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 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.

Melville Island

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.

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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.

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