Cruise Nitmiluk Gorge on Katherine River, Northern Territory

You can tell the women are nervous. Jane, who seems like she's their leader, gestures to me to come over, to join them on their side of the boat, though she doesn't look too keen on the idea, and she's pretty sure I won't be either.

Men don't weave baskets. Not Jawoyn men, anyway. This is the women's domain, a ritual that's held dear, an art form that's passed down through generations of a specific gender. It's not that they mind showing me how to do it today – it's just that it feels a bit wrong.

I share their nervousness, mostly because I'm not very good at stuff like this. I was more at home trying to start a fire with Terence, one of the Jawoyn men. I felt more comfortable learning to play a didgeridoo with the blokes. But I came here to discover Jawoyn culture – all of it – and this weaving business looks like it plays a major part.

And so I take a seat on the deck of the boat as it chugs along the Katherine River in the Northern Territory, through the beautiful Nitmiluk Gorge, deep into the heart of Jawoyn country, and learn, tentatively and awkwardly, how to weave a basket.

This is not a standard cruise in Nitmiluk National Park. Mostly, people come here to sightsee. They jump in boats and cruise up into the gorge, snapping photos of the spectacular scenery, the red-rock canyons carved out over millennia. Some wander past the Aboriginal rock art and get a brief explanation. Mostly though, they're here to swim in the waterholes, to spot crocs in the river, to relax in the boat.

What they're missing, however, is the spiritual history of this land, the knowledge and the stories of the traditional owners, the Jawoyn people. That's why Nitmiluk Tours, the company owned and run by the Jawoyn, has recently introduced its Cultural Safari Tours, a series of cruises that focus as much on Jawoyn culture as on the natural landscape around Katherine River.

A team of six Jawoyn – three women and three men – take tourists on a cruise up the river and into the gorge, teaching them about Dreamtime stories and cultural history, as well as traditional skills such as basket weaving, didgeridoo playing and making a fire.

It's the perfect blend of the natural and the spiritual, and a brush with another culture that makes you realise how little you know about Australia. These stories and this knowledge aren't an addition to the landscape – they're part of it.

The modern-day owners, too, are part of it. More than you realise. More than you expect. At one point Jamie, one of the Jawoyn guys, points out some rock art on a far wall, and mentions that it's thousands of years old, but it looks bright and fresh because a couple of Jawoyn elders gave it a bit of a touch-up a few years ago.

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"Did you have to get permission for that?" I ask.

Jamie smiles. "Who from? It's ours."

Oh yeah. Of course it is. There's so much more to learn here, too, so much you don't know, and so much that you probably have wrong. Jamie and Terence are keen to teach me about the didgeridoo, to show me how bees wax is moulded around the end of a hollow log, to demonstrate the best way to get a sound out of these things, but first, there's something important I need to know.

"We don't call these 'didgeridoos'," Jamie says. "It's 'artawirr' in the Jawoyn language. "

That knowledge doesn't help me get any sound out of the artawirr, but it's nice to know. Similarly, I might know some of the Jawoyn creation stories now, I might have learned about "clever people", those elders that the Jawoyn believe possess psychic powers, I might appreciate the land that little bit more after spending time with its traditional owners, but I still can't start a fire with two sticks.

I can't weave a basket either, much as I might try, much as Jane might awkwardly attempt to teach me. Maybe this really is women's business. Or maybe it's just Jawoyn business. But it's nice to have tried.

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TOUR

Nitmiluk Tours' Bolong's Dreaming Two-Gorge Safari takes two-and-a-half hours, and includes a boat cruise, all cultural education and interaction with local Jawoyn people, plus a picnic lunch and soft drinks, for $200 per person. See nitmiluktours.com.au

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Tourism Northern Territory.

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