The Tiwi Islands are, apart from Tasmania, the largest islands off the Australian coast. They lie 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea. There are two main islands, Bathurst Island and Melville Island, with a total landmass of 8,320 km². Bathurst Island, the smaller of the two, lies to the west and is about 2,070 km². The islands have been inhabited since time immemorial by people, referred to as “Tiwi”, a word that, in their language, means “People”. It is thought that they may originally have come from the mainland, many thousands of years ago, but became isolated when sea levels dropped. They have developed a unique culture, quite different from the mainland.
Bathurst Island Catholic Mission was established in 1911 by a French missionary, Father Gsell, of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. The Tiwi may at first have been puzzled at this man who performed strange corroborees by himself, but he gradually earned their trust, mainly as he used medicine to heal their ailments. The Tiwi measured a man’s prestige by the number of his wives; young girls were often married to older men. When a girl, who refused to go with an older man, sought refuge at the mission, Fr. Gsell defused the situation by “buying” her for a wife. This seemed a satisfactory solution, and over the years, he acquired as many as 150 “wives”. They were taught domestic skills by nuns in the convent that had been established. As a result, the Tiwi are firmly Catholic, although they still keep the many aspects of their culture that don’t clash with their Catholic faith.
There are regular tours from Darwin, where tourists may visit the wooden church and a fascinating museum at the school. The island has a beautiful coastline. It has wide beaches where giant sea turtles lay their eggs, ammonite fossils embedded in the sandstone rocks at Mukanuwu, weird rock formations like Rocky Point, and a wonderful waterfall and pool at Tumwarripi. And, best of all, friendly Tiwi people, with their unique art and craft that can, of course, be bought during the tour.