Art, footy and fishing fever abound in this far-flung northern sanctuary. Take a ferry ride to the Tiwi Islands for a window into Top End Aboriginal culture and friendliness.
The Tiwi Islands have, until recently, been but 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.
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.
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 Fly Tiwi flight from Darwin Airport.
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 occurs in March (more on the Footy Grand Final and Art Sale below), and day tours operate from April to November.
Permits and other 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.
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, former winner of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
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 fishers. 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.
Where to stay?
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. 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 includes 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. 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.
What tours can I take?
SeaLink NT, AAT Kings, and Tiwi Design (Tiwi Tours) 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.
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.
The Tiwi Islands’ Football Grand Final and Art Sale takes place each March. It’s a huge day both for Tiwi Islanders and those keen to sample islander pride, art, and football culture.
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.