16 Nov 2018 Leisure Handbook

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Leisure Handbook - Sharing the land


Sharing the land

The launch of eco resort Cicada Lodge in the heart of Australia’s wild north is the latest part of a pioneering partnership between the Aboriginal Jawoyn people and the Australian government. Magali Robathan finds out more

Magali Robathan, CLAD mag
Nitmiluk Tours allows tourists to participate in cultural activities with Jawoyn people
Floor to ceiling glass windows give guests views of Cicada Lodge’s pool, and the Katherine River beyond
The design is contemporary, with natural, earthy colours used throughout the resort
Guest can enjoy the ancient waterways of northern Australia by boat

When it opened in March 2013, Australia’s Cicada Lodge fulfilled its promise of offering tastefully-designed, environmentally sustainable accommodation in spectacular, unspoilt surroundings. Situated in the Nitmiluk National Park, 300km south of Darwin, Cicada Lodge has been kept deliberately small, with 18 ‘architect-designed’ rooms set on the banks of the Katherine River.

It’s an idyllic place in a truly incredible spot, but the Cicada Lodge story is about much more than just the launch of another boutique resort. It is also the story of a plan to maintain the culture and environment of the aboriginal Jawoyn people, whose ancestors have lived and depended on the land for more than 40,000 years.

In 1978, the Jawoyn people lodged a claim for land rights to the area that was then called the Katherine Gorge National Park, where they had lived for thousands of years. In 1985, the Jawoyn Association was launched, and in 1989 the Jawoyn people finally won their land claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Many Australians were worried that the park would be closed to tourism, but the Jawoyn Association insisted that they were keen to share their country and show others what it meant to them.

“The Jawoyn people do not believe that they own the land but rather that the land owns them and they have an obligation to care for it,” says Mandy Dwyer, director of Dwyer Tourism Consultants, which is promoting Cicada Lodge. “By sharing the land and their culture with others they are caring for and extending the awareness and knowledge of the Jawoyn people. They are also helping their own young people identify with the land and sustain their culture. It is also viewed as a commercial venture that is profit-orientated, with all profits being returned in welfare programs designed specifically for the Jawoyn people.”

After winning their land claim, the Jawoyn immediately leased the land back to the Northern Territory Government, to be operated as a national park. The Nitmiluk National Park was established under a joint management agreement between the Jawoyn People and the Northern Territory Government’s Parks and Wildlife Service, with the park run by a management board made up of Jawoyn and government officials. “The park management is heralded as a model for joint management between Aboriginal people and governments across Australia,” says Dwyer.

In 1993, the Jawoyn Association made its first move into large-scale tourism, setting up a joint venture called Nitmiluk Tours with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation (CDC) and Travel North, and co-purchasing the boat operations at Nitmiluk Gorge. The following year, the Jawoyn Association bought out CDC’s share, and in 2006 it bought out Travel North’s shares, making it the full owner of Nitmiluk Tours and sole operator of the boats, canoes, caravan park and visitor centre at Nitmiluk National Park. The company also runs educational tours of the park, teaching visitors about its history and the history of the Jawoyn people.

In addition, Nitmiluk Tours runs the annual Barunga festival, one of Australia’s longest-running indigenous festivals, which showcases a wide range of Jawoyn culture and sports.

Today, around 250,000 people visit the park each year. Since 1989, new roads have been built and other infrastructure put in place. An AUS$3m visitor centre, the Nitmiluk Centre, opened in 1997, with a display centre and heritage museum and a restaurant – it has since won several architectural prizes. In June 2006, Nitmiluk Tours carried out a major programme to upgrade the caravan park at Nitmiluk Gorge and build new self-catering cabins, it also took over operations at the Leliyn Falls campsite on the western boundary of the Nitmiluk National Park.

Profits from the Nitmiluk Tours business are put straight back into the Jawoyn Association to support a range of training and employment initiatives in tourism for the Jawoyn people.

The concept for Cicada Lodge was developed five years ago, explains Dwyer. “The plans were developed in recognition of the need for quality accommodation in the Katherine area to cater for the upper end of the market, in particular the UK and European market sectors,” she says.

The lodge was designed by Darwin-based MKEA Architects. It features 18 rooms with large balconies and views over the rock country. It has a welcome area with a bar leading out onto an open deck pool overlooking the Katherine River.

The rooms are contemporary, and feature original artwork from leading indigenous artists. The natural history of the area has been referenced in the use of colours, with rich ochres and earthy browns being used throughout.

While many resorts close for the wet season, Cicada Lodge is going to open year-round. It will actively celebrate the monsoon, promoting the lush vegetation and increase in wildlife in these months.

Cicada Lodge is a 100 per cent indigenous-owned operation and will employ and provide hospitality training experiences for the local people.

Private tours will offer guests the chance to explore the area. “Air touring will allow them to experience the waterfalls and indigenous rock art, cruise boats will guide them through the ancient waterways, and indigenous guides will lead them through the rugged terrain in search of age old bush foods and medicines,” says Dwyer. “Cicada Lodge offers an opportunity to truly experience the heart of Australia’s timeless north.”

Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation

The Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation was established in 1985 as the representative body.

The Association’s cultural and land management programs, business enterprises and forward planning with a vision for economic independence provides support, employment and training for Jawoyn people.

The Jawoyn people have been involved in tourism for more than 20 years. They see it as a long term, sustainable form of economic activity, with the potential to give widespread benefits in employment and wealth creation for the Jawoyn people and the region.

Late Jawoyn leader, Bangardi Lee, said: “Land has always been part of our traditional economy. That doesn’t mean we see it as something to be exploited. It’s not just there to make money out of and then be left behind. We have responsibilities to our land, which are responsibilities to the old people, the present generation and our children and grandchildren. We have to use it wisely.”


Nitmiluk Tours is run by the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation

From Leisure Management Issue 2 2013, p66

Originally published in Leisure Handbook 2014 issue 1

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