East Arnhem Land Map
There are many amazing destinations in Australia but there is one you may not have heard about – it’s the East Arnhem Land in Northern Territory.
So what makes it so good?
Start with the azure blue waters of the Arafura Sea, classic red sand, tropical greenery and fabulous weather!
It is a picture-perfect location in the northern Australian dry season! Throw in incredible fishing, fantastic campsites, and some great 4WDing and you have one of the very best destinations in Australia to visit.
To experience this location, you need an appropriate camping setup and one of the best is a slide on campers such as the Trayon Camper.
Some of the best locations are off-limits to camper trailers so it is fantastic to be camping in a remote spectacular spot with all the extra comforts such as a hot shower, comfortable bed, plenty of storage space, fridge for the essentials, and plenty of water.
The main access route to the Eastern Arnhem Region is the Central Arnhem Road which consists of over 700km of unsealed roads with water crossings and rough sections to negotiate. But it is certainly worth the effort.
To access the Central Arnhem Road, you need a Tourist Permit from the Northern Land Council (NLC). This free permit can be applied for at one of the NLC offices or online via the NLC website. You can then pick up your permit from one of the NLC offices (such as Katherine) on the way through.
A requirement of the permit is that you specify accommodation at Nhulunbuy – if camping that will be the Walkabout Lodge as this is the only place (at the time of our visit) that offers campsites.
It pays to book at least one night at the Lodge ahead of time as there are limited places and it does fill up quickly.
The Gove Boat club also offers camping now but wasn’t operating at the time of our visit, but the location is fantastic and would definitely be worth investigating.
Speaking of the Boat Club, it is one of the best places in the region for lunch or dinner with fantastic food and an amazing outlook. The sunset view is one of the best in the region!
Allow two days to get to Nhulunbuy. There is one designated camping area (Mainoru Store) which is around 200km from the Stuart Highway. The store is a good place to stop, however a good tip is to pull into one of the many gravel pits that are dotted alongside the road.
The town of Nhulunbuy has all the facilities you would expect of a major town. There is a BP service station, Woolworth’s supermarket, hospital, and several clubs. To get your bearings a visit up to the Roy Marika Lookout will give you a panoramic view of the town and surrounds.
Things to do at Nhulunbuy
The main section of East Arnhem Land is the Gove Peninsula with the town of Nhulunbuy at its centre. This is your first port of call to the area as part of the conditions to entering Arnhem Land is nominate & stay at least one night in Nhulunbuy. This isn’t an issue as there is plenty to do around the town including fishing, bird watching, and relaxing at one of the several clubs.
Just outside of Nhulunbuy is the small community of Yirrkala and the Buku-Larrjgay Mulka Art Centre. This centre hosts a museum and gallery featuring artists from all over the Arnhem Land, and is well worth a visit.
History of Gove Peninsula & Nhulunbuy Region
This area has been home to the Yolngu Aboriginal people for over 40,000 years and the traditional owners continue to manage the area. Matthew Flinders pasted by here in 1803 where he met the Macassan trading fleet near present-day Nhulunbuy (there is a nearby beach named in honour of this encounter) – this meeting led to the establishment of settlements on Melville Island and Coburg Peninsula.
In 1963 the Federal government excised part of the Gove Peninsula for a bauxite mine and alumina refinery, with the town of Nhulunbuy established to house the workers and their families. The smelter was closed in 2014 and is currently being demolished. The mine is still operating and exporting bauxite around the world, providing the main source of employment for the town.
Tourism is increasing in the region so hopefully this will provide a source of income and employment for the town and region in the years to come.
The Indonesians Trade with the Locals
The Indonesians, mostly from Macassar in Sulawesi, came annually for trepang (sea cucumber), turtle shell, and pearl shell to sell to Chinese traders. They sailed in their tri-masted praus on the northwest monsoon winds, and returned on the southeast trade winds. The Macassans acknowledged the Yolngu as owners of the land and the marine resources, and relations between Yolngu and Macassans were generally business-like and often cordial. Matthew Flinders, on his circumnavigation of Australia, encountered a fleet of Macassans near Cape Wilburforce in 1803 and spoke with Pobasso, the captain. Pobasso told him that two or three Yolngu sailed each year with the fleet to Macassar and that some had remained there.
The Macassans exchanged goods such as knives, tobacco, cloth, rice and alcohol, for the right to fish for trepang, which can be collected at low tide, and employ Aboriginal people.
It is thought the trepang trade may have begun in 1720, though some think it began closer to 1400. Trade dropped off towards the end of the 19th century as a result of the imposition of duties and licences by the Australian government. The last prau left Arnhem Land in 1906.
The trepang were processed and dried before being taken back to Makassar. The processing of the trepang involved boiling, gutting, recooking with mangrove bark to add flavour and colour, then drying and smoking. It has been said that they looked like ‘sausages which have been rolled in mud and then thrown up the chimney’.
At Macassan Beach (Wurrwurrwuy) there are a series of stone pictures created by the local aboriginal tribes. These stone pictures depict Macassan praus, canoes, houses with multiple rooms, fireplaces where trepang were boiled, trepang drying houses, a house for storing wood, and stones for sharpening iron knives. There are also pictures of an Aboriginal fish trap and Aboriginal dwellings.
The absolute standout place to visit is Cape Arnhem (Wanuwuy) so I would recommend you structure your visit around here. A special permit is required and numbers are restricted, so plan and book early.
Cape Arnhem is off-limits to camper trailers and caravans so a slideon camper is just perfect for a visit here. With a robust and well-equipped slideon like the Trayon you are set for a fantastic couple of days in one of the most spectacular locations in all of Australia.
The turn-off to Cape Arnhem is about 33km south of Nhulunbuy and is well-signposted. The track commences in thick forest before dropping down off the escarpment to sandy dune country. There is a sign recommending tyre pressures be dropped – take the advice for a trouble-free drive. The track continues through the sand dunes and then along the beach with spectacular scenery throughout – it is a fantastic drive. Allow 1.5 to 2hrs for the drive.
There are a number of camping options towards the end of the track – we stopped at the camping area called “The Penthouse” which is aptly named as it affords panoramic views across a lagoon and reef, with views also down the coast and out to sea. A spectacular place to spend a few days – make sure you book at least three days (two nights) to experience and appreciate this wonderful place.
Once setup it’s time to take it the surrounds and perhaps try your hand at some fishing. There is plenty of wildlife to watch including magnificent sea eagles that were catching fish from the lagoon right in front of our camp. Could spend all day just watching the sea eagles! We spotted other birdlife, and even a turtle battling the swell at the point. It is also a great place to watch the sunset into the ocean, and it even has a clean drop toilet. True paradise.
After several magnificent days at Cape Arnhem it’s time to head back and perhaps experience some of the other recreation areas.
Daliwuy Bay Region
There are several areas covered by the general recreation permit with camping and basic facilities such as composting toilets and firepits at most spots.
Our recommendation is to head to the Daliwuy Bay region where there are four separate areas to visit and camp.
The turnoff to Daliwuy Bay is 38km south of Nhulunbuy on the Central Arnhem Road (CAR) and is well-signposted. From the CAR it is 12km to the first turnoff to Daliwuy Bay (Binydjarrŋa) area which has a boat launching area and camping area with views of the bay.
Continuing along the main road the next turnoff is to Macassan Beach.
Macassan Beach (Garanhan) is a long, wide beach of white sand which contrasts with the rough-textured shelves of red rock that run parallel to the general line of the coast.
A narrow, dense strip of coastal vine forest overlies the rockshelf and a short walk behind the sandhills leads to a paperbark swamp. There are good shady picnic and camping spots under the casuarinas behind the rockshelf, and a composting toilet at this site. However this area can be windy as there is limited shelter from the prevailing winds.
South of the sandy beach behind the rock shelf is Wurrwurrwuy, where a Yolngu record of the annual visits of the Macassan traders is recorded as stone pictures. Here visitors can walk among the stone pictures and learn a little about the history of Yolngu contact with Macassans over hundreds of years.
The next designated area in the Daliwuy Bay region is Turtle Beach (Ngumuy). The access track winds through a patch of coastal monsoon vine forest to the white sands of this popular beach. If you manage to get this place to yourself this is the best place to camp as it is sheltered and shady, and the beach is magnificent. This campsite also has a composting toilet.
The last area and the end of the track is Little Bondi Beach (Baningura). The track winds through open eucalypt forest and then descends down through a tight section of monsoon vine forest with paperbarks and Pandanus species before opening up onto the spectacular beach with white sand and rolling dunes. There is limited camping here but still quite nice, and has a composting toilet as well.
Final Comments on East Arnhem Land
Eastern Arnhem Land and the Gove Peninsula is known as a true adventure location and is well worth the extra effort to get to. Tourism numbers are increasing but the local Aboriginal custodians are doing a good job restricting numbers and maintaining the exclusiveness of the recreation areas so hopefully this practice continues.
The most spectacular areas such as Cape Arnhem are still off-limits to the big tourism companies who are looking at cashing in on this area so get up here before the rest of Australia and the world discovers this piece of paradise – you will not be disappointed!