Beyond Darwin: Tiwi Islands



Dubbed The Islands of Smiles because of the warm welcome offered to visitors, the Tiwi Islands are a short flight or cruise from Darwin, situated 80 kilometres to the north and acclaimed for their Aboriginal culture and warm hospitality. Dense rainforest, sandy beaches and rock pools combine to create the Tiwi Islands  coastal landscape. Visitors to Darwin can experience The Tiwi Islands as part of an organised Aboriginal tour or adventurous fishing expedition. Travel to the islands includes a 20-minute flight in a light aircraft from Darwin, or a ferry across the Timor Sea on a ferry to Bathurst Island.

Bathurst and Melville Islands, known collectively as the Tiwi Islands, are both popular destinations for one and two day trips from Darwin. They are separated by a 2 km wide strait. The islands are located 80 km north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea. The islands are inhabited by the Tiwi, an Australian Aborigine people culturally and linguistically distinct from those of Arnhem Land on the mainland just across the water. Dense rainforest, sandy beaches and rock pools combine to create the Tiwi Islands  landscape. The area of both islands combined is quite large, in fact Melville Island is Australia s second largest (after Tasmania).

The Tiwi people have lived on the Islands for thousands of years and their lives have been greatly influenced by the Catholic mission that was built on Bathurst Island in 1911. Many Tiwi Islanders are prolific artists who produce distinctive and valuable art, pottery, sculptures and wooden carvings. Their work is displayed at a gallery on Bathurst Island and can be visited during the day tour. They are also passionate Australian Rules footballers, which is evident at the annual Tiwi Island Grand Final held on Bathurst Island in March. The larger of the islands, Melville, boasts swimming holes, including those at Tomorapi and Taracumbie Falls.

The creation of indigenous Australian art is an important part of Tiwi Island culture and its economy. There are three indigenous art centres on the islands: Tiwi Design, Munupi Arts and Crafts, and Jilamara Arts and Craft, and these collaborate through a cooperative venture, Tiwi Art. The land on both islands is heavily forested predominately with eucalyptus, stringy bark ironwood, woolly-butt, and paperbark. Tall cabbage palms, pandanus, wild plum, bush apple and yams provide a rich but seasonal source of food. The bush provides a habitat for many different animals, including wallaby, possum, bandicoot, snake, lizard and numerous bird species. Waterholes fed from freshwater springs are often surrounded by pockets of monsoonal vine forests. Open marshlands and swamps can be found near the mouths of some of these waterways.


Tarntipi Beach, Bathurst Island

Beaches on the islands vary with clay cliffs, rocky out crops and expanses of white sand. The sands provide a haven for the turtle to lay their eggs, the rocks provide a habitat for oysters to grow in abundance and the cliffs provide the varieties of ochre used by the Tiwi for painting. Crocodiles, stingrays, dugong, turtle, sharks, manta rays and many varieties of fish can be found in the waters surrounding the islands.

Mangroves line the estuaries and some of the shorelines on both Bathurst and Melville Island. The mangroves provide a habitat for a multitude of sea life; including long bum, cockles, mud crabs, Yuwuli worms and many varieties of fish, especially Barramundi. Fruit bats also known as flying foxes, are commonly found in the mangroves along with a multitude of birds. Unfortunately sand flies and mosquitoes also abound in the mangroves and surrounding areas. Tiwi believe ningawi; mysterious little people also inhabit mangroves. The ningawi are linked to ceremony.



How to get there: The Tiwi Islands are a 20-minute flight in a light aircraft away from Darwin or cross the Timor Sea, or around two hours on a ferry from Darwin Harbour to Bathurst Island. A day or overnight tour is available from Darwin and takes you to Nguiu (pronounced new-you). The Tiwi owned and operated tours provides the requisite visitor permits, transport and catering. On arrival, travellers are transported into the modern lives of one of the world's oldest living cultures. The Tiwi guides share their favourite places with visitors, while sharing stories about their culture, beliefs, ceremonies and renowned artwork.


Milikapiti (Snake Bay), Melville Island

Melville Island
Melville Island is known in the Tiwi language as Yermalner. Australia's second largest island after Tasmania, Melville Island has a significant place in Australian history. The largest community/town on the island is Milikapiti, pop. 559. In 1824, Capt. Gordon Bremer established a British colony here named Fort Dundas on Melville Island. By 1829 the outpost, which had been decimated by disease and attacks by Aborigines, was officially closed. It is believed that the wild buffalo on the island are the feral offspring of buffalo brought there by the Fort Dundas settlers. In 1978 the ownership of Melville Island and Bathurst Island was formally handed back to the Tiwi people and today the island is run by the Tiwi Land Council.

Melville Island had been given four separate names by four different Dutch explorers before Phillip Parker King (son of governor of New South Wales Philip Gidley King) gave it its present name in 1818. It was first named Turtle Island by Dutch explorer Lenaert Jacobszoon (Mauritius) in August 1618; it was then named Arnhem Island by Dutchman Van Colster on 5th May 1623, after his vessel, Arnhem. William Jootszoon Van Colster had been sailing with Jan Cartstensz, master of the Pera, but the two had become separated. During his return journey home, Cartstensz also passed Melville Island and named it Goeree Island on 12th May 1623, in honour of a councillor of the Dutch East India Company. Gerrit Thomarz Pool, master of another Dutch vessel, the Klein, visited the island during his exploratory voyage and named it Van Diemen's Land on 21st June 1636.

It is said that these Dutch explorers were the first Europeans to sight Melville Island, although this is now disputed. The Tiwi Island's most likely first European sighting was probably made by the Portuguese, as the Aboriginal peoples encountered by the explorer Phillip Parker King in 1818, were found to know and use some Portuguese words and phrases (see "Early European contact" below). King named Melville Island for Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, first lord of the Admiralty, who is also commemorated by the much larger Melville Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. During World War II the small Snake Bay Patrol manned by local Indigenous Australians was established as part of the military forces deployed to protect the island against any Japanese landings.


Cape Fourcroy, Bathurst Island

Bathurst Island
The largest settlement on Bathurst is Wurrumiyanga (known as Nguiu until 2010), in the south-east, with a population of around 1,450. Located on the south east corner of Bathurst Island, Wurrumiyanga is approximately 70 km north of Darwin.

The island was named by John Clements Wickham after the vessel of explorer Phillip Parker King, which had explored the area in August 1821. From 1831 to 1836, Wickham was second in command of the Beagle in the expedition for which Charles Darwin was the naturalist and from 1837 to 1841 be commanded the Beagle while charting the north-western coasts of Australia. The island was named by him during that voyage in March 1838 while navigating its shores. The ship's name honours Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst (1762-1834), former British Secretary of State for the Colonies and member of parliament for Cirencester after 1783. He was Lord of the Admiralty from 1783 to 1789, Lord of the Treasury from 1789 to 1791, Commissioner of the Board of Control from 1791 to 1802.

Bathurst Island had previously been named De Speult Eylandt on 5th May 1623 by William Jootszoon Van Colster (Arnhem), in honour of Herman van Speult, Governor of Ambon, who had commissioned Van Colster's voyage of exploration.



The Cloud Named Hector
Hector is the name given to a cumulonimbus, or thundercloud, that forms regularly nearly every afternoon over the Tiwi Islands, from approximately September to March each year. Hector, or sometimes "Hector the Convector", is known as one of the world's most consistently large thunderstorms, reaching heights of approximately 20 kilometres (66,000 ft). Mighty thunderclouds like this are estimated to harness the power of ten Hiroshima-sized bombs. Stretching up to 20km into the atmosphere, it is clearly visible from Darwin, over 100km away.

Named by pilots during the Second World War, the recurring position of the thunderstorm made it a navigational beacon for pilots and mariners in the region. Hector is caused primarily by a collision of several sea breeze boundaries across the Tiwi Islands and is known for its consistency and intensity. Lightning rates and updraft speeds are notable aspects of this thunderstorm. Since the late 1980s the thunderstorm has been the subject of many meteorological studies, many centred on Hector itself but also utilising the consistency of the storm cell to study other aspects of thunderstorms and lightning.

Tiwi Islands: Brief History
The islands have been inhabited by the Tiwi people long before before European settlement in Australia. The Tiwi are an indigenous Australian people, culturally and linguistically distinct from those of Arnhem Land on the mainland just across the water with creation stories suggesting they were present at least 7,000 years before present. They number around 2,500 (as of 2011).

Early European contact

There are many conflicting views in relation to early contact. The tribal elders have handed down numerous stories of contact with outsiders and some mention Japanese pearlers, Macassan trepangers and Portuguese slave traders. In 1818 Phillip Parker King explored the island and found to his surprise that the Aborigines knew some Portuguese words and indicated that a Portuguese ship had possibly been wrecked nearby. A map, drawn by respected Portuguese cartographer Manuel Godinho de Eredia four years before the first recorded contact with the Australian continent by Europeans in 1606, appears to depict the Tiwi Islands. His map indicates that the Portuguese visited the Tiwi Islands at least 16 years before Dutchman, Lenaert Jacobszoon, who made the first recorded sighting of the islands by an European, in August 1618.

One of the most intertesting European visits occurred on 31st April 1705 when three Dutch ships entered Shark Bay on Melville Island. Commander Maarten van Delft's instructions were to capture some of the unknown people from the northern shores of New Holland and return with them to Batavia; an instruction he was to ignore after making contact with the Tiwi people.

The ship's log records the reaction of some 14 or 14 Tiwi warriors as a boatload of Dutch sailors came ashore: "seeing that our people could not be induced by their grimaces, violent gestures, yelling and flourishing of assegais [spears], and all kinds of weapons, to retreat from the shore, they were imprudent enough to throw some of their assegais, or rather sharpened sticks, at our men, with the intention of wounding and intimidating them, but their chief & being hit by a ball from the single musket which was fired at them in return, the rest began to run quickly away."

After retreating to their ships, van Delft returned his men to the beach to attend to this wounded man, resulting in the Dutch receiving a much warmer welcome second time around. This incident, by demonstrating to the Dutch that the Tiwi would fight bravely and effectively in defense of their land, and to the Tiwi that the Dutch had come to observe rather than dominate, established a positive basis for relations between the two groups. Peace was made on a foundation of mutual respect, and over the next few weeks there was considerable friendly contact. The wounded Tiwi man was assisted and bandaged, then stayed aboard one of the ships until the Dutch left Tiwi waters. Other Tiwi went aboard the Dutch ships, with gifts of fish and crabs, while the Dutch gave the Tiwi clothing and ornaments. Until the day of the seafarers' departure it appears the Tiwi permitted the Dutch to land at will, to obtain fresh water, and to reconnoiter the hinterland.



Fort Dundas settlement

A belief that the French were ready to occupy the northern shores of Australia at the beginning of the 19th century led the British Government to make three unsuccessful attempts to establish colonies on the north coast, Fort Dundas on Melville Island being one of them. All were thwarted by monsoonal weather, voracious wildlife, unfriendly local Aborigines, and the difficulty Europeans encounter when trying to live in the tropics.

On 24th August 1824 the ships HMS Tamar, Countess of Harcourt and Lady Nelson set sail from Sydney bound for northern Australia. The expedition, commanded by Captain James J. Gordon Bremer, had the task of establishing a permanent military outpost in northern Australia, a region then lying outside the control of the Australian colonies or the British Empire. Aboard the three ships were a little over 100 soldiers, marines and convicts, a small number of officers' wives, and a handful of free men.

The vessels were also laden with food supplies to last the first few months, livestock and plant seedlings from which the British hoped to become self-sufficient in food production, and prefabricated buildings to ensure the settlement's officers were properly housed and the stores protected from the elements. One month after setting out Bremer and his party arrived off Cobourg Peninsula. After failing to find a suitable water supply they continued on to Melville Island. The expedition arrived on 26th September 1824 and Bremer immediately raised the flag on Luxmore Head, near the northern entrance to Apsley Strait, to proclaim Melville and Bathurst Islands British territory. Fresh water was soon discovered and work began on the construction of a fort and settlement the British named Fort Dundas at a locality that Tiwi people call Punata, near the present-day township of Pularumpi (Pirlangimpi).

By the middle of 1826, it was obvious that Fort Dundas had no military usefulness and no hope of becoming a major trading port - a 'second Singapore' - as some had dreamed. London ordered the settlement's abandonment in 1828. In February 1829, less than five years after its establishment, the last of the contingent sailed from Fort Dundas with the remaining supplies and a number of disassembled buildings. The buildings and some of the personnel were relocated to Fort Wellington on the Cobourg Peninsula, an outpost founded in 1827 as a sister settlement to Fort Dundas. But Wellington too was soon ordered abandoned. By the close of 1829 no British remained in northern Australia. Today the site of Fort Dundas is acknowledged as a significant Tiwi heritage place, though the remnants of a large stone building are all that remains. Much of the stone was removed during the construction of a barge landing around 1940.

Girls at Bathurst Island Mission Station surrounding Bishop Gsell, Father McGrath, Old Peter and Brother Carter, 1939

Roman Catholic mission of Francis Xavier Gsell

From 1910 to 1938 the island was the site of the Roman Catholic mission of Francis Xavier Gsell, known as the "Bishop with 150 wives" for his practice of "buying" girls betrothed to older men, thus making it possible for them to marry men of their own age. Father Gsell and four Filipino men first anchored off shore from Bathurst Island and lived on board their boat until their prefabricated house was erected. They took up residence at Nguiu on June 8 and the first mass of the Catholic Sacred Heart Mission was said on the day. Religious instruction was their primary goal. The impact of the missionaries cannot be underestimated. From their first contact until the present day the mission has influenced the culture in both positive and negative ways. They established and education system, addressed health issues and organised welfare services within the community. In keeping with the thinking of the times, they also sought to suppress traditional language, customs and culture. Today Tiwi customs have intermixed with the doctrines, producing and amalgam of aboriginal and catholic signs, symbols and text.


During World war II, 35 Tiwi from Melville Island were responsible for patrolling Melville Island and Bathurst Island. They were armed and equipped by the Royal Australian Navy and they wore Navy uniforms. They served from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945 but they were never formally enlisted or paid an wages. It is believed that two of the Tiwi soldiers were involved in secret visits to Timor aboard Allied submarines.

During the Bombing of Darwin the first wave of 188 Japanese planes was spotted by Father John McGrath, a Catholic priest conducting missionary work at the mission station on Bathurst Island. Father McGrath sent a message on the radio saying "An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest". Nearly everyone ignored this, though it was on the most popular radio station. About an hour later there were roughly 100 people dead, but the people who followed his instruction all survived. As at Pearl Harbor two months earlier, the warnings were not acted upon by the military, and Darwin's final chance to make last-minute preparations for the impending raid slipped away.

Self Government

Control of the islands was transferred to the indigenous traditional owners through the Tiwi Aboriginal Land Trust, and the Tiwi Land Council that was founded in 1978. The Tiwi Islands local government area was established in 2001, when the previous community government councils in the three main communities of Wurrumiyanga (Bathurst Island), Pirlangimpi and Milikapiti (Melville Island) were amalgamated with the Wurankuwu Aboriginal Corporation to form a single local government.[18] The Tiwi Islands Local Government was replaced in 2008 by the Tiwi Islands Shire Council as part of a Northern Territory-wide restructuring of local government.









Irrititu Island and Cape Gambier, Melville Island


Taracumbie Falls, Melville Island

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