Although it’s not really a private jet, that’s what I insist on calling it. After all, I’m the only person on board and it has been chartered just for me… but ‘jet’ might be overselling this six-seat Cessna. Still, regardless of the nomenclature, it’s an incredible way to fly the 100 kilometres from Darwin to the Tiwi Islands, just off the coast of the Northern Territory.
It’s also the only way to get to my specific destination, unless you have your own boat to take across from the mainland. And, even once we land on a short strip of red dirt that is apparently the runway, there’s no road. A small boat is waiting to take me the last five kilometres to the Tiwi Island Retreat.
If you were looking for remote, you would find it here. The flight took less than half an hour but I’m now without phone reception, wifi, or a sense of time. But that’s the point of coming to the Tiwi Island Retreat. In what seems like the middle of nowhere, a white sandy expanse in front and dense eucalypt forest behind, you relax into the ambling pace of life. The pool is just metres from the cocktail bar, which I appreciate when I see a crocodile off the beach, although I’m assured she’s too small to be dangerous. While there’s an essence of luxury, it’s also casually rustic (toilet/shower blocks are shared, for example), with a barefoot atmosphere.
The biggest concern is a coconut falling on your head (the drop zone is marked with rope on the sand). The most energetic activity is heading out on the boat to catch some barramundi (the waters here are full of them). For me, a buggy ride down the beach with other guests at sunset is the furthest I move (I was promised cheese and drinks).
These are not the Tiwi Islands I had heard about previously – and I think that’s important to realise. I knew about the Tiwi Islands for their rich Indigenous culture, particularly the vibrant art scene and famous AFL games. These things are significant, but it’s not a one-dimensional destination. People have lived here for more than 40,000 years, well before sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age and created the islands about 15,000 years ago. It’s a land of nature and heritage, but also now of fishing expeditions, sightseeing by helicopter, and remote resorts.
Most people who visit will head to Bathurst Island, the smaller of the two main Tiwi Islands, with regular ferry services travelling between the island’s largest community, Wurrumiyanga, and Darwin. Wurrumiyanga has a population of about 2000 people and was founded as a Catholic mission in the early 1900s – you can still visit an early church, weatherboarded and raised, decorated with local art inside.
The art here is an important part of the Indigenous culture and, because of the geographic isolation from the mainland, is distinct from styles you might find in other parts of the Top End. The ochre colours – mainly white, reds, and yellows – are used to create geometric patterns like cross-hatched lines, arcs, and circles. Unique to the Tiwi Islands are the carved and painted poles called tutini, traditionally made for ceremonial funerals, but now also produced as pieces of art, telling stories of the culture.
It’s the stories that make a visit to the Tiwi Islands such a special experience and the organised day tours from Darwin are a good option because they’ll introduce you to local characters who are as likely to weave a tale as they are to weave the pandanus into an artwork (both give you something to take home). A dancing and smoking ceremony offers an insight into traditional rituals while a group of Tiwi elders known as the ‘morning tea ladies’ serve damper and billy tea.
Exploring further independently can be a little tricky – transport is limited, for starters, and, anyway, the Tiwi Islands are not public land and you need a permit to visit. (The permit for Wurrumiyanga is covered with a ferry ticket.) It’s why arranging your trip in advance with a local operator is wise. If you’re interested in one of the Tiwi passions, fishing, there are a few good options that offer multi-day packages with accommodation. Operating since 1998, Tiwi Islands Adventures has two remote bases on Melville Island, with access to mangrove-lined rivers, sand flats, inlets, and coastal reefs.
If you can time a trip for March, you might find yourself amongst the other Tiwi passion, football (Aussie Rules, to be precise). The Tiwi Islands Football League celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and the sport is woven into the fabric of the community. The Grand Final sees thousands of spectators and a large art sale is held on the same day. In 2021, it’s set for March 21.
I find it hard to imagine such a huge crowd on the Tiwi Islands, with my experience of a private jet (yes, I’m still calling it that) and the remoteness of the Tiwi Island Retreat. But it’s this light and shade, the vibrant culture within the untouched landscapes, that make the islands so extraordinary.
Take me there
What to do:
Where to stay:
- For remote luxury with a pool and cocktail bar, there’s Tiwi Island Retreat, where you can relax or organise activities.