its award-winning Aboriginal Cultural Tours give the opportunity to have a personal and in-depth Indigenous experience. On a guided walk you’ll learn about bush tucker – including the witchetty grub – and traditional medicine, as well as learning how to decipher dot paintings, how edible seeds can be found and ground using rocks, and how wooden weapons and necklaces are able to be carved from local trees. The owner-guides are friendly and approachable.

6. Arnhem Land

Discover Arnhem Land with a local guide (Tourism NT/Pendulum Productions)

It’s astonishing that Arnhem Land – a staggeringly beautiful 97,000 sq km wilderness lying east of Kakadu – remains relatively little known among UK travellers. It plays home to around 12,000 Aboriginal inhabitants, a tiny population given its size, and its vast plains and pristine escarpments exude a rare magic. By joining the 13-day wilderness journeys offered by Arnhem Spirit, the only tour operator with the permission to guide you across the top of Arnhem Land, you’ll be treated to a remote, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

You’ll venture through sacred lands, stopping to meet far-flung communities and to view ancient rock art, and you’ll also get the opportunity to try your hand at barramundi-fishing. This is a part of the country that few travellers are ever able to see, let alone to explore at length, and the vistas here have to be experienced to be believed. As Indigenous adventures go, it’s hard to top.

7. Ancient rock art

Rock art at Ubirr (Tourism NT/Helen Orr)

There’s something utterly humbling about standing in front of ancient Indigenous rock art. More than 5,000 known art sites are located in Kakadu alone, with infinitely more than that across the Northern Territory as a whole. They depict a whole array of subjects and styles, from handprints to animal-shaped etchings, and some stretch back to as long as 40,000 years ago. Collectively they conjure life and meaning into the customs and Dreamtime stories of the oldest living culture on the planet.

Knowing where to go, and how to read the art when you get there, is not always straightforward, so it’s advisable to get a guide to help you make the most of the experience. Visiting the likes of Ubirr and Nourlangie – both of which are popular rock art sites in Kakadu – can be truly rewarding, but these headline-grabbing locations are merely an entry point into an endlessly fascinating world of prehistoric art.

Book now with Trailfinders: The No.1 tour operator to Australia

It pays to book with the experts. With extensive experience of the Northern Territory’s many highlights and with a knowledgeable and friendly team on-hand to find your perfect holiday, Trailfinders will help you to uncover the very best of this part of Australia. To book call 020 7795 4551 or visit trailfinders.com

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