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Hermannsburg, Northern Territory

Hermannsburg, Northern Territory

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with educational small group tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers to the central desert region including Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. 


By Marco Stojanovik

The Western Arrernte community of Hermannsburg, also known as Ntaria, is located on the remote foothills of the majestic Western MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory, 130 kilometres southwest of Alice Springs. Established as a Lutheran Aboriginal mission in 1877, the land was handed back to traditional owners in 1982 and is now populated by approximately 700 people. Retaining many of its restored national heritage-listed buildings, the historic town is a major tourist attraction. It is also popular as the place to find beautiful examples of Hermannsburg Art, influenced by the famous Aboriginal landscape watercolour artists Albert Namatjira, who called Ntaria his home and pottery.

This article explores the history and art of the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct. It is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s small group tour exploring Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park for senior and mature travellers. This 13 day adventure delves into the colourful landscapes and impressive landforms, Aboriginal culture, and rich wildlife of the Southern portion of the Northern Territory, including a tour of Hermannsburg.

The beautiful afternoon light as the sun sets over the West Macdonell Ranges out of Alice Springs, Northern Territory

The Western Arrernte & Mission History

The Arrernte – also referred to as Aranda, Arrarnta, Arunta, and other similar spellings – are the original Indigenous inhabitants of the Arrernte lands in the Central Australia region of the Northern Territory. Their lands cover some 120,000 square km, including the township of Alice Springs (Mparntwe) at its centre, as far as Wallack Rock Hole to the east, Watarrka (Kings Canyon) to the west, and as far as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

The Western Arrernte people are a distinct cultural group with their own dialect within the larger Arrernte language group. Their traditional lands extend west of Alice Springs, out to Mutitjulu and Watarrka.

From the late nineteenth century, the Arrente and their landscapes began to be occupied by European pastoral settlers and new economies forced upon them. Cattle and sheep stations leases were progressively taken up, and with the completion of the Overland Telegraph in 1872, Alice Springs became the major regional centre for the vast central desert. Contact between the traditional owners and newcomers resulted in violence, with an estimated 700 Aboriginal people shot in the areas around Alice Springs between 1881 and 1891.

Established in 1877 on the banks of the Finke River, the Hermannsburg Mission offered a refuge for the Arrernte from this violence. The Lutheran missionaries also played a key role in mediating the conflicts between pastoralists, the police, and Aboriginal people. Plus, they spoke out publicly about the violence between the groups, which lead to an intense national debate on the treatment of Indigenous people.

Glen Helen Gorge in Finke River, located upstream from the Hermannsburg Mission, Northern Territory

The Lutheran mission was one of Central Australia’s first settlements. It was named by the founding Lutheran missionaries, A. Hermann Kemp and Wilhelm F. Schwarz, after Hermannsburg in Germany where they had trained. The missionaries provided the necessities of life based on German Lutheran principles, including food, education, and shelter, including the establishment of a school and dormitories for children in the late 1890s.

In exchange the Aboriginal people were expected to change their worldviews by converting to Christianity and renouncing their own cultural practices. Traditional belief systems and ceremonies and the use of traditional languages were all forbidden.

Realising that communication was difficult, the missionaries quickly learnt the Western Arrernte language. By 1904, the New Testament had been converted into the local language and the children were educated in English, as well as Western Arrernte and German.

The missionaries in Hermansburg left a profound and long-lasting influence on the lives of the Arrernte. The contributions of Pastor Friedrich Wilhelm Albrech, missionary from 1926 to 1962, were particularly important. These included the developments a of a permanent water supply, a large vegetable garden and orchards, beef cattle ranching and a tannery. Albrecht also established new buildings and new education and training schemes.

The mission operated until 1982 when the land was handed back to its traditional owners in response to the Aboriginal Land Rights movement. Today many Arrernte people are Catholic, but the Catholicism they practice varies significantly from what was taught in the mission. Christian concepts are mixed with their traditional beliefs to form complex religious and social world views.

Hermannsburg School of Painting

Arts were strongly encouraged at the Hermannsburg Mission, including crafts and eventually the Hermannsburg watercolour movement and later ceramics.

Hermannsburg is best known for its association with the renowned Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira and his distinctive Aboriginal school of central Australian landscape painting. A member of the Western Arrernte people, Namatjira was born on 28 July 1902 at Hermannsburg (Ntaria). It was here during the early 1930s that he was introduced to European style watercolour painting, taught by teacher and friend Rex Battarbee.

Namatjira had a natural talent and learnt fast. Battarbee first exhibited three of his paintings alongside his own at the Royal Society of Arts Gallery in Adelaide in 1937, and the following year Namatjira had his first solo exhibition in Adelaide. Everything sold out. Subsequent exhibitions in Adelaide and Sydney drew similar enthusiasm and his popularity grew. Soon, private collectors and state and national galleries all sought a painting by him.

Albert Namatjira with painting at Alice Springs / Spelio / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By the 1950’s, he was internationally famous. For his achievements, he was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 and elected an honorary member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1955.

Namatjira’s luminous watercolour landscapes draw from the European style but are imbued with feeling and significance, a recreation of the Country and traditional sites of which he was a traditional custodian. Namatjira was ever mindful that the ancestors created and were embodied in the Western Desert landscapes he painted, particularly in the towering ghost gums, surrounding mountains, and deep waterholes. By capturing the essence of these ancestral lands, he expresses and reaffirms their custodianship to his people.

His success influenced the rise of a whole school of Aboriginal artists, with his family and kinsmen adopting this style of watercolour painting, known today as the Hermannsburg School of Painting. A fourth generation of Central Australian Indigenous artists keep this tradition alive, exhibiting and selling beautiful works, all based in Namatjira’s traditional lands of the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Hermannsburg Pottery

Pottery was also introduced to Hermannsburg in the early 1960s, by Victor Janech, a non-Indigenous gardener at the mission. Of course, Aboriginal people long knew of the properties of unfired clay before the advent of the mission, using it in ceremonies for body art and as pigments in rock art amongst other things. Janech sourced local clay and built small kin in his backyard with the assistance of Arrernte men Joseph Rontji and Nahasson Ungwanaka. These two men learned to fire small, hand-modelled clay figurines, which were sold to tourists at the craft ship.

These men were the first ‘Hermannsburg Potters’ and would go on to influence the development of the current pottery artistic style at Hermannsburg. Naomi Sharp, an experienced ceramicist who arrived in 1990, also had a major influence on this style, sharing her techniques around hand-built terracotta pots. Originally planning to visit for just three weeks, Sharp’s stint at Hermannsburg turned into sixteen years, until her retirement in 2006.

Not long after her arrival, in 1992, the Hermannsburg Potters collective was established. Since then, it has grown to nearly 20 artists and become extremely successful, having transformed ceramics into an art form that is unique to Hermannsburg. Drawing inspiration from nature, culture, history, and day to day life activities, the artists paint surrounding Country, animals, memories of family, mission days, and current life in Ntaria (Hermannsburg) onto the surface of their terracotta pots.

Hermannsburg Historic Precinct

Landscape view of Hermannsburg historic precinct in Northern Territory, outback Australia

Today, the National Trust-listed Hermannsburg Historic Precinct is open for visitors to wander around, one of the few surviving relatively intact, evangelical missions in Australia. Shaded by red river gums and old date palms, the precinct consists of historic German-style whitewashed buildings that were constructed when the mission was established in the late 19th century and have since been restored to their original condition.

There are over a dozen low, stone buildings, including a church, a school, a tannery, meat house and various houses and outbuildings. These buildings are laid out in a manner which reflect the principal characteristics of bush missions, with the central church bordered by the residential buildings and communal facilities.

The buildings now house tearooms, a museum and the Namatjira Gallery featuring original paintings by the artist and works by the acclaimed Hermannsburg Potters.

Tour of Hermannsburg and Central Australia

Odyssey Traveller visits Hermannsburg with a tour guide during our 13-day tour of Alice Springs and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. During this tour we delve into the colourful landscapes and impressive landforms, Aboriginal culture, and rich wildlife of the Southern portion of the Northern Territory.

We begin and end at Alice Springs, where we learn about its surrounding beautiful desert landscapes, Aboriginal culture, and unique wildlife. Alice Springs, or simply ‘Alice’ as it is known now colloquially, is famous for the ochre sands and mountain ranges that surround it, its many Aboriginal art galleries, and cultural events. The Arrernte people, who have lived in the Central Australian Desert in an around what is today Alice Springs for thousands of years, still today sustain a strong connection to this land and a rich culture.

We spend four nights in Alice Springs, before making our way to enjoy the various sites and wildlife of the national parks in the southern portion of the Northern territory. The UNESCO World Heritage Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a major highlight as we explore two of Australia’s most magnificent geological and landform features: Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta have sacred significance to the Anangu, the local indigenous people who have inhabited the land for more than 22,000 years. They believe both sites contain spirit energy, with the surrounding areas the home of their ancestors and inhabited by many ancestral ‘beings’. The park is also home to a fascinating array of plants and animals, including many rare species.

Other key highlights along the tour include trips to the spectacular canyons of Watarrka National Park, Finke Gorge National Park (home to a diverse range of rare plant species), the Aboriginal Community of Hermannsberg (once home to Albert Namatjira), and the outstanding landscapes of both the West and East McDonnel Ranges (ancient landscapes sculptured over time by climatic elements and today refuges for many plants and animals).

Uluru at dusk

Travellers with an interest in learning more about the Aboriginal heritage of Australia may want to check out our various other outback Australia tours.

These include visits to:

Every Odyssey guided tour is designed especially for mature and senior travellers, who want an authentic and informed experience of their destinations. Our tours aren’t the typical tourism Australia holiday – Blue Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef, and the penguin parade on Port Phillip Island. Instead, we pride ourselves on getting of the beaten path and making you think about Australia and New Zealand in new ways. We move in genuinely small groups – usually 6-12 per tour – and all tours are cost-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Central Australia

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