The density of living culture in the Northern Territory is hard to match, but how do you properly show respect while exploring the Red Centre and the Top End? After experiencing it for herself, Bee Stephens has some tips on understanding culture in the NT.
The Magic of the Territory
When you stand before the Northern Territory’s natural and cultural wonders, their scale and otherworldly characteristics demand your attention. Humbled, you can’t help but feel absorbed by the incredible landscapes. These are places that ooze magic, that have captured imaginations since the beginning of time and continue to hold infinite cultural meaning for Traditional Owners.
Often these popular sites, both sacred and spiritual, have sustained the livelihood of Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years. You only have to spend a few days walking the Larapinta or Jatbula Trail to quickly understand just how important a waterhole is for human survival in the Northern Territory.
Connection to Country is a huge part of Indigenous Australian cultures; critical cultural stories and messages are kept in the landscape, unlocked 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 help to protect it and walk away with an enriched visit.
On our trip to the NT, we set out to take in certain 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
5.5 Hour Drive From Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway
Uluṟu is traditionally owned by the Anangu people, who have occupied the area for tens of thousands of years.
For Anangu and other Indigenous Australian people, Uluṟu holds incredible spiritual significance and is believed to have been the same since the creation period. The creation period, or Tjukurpa (pronounced ‘chook-orr-pa’), refers to the period of time where ancestral beings moved across the land creating the world as we know it.
Tjukurpa guides daily life for Anangu people, and is a complex belief system that encompasses law, religion and moral guidance. It’s not written down but memorised through songs, dancing, art and ceremonies to be passed on from one generation to the next.
Natural features found within Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa possess potent Tjukurpa reminders, wisdom and learnings for Anangu people.
Whilst visiting Uluṟu we completed the Lungkata Walk and were enlightened by Anangu wisdom. For Anangu, the western face of Uluṟu is a physical reminder of Lungkata, a greedy blue-tongue lizard who discovered Uluṟu whilst burning off the land, a traditional 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 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 Uluṟu 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 Uluṟu.
Respecting Men’s Business & Women’s Business
Kata Tjuta – Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park
5.5 Hour Drive From Alice Springs on the Stuart Highway
Taking in the sunrise from the Dune Viewing Spot, we were mesmerised by Kata Tjuṯa, 30 or more large rock formations began to transition from deep purples to rich oranges as the sun’s first light crept across the landscape.
Kata Tjuṯa, also known as the Olgas, is located in the same National Park as Uluṟu, its domes and gorges have always been a source of life in the desert.
Traditionally it is a sacred place for Anangu men, when visiting Kata Tjuṯa they camp a distance from the domes, avoid swimming in the gorges’ waterholes and walk quietly whilst traversing between formations. This is done out of respect for the cultural story connected to the site.
For Indigenous 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. The system is in place to ensure stories and traditions are correctly repeated as they are passed down, and so they are passed down to the relevant people.
The legend of Kata Tjuṯa is kept secret, and a story for only certain initiated Anangu men to know. In light of this, if you intend to visit Kata Tjuṯa, keep the spiritual significance of the place in mind whilst experiencing this ancient temple, and always obey the National Park’s signs regarding photography of the site.
We suggest heading to the Cultural Centre before visiting the sites in Uluṟu Kata Tjuṯa 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
3.5 Hour Drive From Darwin via the Arnhem Highway
Cue Toto’s Africa… Ubirr is nature at its best, with incredible sandstone cliffs that overlook vast floodplains. It’s no wonder why 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 vivid story of life in the area. Just as there are many diverse Indigenous Australian languages spoken by different language 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 found in this area document ancestral stories from the creation period, historic events and communicate what food is available to eat in the local area.
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. 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 National Park’s signage.
Forming & Nurturing a Connection to Country
Yellow Water Billabong Cruise – Yellow Water (Ngurrungurrudjba) Region
3.5 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 infamous wetlands. We jetted off into this wildlife paradise on the sunset cruise and were bamboozled by the amount of nature scenes unfolding before our eyes.
The Top End’s Attenborough, Reuben, a local Bininj man, was our guide. His people have occupied the area for 60,000 years and rightly so, have incomparable knowledge of the land. Reuben is a charismatic storyteller and will make sure this is one of the most informative and entertaining rides you take!
As we spotted various plants and animals, we were given the full rundown on each species, the meaning of movements from perched Darter birds to the territorial nature of Saltwater Crocs. We learned it was brought back to life after being overrun by thousands of introduced water buffalo before their numbers were decimated in the ’80s.
Feeling as if 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 our earth.
All cultural information was sourced from the official factsheets, interpretative signs or websites of NT National Parks and Parks Australia. Information has been fact-checked and approved prior to publishing.
Feature photo by Bee Stephens