The Tiwi Islands offer a rare insight into the Aboriginal way of life, writes Phoebe Smith
White smoke plumed into the air so thick I could no longer see beyond it, while the rhythmic sound of clap sticks rent the air like a heartbeat. The scent of burning eucalyptus leaves filled my nose, reminding me of the Vicks VapoRub rubbed on my chest as a child when I was ill, while the humid air felt damp against my skin.
As the all-encompassing vapour began to dissipate, I could see my guide Thaddeus's outline begin to appear like a spectre. He beckoned me to walk through the vapour and I stood to face him, his skin painted with lines of red, ochre and white.
Heartfelt calls from Thaddeus, his friend Tobias, and his wife and her friend, began to harmonise as I was — they informed me — cleansed of any bad spirits which might have followed me to their island home. Then, the dancing began.
It was, perhaps, the perfect introduction to Bathurst Island, the cultural hub and second largest of the cluster of 11 islands that make up the Tiwi archipelago, which lies 50 miles (80km) north of Darwin and is part of the Northern Territory. I'd first heard whispers of the islands and their unique traditions during a few days spent on the mainland. There I'd explored the wetlands around Corroboree billabong, replete with grinning, 16ft saltwater crocodiles and long-legged jabiru (a type of stork); cage swum with the reptiles; and spent far too much money at the Mindil Beach Sunset Market while the sun set a blistering shade of orange.
Bathurst Island lay untouched by Europeans for centuries. The first white man stepped ashore there in 1705 but was quickly chased off, before the British established a colony in 1824 which only lasted five years due to hostilities. The Tiwi islanders (population about 2500) not only have their own distinct language and customs but also some of the best-preserved Aboriginal traditions in Australia. One of them was that unforgettable welcoming ceremony.
I'd arrived at the tiny airport 30 minutes earlier via a plane that was so small every one of us had a window seat. There is no security at the "terminal", just a tiny building resembling a bus stop covered with artwork. Thaddeus had picked me up as part of a group of eight in a minibus and speedily took us to be cleansed. Afterwards we were encouraged to dance, moving like each person's totem animal: turtle, crocodile, shark and snake, which each islander inherits from his or her father.
After several minutes of them performing flawlessly while we muddled about in a half-embarrassed foot fiasco, we sat down for billy tea — which they brewed over the remains of the fire from our earlier cleansing — and feasted on fresh damper bread. The two women sat beside us and began to paint rocks, using the clay pigments of black, white, red, orange and yellow.
As they did, I noticed that Thaddeus never looked at one of the women or spoke to her. He then explained she was his sister. But this lack of acknowledgement wasn't because of sibling rivalry or a family feud but, rather, a system known as "Skins", which determines whom Tiwi islanders can and cannot marry and maintains a healthy bloodline.
"You inherit your skin from your mother," Thaddeus explained, as he showed us a painting of four symbols: a sun or wantarringuwi; the pandanus plant or miyartiwi; stone or marntimapila and a fish or takaringuwi. "By being assigned a symbol, certain skins become off-limits, so you will never marry someone too closely related to you."
This ancient kinship system didn't stop with the skin designation, for the rules also state that once you reach a certain age you can no longer speak to or look at your sibling of the opposite sex, to remove any temptation of a relationship. It's a rule that means acts of seeming animosity witnessed between men and women actually hide a necessary practice when you have a limited island population.
These skin symbols are found all over the island, from the Roman Catholic church (Christianity took hold when it was erected in 1941) which shows a depiction of Christ being held aloft by an Aboriginal spirit, to the art co-operatives where locals create large-scale screen prints, pottery, canvases and wooden sculptures many depicting the skin themes in intricate detail.
As we strolled around the town with Thaddeus, more of the islanders' lifestyle was revealed. There was the sports ground, used for Australian Rules Football, the fabric factory (rumour had it that a designer involved in New York Fashion Week was after some of the distinct designs), and finally the graveyard with its collection of burial totem poles towering over each plot.
Thaddeus explained how these are erected on the death of a loved one; that family members mourn for a year; that a person's belongings are buried or burnt; and that cars are painted white and left for the same duration, lest an ill spirit should still linger in the possessions of the deceased.
From the town and talk of spirits we headed out into the bush where a forest full of stringybarks, eucalyptuses and the delightfully (and rather aptly) named woollybutts was navigated via four-wheel-drive vehicle. As we went, Thaddeus stopped at various innocuous-looking points before making them come alive with stories from his childhood — from tales of him and his friends proving their initiation into manhood by running through the croc-filled mangroves unscathed, to living off the land by hunting wallabies, snakes and reptiles for food. At this point he spotted an invisible (to us) frilled-neck lizard and, in just a blink of an eye, grabbed its tail to show us before letting it run off.
Our exploration ended with a final stop at the beach, where we watched crabs scurry down to the water and looked out to the lights of downtown Darwin twinkling in the distance across the Timor Sea. Soon I would be back there, looking over towards these islands through the spray of waves that crashed against the rocks on the shore. But they wouldn't appear as a faint presence on the horizon as they had done days earlier but, rather, as a ribbon of ochre, as vibrant and distinct as the people who call it home.
The Tiwi Islands are reached via a 25-minute flight or a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Darwin in the Northern Territory.
Visits are restricted: to go independently requires a special permit from the Tiwi Land Council ( tiwilandcouncil.com ) and you must be hosted by a Tiwi resident.