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How to experience Aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory

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The indigenous people of Australia’s Northern Territory have lived in its landscapes for over 50,000 years, creating a rich tapestry of customs, languages and traditions that span across the region.

With over 40 different indigenous language groups currently residing in the Northern Territory, a myriad of cultural practices including music and dance, rock art and traditional cuisine are on offer for intrepid explorers.

Immerse yourself in the rich cultural history and practices of one of the world’s oldest living groups; from the Yolngu in Arnhem Land to the Arrernte in Central Australia.  

Music and Dance

The festival period in the Northern Territory epitomises Aboriginal culture; showing off some of the most talented traditional dancers and musical performers in the world.

Traditional Aboriginal music is often accompanied by the sounds of the didgeridoo and the slow clap of sticks from the bush, so get ready to experience the soothing tones of Australia’s most famous musical instrument in conjunction with beautiful storytelling performances across festivals this summer. The traditional tribal beat gives a platform for traditional dancing, which commonly tells the tale in interpretive movements, sometimes mimicking kangaroos, birds or spear hunting.

Seek out the Mahbili Festival in Jabiru to celebrate the traditional and contemporary aspects of Kakadu culture and witness a piece of cultural history in music and dance performances. The family-orientated festival runs from midday to midnight on Saturday 26th August.

If you’re looking something for truly inspiring, experience a clash of the classic and the contemporary at the annual Yirrkala Yarrapay Music & Dance Festival. More of a cultural movement than a festival, the celebrations commemorate the intimate connection of the land, the story and the culture of the Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land in the last weekend of June.

Aboriginal Art

Art comes in many forms, but none more spectacular than the traditional methods of the Aboriginal groups in the Northern Territory. While specific region by region, Aboriginal Australian art usually takes inspiration from the surroundings and plays on a cherished connection to the land and traditional musical instruments. 

Hand-woven baskets, woodcarvings and jewellery are also popular Aboriginal art forms to look out for in the Northern Territory, and are displayed throughout galleries and art centres in both Darwin and Alice Springs. See intricate dot paintings that draw on a mixture of Aboriginal spiritual influences and old Western traditions hung proudly from gallery walls, and book in advance for a chance to chat to their creators. 

Image credit: ExperienceOz

If you’re looking to grab a few souvenirs from your trip, head to the Aboriginal Bush Traders, situated in historic Lyons Cottage on Darwin’s Esplanade. Blending authentic Indigenous artworks, perfectly hand-crafted gifts and trinkets and a modern café, Bush Traders has become one of Darwin’s must-visit sites over the last few years. Not only do they offer a beautiful collection of gifts to please your friends and family, they also support their own by supporting local Indigenous artists and businesses.

Want to try your hand at creating your own art? At the Maruku Arts centre (found within the Ayers Rock Resort), you can take a class in traditional dot painting, guided by a local Anangu artist. It's the perfect way to create something unique and special, and learn about an ancient culture directly from the source. The Anangu people have passed their art down through the generations for thousand of years. 

Food and Medicine

The Aboriginal survival culture is built on hunter-gatherer instincts. Over hundreds of years, traditional methods of hunting have evolved to adapt to changing weather conditions, but the knowledge and skills gained from its practice are just as vital. Get yourself on an organised tour with an experienced local guide who can give you insider tips on your spear-hunting technique.

The Outback is full of an abundance of beautiful and highly sought after treats, which are deeply rooted in the Aboriginal culinary culture. Depending on the season, you could be sampling foods like magpie geese cooked on hot coals, turtle, bush bananas, wild grape, cockleberries, wild beans, snake and (if you’re feeling particularly adventurous) the highly coveted witchetty grubs!

One of the most varied and all-encompassing organised tours takes place in Central Australia, giving visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the culinary and medicinal experiences of the Aboriginal Karrke group. Try your hand at spear and boomerang hunting, soak up the tastes and smells in an important bush tucker crash course, and learn all about using nature’s gifts for traditional healing and medicine.

Rock Art

The Northern Territory is home to beautiful rock formations and towering cliff-faces. What may not be so obvious at a first glance, however, is the presence of hundreds of masterfully-crafted art pieces, woven into the nooks and crannies of this ancient landscape. From Central Australia to the Top End, 40,000-year-old rock art sits waiting to be found.

Many of the sites in the Northern Territory are laden with interpretive signs that tell traditional stories associated with the carvings, drawings and paintings on the rock faces. An organised tour with an experience Indigenous guide is the best way to truly appreciate the artwork while understanding its deeper meaning.

Take a guided tour around Ubirr: one of Kakadu National Park’s most well-known Aboriginal rock art galleries. After climbing a steep 250m track to a stunning view across the floodplains, you can experience first-hand beautiful interpretations of traditional hunting practices and the magnificent Rainbow Serpent – an important Aboriginal ancestor presented in numerous artworks across the Territory.

For a truly tropical display, head 75 kilometres south of Alice Springs to the Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve. At its most spectacular in the early morning or late afternoon sunlight, its wide valleys and cliff faces are the sight of an unmissable colour display. Reflections of saccharine purple, deep red and tangy orange light up the valleys and sandstone bluffs.

Got a bit of time to explore the Northern Territory? We’d recommend the 10 Day Top End and Red Centre ‘Crocodile Rock’ Adventure (bookable through STA Travel) that takes you from Darwin to Alice Springs, and covers all of the Northern Territory’s biggest names along the way: Kakadu and Litchfield national parks, Katherine Gorge, Mataranka Thermal Pools, Devils Marbles, Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. Explore waterfalls, marvel at epic gorges, and drink in the Aboriginal culture. There really is nothing like it. Find out more here.

Need a quicker trip? The 3 Day Cockatoo Dreaming Red Centre Safari starts at Uluru, finishes at Alice Springs, and takes in Ayers Rock Resort, Kings Canyon, Mt. Ebenezer and more sights along the way. Get more info here.

You can fly to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, with STA Travel. Find out more here. 

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