Immerse yourself in one of the nation’s richest Indigenous heartlands. From learning about bush medicine to viewing ancient rock art, here are some of Arnhem Land’s most unforgettable experiences.

WORDS Kerry van der Jagt

East Arnhem Land is a palette of peacock, olive and ochre. Crinkled cliffs collapse into a froth of sea. Ancient rivers fork and pulse like arteries. Palm trees clutch at an enamel blue sky. Formed by ancestral beings, whose journeys created the rivers, rocks and islands, this landscape has sustained the Yolngu people for more than 60,000 years.

To walk on Country with a Traditional Owner is to connect with an ancient system of kinship that is deeply rooted in the landscape. A landscape criss-crossed by Songlines; those invisible threads upon which the creation ancestors once travelled.

Others, too, have travelled here; from the early Macassan traders to the British Navy, who attempted to establish two settlements on the Cobourg Peninsula in the mid-19th century. Remnants of these visitors can still be found.

Through consultation with Traditional Owners and the Northern Land Council, Outback Spirit has developed a tour that is truly unique. A journey through Arnhem Land is more than a holiday – it’s a life-changing adventure.

WELCOME TO COUNTRY

Gove Peninsula is one of the most culturally significant regions in Australia, where a moiety-based kinship system governs all aspects of life. The word moiety means half, and to the Yolngu people, everything in their world is divided into one of two connecting halves: Dhuwa and Yirritja. Rivers, rocks, plants, animals, even the seasonal rains fall into either Dhuwa or Yirritja, creating the Yolngu universe and culture.

Beachside smoking ceremonies, healing demonstrations, conversations on bush medicine; these are the ways the Yolngu people welcome guests to their sacred land.

It is an honour and a privilege to participate in such deep cultural traditions – experiences which are only available to small-group tours.

The two balancing halves of the Yolngu world can also be witnessed through the region’s unique artwork. Visit the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre in Yirrkala to see bark paintings, weavings, and larrakitj (memorial poles). Purchase with the knowledge that your contribution will assist in the preservation of culture and the self determination of Yolngu communities.

If the town of Yirrkala sounds familiar, it’s where the Aboriginal Land Rights Movement began, when the ‘bark petition’ was sent to the Australian Parliament on August 14, 1963.

For history of a different kind, Macassan Beach tells the story of traders from the island of Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia). From perhaps as early as the 16th century to the beginning of the 1900s, the Macassans sailed here each December to trade with Indigenous Australian people for trepang (sea cucumber). While the Macassans did not settle in Arnhem Land, they did have a long-lasting influence on Yolngu life.

TEN CANOES

The Arafura Swamp is one of the largest paperback swamps in Australia. Together with its catchments and sea Country, it supports up to 300,000 water birds at any one time.

Travel by boat and learn from a Yolngu guide about the swamp’s cultural significance. Dusky skies, plumes of mist and watery light make it an otherworldly experience.

A 4WD safari in a luxury five-star Mercedes Benz coach gets you up close to the mosaic of woodland, grasses and sedge eco-systems that fringe the freshwater wetland. Keep your eyes peeled for magpie geese, egrets, brolgas and crimson finches.

If the days aren’t magical enough, nights at the exclusive Murwangi Safari Camp, which is only accessible to Outback Spirit guests, take the experience to a whole other level.

Situated on the banks of the Arafura Swamp, the tented safari camp delivers a premium yet low-impact landing after a day of adventure. Relax on your deck as the night sky transforms into a river of stars. Enjoy a fine meal at the fully licensed restaurant. Then retire to your safari suite, complete with beautiful furnishings, a comfortable bed, ensuite bathrooms and air-conditioning.

WATER WORLD

Arnhem Land has a long list of must-do experiences; for anglers, landing a barramundi would be top of the charts. Landing one at Outback Spirit’s Arnhem Land Barramundi Lodge (Barra Lodge to those in the know) would ensure a lifetime of bragging rights.

Located 17km out of the township of Maningrida, the lodge holds exclusive fishing licences for various waterways and coastal areas, including the renowned Liverpool and Tomkinson rivers.

A fishing adventure here, on a fully surveyed Ocean Master vessel, is the stuff of daydreams. Magical days melt into relaxing evenings at luxe safari camps and wilderness lodges. But dream no more as your expert fishing guide reveals the secret spots where the big barra are known to bite. Alternatively, if you’re more ‘rest and relax’ than ‘rod and reel’, a quiet corner under the vessel’s shady canopy is the place to spot white-bellied sea eagles, monitor lizards and blue-winged kookaburras.

Arnhem Land Barramundi Lodge takes R&R even further, with 12 luxury, air-conditioned safari suites spaced along the Tomkinson River floodplains. Meals are served on the escarpment balcony, with views across the river.

The 16 clans of Kunibidji Country are known for their artwork, which is bold, political and enduring. Visits to Maningrida Arts and Culture centre, Bábbarra Women’s Centre and the Djómi Museum highlight the rich cultural traditions of the region.

WHERE THE WALLS TALK

It took 600 million years to create the honeycomb caves and weathered ‘catacombs’ of Mount Borradaile, but a two-night stay will reveal its deepest secrets. Led by a knowledgeable guide, you will discover some of the most stunning Indigenous rock art galleries in the world. From rainbow serpents to x-ray art, extinct species to creation ancestors, the art tells the story of tens of thousands of years of human experience. Standing here feels like you’ve passed through a portal to ancient times.

A gallery depicting sailing ships and sailors will catapult you to first European contact. The best part is that the descendants of the people who created this art are still around to share it.

Mount Borradaile is owned and managed by its traditional Aboriginal owners. Guests of the lodge at Davidson’s Arnhem Land Safaris have privileged access to the 700 sq km site, via an honorary custodian status conferred by the Traditional Owners.

A LOST CITY

Just when you think Arnhem Land has no more surprises, out pops what looks like the remains of a lost civilisation. A mini Machu Picchu perhaps? An Angkor Wat? No, these ruins are the long abandoned houses constructed by Cornish stonemasons. Known as Victoria Settlement, it was a failed attempt by the British Navy to secure a northern outpost in what must be one of the most inhospitable and remote places on earth. Built in 1838 on the shores of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, it was abandoned after 11 disastrous years.

Mistake after mistake – stuffy stone houses complete with indoor fireplaces (imagine the joy such heating would bring in the Top End), fragile British crops more suited to glass houses, and a hospital without windows or airflow. An obelisk and plaque commemorate the 58 souls buried in the cemetery of this forsaken settlement.

There’s no such hardship at Outback Spirit’s Seven Spirit Bay wilderness lodge, the perfect base-camp for exploring more of the Cobourg Marine Park via the lodge’s state-of-the-art fishing vessel. Nights spent in your elegant villa give way to days exploring the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park or Rainbow Beach by 4WD.

On your last afternoon, take to the skies for a 45-minute scenic flight across Van Diemen Gulf to Darwin. Watch as the colours below unfold and the sky, horizon and ocean become one.

It’s a moment of Arnhem Land magic, reserved for the lucky few.

 

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