Written by Geoff Martin
Article from Unsealed 4X4 Magazine
The Gove Peninsula in East Arnhem Land is a hell of an adventure to get to with plenty of four-wheeling and great remote camping, just remember to bring a tyre deflator and compressor…
Australia has plenty of amazing destinations that you can only get to by four-wheel drive, and Eastern Arnhem Land is one of the very best. With the azure blue waters of the Arafura Sea, classic red sand, tropical greenery and fabulous weather it is a picture-perfect location in the northern Australian dry season. Since a visit for work more than 25 years ago, I have been trying to get back here and finally got the opportunity last year.
The main section of East Arnhem Land is the Gove Peninsula with the town of Nhulunbuy at its centre. This is your first port of call to the area and, as part of the conditions for entering Arnhem Land you have to spend at least one night in Nhulunbuy. This isn’t an issue as there is plenty to do around the town including fishing, bird watching, and relaxing at one of the several clubs. Speaking of clubs, the Gove Boat Club is highly recommended for lunch or dinner with fantastic food and an amazing outlook. The sunset view is one of the best in the region.
Just outside of Nhulunbuy is the small community of Yirrkala and the Buku-Larrjgay Mulka Art Centre. This centre hosts a museum and gallery featuring artists from all over the Arnhem Land, and is well worth a visit.
However, the main attraction of the Gove Peninsula is the surrounding area. There are several options which all require a general or special permit from the local Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation. Luckily this is easy to organise via their website or in person at the office in Nhulunbuy. As many areas have restricted numbers, it pays to organise your trip well in advance to ensure you get to visit the best places on offer.
Getting there and Nhulunbuy
It is a long way to the Gove Peninsula – the Central Arnhem Road consists of over 700km of unsealed roads with water crossings and rough sections to negotiate. But it is certainly worth the effort.
To access the Central Arnhem Road, you need a Tourist Permit from the Northern Land Council (NLC). This free permit can be applied for at one of the NLC offices or online via the NLC website. You can then pick up your permit from one of the NLC offices (such as Katherine) on the way through.
A requirement of the permit is that you specify accommodation at Nhulunbuy – if camping that will be the Walkabout Lodge as this is the only place that offers campsites. It pays to book at least one night at the Lodge ahead of time as there are limited places and it does fill up quickly.
Allow two days to get to Nhulunbuy. There is one designated camping area (Mainoru Store ), which is around 200km from the Stuart Highway. The store is a good place to stop, however a good tip is to pull into one of the many gravel pits that are dotted alongside the road.
The town of Nhulunbuy has all the facilities you would expect of a major town. There is a BP service station, Woolworth’s supermarket, hospital, and several clubs. To get your bearings a visit up to the Roy Marika Lookout will give you a panoramic view of the town and surrounds.
Outside of the town of Nhulunbuy, the land is managed by the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation with recreational areas set aside to enable access by visitors while ensuring the landowner’s requirements are met. To access the recreational areas, a permit is required. There are two types of permits – a general permit and special permit. The general permit covers a range of areas and the special permit covers particular areas that have additional requirements and restrictions.
A good plan is to book a special permit area such as Cape Arnhem (more on Cape Arnhem later) and plan to camp at several general permit areas before and after. This gives you some flexibility with travel plans in case of delays or breakdowns getting to the Gove Peninsula.
The Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation manages the permit system for the areas around the Gove Peninsula. A general permit is required to access and camp within the recreational areas, and a special permit is required for specific areas that have additional restrictions.
You must obtain a general permit before applying for a special permit.
The cost of the permits varies depending on the duration of your stay, for example a one-week visitor (general) permit is $35pp (children under 18 free).
The Corporation’s website is quite good and contains all the information and links to apply (and pay) for the various permits. Note that some popular areas book out well in advance so the earlier you can plan and book your holiday the better.
The absolute standout place to visit is Cape Arnhem (Wanuwuy) so I would recommend you structure your visit around here. A special permit is required, and numbers are restricted, so plan and book early.
The turn-off to Cape Arnhem is about 33km south of Nhulunbuy and is well-signposted. The track commences in thick forest before dropping down off the escarpment to sandy dune country. There is a sign recommending tyre pressures be dropped – take the advice for a trouble-free drive. The track continues through the sand dunes and then along the beach with spectacular scenery throughout – it is a fantastic drive. Allow 1.5 to 2hrs for the drive.
There are a number of camping options towards the end of the track – we stopped at the camping area called “The Penthouse” which is aptly named as it affords panoramic views across a lagoon and reef, with views also down the coast and out to sea. A spectacular place to spend a few days – make sure you book at least three days (two nights) to experience and appreciate this wonderful place.
Once setup it’s time to take it the surrounds and perhaps try your hand at some fishing. There is plenty of wildlife to watch including magnificent sea eagles that were catching fish from the lagoon right in front of our camp. Could spend all day just watching the sea eagles. We spotted other birdlife, and even a turtle battling the swell. It is also a great place to watch the sunset into the ocean, and it even has a clean drop toilet. True paradise.
After several magnificent days at Cape Arnhem it’s time to head back and perhaps experience some of the other recreation areas.
History of Gove Peninsula and Nhulunbuy Region
This area has been home to the Yolngu Aboriginal people for more than 40,000 years and the traditional owners continue to manage the area. Matthew Flinders passed by here in 1803 where he met the Macassan trading fleet near present-day Nhulunbuy (there is a nearby beach named in honour of this encounter) – this meeting led to the establishment of settlements on Melville Island and Coburg Peninsula.
In 1963, the Federal government excised part of the Gove Peninsula for a bauxite mine and alumina refinery, with the town of Nhulunbuy established to house the workers and their families. The smelter was closed in 2014 and is currently being demolished. The mine is still operating and exporting bauxite around the world, providing the main source of employment for the town.
Tourism is increasing in the region so hopefully this will provide a source of income and employment for the town and region in the years to come.
There are a number of areas covered by the general recreation permit with camping and basic facilities such as composting toilets and firepits at most spots.
Our recommendation is to head to the Daliwuy Bay region where there are four separate areas to visit and camp.
The turnoff to Daliwuy Bay is 38km south of Nhulunbuy on the Central Arnhem Road (CAR) and is well-signposted. From the CAR it is 12km to the first turnoff to Daliwuy Bay (Binydjarrŋa) area which has a boat launching area and camping area with views of the bay. Continuing along the main road the next turnoff is to Macassan Beach.
Macassan Beach (Garanhan) is a long, wide beach of white sand which contrasts with the rough-textured shelves of red rock that run parallel to the general line of the coast. A narrow, dense strip of coastal vine forest overlies the rock shelf and a short walk behind the sandhills leads to a paperbark swamp. There are good shady picnic and camping spots under the casuarinas behind the rock shelf, and a composting toilet at this site. However, this area can be windy as there is limited shelter from the prevailing winds. South of the sandy beach behind the rock shelf is Wurrwurrwuy, where a Yolngu record of the annual visits of the Macassan traders is recorded as stone pictures. Here visitors can walk among the stone pictures and learn a little about the history of Yolngu contact with Macassans over hundreds of years.
The next designated area in the Daliwuy Bay region is Turtle Beach (Ngumuy). The access track winds through a patch of coastal monsoon vine forest to the white sands of this popular beach. If you manage to get this place to yourself this is the best place to camp as it is sheltered and shady, and the beach is magnificent. This campsite also has a composting toilet.
The last area and the end of the track is Little Bondi Beach (Baningura). The track winds through open eucalypt forest and then descends down through a tight section of monsoon vine forest with paperbarks and Pandanus species before opening up onto the spectacular beach with white sand and rolling dunes. There is limited camping here but still quite nice and has a composting toilet as well. Eastern Arnhem Land and the Gove Peninsula is known as a true adventure location and is really well worth the extra effort to get to. Tourism numbers are increasing but the local Aboriginal custodians are doing a good job restricting numbers and maintaining the exclusiveness of the recreation areas so hopefully this practice continues. The most spectacular areas such as Cape Arnhem are still off-limits to the big tourism companies who are looking at cashing in on this area so get up here before the rest of Australia and the world discovers this piece of paradise – you will not be disappointed.
The Eastern Arnhem Region covers an area of over 33,000 square kms in the north-east corner of the Northern Territory. It is a sub-section of the 100,000 square km Arnhem Land region.
The Gove Peninsula is the main location in the region with the town of Nhulunbuy at its centre. Nhulunbuy has a range of services including a supermarket, hospital, petrol stations, and plenty of clubs and accommodation.
The main place to stay in Nhulunbuy if camping is the Walkabout Lodge which has 12 powered sites. The Gove Boat Club is developing a camping area and may have facilities available in the future.
WHAT TO TAKE:
With the ability to stock up at Nhulunbuy, you really only need to carry several days’ worth of supplies for the trip along the Central Arnhem Road. Carry basic repair and recovery equipment, particularly if venturing to the remote areas such as Cape Arnhem. A good quality air compressor and tyre deflators are needed for sand driving.
TRIP STANDARD: The road to Gove Peninsula is unsealed with conditions dependent on when the grader last visited. Expect rough sections with corrugations and washouts, and some shallow river crossings.
RESTRICTIONS, CAMPING AND PERMITS:
Permits are required for travelling to Gove Peninsula and for camping in the region. The permit for the Central Arnhem Road can be obtained from the Northern Land Council (NLC) and is free.
Permits for travelling and camping in the Gove Peninsula can be obtained from the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation. There are two permit types – general and special permits. Their website is quite good and it is recommended you organise your permit/s well ahead of your planned visit as numbers are restricted in many areas.
Caravans are not recommended on the Central Arnhem Road and definitely not allowed in the camping areas covered by the Gove General Permit. Camper trailers are not permitted on Cape Arnhem.
The fishing is awesome, the scenery is spectacular, and there are plenty of 4WD tracks to explore. There are secluded beaches to relax on, and several great camping options in the nearby recreation areas. The art centre at Yirrkala is one of Australia’s best Aboriginal art centres so definitely plan a visit here. While in Nhulunbuy a visit to the Gove Boat Club and Surf Club for a meal or a relaxing drink is well worth it.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL:
The best time to travel is during the dry season (April to September) but the Central Arnhem Road is generally open most of the year. Check road conditions before venturing to the Gove Peninsula.
Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation: dhimurru.com.au
Northern Land Council: nlc.org.au
Walkabout Lodge: walkaboutlodge.com.au