A remote and rugged visit goes back, way back, writes Alexander Robertson.

At a time when parts of the world are experiencing unsustainable tourism, Intrepid Travel is getting back to its roots as it kindles a new partnership with the Yolngu people of Australia's wild and rugged East Arnhem Land.

This isn't a trip for the faint-hearted; it is for seasoned travellers who don't need the luxuries of a hotel but desire deep exposure to an ancient culture whose people have lived on this isolated land for millennia. Guests will learn the culture as they hunt and gather everything needed for survival, and are taught the Yolngu people's history that was passed down through song, around a glowing campfire with a star-filled sky. This is camping at its best, and the more you give, the more you will get back.

Intrepid Travel co-founder Geoff Manchester jumped on the trip to see first-hand a side of Australia where, for outsiders, much is unknown. He runs the biggest travel company in the world while generating a net profit of $300 million but is down to earth, warm and unpretentious.


"I wanted to take some time out to have a better understanding about their lives, but more importantly their outlook on life in Australia and how they fit into modern Australia, and get their view on the politics on the many indigenous issues that surround us," Manchester said.

The tour offers an authentic glimpse at arguably Australia's most untouched and isolated Aboriginal communities, where they have kept tradition close to their heart. And this is what Intrepid does best, partnering up with the local communities and helping them share their way of life.

"You'll learn an enormous amount, an important part about Australia that being the original inhabitants and how they have an amazing culture that has existed for 40,000 years. Knowledge has been built up over that time and gives them a strength that enables them to exist, even given the amazingly bad things they have lived through over the last 200 years."

Intrepid Travel co-founder Geoff Manchester. Photo / Alexander Robertson
Intrepid Travel co-founder Geoff Manchester. Photo / Alexander Robertson

It's a grim chapter of Australia's history, a chapter that governments wiped under the carpet until in 2008, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology. The indigenous culture experienced some of the world's worst realities of colonisation. Many atrocities were recorded, like attempted genocide, and the Stolen Generation, where up to 100,000 children were taken from their families and put into white foster homes. Now, there is not only sincere interest from Australians to learn more about their past, but overseas tourists are increasingly curious to find out more about one of the world's oldest civilisations.

The week-long Intrepid tour takes groups of four to 10 and offers a personal and intimate insight to the Yolngu culture, known as the Saltwater people. Getting off the beaten track is Intrepid's speciality and they've been doing it for almost three decades, now offering tours in 100 countries in every continent. So it made sense to team up with the Yolngu of northeasten Arnhem Land.

"Indigenous tourism is about to explode in Australia. East Arnhem land is one of the most iconic indigenous cultures that has been most strongly retained anywhere in Australia," said Manchester.

"It's an amazing opportunity for us to bring travellers from Australia and all around the world to get a great experience of indigenous history, culture and life, so they can go away with a great understanding around indigenous issues and get a small experience of what a more intact aboriginal community is really like."

The Yolngu people have a history in East Arnhem Land dating back 40,000 years. Photo / Alexander Robertson
The Yolngu people have a history in East Arnhem Land dating back 40,000 years. Photo / Alexander Robertson

For Manchester it was not only important to get a sound understanding of the history and culture of the Yolngu people, but walk and learn with them.


"For me the most amazing experience was going fishing very late at night, walking through the shallows, being careful not to tread on stingray, being aware there is the possibility there are crocodiles in the area. So experiencing something that they do an a regular basis and being aware that you need to be on edge but not being fearful that you can't enjoy yourself. . . it is an amazing experience," Manchester said.

But it's more than participating in a hunt along the shoreline of where their ancestors has gone before them. It's appreciating that the people are connected with every nook and cranny of nature as it gives them everything they need to survive.

The attraction here contrasts starkly with busier destinations.

As tourists in crowded sites around the world fight for the best spot to take a selfie, why not take an open-hearted plunge and learn, feel and live with the oldest culture on Earth.