Where do you even begin if you’re planning a trip to Arnhem Land?
From our experience we could only really find articles sharing all the beautiful places to visit in Arnhem Land, without any details about the actual logistics about visiting. The reality when we got there was actually very different, we found that it’s not really as simple as just applying for a permit and hitting the road. We’ve just gotten back from visiting East Arnhem Land, so we’re going to try and put together everything we learnt and figured out before and during our visit to help make your trip a little easier to organise.
Arnhem Land is one of the last true wild and untamed destinations in Australia. It is Aboriginal Land, with many local tribes still living on their homelands out here. It is home to some long drives, beautiful coastline, rugged terrain, beautiful wetlands and great wildlife spotting opportunities. If you’re hoping to visit here’s everything you need to know about Arnhem Land permits and the logistics of getting there and around.
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About Arnhem Land
Arnhem Land is absolutely huge, sprawling across just under 100,000 square kilometres, Arnhem Land is bigger than many countries around the world. Around 16,000 people live in Arnhem Land, with 12,000 of them being local Aboriginal Yolngu people, the traditional owners of the land. They are spread throughout dozens of smaller communities across Arnhem Land, as well as some of the nearby islands that dot the coastline.
The biggest town in Arnhem Land is Nhulunbuy, sitting along the Gove Peninsula, which is one of the most isolated towns in the world. Nhulunbuy is 729 kilometres from Katherine, which is the next closest main town, and the drive will take you about 8 hours depending on your car condition.
It’s actually a much bigger town than we expected (in fact, it’s the 6th biggest town in the NT), with two supermarkets, a petrol station, hospital, accommodation options, car rental and a couple of local pubs. Around 3,200 people live in Nhulunbuy itself, with many people coming here to work in the local mines.
When to visit Arnhem Land
The best time to visit Arnhem Land is during the dry season, from the beginning of May to the end of October. This is when you will find that the majority of the roads around East Arnhem Land are open and cultural tours and experiences are operating.
Many roads are closed between November and May due to monsoon season, with even the main road closing depending on conditions. During the wet season you are likely to have to deal with river crossings at the Wilton River near Bulman Aboriginal community, and the Goyder River.
To avoid disappointment, plan your visit during the dry season.
Permits for Arnhem Land
Okay, so there are quite a few permits you will need to apply for to visit Arnhem Land. We are specifically sharing our experience from visiting Nhulunbuy and East Arnhem Land, so if you’re planning to visit any other regions or communities you might need to check if you require any other permits.
1. Northern Land Council
You will need to apply for a permit with the NLC to travel by road through Aboriginal Land, which includes the main Central Arnhem Road which connects Katherine and Nhulunbuy. You will also need this permit to enter any Aboriginal land or waters for any purpose, or to enter to visit an Aboriginal community. The NLC permit is free.
It can take up to two weeks for the NLC to approve your permit, so we would recommend applying for this one first. If you’re not sure of your exact dates you can put in a small window for approval. You can apply directly via their online system and they will email you a copy of your permit.
Before we left we read countless times that the NLC wouldn’t issue permits for caravans, however when we got up to Nhulunbuy there were quite a few people who had been issued permits to bring their caravan. If you do want to take you’re van into Arnhem Land it’s recommended that only very sturdy off-road caravans and camper trailers take on this difficult road. We’re definitely very glad we didn’t take ours with us.
2. Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation
Recreation Permit: To visit any of the recreational areas around East Arnhem Land you will need to apply for a Dhimurru Visitor Access Permit. For this one you can just apply online and our permit was approved instantly via their online booking system.
The Dhimurru Visitor Access Permit covers pretty much every location in East Arnhem land that is accessible during your visit, including favourites such as Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem), Garanhan (Macassan Beach), Wathawuy (Goanna Lagoon), Banambarrna (Rainbow Cliff) and Gapuru (Memorial Park), among others.
There are a few different options for your permit, depending on how long you want to visit. As of August 2020, permit prices are as follows:
- 3 day access permit – $33.50 per adult, $15.50 per child
- 14 day access permit – $49.40 per adult, $15.50 per child
- One month access permit – $76.50 per adult, $15.50 per child
- Annual access permit – $96.50 per adult, $186.50 for a family permit
Camping Permits: Many of the recreation sites around East Arnhem Land offer camping, however there are only a very small number of camp spots in each locations. Camping fees are in addition to the recreational permit that is required to visit, and it is recommended that you book in advance to avoid missing out.
Some areas around East Arnhem Land are actually CAMPING ONLY. They have no day use areas and are only to be accessed by people who have a camping permit to stay there. These sites are very poorly signed, so it’s good to know about them in advance – they don’t tell you that there is no day use area at the beginning of the track. If you accidentally arrive at one that is booked by a horrifically rude and disrespectful family like we did, you might find yourself in some hot water.
The following locations are camping only. If you want to visit any of them make sure you book your camping permit well in advance, as some of them actually only have one camp site and are booked exclusively by whoever snags that campsite first:
- Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem) – there is a day use/lookout area of Cape Arnhem that you can check out though if you choose not to camp here. There are 5 campsites here with a 12 vehicle maximum per day.
- Mananaymi (Scout Camp) – there are also 5 campsites here that range in sizes. It’s a popular spot with families and there is a composting toilet at this site. Some sites have a 6 person limit, with others large enough for 10 people.
- Ganami (Wonga Creek) – this is an exclusive campsite, where only one group is allowed and you have access to the whole area. It can accommodate up to 25 people with a maximum of 5 cars.
- Gapuru (Memorial Park) – another exclusive campsite, there is only one site here and you have this beautiful water hole and rock pools all to yourself.
3. East Arnhem Liquor Permit
If you want to buy any take away alcohol from the bottle shops or the pub you will need to apply for an individual liquor permit. You need a permit whether you are a local or a visitor to purchase alcohol in Aboriginal dry areas including Nhulunbuy, Yirrkala, Ski Beach, Galupa and Gunyangara. There are additional restrictions on how much alcohol you can drink depending on the conditions of the permit.
In our opinion: it is heaps easier to just purchase your alcohol in Katherine or before you arrive in Arnhem Land if you want any during your visit. Unless otherwise stated as completely alcohol free areas, you can still have your own drinks in the caravan parks and campgrounds if you’ve brought it in from somewhere else.
To apply for a liquor permit you need to be over 18 years told, a permanent or long term resident, a visitor with recognised accommodation or a tourist from overseas. For Australian’s you will need to supply the following documents with your application: a current drivers licence/passport/18+ card and either proof of employment or proof of residence, like a power bill.
There is a whole range of different conditions that go with the permit, with different levels dictating how much alcohol you can buy, so make sure you completely read the following website before you apply.
If you decide not to apply for a permit and would like a drink during your visit you can still have drinks at a licensed venue, such as the Gove Boat Club (our favourite), you just can’t take any away with you.
Getting to Arnhem Land
Depending on how long you have for your visit, you can either drive into Arnhem Land via the Central Arnhem Road, or you can fly directly into the local airport.
Driving to Arnhem Land
The closest main town to Nhulunbuy is Katherine, which takes 8 hours by car (729 kilometres). If you’re coming directly from Darwin the drive takes closer to 11 hours (1,043 kilometres).
The drive into Nhulunbuy is mostly on dirt roads, with very few parts of the road actually sealed. The conditions of the road changes along the way, with some parts of the drive nice and smooth, with others difficult to navigate across bumpy corrugations. It’s long and dusty, be prepared to be completely covered in fine red dust by the time you get to the other side.
There are very few places to stop along the way, with almost no toilets for most of the drive, so that’s important to note if you’re one of those people that need to go to the bathroom every hour.
Mainoru Outback Store: If you’re planning to break the trip up with an overnight stop, or if you just want to stretch your legs and use a bathroom, we would recommend stopping at the Mainoru Outback Store. You won’t miss it, because there is immaculate green grass all around the property.
Mainoru is actually part of a station and is not actually Aboriginal land. You can camp here for $30 per night for an unpowered site or $40 for power, and they also have accommodation options available as well. There is no phone reception here, but it’s definitely one of the best places to stop along the Central Arnhem Road. They also offer hot food during the day, and counter meals and drinks at dinner time.
Road hazards: This is a long, seemingly endless road, so be aware of the road hazards and dangers that you might encounter during your drive.
The NT has an open speed limit of 130 kilometres per hour, but it’s recommended that you don’t drive faster than 80 on these dirt roads. Keep an eye out for people coming up in front or behind you, and slow down if you’re passing another car because the dust you’re kicking up will completely block the road for them.
There is heaps of wildlife along the main road here, on our trip we saw buffalo, wild horses, donkeys, dingoes and wild dogs. Lookout for any wildlife that might dart out in front of you, particularly if you’re driving at dawn or dusk.
To make your journey a little more comfortable, make sure you let down your tyre pressures before you hit the unsealed part of the road.
Flying to Arnhem Land
You can also fly into Nhulunbuy on a direct flight from Darwin or Cairns, with both Qantas and Air North offering flights into this remote location. Flights are quite expensive, but range in price depending how far in advance you book them in. As always, last minute flights are significantly more expensive and round trip bookings often save you a little bit.
The airport is close to town and there is actually a taxi service that can take you into the heart of Nhulunbuy once you land, but you might need to give them a call to come and pick you up. You can also rent a car during you visit to Nhulunbuy to get out to some of the beaches and places around East Arnhem Land that are a little more difficult to access. Make sure you book yourself a 4WD so you can access all locations.
What to do with your van
Since we’re travelling with a caravan we needed to leave it somewhere while we headed out to Arnhem Land. Katherine was the closest main town before the turn off to Nhulunbuy and Arnhem Land, so we decided to leave our caravan at Top Parks Riverview Tourist Village in Katherine. They charged us just $10 a day to store our caravan and took great care of it while we were away. A great option if you need to leave your caravan behind while you venture into this rugged land.
Figuring out the logistics of visiting Arnhem Land can be quite a bit to get your head around. If you have any questions about our trip feel free to leave a comment or send us a DM on Instagram and we can try to point you in the right direction!