No visitor to the Top End should leave without spending time in the Tiwi Islands. Here you will find a vibrant, mainly indigenous community, unique wildlife and plenty to see and do.
There are 2 main islands, Melville and Bathurst, separated by the Apsley Strait. Together with 9 smaller uninhabited islands they have an area of around 8,320 km2. Melville Island is Australia’s largest island after Tasmania. The Tiwis are surrounded by the waters of the Arafura and Timor Seas to the north and Beagle and Van Dieman’s Gulfs to the south.
Today there are over 2,500 people living mostly in 3 main communities. Around 1,400 live in Wurrumiyanga (previously known as Nguiu), on Bathurst Island. Milikapiti (also known as Snake Bay) and Pirlangimpi (also known as Garden Point) on Melville Island each have a population of around 450 with other smaller communities scattered around.
The Tiwi Islands have a tropical monsoonal climate. During the wet season (November to April) they have the highest average rainfall in the Northern Territory. They were formed when the oceans shifted at the end of the last ice age and their isolation from the mainland allowed the formation of some plant and invertebrate species found nowhere else on earth.
The landscape is mainly open eucalypt forest dotted with patches of dense rainforest around the freshwater springs and mangroves around the many inlets. The islands have been declared a significant bird area and are home to the world’ largest breeding colony of Crested Turns. There are also significant populations of sea turtles, sharks and saltwater crocodiles.
Evidence shows that indigenous people have inhabited these islands for over 7,000 years. They are believed to have come across from the early homes of mankind in Africa and Asia when the continents were joined. The Tiwi Islanders bear little resemblance with the early inhabitants and they also have a separate ancestry to that of the aboriginal people of the mainland.
The Dutch explorers of the late 17th century knew of the region and are known to have landed at Shark Bay on Melville Island in 1705. The first British settlement in northern Australia was established at Fort Dundas in 1824 however it only lasted 5 years partly due to hostility from the islanders.
In the early 20th Century several Christian missions were established on the islands. Francis Xavier Gsell set up a Catholic mission in 1911. He sought to civilise the natives through religion and education with genuine concern for their welfare.
In keeping with the ideology of the time, many children of mainland aborigines were separated from their families and brought to the mission on Melville Island where they were taught western ways and told to forget their past. These children were part of what was later known as the ‘Stolen Generation’ and this period is looked back upon as a tragic scar in Australia’s history.
When the missions eventually closed the indigenous Tiwi’s welcomed the displaced children into their community and accepted them as family. Many of today’s islanders can claim both indigenous Tiwi’s and aboriginals from many parts of northern Australia as ancestors.
Australian Rules football came to the islands through missionary John Pye in 1941 and the locals took to the sport enthusiastically. In 1954 the St Mary’s Football Club on the mainland recruited Tiwi servicemen and in 1955 that team won the Northern Territory Football League premiership. In 1961 David Kantilla became the first indigenous man to play in a southern league and his courage and determination encouraged more islanders to follow in his footsteps.
John (Jack) Long and Cyril Rioli were among the young boys living at the mission when ‘Aussie Rules’ was introduced and they can now count multiple football legends in their combined dynasty. Many went on to play in the Northern Territory, South Australian, Victorian and Australian Football Leagues. Remarkably, 3 members of this family - Maurice Rioli, Michael Long and Cyril ‘Junior Boy’ Rioli - have been awarded the coveted Norm Smith Medal given to the best player on ground in the Australian Football League Grand Final in Melbourne each year.
This love of football has given the Tiwis one of the highest sport participation rates per capita anywhere in the world.
Governance of the islands was handed back to the indigenous people in 1978 through the formation of the Tiwi Land Council and Tiwi Aboriginal Land Trust. The structure of the council has changed several times and in 2014 the Tiwi Islands Regional Council was formed. It is one of the Northern Territory local government areas.
In 2007 Tiwi Enterprises Pty Ltd was formed to create economic opportunities and jobs for the local community. It initially focused on forestry but has now expanded to other operations including vehicle hire and accommodation management.
The forestry industry of the Tiwi Islands has had many ups and downs with a number of failed ventures over more than a century. Vast areas of native forest were cleared controversially around 2006. Much of that land is now used for monoculture or raising cattle.
In 2015 the first harvesting of Acacia Mangium woodchips took place in forests managed by Tiwi Plantations. New plant facilities have been built at Port Melville and export will be mainly to Japan. This project has been managed primarily by the local community with substantial environmental and economical long term planning. It has a strong focus on providing quality training and jobs for the local community.
The rich mineral sands of the Tiwi coast contain deposits of zircon and rutile. In the last few decades there have been several attempts to mine the sands. Mining Company MZI Resources operated 2 plants in the Lethbridge region over several years until 2014 and now have plans in place for a longer-term project at Kilimiraka on Bathurst Island.
All commercial environmental activities on the Tiwi Islands must comply with strict planning codes of practice. Many ventures have been initiated by the locals themselves with the future of the land and whole community in mind. Recent projects have included the implementation of solar energy plants to supply electricity in place of outdated diesel equipment.
Visitors to the islands make a significant contribution to the local economy. Local businesses provide tours, accommodation and various dining and cultural opportunities.
Things to do
Fishing is a huge drawcard. You can book into one of several specialty lodges and spend your days with experienced local guides fishing for Barramundi, thread fin, cod, and mud crab. Then at night enjoy a delicious meal with both traditional and modern influences while you take in the sunset and sip a beer or wine.
There are several swimming holes at Tomorapi and Taracumbie Falls on Melville Island.
Day tours from Darwin include visits to the museum and historical church. Visitors can also spend time at Tiwi Design and meet some of the local artists. Tiwi art is known for its distinctive batik and silkscreened fabrics along with wooden carvings of birds from Tiwi mythology, pottery and Pukumani burial poles.
The creation of art is an integral part of the Tiwi culture. It is a social activity where stories of both past and present are shared while traditional techniques are passed down. Today there are several networked organisations involved in the management of various artistic endeavours.
The Tiwi Island Art Show and Football Grand Final is held each year in March. It attracts around 3,000 people and is a major fixture on the Top End events calendar.
The locals divide their year into 3 distinct seasons; the dry (season of smoke), the build-up (high humidity and cicadas songs) and the wet (storms and heavy rainfall). The best time to visit is from the beginning of the dry season (March onwards). Many services are not available during the wet season (around December to February).
Self-contained accommodation is available at Wurrumiyanga at various price points. Alternatively you can stay in Darwin and visit the islands on one of the many day tours on offer. Ferry services run from Darwin three days a week.
Fly Tiwi operates from Darwin and services the island’s main communities with several flights each week. Don’t be surprised to see mail, medical supplies and other urgent freight being loaded along with your luggage.
However you choose to visit the islands it is important to note that you will require a visitor permit. The islands are privately owned and, like all other Australian landowners, the people of the Tiwi Islands have the right to decide who can visit their property. This also helps to protect their natural environment and heritage.
Permits are free in many cases and can be arranged through tour or transport operators. For more information visit Tiwi Enterprises Pty Ltd.