Tiwi Islands Grand Final and the Darwin Festival: The two Top End tickets you can't miss

The sign next to the Tiwi Islands ferry wharf spells out what lies beneath: stingers, strong currents, crocodiles.

So it's with slow-motion horror we watch as a barefoot boy aged about three accidently kicks his obviously beloved AFL footy into the water and rushes towards it.

Just as we are about to let out a unified scream he stops to pick up stones from the shoreline. As his mates watch on with crossed arms, seemingly unperturbed (one does a handstand on the dark sand) the boy skims the stones across the water towards the floating oval ball until he makes contact. In seconds he corrals it back to shore without getting as much as a toenail wet.

'But … how did he do that?' asks someone in the ferry queue. But we're as stumped as she is.

Whether it's the skills required to remove balls from croc-infested shallows or something else in the water, it's not the first time on this spectacularly sultry day that we witness skills that would put seasoned AFL footballers to shame.

We are here for the Tiwi Islands Football Grand Final, and even before the opening bounce at Bathurst Island's Wurrumiyanga Oval, we are mesmerised by the kicking skills of a toddler in a nappy who is running rings around AFL staff, Royal Flying Doctor Service pilots and children in local team colours who have commandeered the oval for kick-to-kick.

The grand final, held each March, draws thousands each year by ferry or plane from Darwin to witness the local mid-air magic that has spawned such talents as AFL greats Maurice, Cyril and Daniel Rioli and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.

It's hot, it's muddy and its enthralling. Most of the 2600 residents of the main islands, Bathurst and Melville, are here for the big day, decked out in their team colours, their passionate support only interrupted by occasional performances by the Strong Women's Choir. Many of the other spectators who have made the trip from as far as South Australia or Victoria are repeat visitors: few games can rival the atmosphere here, aided in part by the unpredictable Wet season. Just as the score edges closer, so does the humidity, and the players and crowd welcome the cooling downpours that seem to appear out of nowhere at just the right times.

But you don't have to be a footy fan to visit the Tiwis. Art is another passion here and on Grand Final day a queue snakes outside the annual Tiwi Islands Art Sale that's held up the road from the oval. Day trips via ferry to these remote islands, 80 kilometres north of Darwin, are now a must-do on any visit to the Top End, with many visitors keen to learn about the local Indigenous culture and art.

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Join a cultural tour of Bathurst Island led by Indigenous guides; check out the small church in Wurrumiyanga featured in Top End Wedding – its altar is decorated by artworks - or take a lesson in art and design techniques by local artists – renown internationally for their unique paintings, textiles and carving. Wurrumiyanga has three art centres and a culture museum. Also of interest are the old Catholic mission area and Pukamani (burial) poles in the cemetery. 

While the Grand Final weekend is popular (plan your visit well ahead), Darwin is now gearing up for another big week – the Darwin Festival in August.

This year's highlights include Bungul, a celebration of the music, culture and songlines of Gurrumul with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra; comedian Hannah Gadsby's new show Body of Work, and home-grown circus act Gravity & Other Myths who will perform The Pulse – stunning acrobatics accompanied by a choir. Musical performances also feature singer-songwriter Miesha and a concert by electronic duo Flight Facilities who will perform at the Darwin Amphitheatre.

But back to the Tiwi Cup. This year the grand final was a battle between Bathurst Island's own Walama Bulldogs, and the Melville Island-based Imalu Tigers.

In the end the bulldogs took the trophy in an 11-point thriller that rivalled the tension and skills in any AFL Grand Final, and beat the MCG hands down when it came to food offerings for footy fans – barra burgers and mango ice-cream.

Jane Richards travelled to the Tiwi Islands and Darwin as a guest of Tourism NT.

THE DETAILS

MORE

traveller.com.au/Darwin

northernterritory.com

FLY

Virgin and Qantas fly direct to Darwin from Melbourne and Sydney. See virginaustralia.com.au and qantas.com.au

STAY

The centrally located Oaks Darwin Elan has a pool and harbour views. Family apartments available. From $125 a night. See oakshotels.com

The Tiwi Island Retreat is on the south-west coast of Bathurst Island. Minimum two-night stay from $500 a person a night, includes flight from Darwin. See tiwiislandretreat.com.au

SEE & DO

The Darwin Festival runs from August 5-22. See darwinfestival.org.au

The Tiwi Island Grand Final is held every March. Sealink ferries $60 each way; special packages available. See sealinknt.com.au and facebook.com/afltiwiislands

Lichfield Park tours. Small group experts Ethical Adventures will pick you up from your Darwin hotel and take you to the park, a two-hour drive south of Darwin. Swim in cascading waterfalls, and walk among native flora and fauna. See ethicaladventures.com.au

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