Australia’s top eight Indigenous travel destinations | Marcia Langton

The Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Stretching for more than 2,300km along the Queensland coast and covering 35m hectares, it features brilliantly coloured corals living beneath aquamarine waters, a profusion of tropical islands and a wealth of marine creatures and birdlife.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef region, and there are significant cultural sites on many of its islands. The strong ongoing links between the traditional owners and their sea country was recognised in the Great Barrier Reef’s world heritage listing and contributes to its outstanding universal value.

The cultural and ecological knowledge of the traditional owners will be essential to delivering the Reef 2050 Plan, which is the blueprint for protecting and managing the reef and designed to be implemented in a collaborative partnership.

For more information, visit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

The Garma festival, Northern Territory

  • The red flag dancers from Numbulwar kick off the bunggul at the annual Garma festival in Arnhem Land. Photograph: Glenn Campbell

This world-renowned festival is an extraordinary cultural event. Over four days the Yolŋu people of north-east Arnhem Land share their knowledge and culture. A celebration of visual art, dance, music and ancient storytelling, Garma aims to foster economic opportunities for the Yolŋu people through community development, education, self-governance, enterprise and youth leadership. As well as discussing the challenges and solutions to economic issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Garma also aims to strengthen, preserve and maintain ancient Aboriginal culture and foster a greater understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Don’t miss… the evening bunggul dance: From 4 pm until sunset, significant traditional ceremonies are performed by men, women and children from the various clans of the Yolŋu people. The performances showcase the unique traditional ceremonies of north-east Arnhem Land and combine breathtaking song and dance.

Where: Gulkula site, 30 minutes from Nhulunbuy on the Central Arnhem Hwy. Airnorth runs direct flights to Nhulunbuy from Darwin and Cairns.

Green ants and slow-roasted buffalo: tourists get real taste of Kakadu

When: Annually in August

Cost: Adult: $1,815; student or child: $1,056. Tickets cover an all-inclusive package deal. For registered guests, airport shuttles, camping (with assembled tent, sleeping bag and air mattress) and all meals are provided, as well as access to basic tea and coffee-making facilities.

For more information, visit Yothu Yindi Foundation

Uluru–Kata Tjuta national park, Northern Territory

Located in the red heart of the Central Desert, the ancient forms of Uluru and Kata Tjuta lie geographically, spiritually and symbolically at the centre of the Australian continent. Rising majestically above the red-sand plains, they dominate the landscape and are shrouded in myth and mystery.

  • Kata Tjuta in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park in the Northern Territory.

For the local people, Uluru and Kata Tjuta are far more than just rock formations. They make up a living cultural landscape that is sacred to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara Anangu people. On 26 October 1985, Uluru and Kata Tjuta were handed back to the Anangu people, the traditional owners of the land, in what remains one of the most significant moments in Australia’s Aboriginal land rights movement.

Uluru is a site of ceremonial significance for many Aboriginal groups of central Australia, including the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara Anangu people, who have lived in the region for at least 10,000 years. There are more than 40 sacred Aboriginal sites in the area where ancestral spirits still reside, making the land deeply important to the cultural identity of the Anangu. The Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara people still abide by ancient laws and traditions, referred to as Tjukurpa, which provide the foundation to their unique culture.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Indigenous people moved around this land, which varied from mulga flats and sand dunes to rocky hills and pockets of vegetation around the base of rocks such as Uluru. Each of these environments was used at different times of the year, depending on the food and water available. Water was present in claypans, rock holes, soaks and springs.

Around the base of Uluru are rock shelters and caves, decorated with hundreds of rock paintings – some executed as late as the 1940s. But the ravages of weather and over-visitation by tourists in the past have resulted in severe deterioration. The art sites at Kata Tjuta, where there are more engravings than paintings, are better preserved.

Today, Aboriginal people of central Australia call themselves Anangu, and some of the most important cultural areas in the park are out of bounds to non-Indigenous people.

Uluru itself is a scared site. The Anangu people ask all visitors to respect their cultural and spiritual beliefs and refrain from climbing the rock. From 26 October 2019, coinciding with the 34th year of the return of Uluru to its Traditional Owners, climbing the rock will be banned.

Where: The park is 440km south-west of Alice Springs. The drive to Uluru–Kata Tjuta from Alice Springs takes roughly five hours via the Stuart and Lasseter highways. The highways are sealed roads, so a 4WD is not required. Jetstar, Virgin Airlines and Qantas fly to Uluru.

Permits: A park-use fee is charged per person. This is valid for three days; annual tickets are also available. All tickets are payable at the park entry station.

Best time to visit: May to October, when the average daytime temperatures range from 23–31C, and night temperatures range from 7–13C.

For more information, visit Parks Australia Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Kakadu national park, Northern Territory

World heritage-listed Kakadu national park is a landscape of unsurpassed beauty, with world-renowned wetlands attracting extraordinary numbers of birds, thundering waterfalls that plunge from towering escarpments into natural rock pools and open woodlands that offer a refuge for a wide range of native animals.

  • Magpie geese in Kakadu national park. Photograph: Theo Allofs/ Getty Images

Kakadu is a landscape of living culture. Rock art of the region indicates Aboriginal people have occupied Kakadu for between 40,000 and 60,000 years, the longest record of continual human occupation of any area on Earth. The rock-art galleries show that early Indigenous groups had a strong culture based on deep spiritual beliefs. This spiritual connection to the land is recognised globally in the world heritage status of Kakadu.

The name Kakadu comes from an Aboriginal language, Gagudju, spoken in the north of the park at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1978 the Gagudju people were granted title of their land, which they then leased for use as a national park. Kakadu is jointly managed by the Bininj/Mungguy people and Parks Australia.

Kakadu: the Crocodile Dundee tour of Australia’s wetland wonderland

Although Gagudju is no longer spoken by Aboriginal people in the area, surviving dialects include Kunwinjku (in the north), Gundjeihmi (in the centre) and Jawoyn (in the south). Aboriginal people of the region know themselves as Bininj (pronounced Bin-ning). Languages, kinship, ceremonies and caring for country have been passed on through the generations from the time of creation when important ancestral beings crossed the landscape and created the plants, animals, landforms and the people who live there today.

A major creator acknowledged in the region is the Rainbow Serpent, which is known Australia-wide by various Aboriginal groups. As the Rainbow Serpent moved through the land she formed the features of the landscape in Kakadu, such as waterways, waterholes and hills. Her role in creating the cultural obligations of the Bininj/Mungguy people is very important, as is her creation of the plant and animal life cycles and the seasonal changes.

Don’t miss … Burrungkuy area: In this area is the picturesque Anbangbang billabong and the renowned Burrungkuy rock, a vast, ancient rock-art gallery and an inspirational place that projects a sense of how Indigenous people once lived.

Where: It is 235km east of Darwin to the Bowali visitor centre, one entrance of the park. Drive from Darwin via Stuart Highway, then Arnhem Highway; from Pine Creek via Stuart Highway then Kakadu Highway.

Best time to visit: During the drier months from May to September the whole park is generally open. During the wet season, some of the park is inaccessible due to the water. While the weather can be very hot and humid during this season, it is an incredible opportunity to see waterfalls turn into gushing torrents and watch thunderstorms roll in over the park.

Tips for visitors: Saltwater crocodiles populate the rivers and coastal areas of Kakadu. Visitors are warned to stay out of the water, unless there is clear advice to the contrary. The only places likely to be free of these dangerous reptiles are located up in the escarpment country.

For more information visit Kakadu national park

The Laura dance festival, Cape York

  • A dancer from the Injinoo community looks on during the Laura Aboriginal dance festival. Photograph: Mark Kolbe

The Laura dance festival is a celebration of Aboriginal culture held in western Yalanji country in north Queensland. It is also a vibrant and unique way for tourists to experience this ancient and ongoing culture through powerful performances of the songs and dances of many Indigenous nations from the Cape York region. This biennial festival, which runs over the weekend that marks the end of June and start of July, is one of Queensland’s largest cultural gatherings. It has attracted crowds of visitors from Australia and around the world for the last 25 years.

Where: Held 15km south of Laura, at the Ang-Gnarra festival grounds, or meeting grounds, of Cape York.

When: The next festival will be in June 2019. Bookings are essential.

Cost: Approximately $100 per person; additional charges for camping.

For more information, visit the Laura dance festival

Purnululu national park, Western Australia

Purnululu national park lies deep in the rugged east Kimberley region, protecting one of the world’s natural wonders, the Bungle Bungle Range. The remarkable tiger-striped, beehive-shaped rock domes have become, somewhat belatedly, one of the iconic images of the Australian outback, and are appreciated worldwide for their exceptional beauty. The region also holds sacred Aboriginal Dreaming stories and a rich culture that has maintained connections to this land for at least 20,000 years.

Today, the local Aboriginal people maintain a strong connection and association to the ancient landscape, which holds the stories of their Dreaming. In the Kija Aboriginal language, purnululu means “sandstone”.

Aboriginal cultural heritage: The area is traditionally the land of the Kija people of the eastern Kimberley region, and their neighbours the Jaru, a group belonging to the desert region. The Kija people put up fierce resistance to the pastoralists. They killed the cattle (livestock numbers on the Ord river grasslands had reached 50,000 by 1902) and in retaliation there were brutal massacres of local Aboriginal people and punitive police raids. At the height of the violence, many of the Kija took refuge in the Bungle Bungles.

They used notched tree trunks to scale the cliffs and pulled these makeshift ladders up afterwards to prevent pursuit. To try to stop the livestock killing, the government provided some refuges and food, but did not stop the land and cultural dispossession, which continued into the 1970s.

Today, descendants of the park’s traditional owners live in population centres such as Halls Creek and Warmun. The people of Warmun have worked extensively on language and literacy programs for schools and have produced a large amount of teaching material. Some help manage the national park, with a number of Aboriginal people employed as rangers and guides.

Where: 300km south of Kununurra. The road into the park from the main highway is the very rough Spring Creek track and is accessible by 4WD only. Kununurra to the ranger station takes 5 hours travelling time; from Halls Creek allow 4 hours.

When: The park is only open between April and the end of December (weather permitting).

Cost: Park entry fees apply.

For more information, visit Purnululu national park

Dreamtime at the G, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne, Victoria

  • Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers evades Jayden Short of the Tigers during the 2017 AFL round 10 Dreamtime at the G match between the Richmond Tigers and the Essendon Bombers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Photograph: Adam Trafford/Getty Images

Dreamtime at the G is held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) during the Indigenous round of the Australian Football League (AFL) season.

Typically held in round 10, in the last week of May, the Indigenous round commemorates all the Indigenous players who have contributed to the hugely popular sport of football. It is a way for all Australians to respect and pay tribute to the Indigenous presence within football and sport.

The round itself is named in honour of Sir Doug Nicholls, an inspiring person and former football player who represented the spirit of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

While there are many games played in the Indigenous round, the match between Richmond and Essendon football clubs is the most highly anticipated. The day starts with the customary “Long Walk” where attendees of the match walk from Federation Square along Birrarung Marr to the MCG. The atmosphere is that of unity and excitement when Australians from all backgrounds take part in the Long Walk in commemoration of former Aboriginal Essendon football player, Michael Long, who walked to Canberra to call for the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. The game itself is opened with traditional dancing and a smoking ceremony conducted by local Wurundjeri elders.

Where: Melbourne Cricket Ground

When: Usually held in the last week of May

Cost: Ticket prices vary

For more information, visit the MCG

Great Sandy national park, Queensland

Great Sandy national park comprises two parts. Cooloola is on the coast between Rainbow beach in the north and Noosa Heads in the south. K’gari (Fraser Island) takes in nearly all of the world’s largest sand island, north of Rainbow beach. The famous coloured sands, pristine blue water, plentiful marine life and lush rainforests are some of the features visitors will find at Great Sandy national park, one of Queensland’s largest national parks.

Aboriginal cultural heritage: Aboriginal people have lived in the Great Sandy area for at least 5,000 years, according to archaeological evidence, but they may have been there far longer. The Butchulla people lived on K’gari (Fraser Island) and the nearby mainland. Their heritage sites of spiritual, social and archaeological significance are found on the island, as well as their middens, artefacts, scarred trees and campsites.

The Butchulla led a complex, self-sufficient way of life intrinsically connected to the seasons, the land, and life on it and in the surrounding ocean. Soon after European settlement of the area in the 1840s the Indigenous people were forced off their land, and by the late 1800s their lifestyle had been destroyed and the Aboriginal people from around the region were relocated to a mission on Fraser Island. Today, descendants of these people who live in the area are working to protect and share their culture and way of life, which is so closely tied to this beautiful and bountiful natural environment.

Where: Cooloola lies between Noosa Heads and Rainbow Beach. Noosa Heads is about 155km (about a three-hour drive) and Rainbow Beach is about 240km (about a three-hour drive) north of Brisbane. Fraser Island is about 300km north of Brisbane and 15km off the coast of Hervey Bay and Maryborough.

Cost: Driving on the beaches and some inland sand tracks requires a vehicle access permit (VAP). The cost of the VAP depends on the area of the Great Sandy national park. Camping fees also apply.

For more information, visit Great Sandy national park

  • This is an edited extract from Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country ($39.99, Hardie Grant) out now

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