A part of the Northern Territory, just 80 kilometres north of Darwin, lie Bathurst and Melville islands, known collectively as the Tiwi Islands. Voted as one of the ‘Top 100 things to do before you die’ by Australian Traveller, a short scenic ferry from Darwin will allow you to experience life in a modern-day Aboriginalcommunity. The Tiwi Islands are truly unlike anywhere else in the world and are an absolute must-do for any Top End adventure.
When you visit the Tiwi Islands, also known as the ‘Island of Smiles’, the welcoming local Aboriginal community will take you on an unforgettable journey through their rich history and culture by showcasing traditional bush tucker, bush medicine, local history and world-class Aboriginal art.
The Tiwi Islands are a truly unique slice of Australia with a gorgeous landscape, a diverse array of flora and fauna, and a friendly Aboriginal community with a rich cultural history. At AAT Kings, we believe that no Northern Territory experience is truly complete unless you visit the Tiwi Islands.
Read our Tiwi Islands guide to learn more about discovering this unique area of the Northern Territory.
Things To Know About The Tiwi Islands
The Tiwi Islands comprise both Bathurst and Melville islands, as well as nine smaller uninhabited islands, with a combined population of less than 3,000. The islands themselves span across 8,320 square kilometres and were created during the last ice age, around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.
Before the islands were isolated from the mainland, the Indigenous people had occupied this area for at least 40,000 years.
Melville Island, or Yermalner in the language of the Tiwi people, ranks behind Tasmania as the second biggest island in Australia. Milikapiti is the largest settlement on the island with a population of close to 600 people, while Pirlangimpi (previously Garden Point) is the second largest with under 500. There are also a series of outstations across the island.
The island is a noteworthy historical location and is the site of Fort Dundas, the first British settlement created in the Northern Territory. This first settlement was short-lived, however, as the Tiwi people resisted the settlers and forced them to abandon it after only four years.
Separated from Melville Island by the Apsley Strait is Bathurst Island. The largest settlement is Wurrumiyanga (previously Nguiu) with a population of approximately 1500, making it the de facto capital of the Tiwi Islands. The second biggest settlement on the island is Wurakuwu (approximately 50 people), with a small family outstation to the west.
Bathurst Island was famously the site of Catholic Mission and was portrayed as “Mission Island” in the 2008 film Australia. Before the bombing of Darwin in World War II, a priest on the island (Ed Bennett) spotted the incoming Japanese planes and tried to send a warning to Darwin.
Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Community
The Tiwi people, translated in the local Aboriginal language as ‘we’ people, are culturally and linguistically unique from those just across the water in Arnhem Land. The Tiwi people are renowned for proudly maintaining their traditional culture.
Most speak Tiwi as their first language and English as their second. This Aboriginal community has also uniquely blended Tiwi culture with Christianity brought to them by missionaries, as seen through their Tiwi-style Catholic Church.
When it comes to sport, AFL is the most popular across the Tiwi Islands. Every March, the Grand Final for Tiwi Islands Football League attracts up to 3000 fans.
Local Wildlife of the Tiwi Islands
As these islands have been isolated from Australia’s mainland since the ice age, the islands contain a range of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species are endangered, including the Carpentarian dunnart, which is a small mouse-sized marsupial native to the area.
The Tiwi islands are a great place to explore for wildlife enthusiasts as they are also home to the world’s largest breeding colony of crested terns, a rare seabird, and a significant population of the threatened Olive Ridley turtles.
Landscape & Climate
The Tiwi Islands are mainly covered in eucalypt forest, with small areas of rainforest occurring close to freshwater springs. Mangroves can also be found in several water inlets. The islands have a tropical monsoon climate with the highest level of rainfall in the Northern Territory between November and April, making the dry season months from May - October more pleasant for visitors to the islands.
Local Art & Culture
As specialists in wood carvings, here you can see carvings representing various birds from Tiwi mythology holding meanings significant to their culture. Art is an important part of the Tiwi culture and economy, with part of their artistic talent vividly demonstrated through the distinct batik, carvings, and the unique Pukumani burial poles that they create.
Music is also an integral aspect of Tiwi art and culture. The Tiwi people sing songs about the land and different aspects of their lives, and these songs have been passed down through the generations.
AAT Kings’ Tours of The Tiwi Islands
Tiwi Islands Aboriginal Cultural Tour – Full Day Tour
AAT Kings’ offers an amazing Day Tour of this fascinating island. Your day will begin with a ferry ride, departing from the Curren Bay Ferry Terminal. On arrival you’ll be met by a local guide to explore the progressive, modern day community of Wurrumiyanga and as the day develops, you’ll be taken through the rich cultural history of the area.
Key highlights of the tour include:
- Discovering traditional art depictions of the local dreamtime stories at The Tiwi Museum
- Exploring the Early Mission Precinct and unique Tiwi-style Catholic Church
- Visiting Tiwi ladies as they work on weaving and painting
- Experiencing a totem dance and a traditional smoking ceremony
- Seeing local artists work at the Arts & Crafts Centres and possibly purchase an artwork at Island prices
- Learning of the traditional Pukamani (burial ceremony)
View the full itinerary for the Tiwi Islands Cultural Tour
Browse our tours below to learn more about experiencing the Tiwi Islands