Top End Tours – The Tiwi Islands, Australia:A Must-Do Trip To See Aboriginal Tropical Island Culture Near Darwin

The Tiwi Islands are just offshore from Darwin, but are entirely Aboriginal-owned and are hard to visit unless part of a tour. However if access can be gained, they make an interesting and varied day trip.

Passing leaves over the head in a traditional Tiwi Isles smoking ceremony removes "bad spirits" from the mainland

Separated from the Northern Territory’s state capital of Darwin by 50miles of tropical Timor Sea, the two islands of Bathurst and Melville Island together make up the Tiwi Islands. The Tiwi Islanders are a tribally separate group of Aboriginal people to the Larrakia of mainland Darwin or the various tribes of Arnhemland, and a visit to the Tiwi Isles is a brief glimpse into one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world.


Visitors should be aware that a permit is required to set foot on the island, and due to the complexities and timescales involved in organising this as well as a lack of local transport options for an independent visitor (scheduled bus services do not exist), these islands are best visited as part of a tour – even for those individuals that rarely choose a tour over independent travel.


[singlepic id=285 w=320 h=240 float=left]There are two main options for tours – by fast catamaran ferry – or by light aircraft. The Arafura Pearl Ferry takes approximately two hours to cross the channel between the islands and Darwin, and consequently has less time to spend on the island. The light 10-seater aircraft shuttle runs from the General Aviation part of Darwin airport – this is an entirely separate area of the airport, with very limited signs pointing the way in. However, this does have an advantage – there is limited parking here, but it’s free and the queue to pass through security is very short!

What the Tours Include

[singlepic id=282 w=320 h=240 float=right]Most tours visit Bathurst Island, and include a visit to the township of Nguiu – the main settlement on the islands, refreshments of some description, transport and the all-important permit. The day tours organised by the Arafura Pearl boat include the all-important permit, a 2hour cruise each way, a tour through Nguiu to the arts and crafts centres and old catholic church followed by a buffet onboard the boat.

The day tours organised by both Aussie Adventure and Darwin Day Tours (who, according to Stella Resorts (holding group of Mantra hotels) are managed by Aussie Adventure, hence the identical program) don’t include the buffet onboard (obviously!) but additionally include billy tea and damper (traditional yeast-less bread cooked in the coals of a camp fire) with some of the locals, a “smoking” ceremony to bless the visitors and ward off bad spirits from the mainland, a lunchtime buffet and dip in a welcoming cool croc-free billabong and explanation of various aboriginal cultural practices such as pukamani (burial) poles, totem dances and bush medicine.

When Do They Run and How Much Do They Cost?

Trips only run during the dry season (approx March to October/November) Prices correct at Dec 2008.

Arafura Pearl Boat – runs Mon, Wed, Fri; costs AU$275AU per adult

Aussie Adventures – runs Mon-Fri; costs AU$414 per adult

Darwin Day Tours – runs Mon-Fri; costs AU$449 per adult

An Alternative

Ranku community – a small Tiwi community 66km from Nguiu on Bathurst island – can arrange transport, accomodation and entertainment to meet either the plane or ferry. Potential visitors should be aware that there is a maximum of 4 visitors to the community at any one time, and they will need to organise their own permit. Alternatively, Aussie Adventure runs a two day camping tour to the island – permits are arranged by the tour company for this.