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
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.
Australia's second largest island after Tasmania, Melville Island
has a significant place in Australian history. 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.
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.