Discover the lost world of the Tiwi Islands

Romolo Tipiloura strips down to his boxer shorts and wades into the billabong, creating ripples in the reflections of the paperbark trees. It’s a warm day and the thought of cool water lapping around me is tempting. The reflections ripple as I run my hand along the edge of the billabong, weighing up the pros and cons of diving in.

“Don’t worry about crocodiles,” says Tipiloura, reading my mind. “They don’t come to this billabong.” This billabong is one of many on Bathurst Island, which is located north of Darwin across the Beagle Gulf. Bathurst Island and neighbouring Melville Island form the Tiwi Islands.

Flying to the Tiwi Islands on a light aircraft is an experience in itself. From my seat in the light airplane, the aquamarine Apsley Strait glitters like a jewel. Tightly knit treetops of eucalyptus, paperbark and tall cabbage palms are a palette of emerald, jade, olive and lime-green shades.

It’s a wilderness where wallabies rustle among the leaves, birds flit along treetops and big barramundi splash in estuaries. And, of course, it’s a place where crocodiles lurk.

I’m particularly concerned about crocodiles that may be lurking in this billabong, which my guide and a couple of fellow travellers are noisily splashing around in. On our tour of Bathurst Island, we have stopped for lunch in a forest clearing after following Tipiloura on a walk through the bush.

Like most Tiwi islanders, Tipiloura has an impressive knowledge about surviving in the bush. His skills were passed down from father to son as part of an inheritance from ancestors who survived in a remote part of Australia for centuries.

So far, we’ve tasted berries, learnt to make cups from leaves, drunk from clear streams and learnt the basics of plant medicine. “When I go on walkabout, I walk for over 40km eating berries and keeping cool by swimming in creeks,” says Tipiloura. He has also told us that a crocodile has been spotted recently in a billabong a few kilometres away. But Tipiloura is confident his bush nous will keep us safe from crocodiles.

I still feel uneasy. If it’s my time to die, I’d rather not be eaten by a crocodile. So I decide to sit at the edge of the billabong and dangle my feet in the water while tucking into sandwiches, fruitcake and oranges.

Legends and other tales

Bush skills aside, Tipiloura is a pretty good storyteller. Over lunch, we listen to the story of the Tiwi creation legend and I’m surprised to discover their creator was a woman.

According to the Tiwi people, the world was formed during a time known as Palaneri. According to the legend, Murtankala came out of the earth at Murupianga in the southeastern part of Melville and crawled around the land with her three children. Her tracks created the Clarence and Dundas Straits, which now separate the islands from the mainland, and the Apsley Strait, which divides Bathurst and Melville islands. After creating the islands, she formed the forest and filled it with animals to provide for her children, before vanishing.

The story explains why hunting is part of Tiwi culture. As descendants of Murtankala’s children, the Tiwi people believe that finding food in the forest is a way to pay homage to the creator. Nowadays, though, they can buy fresh food, takeaway meals and snacks at the store in Nguiu, Bathurst Island’s main settlement, and food orders placed at Woolworths in Darwin arrive on a barge once a week.

Even so, the islanders still love to hunt and fish. Their fresh bush-tucker diet includes mud mussels, mud crabs, fish, possums, wallabies, snakes and mangrove worms.

The Tiwi Islands are so quiet that Darwin, Australia’s most laid-back capital city, is a bustling metropolis in comparison. Visitors are allowed on the islands only through an organised tour (there’s only one company that does it, Tiwi Tours) or with a fishing group.

About 2700 Tiwi people live in four settlements: Nguiu and Ranku on Bathurst Island, and Garden Point and Milikapiti on Melville Island. Records from the first European visitor, Dutch captain Maarten van Delft, who came here in 1705, describe the islanders as “very agile and of well-made posture; but the wives are tall and thin, with very broad mouths and small eyes; the hair of both is woolly, like that of the inhabitants of the Papuan islands, and a yellow or red ointment, prepared with turtle fat, seems their ornament”.

Actually, the Tiwi people are different from the Papua New Guinean tribes or mainland Australian aborigines. “We think our ancestors came from the Indian continent. Their noses are narrow and their features are sharp and not broad,” says Tipiloura, pointing to old black-and-white photographs in the Patakijiyali Museum, which has a wealth of information about the islands, including photographs, pottery, drawings and diagrams illustrating Tiwi legends and customs.

Everyone belongs to a Tiwi “country”, inherited at birth from the father, and has a skin group, inherited from the mother. From the father, they also are given a yoi dreaming dance, which is usually performed at ceremonies and celebrations. Tipiloura’s yoi dance is the pika dance, or horse dance, which he proudly demonstrates for the group.

He explains there are four main skin groups and several sub-groups, represented by animals, insects, plants and natural forces. Certain Tiwi ancestors from the creation period magically turned into these at death. The social structure is designed to prevent inbreeding and members of certain skin groups are forbidden to inter-marry. There are strict incest laws that forbid brothers and sisters, or other close relatives of the opposite sex, from speaking to each other once they reach puberty.

Culture and Catholicism 

Over the centuries, the ritual-based Tiwi faith has morphed into a blend of dreamtime legends, ancient rituals and Catholic doctrine. The Catholic influence continues to play a strong part in the lives of the islanders. Daily church services are conducted in English and Tiwi.

We visit the church of St Therese, a cream-coloured Queensland-style weatherboard house on stilts, where it’s fascinating to see the fusion of traditional Tiwi and Catholic beliefs visually represented in the church’s altar. The altar is a gallery of Tiwi art with paintings of fish, crocodiles, pelicans, turtles and shells. The centrepiece is a painting of a Tiwi warrior in a headdress and loincloth, flanked by two spears, holding baby Jesus above his head.

French missionary Father Xavier Gsell established the first mission on Bathurst Island in 1911 at a time when it was common for Tiwi men to marry as many as 15 wives. Some were young enough to be their granddaughters. The women were often ill-treated and unhappy, so the French priest devised a way of converting the women to Catholicism by buying them with tools, knives, linen and beads. He saved more than 150 young women in this way and, in the eyes of the Tiwi, these women were considered the priest’s wives.

In 1942, another missionary, Father John McGrath, played a part in World War II history by warning the mainland of a Japanese air strike on Darwin.

Nguiu has a recreation hall, a modern childcare centre and a health centre, a dry nine-hole golf course and swimming pool complex opened by Olympic swimmer Liesel Jones. We stop at the old mission cemetery where fading ironwood Pukumani burial poles sit alongside white Christian crosses. Tipiloura explains the three stages of mourning.

It begins with a ritual of singing, clapping and wailing. The second stage is a Christian ceremony. After six months, there’s a Pukumani ceremony, which involves carved and painted totemic grave posts known as tutini, armbands, or pamajini, and bark baskets known as tunga.

Football and art

We stop at a local pottery workshop to take a look at the wares, but most people have taken their families on walkabout in the bush. Loitering beneath a shady tree outside the workshop is an elderly barefoot man wearing a faded orange T-shirt. He has a baseball cap pulled over his head and a wide grin that reveals a missing front tooth.

“Which is your club?” he demands. Not being a football fan, I’m at a loss as to how to answer. Australian Rules Football is as intrinsic to Tiwi culture as skin groups, yoi dancing and walkabouts. Discussions about the AFL come up all the time.

During a morning tea-break stop, four local women demonstrate how to weave pandanus leaves, chase away the bad spirits in a smoking ceremony and perform the crocodile, shark and buffalo yoi dreaming dances. After their demonstration, the conversation drifts to football.

Eight local teams compete in weekly competitions and the Tiwi Bombers are a strong side in the Northern Territory Football League. Against the odds, star players such as David Kantilla, Maurice Rioli, Michael Long and Austin Wonaeamirri have come from these remote islands. Cyril Rioli currently plays for Hawthorn.

A good time to catch the excitement is in March, when the islands come alive during the Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final and Art Sale. The Tiwi Islands is probably one of the few places in the world where football and art go hand in hand. The art sale is held before the festivities on the football field begin at around noon.

At any other time of the year, the best way to look at art is through the Tiwi Design Art Centre in Nguiu. A large high-roof open-plan shed is full of artwork. There are beautiful ochre paintings on canvas and bark, ironwood carvings, screen-printed fabrics, ceramics and bronze and glass sculptures.

Tiwi art is distinctive and has its roots in the rituals of the islanders. Much of it is abstract geometric art painted with vivid colours and bold patterns. In the artists’ work area, my eyes are drawn to a shy woman painting dots on a tunga. There’s a sigh of appreciation from one of my travelling companions, who is a connoisseur of indigenous art.

“That’s Jean Baptiste Apuatimi,” he says excitedly. Apuatimi is a well-known artist who was taught to paint by her late husband, Declan Apuatimi, a famous carver and painter. A multiple winner of the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, in 2007 she was included in the National Indigenous Art Triennial exhibition at the National Art Gallery of Australia, Culture Warriors. Her art is displayed in museums around Australia and overseas, including USA, Europe and UK. The British Museum has one of her paintings.

Fact file

Getting there
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly to Darwin.

Touring there
A one-day Tiwi Island cultural tour costs from $498. Includes return flights from Darwin, morning tea, lunch and touring. Contact Aussie Adventure, 1300 721 365, aussieadventure.com.au

Tiwi Design is located at Nguiu. Book the Tiwi Island Art Tour on (08) 8978 3982 or see tiwidesigns.com

Staying there
Munupi Wilderness Lodge (also known as Clearwater Island Lodge) is on the outskirts of Pirlangimpi, a historic Tiwi settlement. Activities include fishing, sightseeing, bush-tucker tours and art appreciation. (08) 8978 3783, clearwaterislandlodge.com.au

A trip to the Tiwi Islands will usually require an overnight stay in Darwin:

More information
Tourism NT: travelnt.com


Christina Pfeiffer is a freelance writer and photographer who loves exploring unusual corners of the world.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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