How to re­lax into Tiwi time

Creative art and imag­i­na­tive names are part of the fun on Bathurst Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JU­DITH ELEN

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.

JU­DITH ELEN

Donna Pi­lakui, aka the Damper Queen

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