Bathurst Island, Northern Territory: Travel guide and things to do

Bathurst Island lies 80 km to the north of Darwin across the Beagle Gulf and covers an area of 2 600 sq. km. The home of the Tiwi Aborigines (it is now an Aboriginal Reserve) for thousands of years the island was first sighted by Europeans in 1644 when Abel Tasman passed by on his way from Batavia.

In 1818 Phillip Parker King, the son of NSW Governor Philip Gidley King, explored the island and named it after Lord Bathurst, who, at the time, was the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (an unusual combination of portfolios).

King sailed between Bathurst and Melville Islands and was the first European to discover the dangers of the changing tides in the narrow Apsley Strait. The mangroves on the coast and the lack of any real reason for settlement meant that the islands were of no interest to local settlers.

Even in the 1880s, when the South Australian journalist, William Sowden, travelled to both Melville and Bathurst Islands he could find nothing of value and wrote that the islands were 'absolutely unproductive bits of South Australia, supporting no one but the swarming tribes of blacks'.

The history of Bathurst Island took a fascinating turn with the arrival of German missionary and bishop Francis Xavier Gsell. Born in Alsace-Lorraine and educated in Rome, Gsell was a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. He travelled to Sydney in 1897 and by 1906 was the Apostolic administrator of the Northern Territory.

In 1910 Gsell persuaded the South Australian government to give him 10 000 acres of land on Bathurst Island to build a mission for the Aborigines. For the next 28 years he worked on the island although his success was limited. He did not convert a single adult and he baptised only 113 locals in the first 15 years of his ministry.

His one contribution led him to become known as 'bishop with 150 wives'. He disapproved of the polygamous nature of Tiwi society and so started 'buying' young girls who had been betrothed to older men. He then let the girls marry men of their own choosing - although he preferred that they marry men who had embraced his Christianity.

The mission achieved the dubious distinction of being the first place in Australia to experience foreign invasion when, on 19 February 1942, Japanese bombers, on their way to Darwin, strafed Nguiu. The priest in charge at the time notified Darwin but his message was ignored.

In 1978 the ownership of Bathurst Island was formerly handed back to the Tiwi people and today the island is run by the Tiwi Land Council. It is said that the word 'Tiwi' means 'people; we, the people; or, perhaps, we, the chosen people'. Certainly the Tiwi people are different in both their culture and personality to mainland Aborigines.

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People wishing to visit the island must obtain permits from the Tiwi Island Land Council.

Things to see

Visiting the Island
People wishing to visit the island must obtain permits from the Tiwi Island Land Council

The only practical way to visit Bathurst Island is to take a one or two day tour (all meals and camping accommodation provided) with Tiwi Tours. Bookings can be made through local travel agents or their website.

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