Tiwi Island Footy and Art Trip
Art. Football. Community. Nature. What’s not to love? Visiting the Tiwi Islands - two hours’ boat ride north of Darwin with eco-tourism business Sea Darwin – has always been something I’ve wanted to do. And what better time to go than a week ago, to its annual Aussie Rules grand final (Tiwi Islanders are renowned for their footy skills, with numerous islanders picked for elite, interstate AFL teams) and massive art sale, where exquisite work by local artists (some represented in major Australian collections) is available for very competitive prices.
Warned that the day would be “bloody hot” – the Tiwis have a tropical monsoonal climate after all - my husband Ed and I donned large hats and put two large bottles of water (and lunch) in our tote bag. We drove to Stokes Hill Wharf and parked, and at 9am wandered down the ramp - to the bright orange Sea Darwin fast and comfortable boat where marine biologist Dr Sam welcomed us aboard and skipper Jim was at the helm. Iced water and sunscreen was available.
The two-hour crossing was delightfully calm, with the breeze (“air-conditioning”) in our hair and light, salty spray on our lips. The sky was blue and the water increasingly aqua in colour as we approached “the islands of smiles”, home to about 2500 people and popular for its Aboriginal culture, fishing and tropical island vibe.
Wurrumiyanga Oval at the Nguiu community on Bathurst Island was our destination, where grand final teams, the Tapalinga Superstars and Ranku Eagles, would be playing a skilful and entertaining game in the 49th grand final. We decided to barrack for the Eagles as they hadn’t won a grand final in 19 years - and we were coincidentally wearing their team colour, blue!
The Sea Darwin boat pulled up to a sandy beach, where we were struck by a large corrugated shed decorated in beautiful patterns and colours (painted by a “couple of young fellas” we were later told). Artistically painted buildings were a common sight around the community. It was 11am and we had a few hours to explore the three art institutions open for the day, before the bounce of the ball at 2.30pm. Jim handed out umbrellas for shade and for rain forecast for later (it didn’t happen). He also told us that if we wanted to bring any art buys to the boat before the game began, he would be anchored a short distance from the beach and we were to first wave, then put our hand on our head – the sign for him to come ashore. Otherwise we would just look friendly.
As we disembarked, a minivan was waiting nearby to shuttle us between the galleries. Jim highly recommended we visit Ngaruwanajirri - a centre for artists with disabilities - for some “really lovely work”, as well as Jilamara - located in the school hall for the day - and Tiwi Designs. There was also a small museum behind the school, which documented Tiwi culture (and the famous pukamani memorial poles, carved and painted to erect around grave sites as part of Tiwi mortuary ritual) and the role of the Bathurst Island mission run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1911 to 1974.
At each gallery we met various artists, who talked about their painting techniques and the stories in their work. There were many wood carvings of birds, representing birds in Tiwi mythology, and paintings of turtles - also important in Tiwi culture. We learnt that the Tiwis host a large breeding colony of crested terns, as well as vulnerable olive ridley sea turtles.
Close to 2.30pm we made our way to the oval, which was abuzz with Tiwi Islanders - many of them dressed in the team colours of blue or yellow - plus thousands of day visitors. We climbed to the top row of a small, roofless stadium, our large-ish umbrella offering some shade. We were quickly joined by a group of chatty girls – speaking in Tiwi – and all dressed in blue. We were amongst the right supporters! The Eagles were warming up on the grass behind us, observed by young boys with red balls tucked under their arms and dogs ambling by. Over a loud speaker, the Tiwi women dancers were called to the field to perform, and spectators - and more dogs - politely asked to leave the oval and stay behind the fence, a regular request throughout the day.
Excitement was mounting as the teams were announced and ran onto the field, the Eagles to the tune of Daddy Cool’s “Eagle Rock”. The game was fast and skilful, with solid performances from each side, but as the sky turned a deep, thunderous grey - intensifying the green of the trees - the Eagles were in the lead. The girls around us were beside themselves, clapping, chanting and cheering. As the final horn blew - and not a drop of rain fell - the Eagle’s drought was broken. They were the winners – and their fans surged onto the field, running towards their heroes with arms outstretched like soaring birds.
Soaked in the infectious excitement, we made our way back to boat - about a 10-minute walk away - under strict instructions from Jim earlier in the day to not dilly-dally on our return. “Outstanding”, “quality”, “impressive”, were just some of the adjectives flying up the gang plank about the game, and day in general. Once the 30-odd passengers were seated, Jim announced he’d held an “art auction” of all the beautiful work various passengers had brought to the boat during the day. It was safely in the hold, to protect it from the rain that didn’t come. The “bar” (an esky) was open and we enjoyed an icy beverage as we returned to Darwin, feeling culturally enriched, impressed by the skill of the players - especially in the heat – and privileged to have experienced such a joyful, colourful and interesting community day. Highly recommend!
Blog by Diana Prichard https://www.wordsworkartworks.com/