In Travel Bloggers on Wednesday 7th Nov, 2018

Tiwi Islands – The jewel of the Arafura

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Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt and his wife Sheree (who you might know from The Great Australian Doorstep TV show) run fully escorted motorhome convoy tours in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada and Alaska. Here, Spida takes us to the Tiwi Islands, off the coast of the Northern Territory.

The waters surrounding Australia are scattered with some of the most spectacular off-shore islands you can imagine. Case in point: the Tiwi Islands, which are part of the Northern Territory and lie 80 kilometres north of Darwin, where the Timor and Arafura Seas meet.

Home to more than 3,000 people, the Tiwis are made up of Melville Island, Bathurst Island and nine smaller, uninhabited islands. Each has a different story and some you can’t even get to. For the others, it is most definitely well worth the travel. The islands will give you the best insight into the Indigenous way of life.

From Darwin, the Tiwi Islands are just a two-hour sail by boat away – but you must allow at least two days out of your holiday to explore. At Cullen Bay, just out of Darwin, we boarded SeaCat’s passenger ferry, Arafura Pearl, and set off for the Tiwi islands community of Nguiu, on the southern coast of Bathurst Island. Arriving at the port of Nguiu we were welcomed by locals fishing the waters on either side of the boat ramp. It was here that our adventure began!

One thing you need to know – and remember at all times – is that you’re a guest on these islands, and at all times you need to show locals the full respect they deserve. Ask before you enter any buildings or landmarks, and you will not only have the time of your life you will learn some of the most fascinating things. There are day tours available and even overnight stays, but if you’re like me the adventure is arriving and exploring it yourself, which is easy to achieve.

Leaving the boat ramp, a short stroll will take you to the local arts centres. The three centres are committed to the development and promotion of both traditional and contemporary art and craft in the form of painting, pottery, carving, weaving, etchings, linocuts, lithographs, jewellery and screen-printed textiles. Local artists spend hours and hours fine tuning some of the most beautiful artwork you will ever see. Of course all is for sale, with money raised going straight back into the community. And, I might add, everything is very reasonably priced. Make sure you spend the time to find out the story behind each artwork, as it’s the cultural meaning, not just the visual side of the art, that will stay with you forever. Passed down from generation to generation, some stories are more than 7,000 years old! If you do purchase something, be sure to pick it up at the end of your stay, as during certain times of the year the monsoon rain could catch you totally unawares!

Tiwi canvases. Source: The Great Australian Doorstep
Some of the amazing Tiwi artwork. Source: The Great Australian Doorstep

On a stroll around town you’ll see the local Catholic church. Stunning and totally immaculate, it stands in pride of place on the grounds of the local primary school. This historical church attracts many visitors – you can enter at any time, but if it’s locked the school office will have the key. Built way back in the 1930s it’s made solely from cypress pine and has withstood numerous cyclones. The interior walls are decorated with cross-hatched designs and paintings of stingrays, crocodiles, turtles and pelicans.

The church. Source: The Great Australian Doorstep
The picturesque wooden church in Nguiu. Source: The Great Australian Doorstep

The land on both Melville Island and Bathurst Island is heavily forested, predominately with eucalyptus, stringy bark, ironwood, woollybutt and paperbark. Tall cabbage palms, pandanus, wild plum, bush apple and yams provide a rich but seasonal source of food. The bush provides a habitat for many different animals, including wallaby, possum, bandicoot, snake, lizard and numerous bird species.

Beaches on the islands vary, with clay cliffs, rocky outcrops and expanses of white sand. The sands provide a haven for turtles to lay their eggs, the rocks provide a habitat for oysters to grow in abundance, and the cliffs provide the varieties of ochre used by the Tiwi for painting. Crocodiles, stingrays, dugong, turtle, sharks, manta rays and many varieties of fish can be found in the waters surrounding the islands.

Grab some lunch from the local supermarket, located on the same road as the primary school. It’s a hangout for hundreds of locals, who gather in little groups to play some unique gambling and card games. I thought I knew a few good gambling games, but these guys walked all over me! After lunch is the best time to load up with water and take a good walk around – or simply sit and watch the kids play sport. They are all good at all sports – shows you why the Indigenous heritage and presence is so strong in all our major sporting codes, and only getting stronger. I couldn’t help myself by giving them a few AFL tips. Here, AFL is the major sport, with all kids vying for a spot in the team. We spent nearly two hours having a kick and playing a game – must admit, a few of those youngsters nearly showed me up!

AFL xxxxx. Source: The Great Australian Doorstep
Football fun with the AFL legend. Source: The Great Australian Doorstep

It’s not just footy – fishing and hunting are in the blood here, with kids of all ages able to do both like veterans. Sport and art are the passions of the locals, and all day, everywhere this stands out. 

As you walk around town you’ll notice there are no footpaths here, just red dusty tracks leading you to all major areas. It is actually awesome to see that how un-commercialised this place is; how different it is to life on the mainland. I can tell you, it’s like a breath of fresh air. 

The Tiwi Islands are home to a magnificent community willing to open their picturesque haven to all. They are very hospitable and a ton of fun to be around. I recommend you do a two-night stay, to get a real feel for the area and experience the true culture that makes the Tiwi Islands so rare.

The Great Australian Doorstep is on Channel 7Two on Saturday afternoons, or tune in to the radio show every weekend across the TripleM and FlowFM networks – 68 stations, Australia-wide.

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