One of the most secluded corners of Australia, East Arnhem Land, might be separated by hundreds of kilometres of dirt road, but the opportunity to experience untamed nature and ancient culture makes it worth the trip.
- Discovering a remote corner of Australia few people get to visit
- Visiting ancient Indigenous homelands
- Getting well and truly off-grid
On The Road to East Arnhem Land
Travelling in East Arnhem Land? Forget everything you think you know about planning a road trip. Up here, places don’t show up on Google Maps, old faithful Wikicamps won’t help you out, and you won’t be making your friends jealous with live Insta updates. There isn’t much phone signal out here, but that’s the beauty of it.
Indigenous culture is strong here, with Yolngu people living more traditional lifestyles on ancient homelands and in small communities. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the oldest and longest surviving cultures in the world and learn about the deep connection to the land and sea.
Talk to The Locals
With so much of Arnhem Land not only off-grid, but also offline, your only choice if you want to know where to go (and how to get there), is to get chatting. Chat to everyone you meet – they all have great suggestions. From the lady behind the counter in the general store, to the family you meet playing on the beach, and the guy at the campsite next door.
Arnhem Land is an outdoor adventurers’ playground – but you won’t get much out of it by keeping to yourself. This place is as much about the people as it is about the sights, so to really make the most of it you have to put yourself out there and get stuck in.
Photos thanks to Lirriwi Tourism
Day 1 – Katherine
Rest up at the Riverview Tourist Village before your early start driving the Central Arnhem Road. Take a dip in the hot springs at the back of the campsite, catch a show at the Katherine Outback Experience, or join a painting workshop at Top Diji.
Make sure to check which transit permits (free) and recreation permits (paid) you need for East Arnhem Land and apply for them before you set off. East Arnhem Land is private Aboriginal land owned by the Yolngu people, so make sure you travel respectfully through the area.
Day 2 – Hit the Central Arnhem Road
In the morning, grab a coffee from the Finch Cafe and drive 50km down the Stuart Highway before turning onto the Central Arnhem Road.
The first part of the Central Arnhem Road is sealed, but once you hit Beswick, the real fun begins. Take in the amazing contrast of the blue cloudless sky, the green of the trees and the bright red dirt road.
If you haven’t driven many unsealed roads before, you now have over 700km to get acquainted with them. Remember to take your time and go slow, especially over corrugations, and watch out for wildlife around dusk, dawn and at night.
The first stop on your East Arnhem Land adventure is the Escarpment Lookout, about 170km from Katherine. Enjoy lunch with a view before continuing another 80km to the Mainoru Store. Camp here for the night and be sure to fill up with fuel as there are only two more fuel stops on the Central Arnhem Road: Bulman and Nhulunbuy.
Day 3 – Gapuwiyak
After a long and dusty 300km from the Mainoru Store, pull in at Gapuwiyak to visit the Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts Centre. While in Gapuwiyak, remember that you are now on private Indigenous land. Dress modestly and read up about how to travel respectfully through communities.
There’s no camping here, so tonight you can enjoy a break from the NT heat with some aircon in the Arts Centre Donga. Make sure to call ahead to check opening hours, get your free transit permit, and book accommodation.
Day 4 & 5 – Baringura (Little Bondi)
Baringura, or Little Bondi, is one of the few campsites in East Arnhem Land where you can drive on the sand. Drive 200km from Gapuwiyak and then park right up on the beach and set up camp. Help the rangers keep Arnhem Land beaches pristine.
Afterwards enjoy the coastal walks south down to Numuy (Turtle Beach), Garanhan (Maccassan) and Binydjarrnga (Daliwuy) Beach where there’s ancient Yolngu stone art to see. Book your campsite ahead of time here.
Day 6, 7 & 8 – Nhulunbuy (Gove)
40km from Baringura is the town of Nhulunbuy, or Gove. Largely set up by mining company Rio Tinto, it has a Woolworths and a petrol station, as well as restaurants, cafes, a post office, and a hardware store. Camp at the Manyimi Campground at the Gove Boat Club. The views over the water are quite spectacular, and the sunsets aren’t bad either!
What To Do
Pick up a town map from the information centre and take a few days to explore Nhulunbuy. Walk up to the Roy Marika Lookout, stroll along Galuru (East Woody) Beach, or get out on the water with a fishing charter. Check the notice boards in town for events such as the monthly markets or sunset cruises aboard the Iron Lady.
Travelling in East Arnhem Land gives you a great opportunity to learn more about the culture of the local Indigenous people – starting with their art. From the Gove Boat Club, you’re only a few minutes drive to the Gopu Community Store which serves nice coffee to enjoy in their shady garden. They have a selection of art from local artists which is more contemporary than that of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala.
Buku is just a 25-minute drive from the Boat Club and well worth a visit. The detail and the intricacy of the traditional style of painting is breath-taking. While in Yirrkala, drive out to Shady Beach to take in the ocean air and watch the waves for a while.
Where To Eat
If you’re keen to eat something that didn’t come out of your camp oven, head to the Surf Club on a Friday evening for pizzas from the Roaming Flames food truck. For something a little fancy, head to Latitude 12 at the Walkabout Lodge. For a great breakfast, stop in at the Refinery Cafe, and for lunch with a view, look no further than right next door. The Gove Boat Club does excellent food Thursday to Sunday.
Day 9 & 10 – Visit the East Arnhem Homelands
A visit to the remote homelands, where Yolngu people live more traditional lives, is a great opportunity to understand more about East Arnhem Land Indigenous culture. Tours to the Yolngu Homelands can be booked via Lirriwi Tourism.
The Bawaka homelands are about 1.5 hours from Nhulunbuy and Nyinyikay is about 3 hours from Nhulunbuy. Most tours are two nights. They start with a Welcome To Country and from there you learn about the connection between the people, land, and sea. As well as getting involved with everyday activities such as catching fish for dinner.
The Yolngu dress modestly – loose clothing such as knee-length skirts or shorts and t-shirts are perfect for the heat and to not offend your hosts. Revealing clothing such as bikinis are not appropriate, so bring a shirt to swim in.
Photos thanks to Lirriwi Tourism
Day 11 – Visit Banubanu on Dhambaliya (Bremer Island)
Time: 30min by boat
Whether you stay overnight at Banubanu or visit for the day, a trip to Dhambaliya (Bremer Island), about 30 minutes by boat from Nhulunbuy, is a must.
There are complimentary kayaks and snorkels available for you to explore the bay, as well as walking trails and a restaurant serving nice food and cold drinks. They have a plunge pool up at the restaurant so you can take a dip while looking out over the ocean.
To get a real sense of the immense scale of East Arnhem Land, take a scenic flight to Bremer Island and enjoy the view from above.
Day 12 – Banambarrnga (Rainbow Cliff)
After exploring Nhulunbuy, it’s time to slowly make your way back down the Central Arnhem Road. But not to worry, this road trip is far from over. Your next stop is Banambarrnga (Rainbow Cliff), where you can watch the bright blue ocean lap against the vibrant orange cliffs from the oceanside campsite.
Day 13 & 14 – Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem)
Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem) is just 35km from Banambarrnga (Rainbow Cliffs). According to locals, it’s one of the best places to visit in East Arnhem Land for people who enjoy driving and camping. Here you can drive down the wide-open, near untouched, white sand beaches and camp with the salty sea air keeping you cool. If you’re lucky, you might just have the place to yourself.
Make sure to read the Dhimurru Visitors’ Guide before you visit Cape Arnhem as there are sacred Yolngu sites you need to be mindful of.
Day 15 & 16 – Dholuwuy Campground in Blue Mud Bay (Gulf of Carpentaria)
Near the Baniyala Homeland, the Dholuwuy campground is roughly 200km from Cape Arnhem, along the Central Arnhem Road.
As with all the campsites in East Arnhem Land, you have to book your camping permit in advance. Enjoy your last few nights camping by the beach and soak up nature before starting your final drive down Central Arnhem Road.
Day 17 – Stuart Highway via Ghunmarn Culture Centre, Beswick
Distance: Approx 600km to the Stuart Highway
To break up the drive back, stop at the Ghunmarn Culture Centre in Beswick to grab a coffee and check out the local creations (open weekdays). They also have modern accommodation and run cultural activities on a fairly casual basis, so call in advance.
Back on the highway and back to reality. There’s nowhere quite like East Arnhem Land – the road trip you take here is much more than red dirt and ocean views.
When all is said and done, there will be a LOT of red dirt in your car, but hopefully the inspiring Yolngu locals you meet and the amazing scenery you see will more than make up for it. With almost 2,000 kilometres travelled over 17 days, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for this rugged and remote place in the Northern Territory that the Yolngu people call home.
Travel Tips for East Arnhem Land Road Trip
- Find out which permits you need and apply before you travel
- A road trip to East Arnhem Land is best done in the dry season (June/July/August) due to some roads being inaccessible during the wet season
- There are also several events in the dry season such as the Garma festival and the Nhulunbuy Beach Volleyball Tournament
- Like most of remote Australia, there aren’t many places to stock up on fuel, water and food supplies, so plan ahead
- Find out which facilities are available at campsites here
- Drive with your headlights on, even during the day. This will help other drivers see you through the dust
- Be croc wise and mindful of other wildlife
- As always, tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back
- A 4WD is essential for this trip
- The unsealed roads can be rough, so a tent is best, even if you have an off-road camper
- Take recovery gear, spare parts, spare fuel and water etc. There’s no phone reception in a lot of places so consider taking a UHF radio, PLB, or sat phone
- Indigenous art and cultural centres
- Cultural tours
- 4WDing on the beach
- Kayaking and snorkelling (Banubanu)
Start and End Points
You can start and finish from either Katherine or Mataranka, both towns have places to stock up on food and fuel before you start your trip. The start of the Central Arnhem Road is 50km north of Mataranka and 50km south of Katherine along the Stuart Highway.
Distance Driven / Days / Time Spent Driving
Approx 1,800km driven / 17 Days / Time spent driving depends on road conditions. Most roads in East Arnhem Land are unsealed.
Feature photo thanks to @ryleyheap