Isles apart in Darwin

Darwin in Australia is a galaxy of experiences

Bathurst Island

I can never say Darwin and not think of a whole galaxy of experiences. The capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory, besides being a vibrant place to spend a few days, is a gateway to a whole host of magical lands: Kakadu National Park, famed for the Ubbir Aboriginal Rock Art Sites and Litchfield National Park, studded with gregarious waterfalls and industriously-built termite mounds, for starters. But while travellers arrive in droves for the landscape, a lesser number are interested in the lives of the people who live here.

A loss perhaps, because the Tiwi people, one of Australia’s indigenous groups that have occupied these islands for centuries, have much to share with those that visit. In pursuit of an encounter, I head to Darwin’s Cullen Bay Terminal. From here, high-speed Sea Link catamarans leave for Bathurst Island daily. The water gently rocks me into island time and as we dock two-and-a-half hours later, I’m ready to experience a life that’s not dominated by the clock.

Back in time

Ben, my local guide, leads me off the beach and in the direction of the town centre of Wurrumiyanga (an area that doesn’t require a permit to visit), with welcoming cheer. He goes into a quick history of the influence of the Europeans, who made early contact with the Tiwi people in 1705. About 119 years later, the British established a settlement here. Nguiu Church, the first stop on our trail, is an outcome of this colonial engagement. You don’t have to be remotely religious to note the cultural interaction immediately apparent inside this timber-frame building. These portals have on their walls biblical stories and themes represented in striking, yet entirely Tiwi imagery.

An aboriginal paints his face in Darwin
An aboriginal paints his face in Darwin

Patakijiyali Museum is the next obvious spot. Through artefacts and depictions of Dreamtime stories, I learn here everything that I wanted to know about the islanders. The missionary influence of their past. The Tiwi’s growing love affair with football. Their revered objects layered with meaning. A wood bird here is more than a wood bird. Some birds, for instance, signify approaching monsoon rains, others impending cyclones, still others ancestral beings who morphed into birds. You can go behind the scenes, to discover many of the complex rituals associated with various objects — the pukumani poles (burial poles), for instance. The museum’s also good for a comprehensive look at bush medicine, bush tucker, the use of natural fibres and dyes.

Traditional yet modern

But despite the draw of the chronicling of traditions and practices, the living museum is really outside. The Tiwis have long been known for their artistic tradition — pottery, painting and weaving. The co-operatives featuring their products are all located just a short drive from each other. You’ll find prints on paper, batik, silk, hand-painted lino, block textiles and hand-painted jewellery. Common themes depicted are pukumani poles, armbands, and ceremonial artefacts. Everything on sale is available at island price. That you buy straight from the source and can interact with the artist producing what you buy, lends heart to this path. The Keeping Place is particularly striking, its roof painted by some of the most talented Tiwi artists of recent times.

The colourful roof of The Keeping Place, Bathurst Island
The colourful roof of The Keeping Place, Bathurst Island

Now, it’s time for tea with the older ladies of the clan. They serve us a cup of billy tea and damper — made from traditional Australian soda bread. These breads are traditionally baked on coal. One woman confides that despite the availability of store-bought food, women continue to be the providers of foods like berries, nuts, yam and mud crabs. The men on the island continue to fish. One of my new, young Tiwi friends tells me, “While an education is all very well, practical skills like fishing stand one in good stead, especially when education fails to produce a satisfactory job.”

The islander’s ability to juxtapose traditional with modern influences is striking. At the ceremony we attend — a totem dance and a smoking ceremony with a mandate to bless visitors, it’s clear that these traditions are not just performed to showcase them to the travelling few, but are wholly entwined with local belief.

One of the dancers, his face painted elaborately for the ceremony, tells me that he doesn’t need to choose between living in the world and being Tiwi; he keeps those elements he finds meaningful from both. He loves football — in particular, Australian Rules Football, and explains how the football grand final held here in March, along with an art sale — are big island attractions.

There’s much to appreciate on the island. Lush vegetation punctuating wide-open spaces. Age-old rituals. Colourful customs. Being relatively isolated has other merits as well. The islands are host to the largest breeding colony of crested terns and a large population of the olive ridley turtle. But the even greater gift of the island is that it still has what money and organisation often steal from big cities — hope, enthusiasm, and a collective desire to keep traditions alive, even while in transition.

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Isles apart in Darwin

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