Stretching back over 50,000 years, Indigenous Australia’s culture is the oldest living culture on Earth and as custodians of the land, Aboriginal Australians’ stories describe the birth of the continent itself.
A deeply spiritual culture the stories are based on the concept of The Dreaming - when the spirits of the ancestors came to the earth in human form and created the landscape; rocks, trees, plants, animals and the humans that inhabit it, before morphing into sacred objects and stars.
Consequently when you explore Indigenous Australia you will find that the landscape itself tells stories of the travels of the Ancestor Spirits. And these journeys are the foundations of the tales of The Dreaming.
If you are seeking to learn about this ancient place and to gain an insight into the land and the animals who inhabit it, one of the riches ways to explore Australia, is through the history and culture of the Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal guides can teach you about ancient rock paintings or the healing power of nature, show you magical fishing spots to cast your line or places to eat bush tucker under starlit skies. They will describe the stories of dot painting, weaving and the rock art that adorns many clandestine caves.
We all love the rich red Northern Territories as it’s home to the glorious Uluru and it’s cousin Kata Tjuta. It’s also home to Alice Springs, a mid point in the mammoth explorers highway and a great place to launch expeditions into the Red Centre Way. But Alice is also a hub of art galleries and Aboriginal Culture.
Early Aboriginal art adorns rock faces around the landscape, some more than a whopping 30,000 years old. But other media used to tell the stories were body painting and ground designs. However the impermanence of these other art forms were adapted with the introduction of paints and canvas in the early 70’s. Consequently galleries were set up to display the artworks. You can explore for yourself and wander down the gallery lined Todd Mall, or pop into Papunya Tula Gallery which is owned and run by the Aboriginal people from the Western Desert, predominately of the Luritja/Pintupi language. The style of the Papunya Tula painting stems from the artists knowledge of traditional sand and body painting, but to enable you to be able to buy a piece to add to your collection, sacred symbols have been removed from the paintings.
Weaving is another traditional and expressive art form and the Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a wonderful collective of more than 400 Aboriginal women artists from 26 remote communities on the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of central Australia. The collective was established to enable women in these remote communities to earn their own income and keep the fibre art alive. You can peruse the works that include intricate animal sculptures, colourful baskets and delightful seed jewellery.
Moving on from Alice, you’ll find that the Northern Territory is particularly rich with a large number of rock art galleries illustrating the cultural and spiritual links between the people and the land.
The Kakadu National Park is host to one of largest collections of rock art – or gunbim - in the region, with more than 5,000 easy to reach sites including rock art that is up to 20,000 years old. The paintings in the National Park provide a record of aboriginal life and illustrate the close relationship the Bininj/Mungguy people share with their land and spiritual heritage.
Having an Aboriginal guide will bring all of the stories to life as they translate the wonders of these cultural treasures. So do make sure you have lots of time as there’s loads to explore.
There are two main galleries in Kakadu, Ubirr and Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), which host a broad range of artworks from naturalistic paintings of animals, traditional x-ray art and paintings depicting early contact with Europeans.
Whilst at the Burrungui (Nourlangie) rock, at the main site – Anbangang Gallery - you can witness Lightening Man, Namarrgon, one of the revered Dreamtime Ancestors who manages the fierce lightening storms that come with every wet season. And then tucked away down a 1.7km wander is Nanguluwu with paintings of European settlers in the form of a two-masted sailing ship, complete with dingy and anchor chain.
The paintings and the process of the paintings also illustrates the intricacy of the Aboriginal culture. Certain paintings can only be mastered by specific people, for instance, the sorcery paintings can only be painted by the holder of the magic knowledge. Which makes this glorious place even more enchanting.
Continuing our expedition into the Northern Territories we enter Arnhem Land. Situated next to Kakadu and border by the sea, Arnhem Land is so far north that it has the benefit of generally being left alone. Consequently it is steeped in Aboriginal culture throughout its vast tracks of glorious wilderness. Traditional owners of the land – The Yolngu people - have lived in this area for over 60,000 years and hold strong connections to the land, both spiritually and culturally. And interestingly, The Yolngu also created the famous didgeridoo.
Cutting across from Kakadu you’ll come acoss Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) where you watch artists crafting their baskets and paintings in the Injalak Art and Craft Centre.
You can then join a tour led by an indigenous guide to hear The Dreamtime stories and to see the rock art on Injalak Hill. Rock art in the large shelter that comprises the main gallery is dated from 100 to 8,000 years of age. And probably due to it’s continuous habitation, it is famous for having one of the most extensive rock art collections in the area.
The tour will visit more rock art galleries which display paintings of Yingana or Warramurruggunddji, (the Creation Mother) and Andungun a namarnde, who is believed to be an evil spirit who kills and then eats people, (as was told to Charles Mountford).
To finish up, spend your evening with a bush tucker tour that will have you dining under the stars and teach you how the people live off the land.
Other renouned indigenous art centres to visit on your Arnhem roadtrip, are the Marrawuddi Gallery, the Maningrida Arts and Culture community owned gallery on the outskirts of the Gove Peninsulas Nhulunbuy, and Elcho Island Art and Craft. Not only can you watch local artists at their work, but gain a deeper understanding of the practice and meaning behing the art works.
And if you’re in the mood to mix art with beach culture, make sure you take a tour with local indigenous guides who will lead you to the glorious beaches and dive spots of Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem).