The Tiwi Islands – Where?

I’ve been enjoying writing my weekly blog posts… until last week, when I tapped tapped away at the keyboard, edited and inserted all my photos and then BOOM, the post was lost.  I still have no idea what happened, it kept saying it was SAVED but it’s nowhere to be found.  It’s gone to the internet cloud in the sky, although I wish it was in the cloud, at least then I could retrieve it.  Anyway, I kinda lost my momentum and motivation.  Then I lost the actual internet.  I’m staying in a unit (apartment / flat / condo *whatever is appropriate for your part of the world) and a few days ago I woke up to NO internet.  NONE.  There are times when I like to be cut off from the world, but not when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, I’m 10,000kms from home and apart from the Sudoku book I treated myself too, all of my entertainment during lockdown has been provided by the World Wide Web, not to mention my work deadlines that were becoming increasingly looming.  Anyway, after a very sleepless and anxiety driven weekend I have credit again on my SIM and management are letting me use another unit to access the WiFi to complete my work whilst they try and dry out the internet cupboard mainframe thingy that got flooded and killed half of the high rise units connection with the outside world.

I digress… I may delete these opening updates on life during the coronavirus in due course but until then, you can have my drivel.

Wondering what to write about this week, Instagram reminded me that it was a year ago that I had visited a very special place – the Tiwi Islands.  Have you heard of them?  I hadn’t until about a week before I was visiting Darwin for a few nights before heading to Timor Leste.

The Tiwi Islands are in the Northern Territory, Australia, about 80kms north of Darwin in the Timor Sea.  There are two main islands – Melville and Bathurst and I think about 9 other small islands which are uninhabited.  The islands are privately owned, home to the Tiwi people and you need a permit to visit.  The permit is included if you take the 2.5 hour ferry crossing with Sealink Ferry or if you join a tour (which will no doubt be catching the same Sealink Ferry).  At the time of my visit, Sealink Ferries made the crossing to Bathurst Island twice a week – Thursdays and Fridays.  The ferry left from Cullen Bay in Darwin at 8am and was a colossal amount of money (for a backpacker anyway) $120 AUD (£60) return.  With the outward journey leaving at 8am, you dock at 10.30am and the return ferry leaves at 3.15pm.  There was plenty of time to explore the main town of Wurrumiyanga.  In hindsight, maybe a guided tour would have been more of a cultural experience but I enjoyed my time on the Island and the interactions I had with some of the local Tiwi community.

Tiwi Islands

The week before my trip a film called Top End Wedding had come out in Australia which was part filmed in Wurrumiyanga.  Of course I had to go see it.  Not only was it a very good, light hearted, but tugged at the heart strings kind of film, it gave me a first look into the culture of the Tiwi people with a bit of a tourism guide on the side.

Once the boat docks everyone seems to go different ways, hurriedly joining their tour group or marching off on a mission.  I stood there for a while just wondering which direction should I take?  Left, right or straight on?

I chose left and I was pleased that this took me straight to the Old Catholic Mission church that had been featured in the film.  Sadly, it wasn’t open to see the inside, but I was still pretty happy to have spotted something that was familiar.  What I hadn’t expected to see here were a few remnants from WWII.  The Japanese bomber planes that were bound for Darwin 19 February 1942 were spotted by Father McGrath, a Catholic Priest working in the Mission on Bathurst Island.  He sent a message out on the radio station, but most people chose to ignore him, and then the Battle of Darwin had begun with hundreds dying.  There’s a plaque on the ‘Radio Shack’ from where the message was sent and also a propeller from a Japanese ZERO plane.  I’m assuming this is linked to what happened over on Melville Island, on the same day, when a Japanese pilot crashed his plane.  Whilst the pilot survived the crash, Matthias Ulungara, a local Tiwi man had snuck up behind him with a tomahawk in hand and took the pilot prisoner.  Matthias was the first Australian to capture a Japanese prisoner of war.  In 2016 a memorial was unveiled on Bathurst Island.

Next up on my self guided tour was the Patakijiyali Museum.  The Museum is definitely a must visit, remember to buy your ticket on the SeaLink Ferry though!  Then pop the ticket in the honesty box on arrival.  I can’t remember how long I spent there – a couple of hours maybe?  The walls are dressed in the spiritual Aboriginal stories, historical pictures of the local Tiwi people, sculptures and examples of the famous Tiwi artwork.  Learn about the local land, animals and culture and see some of the carved Pukamani burial poles.  I had planned on visiting the cemetery to see the Pukamani burial poles but I couldn’t find it so I’m glad I saw some in the museum.  Oh and don’t forget the sport’s room!  Australian Rules Football is HUGE on the Tiwi Islands.  They have their own league.  Once a year, in March, 3,000 people descend onto Bathurst Island to watch the Grand Final.  If I was to return, I definitely would time it for then!

From the museum one of the local ladies decided to join me on a walk to the centre of town so I could get a snack for my lunch.  We mainly talked about local life in the town, subjects that I’m not sure I should openly write about here, but happy to chat about next time we see each other.  During my lunch others stopped to say hello, intrigued why I was visiting, but also when they found out I was British, everyone crowded round as they wanted to hear EVERYTHING about the newborn Royal baby.  Of course, being British, I have a direct line to the Royal Family and imparted them with all of my knowledge on Harry and Meghan’s bundle of joy (that I had actually learnt from the Australian news) and everyone seemed over joyed.

Back towards the shoreline and a look in Tiwi Design.  Artwork from the Tiwi Islands commands quite the price, I was told that some of the artwork is on display in The British Museum, which I must pop in and verify next time I’m home.  The cheapest ‘art’ I could find were the locally designed and screen-printed tea towels.  Sold!

For me the artwork that was on display in public, scattered across the town was my highlight.  The now famed boatshed from Top End Wedding, the exterior of Tiwi Design and other outhouses in the town are colourfully painted and make a wonderful photo opportunity.  Whilst speaking of photo opp’s – general rule, as with all travel photography that involves people, please ask for permission before snapping away.  Whilst it might be tempting, it will cause great offence if posted on social media without permission.

With the boatshed being my final stop of the day, a little meander along the shoreline and the boat was ready for boarding to take us all back to Darwin.

Tiwi Islands

Happy exploring x





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