Journalism, Travel

The road less travelled to Ngukurr

In September 2010, I was very fortunate to be offered a freelance writing and photography assignment with the Northern Territory Government.

The job involved travelling to the remote Indigenous community of Ngukurr, located in south-east Arnhem Land. I would stay at Ngukurr for two days and cover the Futures Forum, part of the inaugural Yugul Mungi festival. I snapped up the opportunity.

Before I left, Darwin locals who had experienced remote Territory communities warned me about Ngukurr. “There will be rubbish everywhere”, “don’t touch anything, it will have human s**t on it” and “don’t walk around at night, it won’t be safe,” they told me. But other people told me it was fine and “one of the good ones.”

It was with some trepidation that I boarded the plane. This could be a tough assignment. I mentally prepared for the worst.

Ngukurr is part of the Yugul Mungi region, located on the Roper River in the lower Gulf of Carpentaria. The region is home to about 2500 people. The Roper region is hilly and lush – thanks largely to its namesake river. The views from Ngukurr across the wilderness of Arnhem Land are stunning. The Roper River is incredibly pristine – it is literally the cleanest waterway I have ever seen. Cruising down her in a boat was the most peaceful I have felt in a very long time.

Set in this beautiful untouched landscape is Ngukurr. And what I found was a clean and friendly township – albeit ramshackle in parts. It is a dry community and appears to have excellent leadership. The locals are shy and gentle but also proud and strong. The children seem healthy and relaxed. And there was less rubbish lying around than in suburban Darwin.

But I did see some surprising sights. A house with a cottage garden complete with rose bushes. Cigarettes being sold for $30 a packet at the general store. A village donkey. The community pool closed during the festival despite the heat – because even in sweltering outback towns Territorians think it’s too cold to swim in the dry season.

I know the community was on its best behaviour with their town on show, but my Ngukurr experience really shifted my perception of remote communities. I had only heard the negatives – the violence, the chaos, the rubbish. Take away alcohol and add a rubbish collection service and things can look very different indeed.

7 thoughts on “The road less travelled to Ngukurr”

  1. Hi Summer,

    There are 2 reasons. To see a particular girl who is working in the community and to gauge what it would be like working in a remote community (as this is something I am strongly considering doing in the next year or two; I will be a veterinarian).

    I am currently a student so cost is big issue for me. Accommodation would not be a problem, however I am hoping to make my visit a surprise!

    It sounds like hiring a 4wd in Darwin is the best/cheapest option. Can you drive to Ngukurr at any time of the year with a 4wd or is the road in liable to be shut during the wet season?

    Thank you for your fast reply!

    1. Hi Ben, they both sound like excellent reasons to me 🙂

      Ok, I called one the charter flight companies in Darwin and you’re looking at about $5000 one way (if you stay any nights) so yes, driving is the way to go.

      It’s about 4 hours from Darwin to Katherine on the Stuart Highway, all sealed roads, easy drive. It’s then about 3.5 hours from Katherine to Ngukurr on the Roper Highway. I strongly recommend you do the trip during the dry season (officially May to September, but to be safe I would go in July).

      This page has some useful details.

      Also here’s a blog post about attempting the drive during the wet season – 32 hours from Ngukurr to Katherine 🙂

      Good luck with the trip and everything 🙂

      1. Wow! Thank you so much for all that wonderful information!!

        $5000- 4wd is definitely the way to go, which unfortunately means I won’t be able to go until much later in the year 🙁

        thanks again for doing all that. Good luck with all your writing adventures 🙂

  2. Hi Summer,

    I am am hoping to travel to Ngukurr in the next couple of months and stay ~1 week.

    What is the best way to get there? are flights super expensive?

    I am flying up from Melbourne

    1. Hi Ben, I’m curious… Why Ngukurr? I went there with the NT Government so we went on a chartered flight and stayed in the government accommodation. I imagine the flight would be expensive, I don’t know if there are regular flights there. You could drive, but I think some of the road may be 4WD. You would initially drive to Katherine from Darwin if you went by road, so you need to fly to Darwin first either way. I’m not sure where you would stay in Ngukurr either, there are really no tourist facilities. It’s very remote. Are you a journalist or a traveller? If you are a journalist, I’m happy to make some enquiries and find a contact person for you to speak to.

  3. Great story, Summer!
    Goes to show that you should never pre-judge based on others’ words until you see with your own eyes and hear with your ears.

    1. Thanks for your comment Desiree 🙂 So true, it is important to experience a place before you make a judgement. I’m glad I visited such a lovely place because that is now my picture of remote communities. Beautiful memories.

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