Across the Top: The living art and cultures of Northern Australia

By Helen Hayes April 5, 2024
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To connect to culture in The Kimberley, Cape York, Arnhem Land and in Papua New Guinea, open your eyes, heart and mind on a journey with Coral Expeditions.

This article is brought to you by Coral Expeditions.

A piece of time-weathered art. A mask carved out of timber. A dance performed over generations, telling a story of ancient times from a proud culture. All of these are so closely intertwined with the people and places where they are found, admired and witnessed, educating us about a culture that we do not know enough about – if anything at all.

Knowledge is the key to understanding different cultures, different people, and different countries. Even in Australia’s north and beyond, there’s a lot to learn from some of the world’s oldest cultures. The peoples of the Kimberley, the Torres Strait Islands, Arnhem Land and Papua New Guinea have a lot to teach us about the way they interact with nature, how they managed the seasons, and how they have captured a record of history through art and storytelling. The best way to experience these far-flung destinations is on a small ship expedition with Coral Expeditions, an Australian-owned and operated company.

The Kimberley

The isolated and remote Kimberley has been home to Indigenous people for thousands upon thousands of years, and the depth of wisdom and love of Country is still very evident today. History is told through stories etched on rock walls, depictions of the past, wildlife, and interactions with early explorers and sea traders. This art form is revered, and the current generation works extremely hard to preserve and protect the art, sometimes through renewal.

The art is from some of the many Indigenous peoples who have lived in this exquisitely beautiful yet harsh environment. Coral Expeditions showcases several of these remote ‘galleries’, as part of their Kimberley expeditions. Journeys include visiting majestic waterfalls such as Oomari Falls – the highest in Western Australia – before visiting Vansittart Bay, which shines with Gwion Gwion (Bradshaw) rock art. Dating back anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 years, this striking form of art features human figures with headdresses, as well as decorations on arms and waists, and was created by the ancestors of the Balanggarra people. More history is found in the walls at the Wandjina galleries, with Wollaston Island one of the sites Coral Expeditions visits. Found in the traditional country of the Worrora people, this visit requires a short rock scramble to what is a large open cave site with many Wandjina images including a large red outlined figure with yellow infill. Petroglyphs can also be found here.

In addition to the art, the Kimberley expeditions are overflowing with nature’s most exhilarating moments, from Montgomery Reef to Horizontal Falls and King Cascade Falls.

Sunset drinks; Nares Point Falls, The Kimberley. Image credits: Coral Expeditions

Tiwi Islands and Arnhem Land

Around 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands delight in so many ways. There are two main islands, Bathurst and Melville, with the Tiwi people famous for their artworks, vibrant fabrics and textiles. The Tiwis are known as the ‘Island of Smiles’, with the friendly locals, stunning landscapes and thriving culture rolled up into one beautiful gift. If you want to engage with the locals, talk Aussie Rules football, they are obsessed with it.

Tiwi Islands. Image credit: Coral Expeditions

It is art that stands out on these islands, with pieces from the Tiwi Islands hanging in galleries all around the globe. You will find art everywhere on buildings, on carved burial poles, and in the art centres. Visit the Munupi Arts Centre, a local co-operative gallery in Pirlangimpi on Melville Island where you can buy art at the source, participate in workshops and view cultural performances. Tiwi Design Centre on Bathurst Island is another must, showcasing traditional and modern Tiwi art. It is one of the most artistically diverse art centres in Australia with its aim to promote, preserve and enrich Tiwi culture.

While Arnhem Land is known for its rugged beauty, it too is a great example of where performance art and co-operative galleries can preserve the culture. Elcho Island off Arnhem Land is home to Elcho Island Arts, a Yolnju-owned art centre in Galiwin’ku, an island off the north-east coast. Work from the local artists –artworks, weavings, fibre art, carvings and ceremonial poles – are exhibited worldwide including at the Louvre in Paris.

Torres Strait Islands

Torres Strait, the stretch of water between Cape York and Papua New Guinea, has almost 300 island jewels dotting its crystal-clear waters. The people of the Torres Strait Islands have a vibrant and distinct culture that is a perfect complement for the idyllic landscapes and pristine reefs. Exploring these islands by small ship with Coral Expeditions is a magical mystery tour of places you have probably never been, but the experience will be an enriching one. Coral Expeditions has been sailing in these waters for four decades and has a deep respect for the communities. Local elders will share their customs and tell the stories of this precious part of the world. Coral Expeditions will facilitate an enriching journey accompanied by local elders who will share the customs and stories of this ancient country. Dance is one of the most important cultural expressions for the Torres Strait Islanders, with each island expressing their culture uniquely through dance, music and costumes – including headdresses – as a way of maintaining the links between the material and the spirit worlds.

Image credits: Coral Expeditions

Papua New Guinea – the people of the Sepik River

Raw, spectacular and untouched by overtourism, Papua New Guinea has many treasures to uncover. Coral Expeditions has enriching adventures in Papua New Guinea with itineraries to fascinate and educate. The Sepik is Papua New Guinea’s longest river, running an impressive 1126km. It is a highway of trade and cultural exchange that has been – and still is – as important to Papua New Guinea as the Amazon and the Nile. The ship cruises downriver, meandering around its many twists and curls, offering spectacular panoramas of distant misty mountains. Guests will spot long thin dugout canoes, and scattered thatch ‘fishing’ houses, which contain locals coming out from their villages to fish, pick bananas or process sago. Once in the village of Bin, the locals, who speak the Kanda language, perform traditional dances and dramatisations that you can only see in the sacred tambaran house. Some illustrate scenes from their history, and showcase their beliefs. A visit to the local market will culminate in souvenir purchases, especially the intricate carved wooden masks that are indicative of the rich cultural heritage of this river region

Image credits: Coral Expeditions

Apart from the Sepik, Coral Expeditions’ explorers will take guests to places like Samarai Island to learn the history of Kula ring, the Trobriand Island which is known as the ‘island of love’, Tuji Ford with its dramatic cliffs where guests can learn about bush medicines, fire making, mat weaving and the importance of traditional tattooing. Buna and Sananda are significant as World War II sites, while cultural diversity can be experienced at Pelambei, Kanganaman, Mendam and Kopar villages.

Image credits: Coral Expeditions

Connect with Coral

Coral Expeditions can open up these magnificent destinations that show off the cultures and heritage of Northern Australia with adventures to the Torres Strait, Tiwi, Arnhem Land, Kimberley, and Papua New Guinea regions. Learn about traditions that have remained the same for hundreds of years, and visit remote sites that are only accessed by a lucky few. Learn about the song lines and lore, letting your respectful expert guides lead the way.

Image credit: Coral Expeditions

Experiences will be unforgettable and etched in your memory for your lifetime. Land at Pajinka on Cape York – the northernmost tip of Australia. Visit Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and Port Essington in Arnhem Land. Be enamoured by cultural artefacts at the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island. Interact with renowned local artists at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, an Indigenous community-controlled art centre in Northeast Arnhem Land. Explore Talbot Bay at the heart of the Buccaneer Archipelago where rocks are deemed to be two billion years old. Choose one of Coral Expeditions’ Art Themed Cruises through Cape York and Arnhem Land, with guest artists onboard provide insight and interpretation during shore excursions and host art workshops.

This article is brought to you by Coral Expeditions.

Unveiling the Indigenous Culture and Art of Australia’s Top End

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