Kakadu and Litchfield Parks are where you can experience the Northern Territory's nature and wildlife but, to gain a richer understanding of the Top End's Indigenous people, a visit to the Tiwi Islands is a must. Some highlights of a trip to the Tiwis include:
Unique Aboriginal settlements
Beautiful tropical forests
Sea life such as Olive Ridley Turtles
Buying art directly from artists
Watching an AFL game
Experience 7,000 year old culture
Made up of Bathurst and Melville Islands, (Australia’s second largest islands after Tasmania), the Tiwi Islands is where modern Aboriginal lifestyle is on full display. Located 80 kilometres north of Darwin, the Tiwis are home to about 2,700 people across two closely connected islands. It's believed they've been here for a long time too - as long as 7,000 years!
While traditions such as using the poisonous nuts of cycad trees as ceremonial food have lasted the test of time, the Tiwi Islands' way of life did make a change in 1911 when the islands' main settlement, Wurrumiyanga, was founded as a Catholic mission. These days, a visit to the historic church built on wooden stilts remains high on many a Tiwi Islands tourist itinerary.
Art straight from the heart
Home to little more infrastructure than a football ground, a small supermarket, a takeaway shop and the aforementioned church, Aboriginal art is what leads the list of Tiwi Islands' man-made attractions. Almost every building you'll see is adorned with a special mural or some flourish of creativity. To get to the epicentre of it all, you just need to pay a visit to Tiwi Design.
A unique art centre established back in 1968 with approximately 100 artists working in residence these days, Tiwi Design is where you can see an inspiring collection of almost every type of Aboriginal art you can imagine. The list includes all manner of abstract line and dot paintings, colourful fabrics, and sculptures you'll just have to find a way to squeeze into your suitcase.
Make your own work of art
A popular activity for those visiting the Tiwis is to take part in an art workshop where you can spend the afternoon working with an Aboriginal artist to create your own masterpiece, including painting, carving or screen printing!
Of course, nobody will blame you if you want to leave it to the masters and purchase something already completed. A great thing about buying directly from Tiwi Design is that prices are far more affordable than those found in commercial galleries on the mainland, something locals like to call "island prices".
At Tiwi Design you can also find a famous Tiwis export called 'pukamanis'. Crafted from ironwood and up to three metres high, pukamanis are the strikingly decorated burial poles you'll see dotted across the islands.
Unique Australian landscapes
Covered with beautiful tropical forests, the Tiwi Islands offer plenty of opportunity to encounter unique Australian wildlife. An extensive amount of different bird and marine life including Crested Terns and Olive Ridley Turtles call the Tiwis home, as do crocodiles - best leave your swimming costume in Darwin!
As well as wildlife, you'll also spot an array of native plants on the Tiwis. Keep an eye out for cycads, pandanus, paperbark and ironwood trees. One thing you won't have trouble spotting is the termite mounds. The ones on the Tiwi Islands are high enough to compete with even those found at Litchfield National Park!
Take the long road, or a short one
Getting to the island is easy enough via a two-hour ferry or a short 30-minute flight from Darwin airport. Keep in mind that when travelling to the Tiwi Islands, you do need a permit. On the plus side, this strict visa enforcement has helped preserve much of the islands' traditional way of life.
Australian footy fever
There is one exception to the permit rule, and that's in March each year when the local Australian Rules Football grand final kicks off. Australian Football is arguably the most important religion that was imported to the Tiwis and locals are widely renowned for their talent and prowess at the game.
Having exported many players to the national league, a sight to behold is the season's penultimate game. With many players taking to the field barefoot and people from all over the world converging on the islands, grand final day is the definite highlight of the Tiwi Islands calendar.