Tiwi Islands: A journey into the Dreamtime

By Jacqueline Le

Aboriginal cultures are thriving off the Darwin coast, discovers Jacqueline Le.
Aboriginal people have been living in the Tiwi Islands for 7000 years. Photo / Tourism NT
Aboriginal people have been living in the Tiwi Islands for 7000 years. Photo / Tourism NT

Why aren't there any boomerangs on the Tiwi Islands?

Because they never came back, our guide Thaddeus deadpans.

But it's unlikely deep sea divers will find a pile of wayward boomerangs lying on the sea bed surrounding the islands.

That's because the Aboriginal people who have been living here for the past 7000 years have never needed boomerangs, or didgeridoos, for that matter.

It's not a lifestyle choice but a cultural difference between mainland Australia and the Tiwi people who live 90km off Darwin's coast.

Getting here from Darwin is relatively straightforward these days but not a lot of people venture out this far.

Home to roughly 2500 people, the Tiwi Islands are comprised of Bathurst Island and Melville Island and a handful of smaller, uninhabited islands.

Our guide is from Bathurst's Nguiu community but the name Thaddeus stretches back to the 12 apostles and the Catholic missionaries who once lived and worked here.

Nowadays, as far as religion goes, here it's Australian rules. "The dream for some boys is to go play footy on the mainland," Thaddeus says.

We learn all this as our driver, Noel Roberts, navigates our minibus along Bathurst's dusty, red dirt tracks.

Visiting this remote community on a one-day tour is an eye-opening experience discovering the oldest culture in the world and how Australia is lucky to have it. English is a second language here and Aboriginal tradition a way of life.

As we drive past pandanus trees and their drooping spiny leaves, Thaddeus teaches us about the four skin groups on the island that determine whom you can or cannot marry.

The sun, pandanus, mullet, and stone groups form four corners of a diamond, and no one can marry a member of the skin group next to them.

It stems from a Dreamtime story about the importance of avoiding inbreeding, which is a real possibility in small and isolated communities - as well as royal families, our group titters.

Brothers and sisters on the islands can play with each other as children but aren't allowed to speak to each other after puberty. The next time they can interact with each other is when they have grey hair.

We see examples of Dreamtime stories and other Tiwi symbols in paintings, wooden carvings, woven baskets and screen printing at Bathurst's art centres. These centres are becoming increasingly important to local communities as a way of helping people support themselves and keep traditional art forms alive.

But whether you're drawn by art or island life, you won't leave the Tiwi Islands empty-handed.

In lieu of a boomerang, or a didgeridoo, you'll pick up rare insight into modern day Aboriginal communities and why they matter.


Qantas flies to Darwin daily via Sydney and Melbourne. Economy Class return flights start from $1075. The Tiwi Islands are a 25-minute flight or two-hour ferry trip from Darwin. qantas.co.nz

Full-day tours with AAT Kings are priced from $393. aatkings.com


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