About Arnhem Land
Arnhem Land is a vast region in the north-east area of the Northern Territory. It covers 34,000 km2 and is bordered by Kakadu National Park to the west, the Gulf of Carpentaria to the east and the Arafura Sea to the north.
The climate is tropical monsoonal and the average year round temperature is 17° - 33°. Humidity averages around 45% but in the wet season (November to April) it can stay close to 80% for days. The dry season (May to October) has the lowest rainfall and is the best time for outdoor activities.
Arnhem Land was named after the ship, the Arnhem, which Captain Willian van Colster from the Dutch East India Company sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1623. The Dutch explorers of this era made multiple voyages around the coastal areas of northern and western Australia and named many of the natural features.
The population of the region is about 16,000. Roughly 75% of these are Yolngu – the land’s traditional custodians - who still have a significant presence today.
The main townships are Jabiru, on the border of Kakadu National Park, and Nhulunbuy (also called Gove) on the Gove Peninsula in the far north-east of Arnhem Land. Gove was established in the 1960’s as a bauxite mining town. Other towns with service facilities are Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli), Ramingining and Maningrida.
The 2 biggest industries in the region are tourism and mining. In the 2013 – 2014 year, Arnhem Land generated around 7% (AU $1.3 billion) to the Gross State Product of the Northern Territory; mostly from bauxite mining.
Arnhem Land is one of the last truly pristine areas of wilderness left in the world. Much of it was once covered by sea and the towering escarpments were once cliffs. Today’s rugged coastline has stretches of secluded beaches shimmering with white sand and crystal clear waters. Rivers reaching the edge of the escarpments plummet in magnificent waterfalls down to the wetlands below spread out in deltas toward the sea.
The colourful, ever-changing landscape includes savannah woodland, mangrove stands and lush rainforests. The changing climate creates a rich environment for a diverse range of species to thrive. Salt water crocodiles, dugongs, migrating birds, nesting turtles, buffalo and a plethora of fish all call Arnhem Land home.
History and culture
The Yolngu and other indigenous groups have lived in northern Australia for 60,000 years. The oldest-known stone ax (believed to be 35,000 years old) was discovered in Arnhem Land and the landscape is dotted with numerous relics of ancient indigenous culture.
The Dutch began populating the South-East Asian islands from around the 17th century. Many of these islands are now part of Indonesia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, merchants from Makassar came to the continent to trade sea cucumbers or ‘trepang’ (a traditional Chinese medicine), cloth, tobacco, alcohol, knives and rice.
This had a rippling effect on both cultures including on their language, food and traditions. Today you can take the Wurrwurrwuy (Garanhan) Macassan Beach interpretative walk in northern Arnhem Land and see the incredible stone arrangements built by Yolngu elders over 100 years ago. These depict stories of the exchanges between the locals and Macassan traders.
Europeans began coming to the Top End from the mid-19th century - travelling by boat from the Australian colonies. Some came to explore the boundaries of the known world and others to forge their future in a new land. There were many attempts to establish settlements but most failed due to a lack of understanding of the land and climate. The ruins of one settlement can be seen in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the remote Cobourg Peninsula.
Gold, railways and telegraph lines brought more people from around the globe to the Territory and they gradually found their way through Arnhem Land. The region – and the Gove Peninsula in particular – became a strategic location for the Australian military during World War 2.
Art and Culture
The Gove Peninsula is famous for its indigenous art communities Maningrida and Yirrkala, near Nhulunbuy in the north-east of Arnhem Land. The hunting weapon ‘yidaki’ (didgeridoo) was first used in the Yirrkala area. Today’s artists use bark paintings to promote the rights of Indigenous Australians.
The community of Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli) in the West Arnhem region close to Kakadu National Park is well-known for bark painting and sand sculptures. The Injalak Art and Craft Centre provides a space for indigenous artists to meet and share ideas. Here you can watch the artists at work and buy their paintings and baskets. Local guides also run tours to the ancient rock art site at Injalak Hill, tell stories from the Dreamtime and conduct bush tucker tours. Other significant rock art sites are at Ubirr Rock and in the Canon Hill area.
The rock paintings found in Arnhem Land are incredibly detailed. Some record exchanges between the locals and the Macassan traders while others show evidence of early European visitors and settlers. Objects including rifles, axes, aircrafts and ships can be easily identified. One site, hundreds of kilometres from Darwin clearly shows the men and boats around Darwin wharf. Another near the East Alligator River crossing portrays a man with long pigtails down his back like a Chinese labourer from the late 19th century.
Living in Arnhem land
During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s many small Aboriginal groups around Australia moved away from the towns and mission-run communities back to homelands on their traditional land. They did this to renew and uphold their traditions and connection to the land, to help protect the land itself and to avoid social problems such as substance abuse and youth suicide. Homelands also provide the communities with a sense of belonging.
In the Northern Territory around 10,000 people live on 500 homelands - including Laynhapuy in Arnhem Land.
Politically, homelands are controversial as their scattered nature makes supplying government resources like health care and social welfare difficult and costly. Many argue that returning to the land has a positive impact on mental and physical health therefore lowering the burden on these services.
Recreation, access and accommodation
Whether you are after wild adventure, cultural experiences or to escape the stress of the cities there is plenty for you to do in Arnhem Land. Nhulunbuy is a major service centre with access to magnificent beaches and some of the best fishing in Australia. Gunbalanya is accessible from Jabiru so you can easily combine your travels through both Arnhem Land and Kakadu.
During the wet season many roads are inaccessible and facilities are closed. Scenic flights and boat cruises provide a year-round alternative.
There are numerous secluded camping areas and several fabulous wilderness lodges in the region but other forms of accommodation are limited.
4WD road access is via the Central Arnhem Road which runs from the Stuart Highway south of Katherine to Yirrkala. Alternatively, you can travel from Darwin via the Arnhem Highway or from the south from the Kakadu Highway. Daily flights connect Nhulunbuy, Darwin and Cairns.
All visitors to Arnhem Land require a permit from the Northern Land Council. These are free and they allow the council to regulate visitor numbers and protect the environment.