That’s the spirit!
As I step on to Yolngu country, I am marked.
A strip of clay is painted across my forehead and another reaches back over the top of my head. I could be worried, especially when Aboriginal warriors emerge from the bushes. But I feel more protected than threatened.
Painted and chanting, they circle our group, dancing in the dust, all the time, checking us out. One by one we are surrounded and scrutinised. It’s mesmerising.
Then it suddenly stops and beaming smiles replace those stern faces.
“I hope we didn’t frighten you,” says Marcus Lacey, grinning from ear to ear. “Welcome to Nyinyikay. Welcome to Arnhem Land.”
Marcus is an elder at this Aboriginal community – one of about 40 spread across the top of Australia in Northern Territory.
He explains the clay signs on our heads represent the ocean and the fresh rivers running into it.
“They identify you to the spirits and introduce you to Country,” he says. “The ceremony makes sure the spirits know you are accepted on this land. “It means you belong.”
And it works. We feel welcome. It’s a magical experience … one of many cultural insights to come.
By invitation only
There are a few things you need before heading into Arnhem Land. The first is an invitation. You can’t just rock up to the Aboriginal Homelands.
Our invitation is courtesy of Outback Spirit, which takes care of permits and logistics to get small groups of adventurers across the top of Northern Territory from Gove (Nhulunbuy) to Darwin and into the open arms of the Yolngu people.
Outback Spirit is a tour company with special permission to travel right through the heart of Arnhem Land thanks to agreements with the Northern Land Council and Traditional Owners.
Authentic cultural activities and insights from Aboriginal guides are an essential part of their journeys.
They’re fun, enlightening and help guests understand the deep connection to Country held by Indigenous Australians.
A world apart
The next thing you need is a sense of discovery, for this is no ordinary destination. Arnhem Land is one of the most isolated and least visited regions of Australia.
It’s a place of vivid colours, rugged beauty, unspoilt territory and rich culture, nurtured for more than 60,000 years. Forget your watch in the Homelands; time is irrelevant. And forget any expectations; the experiences will exceed them all.
Experiences like an introduction to the Bush Encyclopedia – you’ll learn how the Yolngu People use nature to survive and thrive. How they know that when the kurrajongs flower, it’s time to hunt sharks. And that the stringy bark tree’s inner layer can be used as a soothing tea for a sore throat or as an antiseptic on insect bites.
You might learn that cockroaches can save your life if you get stung by a stingray. A crushed cockroach is an antidote to the sting poison.
You’ll see ancient rock art galleries at Mount Borradaile and visit ancient occupation sites including the catacombs.
And you’ll see modern art at Larrnggay Mulka art centre in Yirrkala. Yirrkala is also where the Aboriginal Land Rights movement started, when the ‘bark petition’ was sent to federal parliament in 1963.
Doing it in style
The Arnhem Land landscape features ranges, idyllic billabongs, monsoonal rainforest and paper bark swamps.
But despite the rugged terrain, this is not a rough ‘n’ ready journey. It’s a five-star expedition in an all-terrain vehicle that’s strong enough to take on almost anything the Outback can dish up but luxuriously appointed so you do it in style.
The Mercedes bus seats are cushy and a video screen with a camera link to the road ahead means you can see what’s coming – including the wildlife.
There’s even a toilet on board and hot water system so we can stop for a cuppa anytime.
Accommodation choices are just as luxurious. Think “glamping” in a network of wilderness lodges and safari camps like Seven Spirit Bay, the Barramundi Lodge near Maningrida and the Murwangi Safari camp on the banks of the Arafura Swamp.
There is no doing it tough out here.
And there’s no doing it alone. Outback Spirit has specialised guides who lead you all the way.
Guides like Justin Rechichi who has been crossing the country for more than 20 years, learning about its people, history, geology, wildlife and vegetation, and passing that on to guests with a running commentary during his tours.
Justin is a font of knowledge but he’s always still learning.
“We do have an in-depth knowledge of the land and the highlights and we have great relationships with all the people we rely on along the way,” he says. “It’s the people who make these expeditions really special.
“And we keep learning. That’s the beauty of these trips and it’s what keeps us coming back … it’s continually evolving.”
Explore the Top End
The same attention to detail and cultural insights are offered on Outback Spirit’s other Top End tours through the Kimberley Ranges and to Cape York.
The Kimberley trek between Darwin and Broome has many highlights: hotspots like Mitchell Falls, Horizontal Falls, El Questro, Purnululu, plus Cathedral, Geikie, Emma and Windjana gorges.
You’ll fly in small planes and helicopters and cruise in Lake Kununurra, Chamberlain River, the mighty Ord and Geikie Gorge.
You’ll hike to waterfalls, through chasms, canyons and gorges and swim in creeks, rivers, lagoons and hot springs.
You’ll walk beside fresh-water crocodiles and dine on fresh barramundi and Aboriginal rock art will offer a glimpse into one of the oldest forms of communication in one of the world’s most ancient lands.
The Cape York tour takes you from Cairns to Pajinka, the northernmost tip of the Australian mainland – and beyond – by 4WD bus, helicopter, boat and plane.
Expect more cultural immersion with indigenous guides starting in Mossman Gorge.
More wilderness experiences in the World Heritage-Listed Daintree National Park, Rinyirru (Lakefield) National Park, Red Lily Lagoon, Nifold Plain and the Normanby River.
More luxury, staying in Heritage Lodge and Spa, Lotus Bird Lodge and Moreton Wilderness Lodge on the Wenlock River.
More fun swimming in the (croc-free) crystal-clear waters of Fruit Bat Falls and exploring Thursday Island, Horn Island and Friday Island in the Torres Strait.
The 2023 season is now selling. Book your small-group 4WD adventure today at outbackspirittours.com.au or call 1800 688 222.