The best Australian indigenous travel experiences offer the most enriching experience of the world’s oldest living culture. For many travellers, indigenous Australian tours become the most meaningful and memorable part of their Australia trip. If you haven’t had an indigenous travel experience, make this the year you seek one out.
Best Australian Indigenous Travel Experiences – From Bush Tucker Walks to Hikes to See Ancient Rock Art
It’s no coincidence that I’m posting this guide to Australian indigenous travel experiences the day after Australia Day. We wanted to post something on Australia Day to celebrate what’s special about Australia and what makes us most proud to be Australians, but then we realised that means being born in the country that’s home to the world’s oldest living culture. Making Australia Day not the best day for that post.
Because for Aboriginal Australians, the original Australians, 26 January is Invasion Day, a Day of Mourning, and a Day of Survival, as it commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet of convict ships from England in 1788, when the occupiers planted their flag, and tragedy and unfathomable sorrow followed. The fact that this flag, the Union Jack, still appears on the Australian flag is shameful.
It’s time not only to change the flag, but it’s time that Australia became a republic. Then we can make that day Australia Day, a date that unites all Australians – our Aboriginal Australians with their ancient history, the descendants of the colonisers and convicts, and the many waves of immigrants who have arrived since, all of whom have added rich layers to the deep cultural foundations that our First Australians created. Imagine! Fortunately, there is a growing #changethedate movement so it may not be far off.
In the meantime, I’m going to share a transformative experience that became the first and remains one of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences we have ever had, out of a dozen or so indigenous experiences over the years while researching Australia guidebooks.
Our experience with Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell, an Aboriginal Australian from the Malgana tribe, opened our minds, changed our way of thinking, and deepened our profound respect for Aboriginal Australia forever. After we did two of Capes’ cultural tours, which you’ll read about, below, we sought out more indigenous tours with Aboriginal guides wherever we went. They became the most enriching experiences of our Australia trips.
We hope this story, originally written by Terence and myself in a slightly different form for syndication in American newspapers almost a decade ago, inspires all travellers, local and foreign, to seek out the best Australian indigenous travel experiences when you head down under. I’ve also provided a guide to our picks of more of the best Australian Aboriginal tours below the story.
Our Pick of the Best Australian Indigenous Travel Experiences: Wula Guda Nyinda, Come This Way
“Today you mob are Malgana people,” Capes, a handsome, thirty-something, former football player turned tour guide, told us.
We were on the edge of the beach of Monkey Mia, in the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, on the central coast of Western Australia, 840 kilometres north of the capital, Perth.
A short distance away, scores of tourists were waiting patiently, knee-deep in the inviting aquamarine waters, for the famed dolphins to turn up for breakfast. We had opted for a bush walk instead – with Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell, an Aboriginal Australian from the Malgana mob.
As we waited for the tour to start, Capes entertained some young Japanese travellers with his didgeridoo playing. Within minutes he had a girl amusingly acting out the movements of the animals he had been sounding out on the didgeridoo. Our walk turned out to be no less engaging.
Capes has been running his Wula Guda Nyinda cultural walks at Monkey Mia, on the shores of Gutharraguda (the local Aboriginal name for Shark Bay, meaning ‘Two Waters’) in northern Western Australia, since late 2004.
Capes’ father is Malgana and his mother Nardi, Nhanda, so he’s an expert on the country around Monkey Mia and the Shark Bay World Heritage area. He led us from the beach and guided us through the sandy scrubland.
Wula Guda Nyinda, a traditional Aboriginal term which means “you come this way”, suggests more than following Capes into the bush, but implies a sharing of stories between generations, and now, between cultures.
“Take soft steps,” Capes advised us. “Today you’re going to learn how to respect Country.”
We heard a familiar whistle. Capes stopped dead in his tracks. “That’s the Chilli Chilli, the Willie Wagtail,” he whispered. “Don’t talk when they’re around. Never tell a Willie Wagtail anything; they’re big gossips.”
We kept walking. Capes was alert to every sight and sound in the bush. He looked down to the ground, studying the tracks, then looked up when he heard a bird call or rustle.
“Today,” Capes continued, “you’re going to learn how to let the bush talk to you.” We were all ears.
“The welcome swallow, he’ll tell you when rain’s coming,” Cape said. “The thick-billed wren… two calls, he’s telling you you’re in danger. Could be a snake – look down at the ground. Look at the kangaroo poo – the bigger the poo, the bigger the kangaroo. Look for his tracks – if he’s moving slowly there’ll be three, two paws first, then his tail. No tail, he’s jumping, he’s moving fast. He’s in trouble or he’s found water.”
Capes taught us how to find water, how to tell a monitor’s track from a python’s, and where to look for food.
“Not too big,” Capes warned, as he broke a small twig from a branch. “This may be a smorgasbord out here, but we all gotta share this bush tucker.”
Capes didn’t waste anything. The twig and all the other bits and pieces he collected during our walk went into the kangaroo skin slung over his shoulder – his “shopping bag”.
We learnt how to identify the nanya tree with its bean-like fruit with sweet peas inside. The bimba bush was for dessert – it has a sweet toffee-like sap. We chewed on saltbush, sucking the salty juice. It quenched our thirst.
We took an instant liking to some tiny red berries growing on the ‘Charlie Tree’, named after a tribe member who used to enjoy taking naps under them. They were sweet and juicy. We couldn’t believe that what appeared to be arid bushland was a bush tucker supermarket.
Capes spotted some rather innocuous clouds on the horizon and proclaimed it was going to rain the next day. We thought he’d eaten too many berries. This was dry season when there’s clear sky, day after day.
Capes handed us a thick green bean, calling it ‘pigface’, which he said could be rubbed on the skin to soothe sunburn. He showed us some coastal myrtle.
“It’s like Vic’s Vapour Rub,” Capes said. “Put it under your nose if you have a cold.”
We tried it. He was right. It was like eucalyptus. Forget the pharmacy. We now knew where to go when we got sick.
In three hours we walked just a few kilometres but we had dipped our toes into thousands of years of Aboriginal knowledge of the land.
We’d learnt about bush tucker, bush medicine and bush survival, with some Malgana language thrown in, but most of all we’d experienced firsthand that special connection that indigenous Australians have to Country.
The walk turned out to be the highlight of our road trip through Western Australia, but we were disappointed we hadn’t seen many other tours operated by Aboriginals.
“Thinking in terms of product doesn’t come easy to our mob,” Capes explained. “But fortunately talking about our culture does.”
We could see Capes as a one-man Aboriginal Australian Embassy in Monkey Mia. Except this is his Country – Malgana Country.
The next morning, Capes greeted us like family and joked about renaming Terence ‘Charlie’, because of his love for those berries.
“It’s raining,” we’d pointed out.
“Well, what did you expect?” Capes grinned.
We knew where to go for our weather reports in future, too.
How to Book an Experience with Capes
Book directly on the Wula Guda Nyinda Eco Adventures website where you’ll find all of Capes’ experiences, including bushwalking, kayaking and wildlife tours, and 4WD and camping adventures. The cultural walk we did is now called a Daytime Dreaming Bushwalking Tour but these days can only be done as a group tour. We also did the sunset Maru Maru Dreaming tour, which was wonderful.
How to Prepare for an Indigenous Travel Experience
The superb and super informative Creative Spirits website has an excellent guide to ‘Preparing your visit and travel to Aboriginal Australia’ with fantastic advice on how to get the most out of your trip with loads of great tips and links. We also recommend reading Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia by Dr Marcia Langton for insights into Aboriginal Australia’s 50,000-year-old culture, history, languages, customs, religion, ceremonies, dance, and arts, as well as invaluable tips on etiquette and cultural awareness, and a directory of Aboriginal tourism experiences.
Best Australian Indigenous Travel Experiences – The Best of the Rest
This guide is by no means a comprehensive list of Australian Aboriginal tours. These are simply the experiences that we think are the best Australian indigenous travel experiences out of dozens that we have done over the years.
Kakadu Tourism, Northern Territory
Learn all about the wildlife, birdlife and wetlands of the Kakadu World Heritage Area from an Aboriginal perspective on Kakadu Tourism’s wonderful Yellow Water billabong cruise, one of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences we’ve done in the Top End. We recommend the final late afternoon cruise for the magic light. Also offered are 4WD tours to lush waterfalls, swimming holes and spectacular escarpments that include a visit the Warradjan Cultural Centre to learn about the culture of the Bininj people through interactive exhibitions. The nearest accommodation is at the 4-star crocodile shaped Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel.
Kakadu Cultural Tours, Northern Territory
Through Kakadu Cultural Tours, the indigenous guides of the Djabulukgu Association offer more of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences in Kakadu and Arnhem Land, including the informative yet very relaxing Guluyambi Cultural Cruises and the enriching Arnhemlander Cultural and Heritage Tour. The experiences delve into the life of the river and surrounding environment and how it changes with the seasons, the waterway’s incredible food chain, fauna and flora, and their many traditional uses, along with bush survival skills. Your closest accommodation is at Jabiru, where you can camp, caravan or stay in basic units at Aurora Kakadu Lodge.
Lord’s Kakadu and Arnhemland Safaris, Northern Territory
While Sab Lord of Lords Safaris is undoubtedly one of Australia’s finest guides, he is a facilitator as much as a guide, as this experience of Kakadu and Arnhem Land wouldn’t be what it is without Sab. Whilst not Aboriginal, Sab was raised in Kakadu, speaks the local indigenous languages, and has gone through secret ceremonies he can’t speak about. He has access to Aboriginal communities because of his lifelong friendships with the local people. On his private 4WD tours, departing from Darwin to Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, you’ll discover magnificent landscapes and learn bush skills with Sab then once in Arnhem Land you’ll visit an art centre to meet indigenous artists and observe their techniques, and hike up Injalak Hill with a local Aboriginal artist to see ancient rock art. This is easily another of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences even if the host is not indigenous. Pick-up for our tour was at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel.
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre was developed by the traditional owners of Kakadu as a place for visitors to learn about Aboriginal customs, culture, arts, and handicrafts. Curated by the people of the Murumbarr, Mirrar Gun-djeihmi, Badmardi, Bunitj, Girrimbitjba, Manilakarr, and Wargol tribes, the exhibition gives a great insight into their histories, cultures, traditions, and languages. The engaging, interactive exhibits provide an immersive experience that brings to life tens of thousands of years of cultural history and tradition at Kakadu, through personal histories, compelling videos and creative displays on everything from the history of the tribes to marriage rights, hunting techniques, and bush tucker. While there are no tours as such, you can watch artisans at work weaving and painting. The gallery shop also sells a range of beautiful locally-made arts, crafts and artefacts, including traditional didgeridoos, baskets, paintings, books, and cards. The closest accommodation is Cooinda Lodge Kakadu, which is just 1km from The Warradjan centre.
UPDATE 25 August 2020: The Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre is currently closed for renovations, however, there are some arts and crafts on display at the Art Gallery located at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel.
Nitmiluk Tours, Katherine
In Jawoyn country, east of Katherine, Nitmiluk Tours runs another of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences, a cruise on the Katherine River through the magnificent 12km Nitmiluk Gorge, which actually consists of 13 different red-rock gorges, with sheer, towering 70m high cliffs. In the dry season, when the water levels are at their lowest you’ll have to alight from one boat and walk a rocky path to the next. During parts of the wet season when the water is at its highest, it can be inaccessible due to flooding in the area. You can also go canoeing, bushwalking and do spectacular helicopter flights over the gorge. In recent years, we’ve done the cruise twice and the helicopter once and we’d do both again in a heartbeat. There are camping and caravan parks and motels in Katherine, but the indigenous-owned luxurious Cicada Lodge near the gorge is our recommendation. The restaurant offers seasonal menus based on fresh regional produce.
*Anangu Tours, Uluru
At Uluru, in the red heart of Australia, Anangu Tours, named after the Aboriginal peoples of Australia’s Western Desert, offers what’s easily one of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences we’ve ever done and is a respectful alternative to ‘climbing the rock’. Local Aboriginal guides offer a variety of early morning and late afternoon experiences on their ancestral lands, on foot and by camel. You can choose from tours that teach bush medicine and survival skills, which cover everything from starting fires to hunting with spears, to Aboriginal dot painting workshops. Tours are conducted in the Western Desert languages of Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, and translated into English, which is special. Make sure you take time to browse the art gallery at the end. *This business has closed.
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Have you done any tours with Aboriginal guides on your travels in Australia? Which experiences do you think are the best Australian indigenous travel experiences?