EXPLORING ARNHEM LAND
Stretching across the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory, this remote wilderness is home to one of the oldest surviving cultures on Earth. Outback Spirit will show you the Australia few ever get to see.
“Arnhem Land is sacred Aboriginal land and very few outsiders have ever been lucky enough to experience it,” says Andre Ellis, co-founder and co-owner of Outback Spirit, the only tour company with unique permission to travel from Nhulunbuy in the east across the top of Arnhem Land to get to the western Cobourg Peninsula. Ellis has a deep connection to Country – Outback Spirit worked in consultation with traditional owners and the Northern Land Council to build a network of luxury lodges and design authentic cultural experiences for the 13-day Arnhem Land Wilderness Adventure. Here are a few unforgettable highlights.
Welcome to Country
The Yolngu people have lived in Arnhem Land for more than 60,000 years. In Yirrkala, witnessing the Welcome to Country ceremony on the sand of Cape Wirrwawuy, you can feel the sense of timelessness. “This is true cultural immersion,” says Ellis. Bush medicine and ancient traditions remain strong here – locals share stories of kinship and custom in this place where the Aboriginal land rights movement first began.
Early in the morning, as mist slowly burns off under the bright sun, a billabong thrums to life. Brolgas dance on spindly legs and magpie geese skim across the top of water rippled by stealthy crocs. This is Arafura Swamp, a vast wetland culturally sacred to local Indigenous people. Outback Spirit has built a stunning safari camp here, at a place called Murwangi. Overlooking a tranquil lagoon, it’s exclusive to Outback Spirit guests and barely makes a footprint on the pristine landscape.
The wild Tomkinson and Liverpool rivers are brimming with barramundi, longtail tuna and giant trevally – the prizes of Australian fishing. Outback Spirit has unique licences and permission from traditional owners to fish these rivers; you can’t just turn up and cast a line. From a state-of-the-art Ocean Master boat, try your hand then have the chef back at the aptly named Barramundi Lodge cook up your catch. Fishing not your thing? The cruise out is still an extraordinary journey into nature.
Ancient Rock Art
The cave walls whisper at Mount Borradaile. Inside some of the best-preserved rock-art galleries in Australia, fantastically bright scenes tell tales of first contact with Europeans. A six-metre, ochre-coloured rainbow serpent snakes across one sandstone roof – he’s been here for thousands of years. At the Major Art “gallery”, handprints still vivid in yellow and red speak of the people who give this place a powerful sense of spirit. In cultural centres visited on the 13-day journey, you’ll see how Indigenous art lives on.
Sea and Safari
In one of the least inhabited spots on Earth, on the Cobourg Peninsula, sits Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge. From this luxuriously tropical, palm-shaded haven overlooking Coral Bay, sail into the waters of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, where dolphins and dugongs swim with crocodiles, then visit historic Victoria Settlement at Port Essington. Next, join a naturalist guide on an open-back 4WD to visit surrounding bushland and extraordinary nypa palms. “It’s a surreal spot – red outback meets turquoise coast,” says Ellis. Magic.
Alison Bergner and Tristan Morrison used to think “local” meant “from Australia”. The couple from Wollongong, south of Sydney, had their eyes opened during a holiday in Tasmania, which inspired them to make the jump across the ditch to start up Bryher (bryherfood.com), a licensed café. Named after an island off the coast of Cornwall on which they lived and worked, Bryher strives to use products so local you can almost see them growing, including tomatoes from Tasmanian Natural Garlic & Tomatoes, herbs from Thirlstane Gardens and sourdough from Apiece. Most of the menu moves with the seasons (“Sometimes we may have just a few serves of something interesting that we found at the Harvest market,” says Morrison) but nostalgic favourites such as boiled eggs with soldiers and cheesy rarebit are permanent fixtures. cliffs along the South Esk River from the King’s Bridge in West Launceston. The one-kilometre track starts near Stillwater so fill yourself with a slow-cooked pork and kimchi breakfast omelette before you set off.
Parts of the gorge can feel like a retro ski resort in the off-season – or Kellerman’s from Dirty Dancing if you squint hard enough – thanks to the towering pines and the chairlift silently drifting overhead. Stroll through the Cliff Grounds, keeping an eye out for peacocks and pademelons milling about between the rhododendrons and giant sequoias, and over the Alexandra Suspension Bridge to the lawns beside the 50-metre swimming pool – the perfect place to picnic. For the energetic, the Zig Zag Track takes you to the clifftops for spectacular views.
STEP BACK IN TIME
If there’s room in your suitcase for souvenirs of the non-edible kind, call into Vintage Red Fox (64 Tamar Street; 0400 468 419), opposite City Park, to browse this treasure-trove of fashion, jewellery and antiques. It’s like walking into your grandmother’s boudoir – if your nanna was Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Harlow. Possible finds at the store are beaded evening gowns, quality woollens, leather goods and accessories sourced from all over the world. There used to be an adjoining café that sold the city’s best lumberjack cake but owner Tanya Chantler has closed it to focus her energies on the antiques business. But you can still enjoy a takeaway brew while browsing. “I’ve retained the machine to sell coffee – and satisfy my own addiction,” says Chantler.
ENJOY THE HIGH LIFE
Historic Highfield House (highfieldhousebandb.com.au) is up a hill (what isn’t in Launceston?) but otherwise it’s one of the most convenient (and pretty) places to base yourself. Set in manicured gardens and with balconies edged in metal lacework, this stately circa 1860 mansion has six suites that offer a glimpse into the city’s past. Traditional details – including wide-board timber floors, original ceiling roses and cast-iron fireplaces – mix well with modern updates such as cowhide rugs and potted plants. For breakfast, a continental spread of fresh fruit, bread, croissants, eggs, cheeses and cereals (including glutenfree), coffee and tea is served on silver platters and cake stands in the dining room or sunny courtyard.
(Clockwise from top) Alison Bergner and Tristan Morrison of Bryher; relax at Highfield House; hunt for treasures at Vintage Red Fox