Your guide to uncovering the Northern Territory’s Tiwi Islands

Posted: 6 April 2021

Located a short ferry ride across the Beagle Gulf from Darwin, the Tiwi Islands are a little-known gem in the Northern Territory’s Top End. Home to indigenous culture rich in tradition, art and Aussie Rules football, you’ll receive a warm welcome when you visit the Island of Smiles. For those with a day to spare in Darwin, a guided visit to spend time experiencing a glimpse of modern and living Aboriginal culture is a highlight of any trip to the Top End.  

Where are the Tiwi Islands?

Situated only 80kms north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands (or Ratuwati Yinjara meaning “two islands”) actually number 11 islands in total, two of which, Bathurst and Melville, are inhabited by the local Tiwi indigenous people, whose art, language and culture remain truly unique and different from those found on the mainland. The formation of the islands play an important role in the Tiwi creation story which took place during the dreaming or Palaneri; the time before living memory, when an old blind woman, Mudungkaladivided the islands from the mainland into the form they take today. These rich stories and the separation from the mainland allowed a strong and distinctive identity to develop. trip to the Patakijiyali Museum gives visitors the opportunity to learn about the Tiwi Dreamtime and the islands’ more recent history through displays of traditional art and sporting heritage. 

Why are the Tiwi Arts & Culture so unique?

The Tiwi identity is often expressed through art and dance, where traditional stories are depicted in paintings, sculptures, ceramics and painted Pukamani poles, known as tutini. These poles are found throughout the forests and woodlands and decorated with geometric patterns made with white, red and yellow ochresand are used in significant ceremonies including the Kurlama or yam ceremony and Pukamani or traditional burial. With five Tiwi-owned art centres located here, you’ll be sure to be headed home with some beautiful souvenirs and handcrafted memorabilia of your visit to the Tiwi Islands, as well as meet the artists who make them and learn more about their craft. On AAT Kings’ Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Tour, you’ll have the chance to spend time with the Tiwi ladies while they weave and paint and experience a traditional smoking ceremony.  

Dance, or yoiis also a part of everyday life here, with different dances performed during and significant events, and as a way of passing history down to younger generationsNarrative dances tell stories of everyday life or historical events, accompanied by songs which are specially created to convey the dance’s meaning. Each Tiwi person also has their own dreaming dance which is inherited from their father and children are taught from very young age to perform theirs. These dances are representative of the person’s dreaming totem which take the form of animals such as Yirrikipayi (Crocodile), Jarrangini (Buffalo), and Kitirika (Turtle). 

The Tiwi Islands are also renowned for having the highest community football participation rate in Australia, with the Islands Football League (TIFL) boasting 900 members out of a total population of 2500! Some of the Australian Football League’s (AFL) top players are Tiwi Islanders, including Maurice and Cyril Rioli who played for Richmond and Hawthorn respectively. The Tiwi Islands Grand Final takes place every March and attracts up to 3,000 spectators, the biggest day of the year for fans and visitors alike. 

What is there to see on the Tiwi Islands? 

From Darwin, your ferry journey will take you to the town of Wurrimiyanga on Bathurst Island, which has the largest population of around 2,000 people and is located within walking distance of the ferry wharf. The town dates back to 1911 when it was established as a Catholic Mission, and here you’ll find the fascinating Patakijiyali Museum, which depicts the dreamtime and modern history of the islands, also offering an interactive space for Tiwi children to learn about their culture. The Catholic Church building, which dates back to 1941, was built in the style of a typical Queenslander building, decorated inside with traditional artwork adorning the walls and altar. The town also offers a fascinating insight into World War II history, and the role the Tiwi Islands played in the conflict 

When is the best time to visit the Tiwi Islands? 

Traditionally there are three major seasons in the Tiwi Islands; Kumunupunari, the dry season (or the season of smoke), Tiyari, the build-up season and Jamutakari, the wet seasonFrom April to mid-August the dry season sees very little rainfall and temperatures range from 19C – 29C degrees, making it a pleasant time of year to visitTiyari brings with it hot weather and high humidity from mid-August to November, closely followed by the wet season months from December to March. AAT Kings’ Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Tour runs twice a week from April to May and September to November, and three times a week from June to August.  

How do I get to the Tiwi Islands?  

A 2 ½ hour ferry ride takes you from the Cullen Bay wharf in Darwin to Wurrumiyanga, travelling onboard the Tiwi ManatawiThe Tiwi Islands are owned and managed by the local Tiwi people and a permit is required to visit. AAT Kings’ Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Tour includes a Tiwi visitor permit, return ferry to Bathurst Island, an experienced driver guide and travel in an air-conditioned coach as well as lunch 

These culturally rich and unique islands are waiting to be explored, and the vibrant living culture offers a wonderful glimpse into the friendly and welcoming communities who call the Tiwi’s home. A trip to discover the fascinating ancient and modern heritage is a wonderful addition to a visit to Darwin and the Northern Territory.  

How to book 

The Kakadu & Tiwi Islands Explorer 3-day Short Break combines the best of Kakadu National Park with a visit to the Tiwi Islands. Priced from $1,209 per person, twin share, this introductory journey showcases the diversity of indigenous culture in the region and gives you the chance to experience ancient and modern art, song and dance. You can book your Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Adventure here, or call us on 1300 228 546 and speak with our friendly reservations team to book your trip to experience the Islands of Smiles today. 

By Alison O'Loughlin
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