Bathurst Island, Australia

Photo: Tourism NT (Imagegallery Tourism NT) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Tourism NT (Imagegallery Tourism NT) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons
You usually avoid group tours. The large crowds, the rigid schedules, and the mind-numbing questions turned you off long ago. You’d rather explore by yourself and on your own time. But today, you’re making an exception to visit the Tiwi Islands.

The Tiwi Islands lie 45 miles off the coast of Darwin in the Arafura Sea. The Northern Territory’s remote—very remote—capital is already considered an adventure destination. The Tiwi Islands are even more so. The two main islands, Melville and Bathurst, are home to the Tiwi people, an Aboriginal tribe that has maintained much of their culture and traditions. They fish for huge barramundi around the archipelago’s nine uninhabited islands. They hunt for dugongs in the crystal clear water. They gather turtle eggs on the sandy beaches near the mangroves. They have elaborate Pukumani burial ceremonies, featuring carved poles, to honor the dead. Plus their artwork is some of the most treasured in Australia.

The Tiwi people lived on the eucalyptus-filled islands for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Their first attempt to settle the Tiwi Islands didn’t go well. Fort Dundas, on Melville Island, was abandoned only five years after it was built in 1824. Catholic missionaries eventually arrived in 1911 and established Wurrumiyanga, the largest settlement on Bathurst Island to this day.

You arrive on Bathurst Island to find two art centers. Artists are creating baskets from pandanus leaves, decorative carvings, and silk-screened paintings. Over tea with a couple of Tiwi women, you learn about the history of the islands and the mythology behind the images they create. Before you leave to see the beautiful, deserted coastline, they offer to show you a burial site.

The area is now silent. Eerily silent. But only recently, it was filled with mourners covered with white paint. There were offerings, dancing, and, most importantly, Pukumani poles placed around the grave. The gifts will be left to decay. But the spirits will never leave the island. There are some things you would have never seen on your own.

 

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