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Want to really get to know Australia? Learning about its original owners is a must. While the rest of the world may have only known about the country since the 17th century, many Aboriginal groups have called it home for over 60,000 years.
Being one of the oldest continuous living civilizations on the planet, Aboriginal culture is packed with rich traditions, beliefs, and customs. And there’s nowhere in Australia you can learn about indigenous culture quite like the Northern Territory.
My Guide To Exploring Aboriginal Culture in the Northern Territory
Aboriginal culture is an intrinsic part of the Northern Territory’s identity. You’ll find countless sacred sites, cultural centres, craft markets, and indigenous art galleries all across the NT.
In this post, I’ll outline five of the top destinations within the Northern Territory to experience Aboriginal Culture:
- Litchfield National Park
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
- Watarrka National Park
- Kakadu National Park
Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territory and one of the most exciting and fascinating places to visit in the region. Known as Garramilla by the Larrakia people, the modern city is also rich in indigenous culture.
The Larrakia (saltwater) people are the traditional owners of the wider Darwin region, and their presence can still be found today all across the northern city. In Darwin, you’ll find a strong indigenous influence in the arts, food, culture, and more. Many sites in and around Darwin also hold cultural significance to the Larrakia people, including Mindil Beach, Rapid Creek, and Stokes Hill.
How to explore Aboriginal Culture in Darwin:
- Visit the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory — home to a collection of paintings and carvings from the Northern Territory’s most amazing Aboriginal artists.
- Attend the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair — every August, you can discover a wide selection of artwork by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists at this Darwin art fair. All profits from the fair go directly to the communities.
- Browse the Aboriginal Bush Traders — check out a variety of local Aboriginal arts, crafts, jewellery, books, cosmetics, and bush tucker.
- Take a Tour of Darwin’s Street Art — the Darwin Street Art Festival has brought countless beautiful and vibrant murals to the city’s walls, many of which are by Aboriginal artists and celebrate Darwin’s traditional owners (such as the Gunimidjina Gwalwa Daraniki Mural).
- Take the Matboerrma Walk — this garden showcases 12 trees and their traditional Aboriginal uses with stories told by Larrakia people.
How to get to Darwin:
Darwin is easily accessible by flying into Darwin International Airport (DRW), the largest and busiest airport in the Northern Territory. Many regional and international airlines fly directly into Darwin. In fact, the city is often referred to as the gateway to Australia, being one of the main entry points to the country. So there’s really no excuse not to add Darwin to your Australia itinerary!
Litchfield National Park
Litchfield National Park sits around 116km south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. The large park is known for its stunning landscapes made up of cascading waterfalls, deep gorges, and ancient rainforests, as well as its diverse range of flora and fauna. It’s a popular hiking and sightseeing destination from Darwin for nature lovers.
Litchfield National Park also encompasses the traditional lands of many Aboriginal groups, including Koongurrukun, Mak Mak Marranunggu, Werat, and Warray Aboriginal people. Many of the natural features of the park are linked to the spiritual beliefs of these indigenous cultures.
How to explore Aboriginal Culture in Litchfield National Park:
- Take a tour with a local Indigenous guide — choose a guided tour of Litchfield National Park with an Aboriginal guide to learn about their people’s history and their intimate connection with the area. You’ll also find out which of the waterfalls and natural springs you can swim in and which are sacred to the indigenous Aboriginal people.
How to get to Litchfield National Park:
Most people visit Litchfield National Park on a day trip from Darwin. The park is a 90-minute drive south from Darwin along the Stuart Highway and is easiest to reach by car. Public transport to the park is limited. If you don’t have a car, booking a guided tour that departs from Darwin is your best option.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Located in the south of the Northern Territory in the country’s Red Centre, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is one of Australia’s most visited tourism destinations. But the unique landscapes and towering rock formations of Uluru are much more than just a photo opportunity for tourists.
The region is also the ancestral home of the Anangu Aboriginal people, one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world. This local tribe has been calling Uluru home for more than 60,000 years, so the area is filled with sacred Aboriginal sites.
The two most significant indigenous sites in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park are Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Uluru (named Ayers Rock by colonisers) is one of the Northern Territory’s most famous landmarks. It’s also one of the most important sacred sites for the Anangu people.
The 863m tall sandstone rock is believed to have been formed millions of years ago by ancestral beings during the ‘dreaming’. Still today, the Anangu people hold many ceremonies and rituals in the sacred caves around the rock’s base.
Kata Tjuta, meaning ‘many heads’, is a collection of 36 large domed rock formations spread over 20 square kilometres in the national park. The formations are also known as The Olgas, after Mount Olga, their highest peak.
How to explore Aboriginal culture in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park:
- Visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre — here you can delve deeper into the Anangu people, their history, traditions, laws, and connection to the land.
- Browse the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Art Galleries — at the Cultural Centre, you’ll also find a collection of art galleries with artwork by local indigenous artists. They also host regular painting and carving workshops.
- Take a walking tour with an Indigenous guide — exploring Uluru and Kata Tjuta with an Anangu guide is the best way to visit these significant sacred sites in a respectful manner while hearing about the local history, beliefs, and dreamtime stories firsthand. There are many popular hiking trails around both sites.
- Take a Maruku Dot Painting Workshop — try your hand at this Aboriginal art form with a local Anangu artist, including an introduction to Anangu tools and language.
How to get to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park:
You can reach Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park by flying into Ayers Rock/Connellan Airport (AYQ). Direct flights run from most major Australian cities, including Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.,
Once in the park itself, you’ll either need a hire car to explore (you can hire one from the airport) or to book a guided tour. The park is pretty big!
For exploring more of Australia’s Red Centre on a Northern Territory road trip, you can also fly to Alice Springs Airport (ASP). Uluru is around a 5-hour drive from Alice Springs, passing by Watarrka National Park on the way.
Watarrka National Park
Watarrka National Park is also located in the country’s Red Centre, sitting in between Uluru and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The park consists of over 1,000 square km of natural bushland, with many diverse ecosystems that range from the mountainous MacDonnell Ranges to the dunes of the Simpson Desert.
Watarrka’s traditional owners are the Aboriginal Luritja people, who have been living in the region for over 20,000 years. And their presence can certainly be found all across the region.
The best-known location in the national park is the vast Kings Canyon. Referred to by some as ‘Australia’s Grand Canyon’, the huge sandstone structure has walls towering over 100m in height. Not only is it an amazing natural landmark to admire, but Kings Canyon is also sacred to the local Luritja people, who use the site for a variety of ceremonies and rites.
How to explore Aboriginal culture in Watarrka National Park:
- Book a Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience – learn about native medicine, music arts, and traditional hunting and gathering techniques, see spear and boomerang displays, and learn the Luritja language in a Watarrka cultural experience. The company is owned by an Indigenous couple from a small community in the region.
How to get to Watarrka National Park:
Watarrka National Park sits halfway between Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, so can be reached by flying into Ayers Rock Airport or Alice Springs Airport. The park makes a great addition to a road trip around the iconic Red Centre.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park, covering an area of over 20,000 square km. The park is UNESCO World Heritage listed thanks to its rich ecological diversity, from impressive rock formations and soaring waterfalls to vast floodplains and calm winding rivers.
The traditional Aboriginal owners of Kakadu National Park are the Bininj people in the north and Mungguy people in the south. Many people from these Aboriginal groups still live within the park in small clans, watching over their ancient homeland.
Seeped in history, the large park is also where you’ll find many of the Northern Territory’s best preserved and most visited Aboriginal rock art sites, many of which date back over 620,000 years.
How to explore Aboriginal culture in Kakadu National Park:
- Visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre – learn about Kakadu’s indigenous Bininj and Mungguy people, their beliefs, stories, bloodlines, art, and the effects of colonisation in the region at this fascinating cultural centre.
- Explore the indigenous rock art sites – there are over 5,000 rock art sites in Kakadu, but the three main sites are Nourlangie, Nanguluwur, and Ubirr.
- Book a Kakadu Cultural Tour – learn about local Aboriginal arts, crafts, hunting techniques, survival skills, and more on a Kakadu cultural experience with an Aboriginal-owned and operated company.
- Visit the Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre – meet Aboriginal artists and watch local women weaving traditional baskets.
- Take a Guluyambi Cruise – take a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise with an Aboriginal guide.
How to get to Kakadu National Park:
Kakadu National Park is located to the southeast of Darwin. Depending on where in the park you’re visiting, you can reach Kakadu in around 3-4 hours by car. You’ll probably want to spend a few days road tripping around Kakadu to explore everything the park has to offer. There are plenty of fantastic places to stay, from luxury eco-hotels to campsites and campervan parking.
What’s New in the NT
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was named as one of Lonely Planet’s top three best places to see in the world for 2020, alongside Petra in Jordan and the Galapagos Islands. It was acknowledged for the destination’s sustainable practices and ability to connect travellers with Aboriginal culture.
Top Travel Tip for Exploring Aboriginal Culture in the NT
My number one travel tip for exploring Aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory is to always be respectful!
Unfortunately, there’s a long history of tourists being disrespectful at Aboriginal sites across Australia. Either intentionally or unintentionally. But this doesn’t mean you should avoid these sites altogether. It’s entirely possible to visit Aboriginal sites and explore indigenous culture while still being respectful to local communities.
How to respectfully explore Aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory:
- Choose tours with local Aboriginal guides — by choosing an indigenous tour guide, you’re contributing to the local economy, you’ll hear real and authentic Aboriginal stories, and you’ll visit sacred sites more respectfully and meaningfully.
- Ask before you take photos — taking photos of many sacred Aboriginal sites up close is disrespectful and therefore prohibited. You should always ask before you photograph an indigenous site. You should also ask before taking a photo of a person. Some indigenous groups believe that photographs take away a piece of the soul. Read more here.
- Don’t walk on Uluru — in October 2019, much to the joy of its traditional owners, it finally became prohibited to walk on Australia’s famous sandstone rock. You can walk around the base and along the marked walking trails, but don’t climb onto the rock itself.
Northern Territory – Different In Every Sense
So, what was my favourite thing about visiting the Northern Territory?
Personally, having studied Social and Cultural Anthropology at university, I’ve always been fascinated by learning about indigenous cultures. But visiting the NT made me realise that nothing you read in a book can ever compare to hearing firsthand the history and stories from the people themselves.
Touring these world-famous sacred sites with local Aboriginal guides who truly have a connection to the land is a unique experience that allows you to really feel their cultural and spiritual significance. In the NT, you’ll come to fully understand the beliefs, customs, and way of life of the planet’s oldest culture.
This guide was written in collaboration with Tourism Northern Territory. All thoughts, opinions and personal experiences are my own.
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