The Tiwi Islands: a far-flung northern sanctuary where there’s art, footy and fishing fever abound.
Until recently, the Tiwi Islands have been just a blip on the tourism radar. While barramundi hunters and football selectors have been pretty hush-hush about their fertile hunting grounds, interest in this fascinating area and the Tiwi people who call it home is on the rise.
Before you take a ferry ride up from Darwin for a window into Top End Aboriginal culture and friendliness, you need to check out our guide to the islands below.
Why go to the Tiwi Islands?
Surrounded by azure waters 80 kilometres north of Darwin, the Tiwis – also known as ‘The Islands of Smiles’ for its residents’ joie de vivre – is an archipelago of 11 islands, with Bathurst and Melville the largest of these.
About 90 per cent of the Tiwi population is Aboriginal and, despite cohabitating with European settlers since the 1800s, Tiwi traditions and culture remain strong.
Locals date and marry according to skin group rules, cultural pride reigns supreme, and the three Tiwi passions – footy, art, and fishing – colour life on the islands. This trio of activities also captures the main drawcards of a journey here.
Art lovers, fishing fans, and Aussie Rules spectators find much to love about this tropical oasis.
An exclusive beachfront resort on Tiwi Islands, NT. (Image: Tourism NT/Tiwi Island Retreat)
How to get to the Tiwi Islands?
Take a 2.5-hour ride with SeaLink NT Ferries from Darwin to Wurrumiyanga (known as Nguiu until 2010) on Bathurst Island, book a tour, or catch a 20-minute flight from Darwin Airport with Fly Tiwi.
A SeaLink NT ferry arriving at Bathurst Island for a Tiwi Tours day trip. (Image: Tourism NT/Shaana McNaught)
When to visit the Tiwi Islands
Anglers can happily fish here all year round. Otherwise, the Top End dry season – which runs from May until September – offers travellers the most comfortable weather.
That said, the biggest event on the Tiwi calendar – the Footy Grand Final and Art Sale – is in March (although it was in May in 2022, post-COVID), and day tours operate from April to November.
Football players dancing before the match at the Tiwi Islands Grand Final and Art Sale. (Image: Tourism NT/Shaana McNaught)
Permits and other Tiwi Islands tips and tricks
Tiwi communities occupy Aboriginal-owned land, so if you’re travelling independently, rather than on an organised tour, you’ll need to apply for a permit through the Tiwi Land Council.
The exception to this rule applies to those visiting via SeaLink Ferry to Wurrumiyanga – you can wander around the cultural precinct here permit-free. Bring your own food as there are no cafes or takeaway food joints on the islands.
What to do on the Tiwi Islands?
There’s a depth and playfulness inherent in the art made by the Tiwis’ stock of artists. For starters, Tiwi painters use ochre paints rather than acrylics, and ironwood carvings of totem animals – such as owls, cockatoos and brolgas – are in abundance, as are brightly coloured fabrics in a suite of whimsical designs.
Take a stroll around the islands’ three art centres to absorb the whole gamut and pick up a Tiwi creation for keeps.
Aboriginal art for sale at Jilamara Arts and Craft Association. (Image: Tourism NT/Felix Baker)
Jilamara is the most high-end of these centres. Here, you can encounter pukamani (ceremonial) poles and ponder work by some of the archipelago’s more famous artists, such as Timothy Cook, a former winner of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
Aboriginal artist painting a pukumani pole at Jilamara Arts and Craft Association. (Image: Tourism NT/Felix Baker)
Tiwi Design is a hub for screen-printed fabrics and ironwood animal carvings, among other gems. And Munupi Arts is known for its pottery, as well as its works by female and emerging artists.
Want to hear more about taking a Tiwi Island art tour? You can check out our review here.
Purchase Tiwi art and crafts at community prices. (Image: Tourism NT/Helen Orr)
The Tiwis has a reputation as a foolproof fishing destination. It doesn’t matter what the tides are doing, there’s always somewhere to hook a whopper.
Common catches include mangrove jacks, golden snapper, jewfish, coral trout, trevally, tuna, Spanish mackerel, and, of course, barramundi.
Hire a boat and camp if you prefer a more rustic, affordable and earthy alternative to a fishing lodge.
For a mere $10 per night, the islands offer three basic campsites for recreational anglers. You’ll find Camp Point and Robertson Creek on Melville Island, and Shaggy’s (Tinkanrow) on Bathurst Island.
Note: you’ll still need a permit for this option and should allow 30 days for it to be processed. For anglers, check out our best NT fishing spots.
Fishing out at Tiwi Island Retreat. (Image: Tourism NT/Mark Fitz)
Tiwi Island tours
SeaLink NT and AAT Kings all offer one-day tours that start with a ferry trip to Wurrumiyanga and include visits to Tiwi Design, Patakijiyali Museum (displaying traditional art and depictions of Tiwi dreaming stories), and the community’s Mission Precinct, which features a beautiful, art-lined wooden Catholic Church.
Hop on a helicopter ride to the tropical Tiwi Island Retreat. (Image: Tourism NT/Mark Fitz)
Tour highlights include making your own screen-printed fabric at Tiwi Design, witnessing a smoking ceremony, and chatting with local Tiwi ladies while they weave baskets or paint.
Time your trip with a special event
The Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final and Art Sale takes place each March (although it was rescheduled post-pandemic for May). It’s a huge day both for Tiwi Islanders and those keen to sample islander pride, art, and football culture.
Head to Bathurst Island for the AFL grand final match and annual art sale. (Image: Tourism NT/Shaana McNaught)
Travel by ferry for early morning art sales from all three Tiwi art centres, grab a gourmet burger and, when the afternoon arrives, take a seat at the Tiwi Islands Grand Final.
This high-octane event sells out almost every year – so make sure to book early.
Aboriginal woman with a face painting, Tiwi Islands. (Image: Tourism Australia/James Fisher)
Where to stay on the Tiwi Islands?
The accommodation in the Tiwi Islands is mostly tailored to fishing travellers, but it also caters for those keen on unplugging somewhere seriously remote and beautiful.
One of the best of Tiwi’s small cluster of lodges is Tiwi Island Retreat. Set on a sandy beach lined with towering coconut palms, the retreat has a small pool, an expansive deck, shared bathrooms and coastal-styled rooms.
Cooling off with a drink at Tiwi Island Retreat. (Image: Tourism NT/Mark Fitz)
It’s also known for its cocktail-drink-welcome, plus the friendliness of its skippers who lead you to the finest fishing spots (if fishing is your thing). There’s a two-night minimum stay and prices include food, transfers to Darwin, and activities on the island.
Tiwi Islands Adventures runs two alternative stays: Melville Island Lodge and Johnson River Camp – both aimed squarely at fishing lovers.
A glamping eco-lodge with a relaxed beach-style vibe. (Image: Tourism NT/Tiwi Island Retreat)
Melville Island Lodge is bigger (18 guests maximum, so not as big as Tiwi Island Retreat) and more accessible: it’s based in the community of Milikapiti and overlooks the shores of Snake Bay.
For a more off-the-beaten-track stay, choose Johnson River Camp (nine guests maximum). This sits on the Johnson River, a fishing cornucopia, on the east coast of Melville Island.
Get cosy at Tiwi Island Retreat on Bathurst Island.
Planning a tropical getaway? Make sure to include Tiwi Islands in your bucket list and go for a Tiwi Islands art tour.