How often do we ever get the opportunity to visit one of Australia's remote Indigenous communities? To have a uniquely Australian experience amid red earth and pandanus trees?
The Barunga Festival is such a rare chance, where the community spirit shines through elders, dancers and artists, and the schoolkids who take you on a tour and teach you about local history, language, and culture.
The festival has been running since 1985, making this showcase of community life in the Katherine region an iconic event on the area's social calendar. Some 4000 visitors turn up to immerse themselves in the unique experience of a remote Indigenous community; this is the only time of the year you can visit Barunga without a permit.
Get with the program
A Welcome to Country by Traditional Owners kicks off a long weekend packed with music, sports, cultural and arts programs. At the festival's heart is the sharing of customs and skills to younger generations and community celebration of indigenous culture.
In short, the festival isn't a tourist show for visitors, although visitors will find a friendly welcome and the opportunity to share in Indigenous knowledge. Nor does it merely preserve the past. The world's oldest living culture is still evolving, and the Barunga Festival is an exuberant blend of both the ancient and contemporary.
"It's a busy time, filled with community and visitors. It's about sharing culture. It's about everyone getting together and having good times and a lot of fun over a long weekend," says Anne-Marie from the Barunga Festival steering committee.
At the festival's heart is the sharing of customs and skills to younger generations. Photo: Bruce Baker/Barunga Festival
Everyone is welcome to learn the art of didgeridoo playing and traditional storytelling. Talk to elders about how to throw a spear. Drink billy tea with the Banatjarl Strongbala Wimun Grup – the local women's council – and learn about bush medicine, bush tucker, and the art of weaving. Or, have a go at traditional dance forms.
"This year, participants from Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria will present their dancing. They ask visitors if they want to join in, and everyone loves it. It's a good, exciting event," says Lee.
Listen to the music. Plunder the food stalls. Try damper hot from the coals. Join the coffee queue and have a chat as you wait. Cheers from the sidelines of the softball, basketball, and Aussie rules competitions. Some 40 AFL teams come from across the Northern Territory to play on the grass oval, creating some of the weekend's most thrilling moments.
Barunga is 80 kilometres southeast of Katherine on sealed roads and, while you're there, you can enjoy the wider region where the rusty red landscape collides with watery tropics. Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge has great crumbling cliffs of red rock best appreciated by taking a quiet kayak paddle – though if you can afford it, a scenic helicopter flight is spectacular.
An Indigenous tour is a great way to appreciate the importance of this landscape to the Jawoyn, Dagoman, and Wardaman people, and see some of the age-old rock art that adorns its cliffs.
Nitmiluk National Park preserves significant cultural sites such as lovely Leliyn (Edith Falls) whose paperbark-fringed pool invites you for a swim. Walk to Sweetwater Pool for a more remote and solitary dip.
The beautiful Edith Falls in Australia's Nitmiluk National Park. Photo: Tourism NT/Sean Scott
Keen hikers can tackle the 62-kilometre Jatbula Trail along the Arnhem Land escarpment, which showcases woodland, pockets of monsoon forest, giant termite mounds, red rock, and more waterfalls.
You'll also want to visit Elsey Station, where in 1902 Jeannie Gunn wrote about it in We of the Never Never. After exploring the heritage sites – including a haunting cemetery whose termite mounds outdo tombstones – check out the Stockyard Gallery for local Aboriginal art and didgeridoos. You'll see how this land has inspired culture for tens of thousands of years – and still does, in exciting and innovative ways.
The Barunga Festival runs 12-14 August 2022. For more information, visit northernterritory.com/katherine-and-surrounds/events/barunga-festival.