THE GORGEOUS TIWI ISLANDS
Lying 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands comprise Melville Island, Bathurst Island and a handful of smaller, uninhabited islands. In fact, Melville Island is Australia’s second largest island, after Tasmania. Touted as one of Australia’s best kept secrets, these islands are home to some beautiful stretches of beach, fantastic fishing and some of the friendliest local people.
In fact, you may have recently fell in love with the island and it's people when it was front and centre in the delightful Top End Wedding:
The Tiwi people are an indigenous Australian people but are distinctly different culturally and linguistically from the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, just over the water. Creation stories suggest that Indigenous people have lived here for over 7,000 years. Today, the population stands at around 2,500 people, most of whom speak Tiwi as their first language but most are also conversant in English as well.
Tiwi Islanders are a resilient people. Japanese pearlers, Marcassan trepangers and Portugese slave traders have all visited the islands. The British arrived in the early 1800’s and attempted to colonise the islands in 1824, but were driven out within 5 years by a combination of the people, the intense heat and the isolation of the islands.
A mission was established in 1911, but faced resistance from the people who had strong beliefs and roots within their creations stories. By 1970, the mission changed its approach and tried to convey Christian themes that intertwined with the Tiwi creation stories.
Art plays an important part in the Tiwi culture and is also a major source of income for the islands. Decorated wood carvings, fabric designs, etchings and paintings can be seen at the Mission Heritage Gallery on Bathurst Island. You may notice there are many depictions of birds and this is because birds have special meaning in Tiwi mythology, from warning of impending cyclones to alerting of a death. Some carvings represent ancestors who are believed to have changed into birds. This is why you’ll sometimes see carved birds at sacred burial sites.
Tiwi artwork is quite distinguishable by its use of geometric patterns, arcs, circles and dots often of vivid white, red and yellow ochres on black.
Cruises from Australia to Papua New Guinea or Indonesia will sometimes call on the Tiwi Islands and it’s a perfect stop for those interested in culture, history or art. Check out our Papua and North Australian Luxury Cruise here.