Bathurst Island lies in Australia’s far north. Bathurst is one of nine that make up the Tiwi Islands, which lie about 80 kilometres north of Darwin. There are two ways to get to the island either by a light aircraft or the thrice weekly ferry from Darwin. Both transportation modes are wonderfully scenic.
You have to remember that tourism is restricted and so are visitors. You need to get a permit to visit and even then you have to go on a pre-arranged tour with an Aboriginal guide. You can apply for your permit online or from the office of the Tiwi Land Council on Bathurst Island. It is far more convenient to let the tour operators organise your visit and permit.
You can do a one or two day tour of the island. The facilities and amenities on the island are rather basic and there are no hotels or places to stay except for a couple of remote fishing lodges. While there are food and general stores, the locals still follow the traditional fishing and hunting customs to meet their food needs. It is an important part of their community lives. Tour operators however, do provide meals and camp-style accommodation for overnight stays.
Once on the island, the experiences are absolutely terrific. The pleasures of Bathurst Island can be placed in two distinct categorises. One is the natural and scenic side and the other is the people.
The Aboriginal population call themselves the Tiwi, which translates to people, so saying Tiwi people is a redundancy. One of the treats in visiting Bathurst Island is the arts and crafts of the Tiwi. The main community is Wurrumiyanga, previously called Nguiu.
You get a first hand and close-up feel for the art and everyday life of the Tiwi. You can watch and marvel at the artists while they work. Their batik and silk clothes, woven bangles, vividly painted conch shells, wood carvings and pottery are splendid. Wood carvings generally have birds that are sacred and meaningful to the Tiwi. Some really good carvings are on display at the Mission Heritage Gallery and the Tiwi Designs Art Centre.
The Tiwi culture is rather unique. Back in 1911, Father Gsell, a Catholic priest convinced the government to give him land on the island to build a mission. Fortunately he did not carry out too many conversions and what has evolved is a very unusual mix of Tiwi Aboriginal traditions and customs and Christian doctrines, signs symbols and texts.
An outstanding representation of this cultural mash-up is the lovely wooden church built sometime during the 1930s. Another is the beautifully decorated and colourful burial poles, called pukamanis that dot the countryside. They mark burial sites and some of them are more than 10 feet tall.
The scenic part of your tour takes you along beautiful coastlines, sandy beaches, through rainforests, waterfalls and inviting rock pools where you can take a dip if you are so minded. Some of the plants and animals are totally unique to Bathurst Island. One of the most enduring sights is the cycad trees. They look like a cross between ferns and palm trees, with a single thick trunk and a crown of large green feather-like leaves. In fact the name Wurrumiyanga means “the place where cycads grow.”
I found out Bathurst is a privately owned island. In 1978 ownership was formally handed back to the Tiwi people. Today the island is run by the Tiwi Land Council and they have done a good job of it.