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Listen, respect & connect Understanding culture in the Northern Territory

Written by We Are Explorers

When you stand before the NT’s natural and cultural wonders, their scale and otherworldly characteristics demand your attention. You can’t help but feel humbled and absorbed by the incredible landscapes. These are places that ooze magic, that have captured imaginations since the beginning of time, and continue to hold deep cultural meaning for Traditional Owners.

Often these sacred and spiritual sites have sustained the livelihood of Aboriginal Australians for tens of thousands of years. You only need to spend a few days walking the Larapinta or Jatbula Trail to understand how important a waterhole is for human survival in the Outback. Connection to country plays a strong role in Aboriginal Australian cultures. Essential cultural stories and messages are stored in the landscape, unlocked only by select members of the community to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Similar to visiting the temples of Nepal, Greece’s Mt Parnassos or India’s Taj Mahal, by acknowledging a place’s deep cultural value you can help to protect it and walk away having had an enriched experience.

On our trip to the NT, we set out to take in places through the eyes of Traditional Owners, listening to stories of the land and connecting with ancient cultural practices. We hope you do the same…

Listening to inspiring Creation stories

Uluru, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park 

5½ hour drive from Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway

Uluru is traditionally owned by the Anangu people, who have occupied the area for tens of thousands of years.

For Anangu and other Aboriginal Australian people, Uluru holds incredible spiritual significance and is believed to have remained the same since the creation period. This period, the Tjukurpa (pronounced chook-orr-pa), refers to the time when ancestral beings moved across the land creating the world as we know it.

Tjukurpa is a complex belief system that encompasses law, religion and moral guidance, and guides the daily life of Anangu people. It’s not written down but is memorised through songs, dancing, art and ceremonies that are passed from one generation to the next. Natural features found around Uluru and Kata Tjuta possess potent Tjurkurpa reminders, wisdom and learnings for Anangu people.

Whilst visiting Uluru we completed the Lungkata Walk and were enlightened by Anangu wisdom. For Anangu, the western face of Uluru is a physical reminder of Lungkata, a greedy blue-tongued lizard who discovered Uluru during a burn-off – a traditional land management practice still practised today.

Lungkata camped high on the western face and, hungry after his journey, stole precious food from other hunters. Lungkata lied to the hunters when they asked if he’d seen the food, and received a fateful revenge. The hunters followed a trail of scraps that lead to the dishonest lizard’s camp, and in return set a large bonfire below his cave. The dark stains on the steep slopes of Uluru are thought to be the smoke and ash from this fire. The smoke choked Lungkata to death, who then fell from the high cave, losing limbs as he tumbled to become a small solitary stone. This story is a reminder of the consequences of being greedy and dishonest, whilst cautioning against the dangers of climbing Uluru.

At the park there are daily ranger-guided tours of the Lungkata Walk and the Mala Walk where you can learn more about Uluru’s living cultural landscape.

Respecting men’s business & women’s business

Kata Tjuta, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

5½ hour drive from Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway

Taking in the sunrise from the dune viewing area, we were mesmerised by Kata Tjuta. 30 or more large rock formations transitioned from deep purples to rich oranges as the light crept across the landscape. Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, is located in the same National Park as Uluru. Its domes and gorges have always been a source of life in the desert.

Traditionally it’s a sacred place for Anangu men. When visiting Kata Tjuta, they camp a distance from the domes, avoid swimming in the waterholes and walk quietly whilst traversing between formations. This is done out of respect for the cultural story connected to the site.

For Aboriginal Australians some stories or traditions are only passed on to certain members of the community, and some are for men or women only: men’s business and women’s business. This system ensures stories and traditions are correctly repeated as they’re passed down. The legend of Kata Tjuta is kept secret, a story known only by initiated Anangu men. When you visit Kata Tjuta, please keep the spiritual significance in mind and always obey the park’s signs regarding photography of the site.

We suggest heading to the Cultural Centre before visiting the sites in Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. Your visit will support the local community and allow you to gain a deeper understanding of the Anangu way of life.

The journey is the destination 

Ubirr, Kakadu National Park

3½ hour drive from Darwin via the Arnhem Highway

Ubirr is nature at its best, with incredible sandstone cliffs that overlook vast floodplains. It’s no wonder that it’s an important cultural site for the Bininj/Mungguy people.

Traditionally a vibrant meeting place and educational hub, the area is covered in intricate rock art that dates back 50,000 years and tells a story of life in the area. Just as there are many Aboriginal Australian languages spoken by different groups, various regions and people are known for distinctive creative practices. Kakadu’s people are renowned for Rarrk style painting, also known as x-ray art. It’s characterised by the use of fine lines in intricate cross-hatching patterns.  

Paintings from this area document ancestral stories of the creation period, historic events, and the food available to eat nearby. For the local Bininj/Mungguy people, the creative process is often more important than the end result. It’s during the act of painting when knowledge is shared, stories are told, and learning happens. This is a moral reminder we can all benefit from – to enjoy the journey not just the destination.

Kakadu’s art sites are World Heritage-Listed and extremely sacred for Traditional Owners. To help conserve these precious sites, when visiting please keep to the boardwalks and marked paths, avoid touching or photographing the art and pay attention to signage.

Forming & nurturing a connection to country

Yellow Water Billabong Cruise, Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba) Region 

3½ hour drive from Darwin via Arnhem Highway

Located in the Yellow Water region, this cruise takes you through the heart of one of Kakadu’s famous wetlands. We jetted off into this wildlife paradise on a sunset cruise and were bamboozled by the nature scenes unfolding before our eyes. 

Our guide was Reuben, a local Bininj man, known as “the Top End’s David Attenborough”. His people have occupied the area for 60,000 years so have incomparable knowledge of the land. Reuben is a charismatic storyteller and will ensure your ride is the most informative and entertaining you’ve ever taken.

As we spotted various plants and animals, we were given the rundown on each species, the meaning of movements from perched darter birds and the territorial nature of saltwater crocs. We learnt the wetlands were restored back to life after being overrun by thousands of introduced water buffalo, before their numbers were decimated in the eighties.

Feeling as though we’d dived head-first into a painter’s warm pink palette, an iridescent sunset marked the finale of our journey. The cruise provided a wonderful insight into the undeniable connection the local Bininj people have with the land. A relationship that aims to respect every living creature’s existence and its unique role on earth.

All cultural information was sourced from the official fact sheets, interpretative signs or websites of NT National Parks and Parks Australia. Information has been fact checked prior to publishing.

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