Watch hatching turtles by moonlight, fish for threadfin salmon, see Indigenous textile artists at work – sailing among the 11 islands of the relatively untouched Tiwis reveals an unruffled slice of the Top End.
Qantas Magazine, March 2015
UNDER A TUMBLE OF PEACH and gold sand something metallic has caught the late-afternoon sun on Bare Sand Island’s shoreline, 50km west of Darwin. Artful, bone-white shells swirl a frame around it. Indigenous guide and traditional owner Shannon Lee bends in close. “It’s a bullet, an old one at that.”
The metal casing is lined with filigree, a cream- coloured cylinder protruding from the base. “You were meant to find this. I don’t know why, but it belongs with you. It’s definitely from World War II,” Lee says.
Some 80km south of Bathurst and Melville Islands in the Tiwi group, Bare Sand Island is an uninhabited canvas, hosting a lone tree and a ripple of sand dunes. “It should be called One Tree Island,” Lee remarks.
In WWII, this spot may have netted stray bullets from Japanese fighter planes en route to Darwin. Today the island’s beaches reserve most real estate for turtle nests.
On the first night of a four-day Sail Darwin tour of the Arafura and Timor Seas, a birthing ritual supplies the evening’s main entertainment. Orange-rind streaks appear in a powdery sky. Time moves in first gear. Then, finally, in the lowest of light, giant flatback turtles begin to emerge from the surf, lifting pale 80kg shells onto land.
The size of small bath tubs, the reptiles slide, inch by inch, from wet sand to dry, leaving prints like tyre tracks in their wake. Halfway up a dune, one barnacle-dotted turtle stops, exhales, and then flings sand around like confetti. She has selected a spot and spends the next hour digging a neat hole for her golf ball-shaped eggs. She’ll deliver 55 in total. The turtle toils through a now-inky night, her eyes narrowing to slits as fatigue sets in.
Flatback turtles nest year-round, yet here, for the most part, they choose the months between May and October. Lee says that they return four times a year. Each generation returns to nest at the beach where they were born, and so the legacy continues.
A full moon illuminates the beach, the busy turtles glowing in the shimmering light, each about 100m apart. The moon casts a trail along the sea, too, linking the shoreline with our catamaran.
THE NEXT MORNING, pink sunrise pops through the boat’s portholes. Ahead stretches the Apsley Strait, a weave of water dividing Bathurst and Melville Islands, the Tiwis’ major land masses. Viewed from the clouds, the islands are a sweep of spearmint rivers and fern trees that look like the tops of feather dusters. Here, brumbies and frill-necked lizards roam.
Seen from the ocean, these islands are all about their liquid, blue-green frames. That, and silence.
Once ashore, it’s an altogether rowdier affair. The Tiwis are dubbed the “Land of Smiles” for good reason. Its inhabitants can be heard chatting and laughing from quite a distance away. Tess Atie, adviser to the Northern Territory government’s chief minister, is strolling by the shoreline as we disembark. She trails her boss, who’s here on an official visit. “Where he goes, I go,” she says with a nod.
Atie knows Shannon Lee, so the pair swap “G’days”.
“This mob is doing really well here,” she says. “They give hope to other communities. They’re growing strong.”
JUST 3000 PEOPLE live on the Tiwis and roughly 90 per cent are Indigenous. It’s a place with quirks, such as its community of cross-dressing Sistagirls. The girls stand, perhaps uneasily, alongside a strong vein of Catholicism, the legacy of missionaries who – having arrived just shy of a century ago – were the island’s first longstanding European settlers. Many of the Top End’s Stolen Generation also spent their childhoods at Tiwi Island missions.
A short walk through a nook of tamarind trees reveals murals imprinted on shed and building walls. They display pictures of pregnant women, warning viewers not to smoke. Just beyond, lies a church. It resembles Noah’s Ark on stilts: a giant ribcage of chocolate-coloured beams, wrapped in yellow wooden walls. Inside, an ornate altar incorporates Indigenous patterns and palettes. It’s a work of art, which as it becomes clear, is a theme that unifies the Tiwis.
Down a run of stairs and across glossy lawn a circle of women sit in the shade painting mussel shells. Mary Warlapinni, Lucianne Lynch and Molly Munkara offer marmalade-soaked damper and tea. A fourth woman, Valentina Tungatlum, wears a Western Bulldogs cap. She paints shyly with her back to the group. Warlapinni boasts an impressive afro and, again, knows Lee’s family. “Are you related to Bertie? Yeah. And to the other one? Yeah.” She grins through gap teeth when he nods in affirmation.
The women belong to a skills development group focusing on textiles, painting, tourism and business tools, such as how to price artwork. “We still go out hunting. We live the traditional life, too,” says Munkara. She’s asked if the missionaries were well-received on the island. “They tell Christian stories alongside our Tiwi creation stories. I go to church and I think things work quite respectfully.”
Another circle of artists gathers a few streets away at the Tiwi Design art centre. The main trade here is fabrics made by a more well-known women’s collective, Tiwi Design. The centre also stocks paintings, iron wood sculptures and totemic poles called pukamanis.
As a shop visitor ponders dress ideas for an upcoming ball, roll after roll of vibrant fabric is spun out before her – fluorescent pink, Fanta orange, leafy green and terracotta. Most bear the crosshatch pattern for which Tiwi Designs is famed. Others have traditional sketches of local animals – owls, brolgas and black cockatoos.
A mini pukamani owl carving, about 80cm tall, stands out among the other gallery pieces. Its gregarious creator, artist Romolo Tipiloura, is close by, chewing the fat with friends. He explains the owl’s significance to the Tiwi people, keeping one hand pressed flat against the carving’s head. “The owl is the wise guy and the peacekeeper. The story goes that long ago, trespassers intruded on the islands. Locals became angry and tried to scare the trespassers away.” The owl was watching from above, and he flew down to intervene, Tipiloura adds. “The owl said, ‘Hey you guys, share!’ So the owl encourages Tiwi people to be their best.”
Our journey back to the water takes us by the lawns and church, and past a stand-alone telephone memorial. The Tiwi Islands played a little-known role in foiling attacks on Australian soil during WWII. From this pedal phone beside the church at the Pirlangimpi township, locals put a call through to Darwin. They’d spotted enemy planes over the islands, headed south.
“We were the first mob to warn about the Japanese air raids,” says Munupi Arts & Craft Association assistant Regis Pangiraminni the next day. A Tiwi man also captured the first Japanese serviceman taken as a POW on Australian soil, after his plane crash-landed on Melville Island. Connie Tipuamantumirri, at 84 one of the centre’s oldest artists, was a child at the time of the attacks. Though now largely mute, she merrily accompanies our group through the centre’s pottery sheds, open-air studio and paint-mixing room. Later, she unfurls her own work: giant black-and-white canvases depicting stingrays and crocodile teeth.
ON THE HOME STRETCH, 20 minutes north of Darwin, marine art of a different kind erupts. As the catamaran cuts through an unbroken blanket of ocean, a palm-sized fish shoots from the water. It flies like a tiger moth, fins outstretched, before slipping again through the surface.
Onboard, co-skipper Paul Farrell rolls the Bare Sand Island bullet across his palm – a .50 calibre tracer bullet, he decides. “During the war, one in every seven bullets fired would send a flash through the air as it travelled.”
Perhaps the pukamani owl ensured this shot steered clear of destruction, instead guiding its path to a peaceful plot of sand.
A garfish springs into view. Leaning back on its tail, it rides the air like a miniature waterskier and flies like a sparkling silver ribbon. It’s a living tracer bullet, one that knits together this seascape’s past and present in the prettiest way possible.