The best Australian indigenous travel experiences offer the most enriching encounters with the world’s oldest living culture. For many travellers, experiences with Australia’s First Nations peoples become the most meaningful and memorable part of an Australia trip. If you haven’t experienced a tour, workshop or walk with an Aboriginal guide, make this the year you do.
It’s no coincidence that I’m sharing our guide to the best Australian indigenous travel experiences during National Reconciliation Week in Australia, which runs from 27 May to 3 June this year and every year.
National Reconciliation Week is a time for Australians and visitors to Australia to learn about “our shared histories, cultures and achievements, and to explore how every Australian can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia”.
As Australians, we’re proud to have been born in a country that’s home to the world’s oldest living culture. Whenever we’re back home in Australia, we try to do as many tours with First Nations guides as we can as they’re the best way to learn about that rich ancient culture.
These are our picks of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences, all tried and tested.
Best Australian Indigenous Travel Experiences – From Bush Tucker Walks to Hikes to See Ancient Rock Art
You’ll find our picks of the best Australian Aboriginal guided tours below, beginning with a transformative experience that remains one of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences we’ve ever done over many years researching, writing and updating Australia guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley and Rough Guides.
Our experience with Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell, an Aboriginal Australian from the Malgana tribe, opened our minds, changed our whole way of thinking, and deepened our profound respect for Australia’s First Nations peoples 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. Those bush walks, bush-tucker tastings, guided nature cruises, and hikes to see ancient rock art became the most enriching experiences of our Australia trips.
Before I share the best Australian indigenous travel experiences that have enriched our travels, I want to share some tips to how to prepare for a tour, activity or experience with a First Nations guide.
How to Prepare for an Indigenous Travel Experience
We strongly 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.
Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788 tells the history of Australia from the standpoint of our First Nations Peoples. The expanded fifth edition covers the Northern Territory Intervention, remote Australia’s mining boom, the Uluru Statement, and the resurgence of interest among Australians in traditional Aboriginal knowledge and culture.
If you’re interested in Australian food and agriculture, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu reveals how Australia’s pre-colonial Aboriginal peoples sowed, harvested and irrigated land, stored crops, used domesticated plants, and built dams and houses – you’ll look at the landscapes out your window in a very different light.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia and Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia should have that same effect on you, as well as changing how you see history.
Gammage reveals how early European explorers noted how land across Australia looked like parkland with sprawling grassy areas within woodland and walking paths, evoking an English estate. This is because Australia’s Aboriginal peoples systematically managed the land, using fire and native plant life-cycles to ensure plentiful food for people and wildlife and prevent wildfires.
Griffiths’ book is one for lovers or archaeology, weaving history, biography and literature together to tell the story of Aboriginal archaeology in Australia and the archaeologists who uncovered traces of ancient Australia and evidence of 60,000 years of continual habitation.
Our Pick of the Best Australian Indigenous Travel Experiences
We hope this story, which Terence and I wrote in a slightly different form for syndication in American newspapers more than 15 years ago, inspires all travellers, local and foreign, to seek out the best Australian indigenous travel experiences when you head down under.
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 a Tour with Capes
You can book some of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences with Capes directly on his Wula Guda Nyinda Eco Adventures website, including bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife tours, and 4WD and camping adventures. The cultural walk we did with Capes 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.
Where to Stay in Monkey Mia-Denham
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.
Maruku Arts, Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park
In the red heart of Australia, UNESCO World Heritage listed Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park is home to the monumental red rock that is a sacred site for the Anangu, the Aboriginal peoples of the desert area who are the traditional owners of the land.
Uluru is a magic place and is breathtakingly beautiful, and while I could be quite content strolling around its base, there are so many things to do at Uluru Kata Tjuta, and winter is the best time to do them.
Local Aboriginal guides offer a variety of 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.
Some of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences are offered by Maruku Arts, a not-for-profit arts and crafts collective owned and operated by the Anangu people, representing 900 Aboriginal artists from some 20 remote communities across the Central and Western Deserts.
There mission is to keep their culture strong through arts, crafts and organic experiences, and one way they do that is by offering the opportunity to explore and connect with Aboriginal art and culture through tours and workshops with local Anangu artists, including popular Aboriginal dot painting workshops and cultural walks.
They can also organise exclusive tailor-made experiences, including dance ceremonies, bush medicine workshops, and wood carving workshops. Classes, tours and workshops are conducted in the Western Desert languages of Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, and translated into English, which is special.
Where to Stay near Uluru
Most Uluru accommodation is clustered together at the township of Yulara. The 5-star Sails in the Desert Hotel hosts the superb Mulgara Gallery focused on Central Australia’s Aboriginal art, while the 4.5 star Desert Gardens Hotel is the only Yulara hotel with Uluru views from rooms.
Emu Walk Apartments offer 4-star self-contained one- and two-bedroom serviced apartments with fully equipped kitchens. The Lost Camel Hotel has comfortable mid-range boutique accommodation set around a swimming pool.
The Outback Pioneer Hotel is aimed at the budget traveller with basic private rooms with private bathrooms and is home to the The Bough House and Outdoor Pioneer Bar where you can cook your own DIY barbecues, while the Outback Pioneer Lodge offers hostel style accommodation with dorms, a communal kitchen and common areas.
Yellow Waters Cruise, Kakadu Tourism, Northern Territory
At Kakadu National Park you can 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.
Where to Stay near Yellow Waters, Kakadu National Park
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.
These 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. There’s also time simply to sit and take in the natural beauty of the scenery.
Where to Stay in Jabiru
Your closest accommodation for Guluyambi Cultural Cruises and the Arnhemlander Cultural and Heritage Tour 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. Sab has access to Aboriginal communities because of his lifelong friendships with the local people.
On Sab’s private 4WD tours, departing from Darwin to Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, you’ll discover magnificent landscapes, learn some bush skills, and get to listen to lots of yarns about growing up in the Kakadu area.
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 (pictured above). This is easily another of the best Australian indigenous travel experiences even if the key host is not indigenous.
Where to Stay near Arnhem Land
Pick-up for our tour was at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, which is easily one of the most comfortable hotels in Kakadu National Park.
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
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 peoples 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 tours are only available to schools and educational groups, you can still 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.
Where to Stay near Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The closest accommodation is Cooinda Lodge Kakadu, which is just 1km from The Warradjan centre.
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.
Where to Stay near Nitmiluk Gorge
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.
Published 27 January 2017; Last Updated 26 January 2024
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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?