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Bathurst Island, NT

Bathurst Island lies 80 kilometres to the north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea and has been the home of the Tiwi Islanders for thousands of years. Nguiu is the largest of several Aboriginal communities operating on the island. All visitors must have a permit from the Tiwi Land Council. Bathurst Island was first sighted by Europeans in 1644, when Abel Tasman passed on his way from Batavia. In 1910 a church minister persuaded the South Australian government to give him 10,000 acres of land on Bathurst Island to build a mission for the Tiwi Islanders. The mission achieved the dubious distinction of being the first place in Australia to experience foreign invasion when, on 19 February 1942, Japanese bombers, on their way to Darwin, bombed Nguiu. In 1978 the ownership of Bathurst Island was formally handed back to the Tiwi people and today the island is run by the Tiwi Land Council. It is said that the word ‘Tiwi’ means ‘people, the people or, perhaps, the chosen people.

Bathurst Island

No visit to Bathurst Island would be complete without a tour of its art and craft galleries. The Tiwi people’s distinctive style is popular with collectors, who snap up bark paintings, textiles, pottery and wood carvings. The exciting annual footy grand final day (which is accompanied by an art sale) in Nguiu is an event not to be missed.

Bathurst Island

In 1911, Nguiu, the main community on Bathurst Island, was founded as a Catholic mission for the Tiwi Aborigines. Ownership of Bathurst was then handed back to the Tiwi people in 1978.
Bathurst Island is probably most well known for the annual Tiwi football grand final held at Nguiu in March or April. This is not just a football match; it’s a true Territory experience. The barefooted Tiwi league has produced a number of AFL legends and the event incorporates an enormous Tiwi Art Sale – a rare chance for people to visit the Island, observe artists at work and purchase unique Tiwi art at Island prices. On these days permits are not required to visit the Island.Â
Aussie Adventure Holidays (Tiwi Tours) is the principal tour operator to Bathurst Island and visitors can choose from a one-day island tour or two-day overnight camp.
1 day Bathurst Island tour includes:
– a tour through the Nguiu community with a Tiwi guide
– visits to the museum, Early Mission Precinct and unique Tiwi style Catholic Church
– a tour of Tiwi art centres where artists can be observed at their work and visitors can purchase superb Tiwi art at Island prices.
– billy tea and damper with the ‘Tiwi Ladies’ while they work on their weaving and painting
– a performance of the totem dance by the Tiwi Ladies
– a scenic drive through Bathurst Island’s pristine wilderness
– a visit to a Tiwi lookout and Tiwi burial site where visitors learn about rituals associated with the Pukamani (burial) poles
– a delicious lunch and afternoon swim in a beautiful local waterhole
– talks about traditional bush tucker, bush medicine and natural fibres and dyes
2 day Bathurst Island camper includes:
– All activities mentioned above on first day
– Camp site at Moantu – home of the Rainbow Serpent – overlooking a large freshwater lake. Campfire dinner
– Tour of Cape Fourcroy – talks about traditional uses of native flora and fauna with a Tiwi guide
– Visit to Tomorrupi Waterfall for lunch and a swim
– Visit to Tiwi burial site and talks on burial rituals
Tours depart from Darwin airport and include airfares, transport on the island, permits, camping equipment and meals. For more information contact Aussie Adventure Holidays on (08) 8924 1111 or visit them on the web at

How to get to the Tiwi Islands

Visits to the Tiwi Islands need to be organised via a Tiwi Islands tour operator listed.
In March, during the Tiwi Islands football grand final and art sale on Bathurst Island, permits are not required and visitors can make their own way to the Island if they return on the same day.
Darwin to Bathurst Island return flights cost $130-$140 and bookings can be made through Air Ngukurr on (08) 8945 2755 or Eastland Airlines on (08) 8945 7344.
There is no ‘best time’ to visit the Tiwi Islands, visitors will always have the opportunity to see stunning Tiwi art, observe the artists at work creating their masterpieces and learn about the ancient Tiwi culture. The fishing’s great all year round.Â
A visit to the Northern Territory’s Tiwi Islands is a spiritual adventure that will never never leave you.

Tiwi culture

The Tiwi have a strong heritage and have maintained many cultural traditions.
Despite the fact that each Tiwi community has a store selling food, hunting for traditional food is still an important part of Tiwi life. Although, in many cases, rifles, plastic buckets and 4 wheel-drive vehicles have replaced spears, tunga bags and feet, the social aspects of hunting remain important to the Tiwis.
Tiwi is the main language spoken on both Melville and Bathurst Islands. Children are taught English in schools as a secondary language – the Tiwi communicate principally in their native tongue.
Ceremonies play an important role in Tiwi culture. Each ceremony has its own form and can vary depending on the circumstances of the time. There are two main ceremonial events performed:
The Kulama (yam) ceremony is an annual celebration of life and is performed when a gold ring forms around the moon during the final stages of the tropical (wet) season. At this time it is said that Japara, the moon man, is performing Kulama. The songs and dances performed express the wishes of the participants for a healthy and prosperous future.
The Pukumani (mortuary) ceremony occurs approximately six months after the deceased has been buried and ensures the mobiditi (spirit of the dead) travels from the living world to the spirit world. Tall totemic poles are carved and placed around the burial site and these symbolise the status and prestige of the deceased. Pukumani is a public ceremony and provides a forum for artistic expression through song, dance, sculpture and body painting.
A modern twist to this traditional culture is the Tiwi’s adoption of Australian Rules football, a pastime practiced with religious fervour.

Tiwi handicraft

Tiwi art and culture is widely recognised for its unique aesthetics and its connection to ceremonial life. A large percentage of Tiwi artwork celebrates the ocean, hunting and fishing, ocean creatures and their ceremonial and cultural significance.Â

Bathurst Island

Today Tiwi artists produce high quality paintings, fabrics and sculpture for exhibition in Australia and overseas. The main themes of the pieces relate to the Pukumani ceremony and pwoja (body painting). The body painting imagery is used as a way of masking people’s identity so the deceased cannot reclaim their loved ones.
Detailed Jilamara (design) also decorates the tutini (burial or Pukumani poles) in honour of the dead. These poles are now recreated for the fine art market, and are always made of cured ironwood. Smaller figurative and bird sculptures are also available.
The Tiwi people produce a wide variety of unique art pieces including:
weavings, prints, paintings, carvings, ceramics, jewellery, distinctive batik and silk-screened clothing, woven bangles, painted conch shells, unique Pukumani burial polesÂ
These are all available for purchase at the Tiwi Island’s three art centres:
Tiwi Design at Nguiu, Bathurst Island
Jilamara at Milikapiti, Melville Island
Munupi at Pularumpi, Melville Island
Each centre produces traditional and contemporary Tiwi art and has its own unique style:Â
Tiwi Design produces a wide range of screen-printed fabrics and a diversity of artwork from carvings to funky ceramic sculptures and paintings on paper and canvas using ochres and traditional Tiwi designs.
Jilamara produces innovative and contemporary body painting designs on canvas and large carvings, including Pukumani Poles. Artists use natural ochres in traditional colours.Â
Munupi artists present a fresh and vibrant approach that has developed into a unique individual style using rich colours in their paintings, prints and pottery, often depicting animals that are ‘good to eat’ and traditional designs.
For much more information on Tiwi art and some superb imagery, visit

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