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