Aboriginal Australia

The Tiwi Islands
By Jeff Burdick
  |  Gorp.com
Page 2 of 5   |  

These three exotic Aboriginal areas are reachable from Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. Of these, the Tiwi Islands is the closest (just 45 miles by plane from Darwin). Like Aborigines throughout Australia, the Tiwis date their arrival Down Under back more than 50,000 years. (Recent discoveries elsewhere in the Top End raise the possibility of an arrival dating more than 100,000 years ago.) Unlike Aborigines elsewhere in Australia, the Tiwis were spared white incursions onto their land and have retained complete control of their home islands of Bathurst and Melville to this day. Today they warmly welcome visitors, who can book one- and two-day trips through the Tiwis own tour operation.

I took the one-day trip to the island of Bathurst. The day trip included morning tea with some old women who dutifully donned face paint and danced for our cameras. By minibus, we toured a Tiwi town that featured some interesting animal designs painted on everything from a school house to an outhouse, and made two extended stops at two Tiwi craft stores. There were also stops at a small island museum, the island church, a Tiwi grave site, and a quiet picnic site.

Following Adventure with an Ax
This proved a bit too passive for my tastes, but thankfully the Tiwi Islands weren't devoid of active experiences. I just had to work for them. My opportunity came when my tour group was plopped down on a (too) placid stretch of beach facing the Timor Sea. When I saw my Aboriginal guides hike off with an axe toward a mangrove jungle, I eagerly scampered across the stove-hot sand and attached myself to this unexpected hunting party. Then for the next hour we hiked barefoot. The jungle was so thick that we soon had to hike on top of the mangroves' overgrown roots—sometimes as high as ten feet above the muddy forest floor.

Occasionally, an Aborigine plunged the axe into a hollow tree trunk. This continued until gold was finally struck with a fallen tree lying near a stream. The Aborigine ripped into the tree, and wood chips exploded everywhere. Soon long, white worms began to ooze from the split timber. These the Aborigines greedily scooped up and slurped down like strands of spaghetti. "Bush tucker," one explained to me with a broad smile. (Bush meaning the wilderness, and tucker being Australian slang for "food.") I tried half of one—about six inches worth—and downed it before too many tape-worm connotations sprang to mind. It tasted slimy and salty like a muddy oyster.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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