Have you heard of the Tiwi Islands before? Made up of Australia’s second and third largest islands – after Tasmania of course – the Tiwis are just north of Darwin, and are still a pretty remote location to explore.
The two Tiwi Islands, Bathurst and Melville Island are both still home to the local Aboriginal people, with just under 5,000 people living across both of the islands. They can be quite difficult to figure out if you’re trying to plan a visit, with very little concrete information out there about how to visit or actually get to experience these islands.
One of the best way to get to see more of the Tiwis and learn more about their culture is by jumping on one of SeaLink NT‘s Tiwi Island day tours. They offer a few different options, depending on what you want to see or do on the island, but for the complete Tiwi experience you can’t go past the Tiwi by Design day tour.
From Cullen Marina it takes about 2 and a half hours to reach Bathurst Island, the main island in the Tiwis that is open to visitors. Our ferry departed Darwin at 8am, so we arrived about half an hour before to check in and find ourselves a seat inside. The ferry is quite large with two levels, a small cafe, an outdoor seating area and plenty of tables and space for everyone.
Onboard there is a mix of people doing the day tours like we were, as well as locals who use SeaLink as their main method of transport between Darwin and the Tiwi Islands. It’s a flat easy ride from Darwin to Wurrumiyanga on the other side, but it can be a little long so bring a book or download a podcast or two for the ride.
After we disembarked in Wurrumiyanga we were greeted by Kevin and Remi, our tour guides for the day. They introduced themselves and us to the islands, and told us a little bit about the island before we began the tour. The Tiwi Islanders are very traditional and have maintained their culture for thousands of years, but they are also so happy to welcome visitors to their islands and to share their culture with others. In fact, the Tiwi Islands are also affectionately called the “island of smiles”.
It is only a short walk from the jetty to the Tiwi by Design studio area, and we were welcomed to the Tiwi Islands with a traditional smoking ceremony. A small group of the local artists and dancers blessed the group during the smoking ceremony, before sharing their totem dances with us as well as some of their Dreamtime stories.
We checked out the Tiwi by Design studios, where you can purchase some artwork created by some of the local artists and also got to have a chat to some of the local community members. One in particular, also named Remi, was quite a character. He told us his stories of travelling to Finland, Canada, Scandinavia and all around Australia. He was so passionate about travel, and about sharing his stories and culture with any visitors to the Tiwi Islands. Such a character and a great chat if he’s around when you visit Wurrumiyanga.
We had a tasty morning tea of damper with jam and cream, before jumping in to our art lesson for the day. Tiwi Design creates lots of beautiful screen printed artwork and clothing, and on the tour you get to learn how to screen print your own t-shirt, tea towel or canvas that you can take home with you. They have heaps of different stencils for you to choose from, with all kinds of patterns, from crocodiles, turtles and bird life, to cute Tiwi designs and emblems.
We chose a crocodile stencil to print onto a canvas and one of the local artists showed us how they combine paint colours to create a really beautiful palette for the artwork. He definitely gets all the credit on this one, I literally said to him maybe I would like something yellow or orangey, and he created this beautiful colour combination. It was so impressive, we loved what he came up with.
Watching them work is so lovely too, they take so much pride in each piece they create and do it with such skill, it’s really a great experience. While we all took turns trying our hand at screen printing we also got to tuck into our little box of lunch.
After lunch we took a short walking tour around some of Wurrumiyanga and learnt a little more about culture on the Tiwi Islands. They told us their stories from the war, different cultures trying to take over the Tiwi Islands, some of their creation stories, family relationships and how they keep their culture alive in today’s day an age.
One of the most interesting things we learnt was how siblings and cousins of the opposite gender don’t speak or make eye contact from the time they hit puberty for the rest of their lives. In an effort to keep their bloodline pure, biological brothers and sisters do not speak directly to each other or look directly at each other, instead passing messages to each other through other members of their families (often their kids or nieces and nephews) if they need to.
We also got to check out the old Catholic Church that sits near the coastline of Bathurst Island and they shared with us the history of how Catholicism came to the Tiwi Islands. These days the Tiwis strongly identify as catholic, but they still also take part in their own traditional ceremonies and rituals, often combing the two for different occasions.
At the time of our visit the Patakijiyali Museum and Mission Precinct were closed due to Covid-19, but normally you would also get to visit these spots on the island as well.
Tiwi by Design is definitely the best way to learn more about the Tiwi Islands, the people and tribes that live their and their cultures and traditions. It’s a great insight into life in the Tiwis, PLUS you get to create your own beautiful piece of art that you can take home with you. Such a wonderful day.
About the Tiwi by Design Day Tour
The Tiwi by Design day tour operates on Thursdays and Fridays, however check out the SeaLink NT website as they do have date changes sometimes.
Inclusions: In addition to all the guided tours on Tiwi Island, your tour also includes return ferry transfer between Darwin and Wurrumiyanga, morning tea and lunch, water and a take home screen print that you help to create. SeaLink NT also takes care of your permit to visit the Tiwi Islands, so you do not need to apply for another one on your own.
Tickets: Tiwi by Design costs $349 per adult, with discounts for children and seniors.
Important: SeaLink NT and the Tiwi Islands request that you please avoid wearing any skimpy clothing or cut off shorts as this is not culturally appropriate on the Tiwi Islands. Also, please make sure you ask any Tiwi locals before you take a photo of them and do not take any photos of children.
You can find more information about the Tiwi by Design day tour HERE.
Other Tiwi Island tours
In addition to Tiwi By Design, SeaLink NT offer several other types of tours to see and experience the Tiwi Islands.
Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final: If you’re visiting around March considering checking out the Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final & Annual Art Sale. The Tiwis are just crazy about AFL, they absolutely love it. In fact, they have 14 teams between the two islands and have created a handful of AFL’s biggest superstars. They play their grand final in March and it is definitely an event to try and grab a ticket to if you’re around at the right time. Limited tickets are available for this one and they sell out every year, so make sure you get in early.
Awana Tiwi: To explore more of Wurrumiyanga on a self-guided tour, this option is for you. After joining in the traditional welcome ceremony in the morning you are free to enjoy the town of Wurrumiyanga at your own pace. We’d recommend checking out SeaLink NT’s highlight recommendations though before you set off on your own, to make sure you don’t miss any of the top spots.
We joined the Tiwi by Design tour as guests of SeaLink NT. All opinions are, as always, our own.