Tiwi Tour

“It would be genuinely ironic if we stopped to take a photograph of the sign and a coconut dropped on our heads”, I said to one of my fellow travellers.

Though I’ve been to Darwin many times I’ve never been to Bathurst or Melville Islands before, which are located about two and a half hours by ferry from Darwin. But this week I decided it was time, and so I booked a day tour.

Tiwi Islands coconut warning
Crocodiles, stingers, and extreme currents, which explained why there was “no swimming”.

“My mother was taken by a crocodile” one of the grannies who was demonstrating pandanus weaving told us.

I would have liked to have shown you a photograph of the three wonderful women, but was told they preferred not to have their photographs taken. Any of the photographs you’ll see on this blog entry were taken and shared with the permission of the people they feature, notably Freddie, our tour guide. “Take as many as you want, he’s very photogenic” we were told, with a laugh.

We were also asked to be respectful of the cultural objects. For example, we were asked not to take photographs of the totem poles in the cemetery. And in one of the galleries, there was a sign saying not to take photographs of the arts and crafts, without permission.

“It’s okay, so long as it’s a broad general shot”, I was told when I asked for permission to take a photograph of some of the carvings.

Though I have a memory of experiencing this in the past, I had genuinely forgotten until today that in many traditional communities, people will often avoid eye contact with you. We were told today this is especially the case between brothers and sisters. After puberty, brothers and sisters are separated.

Though I can’t be 100% sure, it sounds like many of the cultural laws derive from concerns about interbreeding.

There’s a story in the museum which tells of what went wrong when a brother was attracted to his sister.
We also learned about the four “skin groups” (which you inherit from your mother), and why you can’t partner with people from particular groups.

The tour guide, Freddie also explained how people from the Tiwi Islands are very different in many ways from people who live on the mainland, on Larrakia Country. For example, they don’t use woomeras or boomerangs.

Freddie, our tour guide was EXCELLENT. As he painted ochres on his face (an owl), he explained he learned the design from his father and grandfather, who also painted the same design. His sons will also inherit this design, he added.

“We used to do this by staring into the reflections in the water, but now we use mirrors. It’s much better”, he joked.

The story Freddie told, of the arrival of Christianity on the Tiwi Islands was a fascinating one. Freddie explained that religion is still very important on the island, but that it was a blend of Christianity and Tiwi Island traditions. You can see it in this image from the old mission church.
Traditional art on street poles.

To be honest, I was a little sceptical about doing one of those “big tours” through AAT. In my heart, I wanted to do something a little more “grass roots”. But I got to the point where I realised I didn’t really know what I was doing/researching, and so going with an organised “group tour” was probably the easiest/best thing for me to do. It was really good, thanks to the local guides like Freddie.

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