Spend a while in Sydney, Melbourne, or in fact most of the big Aussie cities, and you might begin to wonder if there actually are any Aboriginal people Down Under.

The reality, however, couldn’t be further away – and I don’t just mean some geezer playing the didge for tourists at Circular Quay. While Aboriginal culture can still be found in the main cities, often in the form of long-faded rock art in long-forgotten nooks and crannies, it’s most accessible when you head away from the east coast.

There’s plenty on offer in the huge expanses of SA and WA, especially up in the Kimberley. However the Northern Territory is hard to beat.

Both Darwin and Alice Springs are teeming with genuine Aboriginal art shops and music. The NT is also home to two of the biggest indigenous festivals worth checking out – the Merrepen Arts Festival in June and the Garma Festival in August.

To really get amongst it you want to head into the massive but neglected area of Arnhem Land, east of Darwin, or cruise over the water to the Tiwi Islands.

Visiting Aboriginal reserves, however, does generally require a permit. This has the plus side of meaning those areas don’t get overrun by tourists… but it also means it can get expensive. Check out sites like nlc.org.au or clc.org.au for more info.

A much easier, and cheaper, way to get your fill of local knowledge is by touring two ofAustralias most iconic areas – Kakadu National Park, which has some of the best rock art in the country, and of course the Red Centre.

The first time you get a glimpse of Uluru is undeniably a powerful experience. No traveller should leave Australia without first seeing its spiritual heart. The whole area (including Kings Canyon and the Olgas) are steeped in cultural significance so its well worth getting a guided tour to really gain an understanding of all the stories and traditions attached to these spectacular lumps of rock. Just don’t go and spoil it all by climbing Uluru, which is considered the ultimate taboo by the local Anangu tribe.

Want more? They may not be advertised in your hostel, or even have a website, but there are lots of ways to experience and better understand indigenous Australia. Try these two websites, which list indigenous tour operators. Visit aboriginalaustralia.com and aboriginaltourism.com.au

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Tiwi Islands

There is a tendency for people to lump the indigenous people of Australia into one parcel, carelessly labelled “Aborigines”. But that overlooks the fact they are made up of numerous groups and clans, with different languages and traditions.

This is especially true of Bathurst and Melville Islands, collectively known as the Tiwi Islands, lying just off the coast of Darwin. Being cut off from the mainland has made their culture unique – no didgeridoos or boomerangs, for example – and exploring their culture is rewarding.

Entry to the Tiwi Islands is by permit only and most visitors come over on one-day tours of Bathurst, the smaller island. The Tiwi people are renowned for their artwork – collectors from around the world come to add to their collections. And this is apparent as soon as you arrive and see the airport’s small toilet block. Possibly the most colourful toilets in the country, the walls are covered in traditional decorative paintings. It’s something you see on buildings throughout the main settlement of Nguiu.

Prices are considerably cheaper than on the mainland, and it’s hard to resist stocking up on souvenirs. You can often watch the artists at work, too.

A highlight of our tour, however, was having morning tea with three local ladies. After serving us damper and billy tea, we watched them paint their faces and perform traditional dances for us. With such a small group, it didn’t feel too much like a contrived tourist show.

Everyone on the islands is Catholic, but with a Tiwi twist. In the graveyard, almost every person laid to rest has both a Christian headstone and a small collection of the hugely cultural significant Pukumani (funeral) poles.

It’s hard to leave Bathurst Island without thinking the people have adapted magnificently to outside influences, to maintain their unique culture in a modern age. I for one felt immensely privileged to have been allowed to have experienced just a taste of it. MvdH

The damage & the details: Day trips with Tiwi Tours (Freephone: 1300 721 365, aussieadventure.com.au) cost from $465, including return flight from Darwin.

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I went along to Manyallaluk, about 50km from Katherine, where a handful of Aborigines from the Mayali, Rembarrnga and Ngalkboli tribes help to bridge the gap between natives and tourists.

Manyallaluk means ‘dreaming place’ in the native tongue. In just one day, the men taught us how to throw spears, play the didgeridoo and paint, while the woman demonstrated how to weave baskets.

I was impressed to find I’m quite handy with a spear (even though the local children put me to shame), but found the painting a little more tricky. Making their own colours from things they’d found in the great outdoors – like red dirt and grass – the locals effortlessly produced works of art. I’m sure my four-month-old niece could have produced something far superior to my messy scrawl.

I couldn’t get the hang of the didgeridoo either (though it’s easy to make a spectacular farting noise) and don’t even get me started on the basket weaving. Quite how the women make such intricate items out of grass I will never know.

I enjoyed finding my own ‘bush-tucker’ in the woods. I was also relieved to find that the grub we were given for lunch was of a far better variety; delicious home-made tea and damper bread, 
plus delicacies like barbecued kangaroo tail. Yummy!

If you’re thinking of heading off on a culture day, go with an open mind and listen carefully to everything they say. Oh, and brace yourself for a barrage of cuddles from the friendly and inquisitive children, too. A day at Manyallaluk is a day you’ll treasure forever. JG

The damage & the details: Manyallaluk cultural days (aboriginalaustralia.com.au) cost from $170, running from Katherine Apr-Nov.

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Aboriginal art

Strewn across rocks all over Australia, Aboriginal art isn’t always the most visually impressive of spectacles, but it plays a hugely important role in indigenous culture. The pictures hide ongoing lessons, covering everything from morality and law to hunting techniques, which have been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years.

While always hard to place exactly in time, because the materials used (such as ochre) make carbon dating impossible, the rock art is invaluable to historians, for example showing whether various animals (such as the Tasmanian tiger) were once in certain areas, and also whether white men bearing guns ever dropped by for tea.

Photos: Getty, Thinkstock