Transformational Travel and a Life Changing Tale from Australia's Top End. Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Transformational Travel and a Life Changing Tale from Australia’s Top End

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What is transformational travel or transformative travel and what does it take to have a life changing travel experience? Some people climb mountains, cross deserts or sail solo around the world. Others seek spiritual solitude, do retreats, volunteer abroad. After a decade travelling the world, we returned home to be transformed.

June 2018 update: Transformational travel or transformative travel (the travel industry is not sure what it wants to call it yet) has been getting increasing coverage in the travel media in recent months. I thought it time to share this post again, which I wrote in January 2015.

Transformational travel has been at the heart of what we’ve been doing here on Grantourismo since Terence and I conceived our grand tour-inspired project in my uncle’s Bendigo kitchen and launched on New Year’s Day 2010. Our mission was to ‘make travel more meaningful and more memorable’ by promoting the kinds of travel that we had long loved to do: slow travel, local travel and experiential travel – the forms of travel that we believed offered more immersive and deeper experiences, and were therefore ultimately more enriching and more rewarding.

In January 2010 we set off on our grand tour, an epic one-year round-the-world trip, travelling slowly (we spent two weeks in each place), living like locals (we stayed in apartments and holiday houses, thanks to HomeAway), travelling locally (we connected with locals in each place, sought our local experts for our Local Knowledge series, explored neighbourhoods, and did the things that locals do to gain a better insight into how people live their lives), and travelling experientially (we got hands-on and learnt things in each place, from the local language to learning to cook local specialties to learning musical instruments).

That 12-month global journey might was jam-packed with transformational travel experiences, from learning the meaning of ‘ubuntu’ on a heartbreaking Cape Town townships tour to meeting the ‘angel of the favelas’, the late Giuliana Urani, at her NGO Para Ti, which was a highlight of Marcelo Armstrong’s original favela tour in Rio de Janeiro. Our project may have been about promoting slow, local and experiential travel to inspire and encourage you to travel differently, but it also changed us – as transformational travel does.

Transformational Travel and the Meaningful Travel Experiences that Change Our Lives

Transformational travel or transformative travel isn’t about going somewhere to find yourself. It’s about finding meaning – whether it’s meaning in life, meaning in your life, or making meaning of something – through a travel experience.

It’s intrinsically linked to experiential travel because it’s the more immersive, hands-on, deeper travel experiences (the kind we offer on our own trips and retreats) that offer learning moments that lead us to a dramatically different realisation that is so significant that it changes you.

And it’s those life-changing experiences that we’re talking about when we talk about transformational travel or transformative travel, the experiences that take us as near enough to being enlightened as many of us will ever get when we travel.

This is a little tale of one such experience we had in Australia’s Top End, the tropical northern part of Australia that is rich in ancient indigenous Australian culture, blessed with sublime natural beauty, and teeming with wildlife.

Transformational Travel and a Tale of Life Changing Experiences in Australia’s Top End

A dazzling, iridescent azure kingfisher with pretty apricot coloured plumage on its broad chest and a long black bill was perched on a spindly branch, waiting for a chance to plunge into the crocodile-infested water to catch its feed.

Our small group observed the daring little fella silently from our open-sided Yellow Water Cruise boat on the glassy lagoon called Yellow Water Billabong at the end of Jim Jim Creek, a tributary of South Alligator River, in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, Australia.

A billabong is a large pond or lagoon formed by a river that’s been cut off from its source during the dry season – ‘billabong’ is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘dead river’, but these lush wetlands were well and truly alive.

On the marshland, a pair of elegant brolgas danced on their long legs, flapping their wings as they strutted about, stretching their slender curved necks out, and bobbing their heads up and down – all part of an elaborate mating ritual, we learned.

Not far away, hundreds of honking magpie geese stood in the muddy water’s edge, as if cooling off their webbed feet. Rather plain-looking when still, the grey and black water birds transformed into graceful swans in flight, their silky feathers fanning out beautifully.

But it was the comb-crested jacana, with its floppy red crest and long claws that enabled it to balance on the floating lotus leaves that I really took to. I could spend all day watching it leap daintily, and a little haughtily, from one leaf to the other – a behaviour that earned it the nickname ‘Jesus bird’ for its ability to apparently walk on water.

The abundance of birdlife was breathtaking – white-bellied sea eagles, whistling brown ducks, oriental pratincoles, snowy egrets, rufous night herons, cormorants, and more.

Our Aboriginal guide Anna revealed there were a whopping 180 species of birds in Kakadu National Park and one third of those made their home at Yellow Waters for some of the year. She and the other guides played a game of seeing who could spot the most varieties on each cruise.

While Terence and I were absorbed by the bird watching, the other passengers were more excited by the crocodiles lurking in the shallow water, the elusive file snakes that darted beneath the surface, and the buffalos that bathed on the floodplain.

The birdlife and wildlife were wonderful, but it was another element of the tour that added a special layer and gave depth to the Yellow Water Cruise and other transformational travel experiences that we’d enjoy over a couple of weeks in Kakadu that included bush walks, another cruise, and visits to interpretive centres, such as Warradjan Cultural Centre.

It was the chance to experience Kakadu through the stories of the local Bininj, the Aboriginal traditional landowners, who were our guides. Kakadu Tourism is the Indigenous owned enterprise that operates the Yellow Water cruise, as well as other tours, fishing trips, experiences such as Dreamtime storytelling under the stars, and accommodation in Kakadu National Park, a few hours’ drive from Darwin, and the staff and guides are mostly Bininj people who have trained under the Indigenous Employment Program.

The Bininj or Mungguy are the indigenous people of Kakadu. ‘Bininj’ is a word from the Kunwinjku and Gun-djeihmi languages, and ‘Mungguy’ is a Jawoyn word. They mean the equivalent of ‘man’, ‘person’ or (Aboriginal) ‘people’ in English.

Gagudju and Limilngan were the Aboriginal languages spoken in the northern floodplain region of Kakadu up until the early twentieth century, and are rarely spoken now. It’s the descendants of those languages who still live in Kakadu, the name of which was derived from Gagudju.

Today, Kakadu’s Indigenous peoples primarily use the Aboriginal languages of the northeastern area, Kunwinjku, and the centre, Gun-djeihmi and Jawoy. It’s worth noting that before the European invasion and settlement of Australia, it’s estimated there were some 500 Aboriginal nations or clan groups or tribal groups based on language groups (see this list and this database), including some 250 languages and 600 dialects.

Sadly, it’s thought that there are now only 50,000 Indigenous Australians whose mother tongue is an Aboriginal language, with only 145 languages still in use and 110 critically endangered. For more insight, see this indigenous language map produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Countless generations of Bininj/Mungguy have cared for Kakadu, which they call their Country, for tens of thousands of years. Australia’s Aborigines have the longest continuous cultural history of any people on earth, dating back some 50-65,000 years. Those connections to their land, kinship, traditions, ceremonies, customs, and languages have been passed down from generation to generation since the era that they call Creation Time.

Bininj/Mungguy believe that during Creation Time, their ancestral beings – the first people or Nayuhyunggt – made an epic journey during which they created the landforms, plants and animals. Bining/Mungguy have always been spiritually and culturally connected to their land and that special bond is recognised in Kakadu’s UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Australia’s Indigenous people call that time when the ancestral beings travelled across the land, creating life and carving out significant geographical features now iconic to Australia, The Dreaming or The Dreamtime, and the paths they took are known as songlines. Dreaming stories are told through rock art, song, dance, storytelling, and paintings, and are intended to pass on knowledge, belief systems and cultural values to later generations.

It was these kinds of things that we learnt on that trip – which represented a new way of thinking for us – that made that tour a transformational travel experience and one that was different to the experiences I’d had as a young teen travelling with my parents through the Northern Territory.

Back then, places like Kakadu and Uluru (then called Ayers Rock) were solely managed by the government’s national park department and rangers and guides were white Australians transplanted from cities, with no connection to the culture or land. But that’s another story.

On this trip we not only learnt about the land and its birds, animal and plants, we learnt about the Dreamtime stories from the Indigenous people who grew up there. These living things weren’t merely aspects of geography or biology they were part of the living cultural heritage of the Aboriginal people of Kakadu. They had also played a role in everyday life that had been intrinsic to their survival.

Another day, our guide Bronwyn pointed out a beach hibiscus or corkwood tree and told us how her ancestors had made spears from the tree’s straightest branches, how they had used the bark to create ‘bush string’, and how when they dipped it into the water it formed into a gel with all manners of uses. Bronwyn informed us with a grin that they called the tree a ‘Mitre 10’ (a hardware store franchise in Australia).

Bronwyn told us the paperbark from the malaleuca tree was very useful. They had used it to make sandals (for which the bush string also came in handy), along with pillows and mattresses, and it had multiple in the bush ‘kitchen’ (the fireplace) where it was wrapped around ‘barra’ (barramundi fish) before barbecuing it or burying it in a pit of coals. (In the same way that Cambodians here wrap banana leaves around fish and prahok before grilling it over fire.) Pandanus leaves were also used for cooking, as well as basket weaving.

Bronwyn, Anna and the other guides shared snippets from myriad stories, some of which can be told over hours, including tales of the Rainbow Serpent, the creator being, and a powerful ancestor to all Aboriginal people across Australia. The sites of those stories are the places the Rainbow Serpent passed through on her travels as she created the mountains, plateaus, gorges, and billabongs we know today.

We learnt that the first of the Creation Ancestors were called Mimi Spirits and that they painted on rocks and taught Bininj to create rock art, and that when they completed their journeys they put themselves into the rock paintings, which became djang or Dreaming places. We saw some of this art around Kakadu, and later Arnhem Land – art which represents the longest historical record of any people on the planet.

We learnt more about the Dreaming and the art at the Warradjan Cultural Centre, where the wonderful exhibitions by the Murumburr, Mirrar Gun-djeihmi, Badmardi, Bunitj, Girrimbitjba, Manilakarr, and Wargol clans covered subjects as diverse as the six seasons, bloodlines, marriage rights, customs, ceremonies, rituals, stories, and recent history, including the effects of European settlement in the Top End.

I walked out of that building feeling energised by the new knowledge yet overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of what I didn’t know, and wished I could return the next day to absorb more and make better sense of it all. Without realising it, I’d have a transformational travel experience. My life had been forever changed in a way.

When we did that trip six years ago we were working. We hadn’t set out on any kind of transformational travel experience. The Top End and Kakadu was part of an epic four-month journey by four-wheel drive that took us through five Australian states. We were researching and Terence was photographing a first edition road trip book, updating a guidebook, and gathering material for magazine stories.

We saw the work as providing us with opportunities to see spectacular parts of a country we’d left a decade earlier when we moved to the Middle East, and to spend time with family and friends in between.

We hadn’t gone home to Australia or to the Top End to seek enlightenment, but those experiences in Kakadu had a major impact on how I viewed Australia’s Aboriginal people, their Country, our country, and the world. The experiences contributed to a radically new way of thinking about my birthplace and its people. It was truly a transformational travel experience.

Although I have to confess that it wasn’t the first time I had a life-changing experience in Australia but I’ll save that story for another time.

A New Era for Transformation Travel

Travel’s ability to present life-changing experiences that transform us is one answer to a question I have pondered my entire life: why do we travel?

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, transformational travel and the chance to be changed in positive and meaningful ways is the reason that you take gap years, do volunteer experiences, go on sabbatical, and do round the world trips. It’s the reason you leave your cubicle, abandon a career, sell your home, put all your worldly possessions in storage, and buy a one-way ticket somewhere. Anywhere.

Transformational travel is about discovering and learning and making sense of something that you didn’t understand before, and being changed by that new knowledge or experience. Whether we go away to be transformed, or we return home, it’s special.

In light of the many tragic events of this year and last, I’m predicting that many of us will begin to travel to seek more clarity and meaning, that more and more people will decide to take time out to better understand the world and change our thinking, and we’re going to see a new era of transformational travel.

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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

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