Imagine an untamed wilderness of primordial swamp and savannah, a climate with six seasons, forests teeming with exotic wildlife and hundreds of species of tropical birds crowding the blue skies. Seas, rivers and lakes brim over with unique marine life and water is everywhere. It's 97,000 square kilometres in size but with only 16,000 inhabitants who represent the oldest living culture on earth. Welcome to Arnhem Land, Australia's last great frontier where every day and every journey can be an adventure.
Travelling independently on a rugged 4WD safari with your mates, treating the kids to a croc-spotting mangrove cruise or taking a massage with your partner at a tropical spa, Arnhem Land guarantees an once-in-a-lifetime experience for the intrepid traveller.
Arnhem Land is private land and entry permits from the Northern Land Council are required. For this reason, many visitors enter Arnhem Land on organised tours. If you are travelling to Arnhem Land on a tour, most operators will organise your entry permits, however, check with the company when you book. For self-drivers, the main entry points into Arnhem Land are Jabiru (to the west), Nhulunbuy (Gove) (to the east), Maningrida (to the north) and Katherine (to the south). But you must have a valid entry permit. Go to the Northern Land Council website www.nlc.org.au
Exploring Arnhem Land is mainly through three regions, north-west Arnhem Land (including Cobourg), the northern wetlands and the far eastern Gove Peninsula.
Award-winning Seven Spirit Bay on Cobourg's Cape Don is a contemporary wilderness lodge, but for an even closer-to-nature experience, there are campsites and self-contained "habitats" at Smith Point or Cobourg Beach Huts, while serious fishing enthusiasts book the old Lighthouse Keepers homestead.
Visitors to Garig Gunak Barlu and Cobourg Marine Park can relax on coastal walks or a day trip to the colonial ruins of Victoria Settlement and Fort Wellington. Further afield, camp in the bush and visit one of Australia's most important rock art sites, Mt Borradaile, guided by Max and Philippa of Davidson's Arnhem Land Safaris.
Surprisingly, the second area of Arnhem Land best suited to travellers is even more isolated, the Gove Peninsula. Reachable with a permit by road, visitors usually fly directly into Nhulunbuy.
- You need a permit to visit Arnhem Land. Most tour companies organise permits. Independent visitors must obtain relevant permits from the Northern Land Council, a simple process. Contact the Northern Land Council, PO Box 1222, Darwin City, 0800. Ph: (08) 8920 5100 or (08) 8920 5178. Fax: (08) 8945 2633.
- Certain areas are restricted because of local lore and communities can close due to ceremony or death. When not staying in hotels, only camp in designated campsites. Never wander from your itinerary without organising a permit. Pay attention to advice, treat your hosts and their land with respect and memories of an amazing Arnhem Land adventure are guaranteed.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The award-winning Australian movie Ten Canoes was filmed on location in Arafura Swamp, the largest wooded wetlands in Australia. Traditional landowners now permit guided tours into these remote, ancient wetlands, a paradise for birdwatchers and lovers of nature. Nearby Ramingining is a cultural hub, where art centre Bula'Bula maintains Yolngu culture. Traditional bark painting and basket-weaving techniques of Northern Territory's most prominent artists are featured and available for sale. Phone in advance and art centre staff can help arrange permits to visit the centre. The following websites have more information: www.bulabula-arts.com or www.northernaustralia.com or www.tencanoes.com.au.
Tour operators here will introduce you to local Yolngu communities and culture. Bawaka is an innovative day tour spent with Timmy Burrarwanga and his family. This region is also home to the annual Garma Festival, a hugely important cultural gathering.At Yirrkala, south of Nhulunbuy, meeting indigenous artists is possible at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka. Arnhem Land is more than beautiful savannah sunsets; the real reward is in encountering her people and culture.
Between Gove in the east and Cobourg in the west are vast savannah and wetlands, the northern coastal areas which are home to Australia's most remote communities. Small charter planes fly in, but the truly adventurous will choose the 4WD tracks to Maningrida and Ramingining.
Culture here is strong these are the lands of world-famous bark painters David Malangi and Lofty, where women weavers tell stories in baskets and belief permeates the landscape and daily life. Local guides will talk of Mimih spirits living in the rocks, Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent and Yawk Yawk water spirits.
Traditional hunting techniques and bush survival secrets are happily passed on to visitors. In addition to fishing tours, Barramundi Nature Lodge in Maningrida invites guests to spend the day in the mangroves, spearfishing barramundi with local Aboriginal fishermen. Or join their boat to the isolated First and Second Islands, eating oysters fresh from the rocks and cooking barramundi over coals on the beach.
A challenging feast for body and soul, Arnhem Land is a rare chance to get back to basics without leaving home, a uniquely Australian journey.
Must see… must do
Go natural: Take a bushcraft tour, discover bush medicines and traditional tucker, then spend the afternoon spearfishing or catching mud crabs. Arnhem Land Barramundi Nature Lodge: www.barralodge.com.au.
Make music: Take lessons and buy an authentic Yidaki (didjeridu), Arnhem Land's gift to all, at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre: www.yirrkala.com or Maningrida Arts and Culture Centre: www.maningrida.com. And to hear some spectacular didjeridu performances, the Garma Festival is a must-see annual event. For more information, go to www.garma.telstra.com.
Women's business: Join a women-only workshop teaching the skills of creating stories in woven pandanus, dyed with ochres collected by you that morning, at Arnhem land Weavers: www.arnhemweavers.com.au.
Catch of the day: Try your hand at deep-sea angling with knowledgeable locals. Escape Sports Fishing Lodge, Groote Eyelandt: www. escapesportfishing.com. Or Arnhem land Barramundi Nature Lodge: www.barralodge.com.au. Or Seven Spirit Bay: www.sevenspiritbay.com.
Get into the spirit: Meditate on ancient rock art while your indigenous host relates the story: www.injalak.com. Or Lord's Kakadu and Arnhem Land Safaris: www.lords-safaris.com. Or The Arnhemlander: www.arnhemlander.com.au.
Golden glow: From colonial stone ruins, watch the sun rise over a calm golden Arafura Sea at Fort Wellington, Cobourg Peninsula.
Get arty: Meet artists as they work. Hear their story first-hand and return home with a meaningful piece of art to remind you of Arnhem Land. Bula'Bula Arts, Ramingining: www.bulabula-arts.com. Visit Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, famous since the 1930s for bark paintings. Visit the remote coastal community of Maningrida and pick up a traditional hollow log lorrkon, richly painted with clan motifs and cross hatching. Pay a visit to Injalak art centre to watch artists at work and take a guided walking tour to Gunbalanya Billabong, Injalak Hill or Stone Country, visiting rock-art sites high above the flood plains.
Go west: Take a tour of the Mikinj Valley in the west, with its sandstone outcrops, art sites and cool billabongs.
Where to stay
Accommodation options are limited but diverse in Arnhem Land. Most 4WD safari tours include camping, but there are upmarket wilderness resorts, some with spa facilities.
Throughout Arnhem Land there are also hunting and fishing lodges and community-owned dwellings.
For a full list of accommodation options, check out Tourism NT and Tourism Top End websites.
By water: With indigenous-owned Guluyambi Cruises, you'll voyage along the magnificent East Alligator River past ancient rock-art sites, while learning survival techniques and hearing traditional mythology.
By air: Pilot Helen Read operates Didgeri Air Art Tours and is a uniquely knowledgeable guide.
On the road: You can go on 4WD safari on the 150km track from Oenpelli. Impassable during summer months, only a limited number of permits are issued for this rugged trip.
The Garma Festival, held annually in August, is a colourful celebration of dance, music and ceremony, organised by the Yothu Yindi Foundation.
Sports fishermen with a lust for barramundi and marlin can enter a number of high-profile competitions during the tourist season. The Boroloola Barra Classic is held in early April, the NBT Gamefishing Association Championship in September and the Walkabout Lodge XXXX Gold Billfish Challenge in mid-October.
See turtles laying their eggs or dugong swimming around remote Groote Eylandt off Arnhem Land's seldom-visited east coast.
Picture perfect: At Oenpelli (Gunbalanya) in western Arnhem Land, let a guide walk you to the top of Injalak Hill early in the morning, while it's still cool, for a breathtaking photo opportunity of the misty savannah floodplains and Arnhem Land Escarpment. As the sun warms up, visit rock-art sites on your descent.
Look and learn: Learn about the Baby Dreaming at Gudjekbinj or check out the dance routines of local youth at the travelling Croc Festival at different times of the year.
Nature calling: One of the most remote coastal communities in Australia, Maningrida offers the best barramundi fishing in the world. This little documented region is also the new frontier for birdwatchers; spotting up to 200 species in a few days is not unusual! One of Arnhem Land's most famous centres of bark paintings, Maningrida is waiting to be discovered just 50km off the main Oenpelli- Nhulunbuy Road.