Immerse yourself in the rich history, culture and beauty of Indigenous Australia at the best Aboriginal festivals in the Northern Territory. Whether you’re into traditional art, are mesmerised by Indigenous song and dance, or are keen to delve into the everyday life of remote communities, these are the festivals you’ll want on your travel calendar.
Parrtjima – A Festival in Light
9–18 April 2021
For 10 nights, the majestic MacDonnell Ranges are lit up with large-scale light installations as part of the highly anticipated Parrtjima – A festival in Light. Casey Donovan is among the numerous musicians set to wow visitors to the Alice Springs festival, and you won’t want to miss the live talks by guests such as award-winning writer Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu, 2018).
Rounding out one of the Northern Territory’s best festivals is a program of workshops (textiles, wood carvings, metal sculpture and painting), films and art. The festival spreads across three venues: Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs Desert Park and Todd Mall.
Taste of Kakadu
Kakadu National Park
28-30 May 2021
A celebration of Kakadu’s cuisine and culture, Taste of Kakadu is the pinnacle festival for anyone wanting to delve into the surprises and delights of bush food. Across three days, you’ll get to: learn traditional cooking techniques and recipes from locals; enjoy contemporary Aboriginal dishes while watching the sun set across this World Heritage-listed park; take in an al fresco art exhibit; and sample interesting foods such as buffalo tongue and cured emu egg yolk. An Aussie culinary holiday doesn’t get much more enriching than this.
Barunga, 80 kilometres south-east of Katherine
11–13 June 2021
Storytelling circles, AFL games and a didgeridoo competition bring to life the essence of Aboriginal communities at the annual Barunga Festival, known to attract 4000-strong crowds. Located in the remote community of Barunga, near Katherine, the tropical winter festival features a fantastic line-up of live music, displays of Indigenous art, softball and basketball games, bush tucker and bush medicine workshops, and traditional dancing.
There are also plenty of fun things for kids to do, including damper making, and a range of good food options, and you can pitch a tent and stay for the three days. Barunga is all about sharing Aboriginal culture with a broader community, and is a fabulous introduction to Indigenous Australia.
Gulkula, Arnhem Land
30 July – 2 August 2021
One of the most well-known Aboriginal events in Australia and heralded as the biggest celebration of Indigenous heritage in the country, GARMA Festival is four days of dance, ceremony, song and art at Gulkula, a sacred site on the Gove Peninsula, north-east Arnhem Land. Into its 22nd year, the festival is about local Yolngu clans coming together to share their knowledge and culture through daily workshops, discussions and debates.
Hosted by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, GARMA is more than your typical celebration, with education a large focus, however travellers to this remote corner of the country can still expect to be mesmerised by sunset dances, performances by emerging and established artists, and traditional art. (Tickets are limited due to Covid-19.)
5–22 August 2021
One of the best places to see local NT artists and performers is at Darwin Festival. Showcasing international acts (during pre-Covid years), while supporting homegrown talents, the festival is a great mix of entertainment during the region’s dry season. The main festivities of the award-winning event take place in Festival Park in the CBD, with art exhibits and performances held at venues across the city.
Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair
6–8 August 2021
Having the opportunity to buy Aboriginal art direct from about 70 Indigenous-owned art centres in the Northern Territory is one of the highlights of Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Art masterclasses and talks, fashion displays, traditional dance and film are also on the schedule. The event is currently planned to be held in Darwin, however, stay tuned for updates in case Covid restrictions force the festival online.
Freedom Day Festival
Kalkaringi and Daguragu, 480 kilometres south-west of Katherine
27–29 August 2021
If you’re searching for a festival that’s different to the norm – perhaps you’ve been to a few already – then Freedom Day Festival is a wonderful event that celebrates Aboriginal Land Rights and unity, and focuses on harnessing a positive future. In 2021, organisers are marking the festival’s 55th anniversary with a party centred around music, art, sport and culture.
The festival takes place on Gurindji country, in the communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu (formerly Wave Hill), on the Buntine Highway around five hours south-west of Katherine. Aim to arrive on the festival’s eve so you can enjoy the Welcome to Country and community march the following morning. There are basic campgrounds to stay in; check with organisers if visitor permits are required.
23 September – 3 October 2021
One of the easiest Aboriginal festivals to reach is Desert Festival, held at various locations throughout Alice Springs. You won’t need a 4WD to get here (you can fly) and you can return to a modern hotel, instead of a campground, at the end of each day. Let’s say it’s a good go-to for those who like a little comfort with their festival experience. Visitors can see films and theatre, enjoy art and music, and attend workshops and talks over the course of the 10-day event.