Under sail off the Top End

Kerry van der Jagt uncovers an intimate side of the Tiwi Islands on a catamaran adventure from Darwin.

My face is underwater and I'm doing my best to breathe through a long, hollow reed. Trouble is, I've seen the Mythbusters episode on this technique and it's not going to work. Seven-year-old Isabella is clinging to my back like a koala, while her eight-year-old friend, Ashton, tries to hold me under.

“She's not very good,” whispers Isabella, when I shoot to the surface for the third time and almost cough up a lung. “How about we swim up to the secret spot and show her the body paint,” suggests Ashton kindly. I send a private thanks to the billabong gods.

And so begins an encounter I will never forget. These two scallywags teach me how to identify the leaves that can be used as soap, lead me away from the dark sections where the leeches lurk and cover my face, arms and hair in the "secret" mud that will make me beautiful. I am in travellers' nirvana, where suddenly nothing else matters.

Floating alongside my new buddies, I try to etch the scene on to my memory forever: the shimmering billabong freckled with water lilies and fringed with palms, the smoke billowing up from the bank as the ladies from the nearby art centre cook their lunch and the graceful paperbarks stretching as far as the eye can see.

If you've ever said “I need to get away!” and meant it, then sailing the Tiwi Islands should be at the top of your wish-list.

Composed of Melville and Bathurst islands, the islands lie 80 kilometres north of Darwin, where the Arafura Sea joins the Timor Sea.

These two beautiful, tropical islands are home to just 2500 people.

The Tiwi people originally came from mainland Australia but became isolated when sea levels rose about 7000 years ago. As a result of this isolation, they developed a unique culture that is different to that of mainland Aborigines.

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The few curious travellers who do visit the Tiwis generally fly to Bathurst Island from Darwin, join an organised day tour and fly back to Darwin in time for happy-hour. But I'm after a more intimate experience and have signed up for a four-day sailing adventure.

The morning we leave Darwin is fine and sunny and the sky and seas loom large. We are a small group, just four passengers and a crew of three on board the beautiful Sundancer NT.

Sundancer NT was launched in 2005 and is a luxurious 15-metre catamaran licensed to sleep 12 passengers and designed for remote tropical cruising. The back deck is shaded, with plenty of seating and an area for outdoor dining and barbecuing, but it's the front deck that grabs my attention. In full sunlight there are two massive trampoline-like nets where you can stretch out and have the ocean skimming along just below your bottom. Perfect. I've found my spot for nanna-naps already.

Although Sundancer NT is designed for adventure sailing, and by necessity everything needs to be compact and practical, she is still one classy dame.

From the saloon (with its small library area and espresso coffee machine) it's a couple of easy steps down to my queen-size cabin and ensuite. The sight of my very own electric flush toilet brings me more joy than it should. When I see that my room also has individually controlled air-conditioning, two portholes and a ceiling hatch right above my bed, I just about dance a jig. No worries about sea sickness now.

It is midafternoon when we glide into Apsley Strait, the narrow channel of water separating Bathurst and Melville islands. We are met with a landscape of wide sandy beaches, voluptuous jungles and silence.

On day two, our guide and captain, Peter Herden, takes us ashore at Pirlangimpi (Garden Point), a small community of just 450 people on the western side of Melville Island. Due to its remoteness, this village receives few visitors. As we stroll through the well-tended community on our way to the Munupi Art Centre, Peter stops often to introduce us to the locals, many of whom he knows by name.

There is a pride and self-confidence here that I've found lacking in many mainland communities. The islands have benefited enormously from locally designed and operated alcohol management plans. The only "graffiti" is beautiful Tiwi art covering almost every available surface; the local primary school has a 90 per cent attendance rate and crime and violence is relatively low.

At the centre, I am invited to watch the artists at work and am captivated by the unique cross-hatch designs for which the Tiwi people are famous. I meet Declan Apuatimi, who is painting a Pukumani (burial) pole. These totemic poles are carved and painted and placed around the burial site six months after the deceased has been buried. “I love to paint,” Apuatimi says. “I just can't help it.” His motifs and designs symbolise the prestige and status of the deceased.

By midafternoon it is hot and Peter suggests a cool off at a local swimming hole. It is here that I meet my two water nymphs. After our swim a group of women artists shyly invite us to share their barbecue lunch of mud-mussels and long bums (a type of mollusc), which they have collected from the nearby mangrove swamp.

Hunting and gathering is still an important part of Tiwi family life, although green Coles shopping bags and plastic buckets have replaced dilly bags and woven baskets.

The long bums are chewy and extremely salty. I nibble sparingly, not out of politeness or because they are the scariest shade of green I have ever eaten but because Skipper Ben has stayed back on board and promised us a feast of our own.

And he doesn't disappoint. As the sun tips into the ocean we sit on deck and enjoy icy margaritas followed by baked jewfish with a fresh breadcrumb crust and an avocado caprese salad. As the margaritas flow, we turn up the Latin music and Ben gives an impromptu salsa lesson. It is nice to know our hosts show a similar commitment to fun and creature comforts as they do to cultural immersion and education.

Later, once the others have retired to their cabins, I make my way to the top deck and stretch out under the star-spangled night. The sounds are pleasing: water laps, a rope groans, a chain chinks.

The days slip out to sea as we travel on the whim of the wind. Evenings are spent trawling for barramundi and setting out crab traps, or lounging around on deck, star gazing and talking rubbish. Mornings are spent under sail and passengers are encouraged to lend a hand with trimming a sail or holding a course.

On day three we pull into Nguiu community (pronounced new-you) on Bathurst Island. With 1500 residents, it is the largest of the Tiwi communities. On arrival we are met by a group of ladies who perform a traditional crocodile and shark dance for us. There's a fair amount of hand snapping and teeth gnashing, leaving no doubt in my mind about the natural born enemy of the Tiwi islanders.

These demure ladies also hit us over the head with bunches of smoking leaves to welcome us and to banish unwelcome spirits. Yes, it's a different world here and the Tiwi have been doing it their way for a long time.

We meet our guide, Trevor Augustine Tipungwuti, who explains that his skin name is Sun and his dance is the Buffalo. At birth, a Tiwi person is given one of four skin names, decided by his mother, and a totem dance, bestowed on him by his father.

And then there are the nicknames. I meet Black Pit. “Like the movie star,” the handsome young man says with a grin. There's also Mr Bean, Blue Boy, Barge Boy, Big Mamma, Tea Bag and his delightful wife Sugar. All is grist for the nickname mill here.

On our final day, the wind picks up to a howl. “You signed up for an adventure didn't you?” Peter shouts above the wind. And so I did. My blood is up as we streak across the Arafura Sea towards a turtle nesting site on Bare Sand Island. This trip, like all good journeys, has given me heart and will flavour my memories forever.

The writer was a guest of World Expeditions.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

World Expeditions has four-day sailing adventures aboard Sundancer NT, departing Darwin from $2160 a person. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.au.

Qantas operates regular flights to Darwin from Sydney, see qantas.com.au.

WHEN TO GO

During the dry season, between May and November.

THINGS TO KNOW

Permits: People wishing to visit the Tiwi Islands must obtain permits from the Tiwi Island Land Council or be part of a tour with a recognised company.

Buying: Art can be purchased from the Munupi Art and Craft Centre on Melville Island, Ngaruwanajirri Co-operative Art Centre or Tiwi Design, on Bathurst Island.

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