How to relax into Tiwi time
Creative art and imaginative names are part of the fun on Bathurst Island
FIFTEEN minutes from Darwin, flying low over a slip of sea and a castaway’s paradise of forest, snaking waterways and sandy inlets, we land on Bathurst Island’s rustic airstrip. A minuscule move to the right and we’d be on Melville Island, the larger of the Tiwi group.
I am here as part of an Air Adventure Australia outback tour (independent visitors need a permit). The terminal is a wirefenced, open-sided shelter, one wall painted with Tiwi designs. A sign welcomes us to Nguiu. Outside, a billboard announces Essendon Football Club’s support for the Tiwi Bombers.
These are my first clues to island identity: art, a warm welcome and a crazy love of football. More emerges as our Tiwi Tours driver, Swiss-born local Roly Ocean, and guide, Trevor Tipungwuti, usher us into the community.
Wurrumiyanga, the place where the cycads grow, is Nguiu’s original name. A French priest established the mission here in 1911 and St Therese’s louvred, white-painted 1930s church still stands. Unfortunately, safety concerns have closed the building, and it awaits restoration plans. I climb the outside stairs and peep through the space of a missing door lock. Inside is a trove of mixed mission and Tiwi icons: a blue-robed statue of the Virgin and a brown-robed St Francis flank an altar otherwise wreathed in vibrant local art.
More relics of island history fill the homespun Patakijiyali Museum: painted burial poles and carvings, habitat exhibits and an archive of mission-days photographs. Christianity and Tiwi beliefs co-habit. In the cemetery, crosses and pukamani grave poles stand amid an eruption of brilliant artificial flowers in pink, cerise and red. ‘‘When a pukamani pole falls, it must never be restored,’’ Trevor says, ‘‘as it means the spirit has departed.’’
And naming the dead is taboo. ‘‘If my name is the same as someone who’s died, I will change my name,’’ Trevor tells us.
This could account for the individualistic titles around here, including those of international football players. One baby, Clearprops, carries a light plane take-off command.
Elder Fabian Kantilla (Teabag since youth) presides over fire and billy, brandishing breadknife and large damper. He asks if I follow the Bombers. Fortunately, others in my group know more about AFL. I talk with Flora and Maggie Tipungwuti, Mary Anne Kantilla and Donna Pilakui (aka the Damper Queen, for the wonderful daily loaves she makes). They sit under a tree, painting mussel shells with pigments such as ochre from the coastal cliffs. We giggle over secret women’s business.
Later, Trevor and Romolo Kantilla paint their faces with totem designs and perform a smoking ceremony, dancing and brushing us with branches.
Inside the hangar-like main workshop at Tiwi Design, every centimetre of iron roof is intricately painted; it’s the Sistine ceiling of Bathurst Island. Painter Marie Yvonne is at work on a striking canvas and more are on sale in the gallery. Several men carve birds and figures of cured ironwood; Praxedes Tipungwuti, who studied at Tranby College in Sydney, runs a textile workshop filled with vivid Tiwi-designed silks and cottons.
In step with land and sea, the islanders are remembered for heroic wartime rescues and alerts, and the first homeland prisoner of war, a Japanese Zero pilot who crash-landed and was arrested on Melville Island by Matthias Ullungura, who walked the prisoner to Bathurst Island, sustaining him with water and bush tucker on the way. The incident is recorded in Australian War Memorial archives but, characteristically, there is no grandstanding here. Just a handpainted notice nailed to the island’s tiny radio shack, a rescued propeller and, immortalising his arresting words, Matthias’s enduring nickname of Stick-’em-up. airadventure.com.au tiwiart.com Judith Elen was a guest of Air Adventure Australia.
Donna Pilakui, aka the Damper Queen