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The Tiwi Islands

 

‘We are pleased to show our islands to visitors, happy to show people our culture and how we live. We are pleased to talk to people about our future.’

Gibson Farmer Illortaminni

 

The Tiwi Islands are located approximately 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea between latitudes 11° and 12° South and longitudes 130° and 131°40’ East. They have more than a thousand kilometres of coastline and 8,344 square kilometres of land. The Tiwi Islands are part of the Northern Territory in Australia and consist of two large inhabited islands including Melville and Bathurst, originally called Ratuwati Yinjara (two islands), and numerous smaller uninhabited islands including Yirripurlingayi (Buchanan), Harris, Seagull, Purrapinarli (Karslake), Yipinuwurra (Clift), Turiturina, Matingalia, Nodlaw, Muma (East Vernon), Warabatj (North West Vernon), Kulangana (South West Vernon).  The Vernon Islands are known collectively as Potinga.

Most of the smaller islands lie close to the Tiwi coastline however, Kulangana (South West Vernon Island), is less than five kilometres from the NT coast and an Australian Maritime Safety Authority lighthouse on East Vernon Island guards the north-eastern approach to Darwin. Melville Island is the largest island in the group and, at 5,788 square kilometres, is the second largest island off the Australian mainland after Tasmania. Bathurst Island is the fifth largest island in Australia. Bathurst and Melville Islands are separated by the Apsley Strait, which is approximately 70 kilometres long, and ranges in width from 600 metres to 6 kilometres. Most of the Tiwi Islands consists of gently undulating country with elevations of less than 50 metres above sea level. The higher country on Bathurst Island reaches elevations of 100 metres, while on Melville Island the maximum elevation is about 140 metres above sea level. The climate on the Tiwi Islands is monsoonal with heavy rains between November and April. Temperatures are high year-round, with monthly minimum and maximum temperatures ranging from 25 to 36°C in the wet season to 19 to 30°C in the dry season. 

There has been an unbroken history of occupation and ownership of the Tiwi Islands by Tiwi people, and the population of just over 3000 is more than 90 per cent Tiwi. Tiwi people have long considered themselves to be different from the inhabitants of the mainland and do not consider themselves to be Aboriginal; instead they consider themselves as being uniquely Tiwi, reflected in the translation of ‘Tiwi’ as ‘we, the only people’. Although isolated from mainland Aborigines for thousands of years, Tiwi people had intermittent contact with visitors from Southeast Asia and Europe from at least the seventeenth century. They have successfully strived for a system of governance through the Tiwi Land Council that provides true regional authority over all aspects of their lives.

The Tiwi possess a distinct culture and language. Tiwi art is highly distinctive. History and traditional stories are vividly expressed through paintings, sculptures, ceramics, screen-printed fabrics, etchings, lino prints and jewellery. There are five art centres on the islands.

There are three major communities on the Tiwi Islands; the largest, Wurrumiyanga, is on Bathurst Island while the smaller communities of Milikapiti and Pirlangimpi are located on Melville Island. They are serviced by regular transport services operating from Darwin. There are also a number of smaller communities and outstations including Wurankuwu, Paru, Pickataramoor, Taracumbi, Yimpinari (Conder Point), Takampirmili, Pitjimirra and Four Mile. 

The Tiwi Islands are a biodiversity haven, supporting a very high diversity of plant and animal species including many not recorded anywhere else in the world. There are at least 1200 species of native plants, 17 frog species, 81 reptile species, 222 bird species and 36 mammal species. The Tiwi Islands have 19 threatened plant and 30 threatened animal species, and healthy populations of small mammal species that have undergone recent dramatic declines on the Australian mainland. The Tiwi ant fauna has high national significance, with many of the 200 species recorded to-date occurring nowhere else in the world. The islands contain the Northern Territory’s best-developed eucalypt forests, along with an unusually high density and extent of rainforests, reflecting the significantly higher rainfall than on mainland NT. The coast supports important nesting sites for marine turtles, internationally significant seabird rookeries and major aggregations of migratory shorebirds, and there is a rich marine biota in the surrounding seas. The Tiwi Islands have been recognised by the Northern Territory Government as a Site of Conservation Significance.