Off the beaten track on Tiwi Islands

8 years ago

Why aren’t there any boomerangs on the Tiwi Islands? Because they never came back, our guide Thaddeus deadpans.

But it’s unlikely deep sea divers will find a pile of wayward boomerangs lying on the sea bed surrounding the islands.

That’s because the Aboriginal people who have been living here for the past 7000 years have never had the need for boomerangs, or didgeridoos, for that matter.

It’s not a lifestyle choice but a cultural difference between mainland Australia and the Tiwi people who live 90 kilometres off Darwin’s coast.

Getting here from Darwin is relatively straightforward these days but not a lot of people venture out this far.

Home to roughly 2500 people, the Tiwi Islands are comprised of Bathurst Island and Melville Island and a handful of smaller, uninhabited islands.

Our guide is from Bathurst’s Nguiu community but the name Thaddeus stretches back to the 12 apostles and the Catholic missionaries who once lived and worked here.

Our driver, Noel Roberts, navigates our minibus along Bathurst’s dusty, unsealed red dirt tracks towards a cream timber church.

Thaddeus proudly tells us the church was used in Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, although the film itself doesn’t get much praise from locals.

Tiwi culture doesn’t need Hollywood storytelling when it’s got a much longer tradition of oral history.

It’s a vital part of Australia’s indigenous history but it’s not often tourists can get up close and personal with it.

Visiting this remote community on a one-day tour is an eye-opening experience discovering the oldest culture in the world.

English is a second language here and Aboriginal tradition a way of life.

As we drive past pandanus trees and their drooping spiny leaves, Thaddeus teaches us about the four skin groups on the island which determine who you can or cannot marry.

The sun, pandanus, mullet, and stone groups form four corners of a diamond, and no one can marry a member of the skin group next to them.

It stems from a Dreamtime story about the importance of avoiding inbreeding, which is a real possibility in small and isolated communities – as well as royal families, our group titters.

Brothers and sisters on the islands can play with each other as children but aren’t allowed to speak to each other after puberty. The next time they can interact with each other is when they have grey hair.


Aboriginal children pose for the camera. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

We see examples of Dreamtime stories and other Tiwi symbols in paintings, wooden carvings, woven baskets and screen printing at Bathurst’s art centres.

These centres are becoming increasingly important to local communities as a way of helping people support themselves and keep traditional art forms alive.

Prices range from double digits to thousands of dollars, or you can simply observe the artists at work and chat to them about their designs.

It’s rumoured someone from Michael Jackson’s camp once travelled to Melville Island to pick up a few pieces of Aboriginal art for the pop star.

But whether you’re drawn by art or island life, you won’t leave the Tiwi Islands empty-handed.

In lieu of a boomerang, or a didgeridoo, you’ll pick up rare insight into modern day Aboriginal communities and why they matter.

GETTING THERE Fly with Air New Zealand or Qantas to Darwin.The Tiwi Islands are a 25-minute flight or two-hour ferry trip from there.

PLAYING THERE Full-day tours with AAT Kings are priced from A$250 (NZ$282), not including flights.

The writer was a guest of NT Tourism and Undertow Media.

 – AAP


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