Tiwi islands tours: This trip gave us a real insider’s view to the art, history and culture of a distinctly different segment of Australia’s aboriginal population. Smoke rituals, burial & marriage traditions and the opportunity to create your own Tiwi island art to take home.
After spending so much time in Australia, coming to Darwin and the surrounding areas like the Tiwi islands, was a real eye opener on understanding Aboriginal people. Cultural experiences you just don’t get in Australia’s main east coast destinations like Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef.
Below, a round up of what to expect from Tiwi Islands Tours with Sealink.
About the Tiwi Islands
The Tiwi Islands are made up mainly of Bathurst and Melville Island, situated about 90KM north of Darwin, NT, Australia.
The population of the two islands is 2,500 with the majority of the population living together in Wurrumiyanga – The town where you disembark the ferry.
The exact history is only recorded through stories, which suggest the Tiwi islands could have been inhabited for 7,000 years. In the past they are believed to have had contact with Makassan traders from modern day Indonesia. But written records exist only from 1705 when the first Dutch ships briefly landed at shark bay on Melville island.
The British attempted to establish a military settlement in 1824. That only lasted 5 years before they abandoned the islands due to hostility from the islanders.
Fortunately they are a lot more friendly these days! Making a large proportion of the island’s income from tourism and artworks.
Tiwi Islands Ferry
The trip took about 2.5 hours and you can choose to chill in the air-con, or sit up on deck watching the waves. We took the opportunity for a nap!
Tiwi islands tours: Culture
Right from the start of the tour we began to learn about the history and culture of the Tiwi islands.
We were greeted with a traditional smoke blessing. This is to ensure you will have a safe and happy trip. Local iron wood is used to make clapping sticks and the Tiwi islanders play rhythmically and sing while the smoke blessing takes place.
Although classified as Aboriginal, their culture is distinct from the mainlanders 80KM away. As one of our guides, Vivienne, explained “No didgeridoo or boomerang here”.
In fact, they were hostile with the mainlanders. There is even a burial ground near Mindil beach in Darwin where their mythology suggests many Tiwi islanders are buried due to trying to steal women from the Darwin Aboriginals when the Tiwi’s had run short of females!
Some of the most important culture is completely ingrained with the art of the Tiwi islands. Such as the creation of burial totems.
Tiwi islands tours: Morning Tea and art workshop
After the blessings and cultural introduction we took a look around the massive selection of local art at the Tiwi by Design workshop. Totems, wood statues, screen prints and more.
After a few helpings of damper bread (an outback campfire favourite – traditionally cooked straight on the hot coals), it was our turn to create some art of our own.
Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to do this from scratch. Instead we got to choose from hundreds of pre-made screens we could use to print our own. The hard part would be applying the paints to our chosen fabric. But our expert art guide was there to help out.
The art culture is very based on nature. Local animals such as crocodiles (Yes, don’t go swimming in the ocean at Tiwi) and turtles. In fact, they still catch large turtles for food. The biggest ones can feed up to 500 people when shared carefully.
Tiwi islands tours: Museum
Inside the museum, a wealth of local history. From dreamtime stories and myths through to World War 2 and Japanese bombing raids. The Tiwi islands played a vital role as an early warning station when the Japanese attacked Darwin. Radioing the mainland after spotting the first planes.
Before those days of war, the stories of creation themselves passed down from generation to generation. There is an Aboriginal tradition that requires you to attain certain status within the community before you get to learn the more advanced stories. This means that the stories we, as outsiders, have access to are often the most simplistic which have been created for children.
They still offer an interesting insight into the Tiwi history and culture, as well as demonstrate a universal connection with themes from creation myths from all over the world.
Here is one story. The story of Mudungkala:
“An old blind woman arose from the ground at Murupianga in the South East of Melville Island. Clasping her three infants to her breast and crawling on her knees she traveled slowly north. The fresh water that bubbled up in the track she made became the tideways or the Clarence and Dundas Straits, dividing the two islands from the mainland. She made her way slowly around the land mass and then, deciding it was too large, created the Apsley Strait dividing the Islands.
She then decreed that the bare islands be covered with vegetation and inhabited with animals so that her three children left behind would have food. Nobody knows where she came from. Having completed her work, Mudungkala vanished.”
– As featured on Tiwi Designs.
Tiwi islands tours: Church
In 1910 the first Christian mission was established on the Tiwi islands. The church, built in the 1930s, has a fascinating interior that combines Catholic iconography with traditional Aboriginal art.
The building itself is typical wooden outback design of the period. But it was a stepping stone for a change in the culture to moving towards more modern dwellings on the island. That said, the Tiwi islanders still to this day take time to connect with their roots by heading out and living in the bush for a period each year.
This is often called “bush month”. It’s an opportunity for families to teach the kids traditional skills, like hunting.
Tiwi Islands Tour: Verdict
The Tiwi islands are a simple place. The bright red sand next to the teal/azure waters is striking but the tropical jungle and tin shacks are not going to wow you. The real value of taking Tiwi islands tours is understanding the indigenous people.
Understanding there is a reason and a story behind a culture that is quite alien to our own. Understanding the purpose behind the art that is so connected with every element of their society.
Plus, when I say “Been there, got the t-shirt” my t-shirt is a little bit more authentic than an “I heart Tiwi” shirt.
To book this tour or to see what other day tours from Darwin are available CLICK HERE
Accommodation in Darwin
Although limited accommodation is available on the Tiwi Islands as part of longer Tiwi Islands Tours, the day tour covers most of what you’ll want to see and learn about Tiwi. So, most visitors stay in Darwin. Here are some great options for your trip.
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Disclaimer: We received our Tiwi By Design tour complimentary – all opinions remain our own. The article contains affiliate links – thanks for supporting this blog by using them!