Wild gems of north

Catholi­cism, bush skills, art and foot­ball are the pil­lars which form the fab­ric of the Tiwi Is­lands, writes Christina Pfeif­fer

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - NT TIWI ISLANDS -

FROM my seat in the light air­craft, the aqua­ma­rine waters of the Ap­s­ley Strait glis­ten like a jewel.

Tightly knit tree­tops of eu­ca­lyp­tus, pa­per­bark and tall cab­bage palms are a pal­ette of emer­ald, jade, olive and lime-green shades.

It’s a wild world on both Bathurst and Melville is­lands where pos­sums, wal­la­bies, birds and snakes roam the for­est. Es­tu­ar­ies teem with bar­ra­mundi. Croc­o­diles lurk in the ocean near idyl­lic sandy beaches and linger in tea-coloured bil­l­abongs.

In the midst of this rich wildlife king­dom is a com­mu­nity of about 2300 Tiwi peo­ple, liv­ing in four set­tle­ments, Nguiu and Ranku on Bathurst Is­land, Gar­den Point and Mi­likapiti on Melville Is­land.

Strict en­vi­ron­men­tal laws have kept the is­lands pris­tine. For in­stance, a min­ing com­pany was fined $4 mil­lion for clear­ing a small area of pro­tected rain­for­est and wet­lands. And tourism is con­trolled; vis­i­tors are only al­lowed on the is­lands through a tour ar­ranged by Tiwi Tours (a com­pany owned by the Tiwi Land Coun­cil) or with an or­gan­ised fish­ing group.

I’ve joined a tour to Bathurst Is­land. Stop­ping for lunch in a for­est clear­ing, I peer un­cer­tainly at the re­flec­tions of the pa­per­bark trees in the bil­l­abong. Our guide Ro­molo Tip­i­loura strips down to his boxer shorts and dives in.

Af­ter work­ing up a sweat in the bush tast­ing berries, drink­ing in streams and learn­ing how to use plants as medicine, the wa­ter looks cool and invit­ing.

‘‘ Don’t worry about the croc­o­diles, they don’t come to this bil­l­abong,’’ he says. Af­ter hear­ing that a croc­o­dile was seen in a bil­l­abong just a few kilo­me­tres away, I’mnot so sure about swim­ming.

This san­guine attitude to­wards one of north­ern Aus­tralia’s most deadly preda­tors could only come from some­one who has the ut­most con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to sur­vive in the bush. Like most Tiwi men, Tip­i­loura’s bush sur­vival skills are an in­her­i­tance from his an­ces­tors handed down through the gen­er­a­tions.

Fresh food and take­away meals can be pur­chased at the Ngulu Store in Nguiu, Bathurst Is­land’s main set­tle­ment, and larger food or­ders from Wool­worths in Dar­win ar­rive on the barge once a week. But the is­landers still love to hunt and fish.

Their fresh, bush-tucker diet in­cludes mud mus­sels, mud­crabs, fish, pos­sums, wal­la­bies, snakes and man­grove worms.

None of this is of­fered to us dur­ing our trip. Af­ter tour­ing the is­land in a mini-bus and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a walk through the for­est, we end up by the bil­l­abong tuck­ing into sand­wiches, fruit cake, or­anges and tea.

The main set­tle­ment of Nguiu has a re­cre­ation hall, a mod­ern child­care cen­tre and a health cen­tre, a dry nine­hole golf course and swim­ming pool com­plex opened by Olympic swim­mer Leisel Jones.

A visit to the Patak­i­jiyali mu­seum, housed in a shed-like build­ing, dis­plays a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about the is­lands.

BRIGHT DE­SIGN: The Melville Is­land arts cen­tre.

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