Australia is home to the longest continuously surviving culture on earth. However many visitors to Australia come and go without ever learning about the culture of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is unfortunate because learning about the different language groups in Australia, and their rich and varied cultures is an amazing and unique experience. That’s why I was so thrilled when I was offered the opportunity to temporarily live in Kununurra at the very northern tip of Western Australia.
I was excited to discover more about the customs, culture, and significant sites of the local Miriwoong people. As well as those living in the country further away.
Although I’ve visited many countries, it turned out that this experience, in my own backyard, was definitely one of the very best.
An introduction to Aboriginal Australian history
It is always ironic to me that Australia is often described as a very “new” country. When in reality, it is one of the most historic places on earth! Although it may not have been known by its European name. Australia has been inhabited for at least 45,000 years.
For tens of thousands of years, various groups in Australia lived and thrived off of the land. It is a common misconception that Aboriginal people were one big group who lived nomadically. In reality, there were more than 500 ‘nations,’ each with their own land, language, and culture.
As there are so many different groups, cultures and traditions vary. However, in general, Aboriginal Australian culture is deeply connected to nature, the environment, and the earth. Often the art, dance, and music of Aboriginal people are inspired by the land and the “Dreaming” stories of how it came to be.
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When Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788, many Aboriginal Australian groups were driven from their land and persecuted. Despite the many issues that continue to be faced by Aboriginal Australians, they have worked hard to maintain their cultures, languages, and practices.
Kununurra, the “capital” of the Eastern Kimberley
One of the places where there are many significant Aboriginal cultural sites is in the Eastern Kimberley region, of which Kununurra, WA is the largest town. In fact, the name “Kununurra” comes from the Miriwoong word ‘Goonoonoorrang’, which means the river.
This makes sense because it is located near the banks of the Ord River.
There are many other things to do in Kununurra. But I do think that learning about Aboriginal culture is one of the very best. And offers an amazing opportunity to learn about this unique and rich culture.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Eastern Kimberley region is absolutely spectacular. For anyone dreaming of the quintessential “Aussie outback” experience, the Eastern Kimberley, with its red dirt, huge baobab trees, and termite mounds, is sure to fit the bill. (Side note: I also love Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, Adnyamathanha country, for an outback experience).
Things to do in Kununurra
There are many different things to do in the region. Many of which introduce you to the fascinating sites in the area. Here are some of my favorites that I tried while visiting the place.
Mirima National Park
One of my favorite things about the town is that there is a fabulous national park right within the city limits! It’s known as Mirima, or Hidden Valley, National Park, and it’s well worth a visit.
The park is extremely unique, with craggy red cliff faces and valleys. When I was there, a fire had recently burned through the park. And added a black tinge to all of the interesting rock formations. It’s definitely a uniquely beautiful place to visit.
There are lots of brilliant hiking trails in the park. But I recommend getting started very early because it gets incredibly hot. Also, make sure to bring plenty of water.
Among the trails is one that will walk you through the park’s significance to Aboriginal people. Including pointing out plants that have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. You can also see some places which are the site of important ceremonies. If you’re lucky, spot some ancient rock art.
Most of the trails end at beautiful viewpoints where you can look out over the huge park. Depending on the season, it could be covered in wildflowers, such as in spring, or completely barren, during the hot, dry summers.
Many different Australian animals live in the park. So you should definitely keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of famous Aussie residents! Animals including echidnas, wallabies, and dingoes are often spotted wandering in Mirima.
You aren’t allowed to camp in the park. However, Kununurra Caravan Park is not far away if you fancy spending the night in a tent!
This was a definite highlight for me. Waringarri Arts is located right in the town and is a great stop-off. Also, the gallery is air-conditioned, which you will welcome if it’s a hot Kimberley day!
Waringarri Arts is a gallery and studio space that is popular with many Aboriginal artists. From groups including Miriwoong and Gajirrabeng, who are both from the Kimberley. On any given day, you’re likely to see people gathered around the courtyard, painting and chatting in the sun.
I am no art expert. In fact, it’s not something that had ever really interested me before I visited Waringarri. However, as I did the tour, I became absolutely fascinated.
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You see, Aboriginal art is so, so much more than “dot painting”. Because Aboriginal languages have never been written. Art has been a way to tell stories and to communicate with later generations.
For thousands of years, Aboriginal art has been used to tell “Dreaming Stories”, which are colorful legends and tales about things like how the world was created. Other art might map out special sites. Such as those used for ceremonies or other cultural matters.
Like language, the style of Aboriginal art varies from group to group (and artist to artist). However, there are often some similarities. One is that generally, the artist must have permission to paint about a certain subject matter. An artist would never paint a Dreaming Story that doesn’t “belong” to their family or group.
As a result, every Aboriginal artwork is absolutely fascinating. I could have spent hours in the gallery, learning about the backstory behind every piece and tracing my eyes over each and every part of the canvas, knowing every symbol had been carefully included.
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Unfortunately, most of the artwork in the gallery was out of my budget. However, they did sell beautiful card sets and journals which I was happy to buy as a souvenir to tide me over until I can buy my own masterpiece!
How to buy authentic Aboriginal Australian art
A quick word about buying authentic Aboriginal art.
As you can see, Aboriginal art is linked very closely with culture and is very special to Aboriginal people. Each piece is important and culturally significant.
Unfortunately, nowadays the souvenir market in Australia is flooded with fake Aboriginal art. That is often made overseas by people who have no idea about the culture behind it. Although this isn’t illegal, it is extremely hurtful to many Aboriginal people who see it as stealing their culture.
I would highly recommend only buying Aboriginal art and souvenirs from shops like Waringarri Arts, that work with genuine Aboriginal Australian artists. Not only does this mean that your purchase directly supports the community, but it also means that you will know that your piece of art is special.
El Questro Station or Wilderness Park at Kununurra
It’s no secret that Australia is big. But when I heard that El Questro station is bigger than several European countries, I was pretty amazed. Plus, it was also the backdrop for much of the movie “Australia”.
Before El Questro was bought and turned into a private national park/accommodation resort, its many waterholes, and rivers, as well as the plains, were inhabited by Aboriginal Australian people. In fact, negotiations are ongoing for an agreement between traditional owners and the owners of El Questro, to share the use of the land.
In the meantime, it’s still a beautiful place to explore. Really get a feel for just how huge the Kimberley landscape actually is. El Questro is a bit like an outdoor playground, with a network of hiking trails. Fishing for barramundi, the Kimberley’s tastiest and most famous fish, is also a favorite pastime!
Along the trails, you can find many examples of Aboriginal rock art. That is thought to date back tens of thousands of years.
Perhaps the highlight of El Questro is the beautiful Emma Gorge. It’s a huge waterfall. And a pool where you can escape the hot temperatures and swim around. While the water is refreshingly chilly, there is one part that is very near a hot spring. If you prefer to swim in the warm! I’m not much of a swimmer. But I still really loved just paddling by the edges and enjoying the beautiful view.
It’s definitely well worth a visit to take in the amazing landscapes and come to appreciate the beauty of Miriwoong country.
How to Get Around Kununurra and Where to Stay
It is a town of about 6,000 people. So it’s pretty well resourced with shops, cafes and petrol stations. There is also a range of different accommodation options, from the Kununurra Caravan Park which has campsites as well as modest cabins, to ultra-luxurious resorts.
There is no public transport. So you’ll need either your own vehicle (there are several car hire places – a four-wheel drive is recommended), or you can go on a tour.
There are several excellent Aboriginal-owned and operated tourism companies that operate there. If you are interested in taking a deeper dive and discovering more about this fascinating culture, I highly recommend this as an option.
However you get around this place, I’m sure it will be as magical and eye-opening as I found it to be!
This is a Guest Post by Georgie Mack
Georgie Mack is an Australian travel blogger currently living in England. She loves to travel that’s good for your wallet and good for the earth. You can follow her adventures in traveling and wine drinking at Journey with Georgie (https://journeywithgeorgie.com) or on Instagram at @journeywithgeorgie