These full-day Arnhem Land tours from Darwin will give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience remote Top End Indigenous culture first hand. Visit Injalak Hill outside the township of Gunbalanya with a local Indigenous guide to see the incredible rock art. Transport, commentary, permits, a guided rock art walk and lunch are included. Duration: 14 hours (approx.)
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Joey stands on a rocky outcrop, quietly gazing out across the West Arnhem Land landscape.
It’s a rich, vivid green; not at all as dry as you might expect this remote part of the Top End to be. We’re here on the tail end of The Wet, so there’s plenty of water in the streams and billabongs that crisscross the fertile flood plain below. There are purple mountains in the distance and further than the eye can see is the East Alligator River, which marks the border with Kakadu National Park. It’s stunning.
It’s hard to tell what Joey is thinking. Perhaps he senses some of us watching him, because he averts his eyes to the ground, before turning and sitting on a rock to draw patterns in the sand with a stick. He’s one of the local Indigenous guides on this amazing Arnhem Land tour from Darwin with Top End Day Tours.
Below us lies the Aboriginal township of Gunbalanya, the closest settlement to the West Arnhem Land/Kakadu border, a four or so hour drive from Darwin. Arnhem Land is a restricted Aboriginal territory and a permit from the Northern Land Council is required for entry. The permits for this Arnhem Land tour are arranged by Top End Day Tours, which also takes care of transport and lunch. It’s a big day of driving, particularly for our guide and driver Petra, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
From up here, Gunbalanya is a tiny collection of dusty looking tin roofs and all but deserted streets. I can see the Injalak Arts and Craft Centre on the western edge of town. Injalak is a co-operative of around 200 local artists, of whom Joey is one. The centre produces a range of work, including paper and bark paintings, screen-printed fabrics, and woven baskets and mats. Injalak is actually gaining quite a name for itself. We learn that Joey has recently been invited to Canada to accompany an exhibition of some of the co-op’s work, while another two local artists are off to Cuba!
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story. This Arnhem Land tour from Darwin starts with hotel pick-ups in the city and the Kakadu township of Jabiru, before we set off for the border with Arnhem Land. The crossing itself is unceremonial. There’s no authority checking paperwork etc, although we are told that local authorities do conduct random checks and fines can be up to $1,000 if a permit has not been obtained.
As we drive into Gunbalanya, I feel a familiar sense of hopelessness over the prospect of us ever closing the gap. Life here looks so tough. That feeling changes somewhat as we reach Injalak.
The Besser Block building is fairly nondescript. There’s a shop at the front that we’ll see later, but for now we make our way around to the rear to meet some of the artists and watch them work. There are men of various ages working on paintings while another group sits under a tree chatting quietly.
There’s an initial sense of awkwardness as we attempt to make small talk with the artists. I watch one particular artist. He’s using a brush just a few hairs wide, drawing the finest of fine lines with a deft hand and intense concentration. He never falters. We’re then invited to meet the women’s group in a different section of the compound. They’re preparing and colouring pandanus leaves for weaving. The women sit in a semi circle and are happy to answer questions.
Back at the bus we meet Joey for the first time. He’s probably around 30 with a shy smile and a soft voice. It’s a short drive to the base of Injalak Hill. For the next two or so hours we’ll be guided by Joey on a walk up to the top, visiting a number of rock art sites along the way.
The walk is suitable for anyone of a moderate fitness level. The artworks we see range in age from just a few years old to an estimated 20,000 years old. There are hundreds of them. In fact everywhere you look you notice something new. It’s extraordinary. For me though, the highlight of this tour is spending a couple of hours in the company of an Indigenous Australian on country. It’s not an opportunity a lot of us get with any regularity, if ever.
We come around a corner near the peak to discover Petra has taken the fast track to the top with a lunch hamper of fresh rolls, cold meats and salads. We fill our rolls and sit looking out across the country as we eat quietly. It’s delicious and one lunch from among many thousands that I’ll always remember.
On arrival back in Gunbalanya, there’s enough time for some retail therapy at Injalak (it’s possible to purchase a piece of work by your guide) before we do a bit of a tour around town to see some of the infrastructure being funded in part by art sales. I have to say that I leave the town feeling far more optimistic than when I arrived. Things aren’t perfect, but these artists are choosing to turn up to work and are getting things done.
The tall green grass on the flood plain waves gently in the breeze as we start the long journey home.
Adam travelled as a guest of Top End Day Tours.
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Australia, Europe, Asia, North America, parts of South America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the Tour the World travel TV series on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hoi An.