The Top End: Tiwi Islands

To the top of the top! While in Darwin braving the heat and humidity I learned about this group of islands just north of here. Part of Australia but almost 100% of the inhabitants are Aboriginals. Tours left from Darwin on a 3 hour ferry ride and included learning about their culture, food, and history against the colonists. I had also watched Top End Wedding earlier in the year. it is written by an Aboriginal women and the end of the movie was filmed on Tiwi Island. Watching that movie during a lockdown in Sydney I thought to myself, I will get there. I was here, I was going.

Because I am cheap, I took a bus at 630am and then walked 20 minutes to arrive at the dock dripping sweat. The humidity was thick and the sun was slowly starting to rise. Eventually the heat would burn off the thickness in the air so I just waved myself with my sun hat trying to cool off.

Boarding the ferry your bags are checked for alcohol. This island is dry as like many indigenous communities the Aboriginal people are fighting against drugs and alcohol. 3 hours pass in the bluest greenest water you have ever seen murky white hiding infinite crocodiles. I secured a spot in the air conditioned inside, pulled in my already dying iPhone 6 and read.

There is not much infrastructure there to greet you. The small dock has a tiny wooden overhang. From there you walk along the water past buildings amid construction but with no workers. There is a small parking lot where the tour guides wait with their clip boards. Abandoned rusting cars bake in the sun surrounded by plastic soda bottles.

Our tour guide gathers the 20 or so of us up. Him and his wife run the business and employ local Aboriginals as tour guides, story tellers, historians, and artists. Our first stop is to a not for profit, as the Aussies say, that works with disabled people through art. Ngaruwanjirri operates in Tiwi and promotes local art. The women working there explain who their artists are and how they create the paint onsite from local ingredients. All the artwork on the domed ceiling has been done by their artists. It is incredible.

From here we head to morning tea at the camp. We are offered bush tea and biscuits. We sit in a circle and are introduced to 3 men who are leaders in the local community, the first actual Aboriginal people we meet. These men you can tell are completely enjoying their life. They sit together, joke, tell stories, and break off into their own side conversations in their local language. It is contagious, you want to be apart of his story. He tells us all about Aboriginal culture and how when the British came they tried endlessly to conquer this land. The people here fought back and have been really under their own management since then. Separate but still considered part of the country.

We are taught about the smoking ceremonies that are about cleansing and welcoming a person to a new land. You enter a place with your own past, spirits, and problems. This ceremony cleans you and allows you to enter this new community with no reservations. I cup the smoke and cover my face and head with it. Breathing in the beautiful smell of the burning eucalyptus trees.

From here we head to the church shown in the movie. The Catholic missionaries came in the earlier 1900s in an attempt to convert the local people. Apparently it wasn’t so successful but the church still stands. One of the nuns who came with the original group turned 91 recently. She rides around here saying she’ll never go home, this is her home.

The plain white building lifted 30 ft into the air to protect from the monsoon season looks like nothing to note on the outside. Entering the doors the wooden pews lead you to the front. The alter is what causes you to stop and stare. The alter has been detailed in dot paintings. Animals, people, landscapes, all are painted on a solid black background. It is a beautiful example of the Aboriginal local culture meeting and trying to join the entering forces.

Church on Tiwi Islands

Leaving the cool church for the ever present sun, we walk towards the museum. This 3 room small office building holds the most history and detail regarding the Aboriginal people I have ever seen. Creative graphic stories have been made to explain their life origin beliefs, show their hunting and fishing methods, and outline the local agriculture. After spending 3 years in this beautiful country I can honestly say I know basically nothing about its indigenous people. In the cities in the east, their culture, language, and history, are not promoted or highlighted. Here at the literal end of the country, not even on the mainland, I find the answers I have been looking for.

We head back to the campsite for lunch. 3 women sit there dot painting different sculptures available for sale. This is when I am completely upset that I travel so light. I would love to buy artwork to display in this fictional home but when you travel with a carry on there is space for only memories.

The day ends exploring the art gallery at the dock. There I meet a women around my age who is a remote doctor. She has been working all over the country flying in trying to work with the local communities and supply them medical assistance. We spend the 3 hour ferry ride back discussing the vaccine and the hesitancy seen by many indigenous groups around the world. Who could blame them though? When you look at history any “help” the invading forces tried to provide always ended in death. Why should they believe us now?

Back on the mainland my new friend offers to drive me home. I am thankful to not walk in the still roaring heat, even though it is now 5pm. We exchange numbers and then spend the next two days exploring the local markets of Darwin and drinking cocktails on a rooftop.

My time in Darwin had come to an end with my flight to Melbourne just around the corner. Time to say goodbye to the heat, crocodiles, and solo adventure I had begin 3 months earlier. From the day I drove out of the lockdown in Victoria I had crossed into New South Wales, then South Australia, flown to Western Australia, and then driven 9,000 km across the outback to Northern Territory. It would be nice to sit a while in Melbourne even if it was in the midst of a lockdown and winter.

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