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Australia's ancient history: essential historical sites to visit

12 December 2015 ( 05 December 2016 )

Australia has an awful lot to offer travellers. From the modern Sydney Opera House to the more historic monuments that make Oz simply amazing!

Nourlangie Rock, Australia
Nourlangie Rock, Australia

At least that’s how it was for me growing up in the countryside outside Perth, not even true Australian outback but farmland being chewed up by the expanding suburbs. 

I remember contented weekends spent stomping (quite literally, in order to scare away any curious snakes) through derelict plots of woodland and tracts of tall grass, sometimes scorched by recent bushfires. 

What sticks in my mind most though is that the land seemed to have a presence of its own, and the sense deep down that it was very, very old.

Discover more about Australia and its famously laid-back pace of life on the holiday of a lifetime.  Find out more here

Australia rocks

Much of the landscape is made up of exposed Precambrian rocks ­– from the earth’s earliest aeon – that are more than 600 million years old. 

Now we know all about colliding tectonic plates and the other interesting geology that goes into making a continent. But Aborigines, Australia’s earliest residents, have a much better way of explaining it – the Dreaming or Dream Time.

Aborigines believe that Ancestor Creators are responsible for the landscape as it is today – every ridge, cave and billabong – as well as responsible for creating all living beings (spiders included) and laying down the laws of the land. 

That’s why they feel such a deep spiritual connection with the land and all natural things. It’s an anthropological tradition that can be traced back thousands of years. You only have to go to Kakadu National Park to see for yourself (after booking your plane ticket, accommodation and finding a good guide of course).

This UNESCO-listed park in the Northern Territory at the top end of Australia encompasses 20,000 square kilometers and has been continuously inhabited for 40,000 years, proving that the Aborigines are one the oldest living cultures on earth. 

The Red Continent’s answer to the Garden of Eden, it boasts a varied terrain of savannah woodland, monsoon forests, wetlands and rocky escarpments that are up to 330 metres high in places. 

Plus it protects 280 different types of birds, a quarter of Australia’s land mammals, along with an array of reptiles, frogs and fish. It made the perfect hunting ground for the early Aboriginal hunter-gatherers and is now on the bucket list of most serious outdoor lovers.

A tale from down under: travelling across Australia

Art that’s survived the test of time

The park also has the greatest concentration of rock art in the world, some of which dates back 20,000 years. Collectively, these paintings and carvings document the Aboriginal culture, from early prints made with hands or natural objects like bundled grass, through to trade with Macassan fisherman just 300 years ago.

The story goes that the Mimi spirits were the first Ancestor Creators to make cave paintings, teaching a few Aborigines the skill while others copied the art form. 

Paintings cover a variety of subjects, such as hunting scenes to help increase the abundance of animals to ensure a successful hunt, stories about the Ancestor Creators, or just for a bit of fun and practice.

Naturally occurring mineral pigments were ground and mixed with water before being painted on with brushes made out of hair, bark strips or feathers. 

Alternatively, paint was blown onto a stencil, such as a hand, to create a negative impression. It’s the act of painting though, and not the end result, which is important as it connects the artist with the Dreaming. 

This is why much older paintings have been repainted time and time again.

A rare glimpse into ancient Australian life

Many rock-painting sites are strictly off limits but two of the most impressive ones have been opened up to the public. 

At Ubirr you can see the famous x-ray style paintings which depict the abundant wildlife, such as wallabies, waterfowl, goannas and the now extinct Tasmanian tiger. 

Most of these date from within the last 1,500 years. Nourlangie is the other site and where you can visit the Anbangbang Gallery which was repainted as recently as 1964.

The Bininj and Mungguy people, together with the Parks Australia authority, look after Kakadu National Park ensuring it is preserved for future generations. 

Meanwhile modern-day Aboriginal artists keep the tradition alive by painting on paper, canvas and sometimes bark. Whilst they might use modern mediums such as acrylic paint, it’s still a spiritual act that connects them with the Dreaming. 

This is reflected in the park’s logo, the Rainbow Serpent, a powerful entity believed to have hollowed out the rock passages and water holes. Her presence acts as a reminder of their responsibility to care for the park.

If you’re feeling inspired to explore Kakadu National Park, you can join Saga's Ultimate Australia tour, an epic month-long adventure Down Under to discover its mysteries for yourself

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.