THE TIWI ISLANDS offer a unique experience for the fisherman or anyone who loves travel to remote and beautiful places. STEVE COOPER reports:
WILDERNESS is a part of nature most of us crave, but nature in the raw has drawbacks; it’s nice to know that comfort awaits at day’s end. This is the way of the Tiwi Islands: Melville and Bathurst Islands, about 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Arafura Sea, and separated from each other by Apsley Strait.
Anyone contemplating a visit will need to go with an organised tour or fishing group. This isn’t a privacy issue, although this as important to the 2,500 Tiwis who live on the islands, as it is to folks living farther south. More to the point: there are no facilities on hand for unannounced visitors.
Culturally, the Tiwis are different in many aspects to mainland aborigines. The differences are put down to separation from the mainland, and these differences include a technology that does not include the Woomera (spear thrower) or boomerang. The islanders’ culture retained another unique feature, the pukumani (burial poles), carved and painted with symbolic and mythological figures, and erected around graves.
Tiwis are world famous for their art, which is markedly distinct from Arnhem Land, and often appears to be abstract and geometric, with strong patterns and use of colour. Traditional forms of paintings on bark and canvas, wood carving, silk screened cloth, weaving and pottery are available from art galleries, or direct from the artist.
There are three major art centres: two on Melville Island (Munupi Arts and Crafts Association at Pirlangimpi and Jilamara Arts and Crafts at Milikapiti), and one on Bathurst Island (Tiwi Design at Nguiu).
Day trips operate out of Darwin, where you can catch a ferry across Beagle Gulf to Nguiu, in the southeast of Bathurst Island, which is the main settlement, and the primary day-tripper destination.
An alternative destination, and one that best suits people who want a long stay, is to book a stay at one of the fishing lodges run by Tiwi Islands Adventures. There are two lodges on Melville Island, Melville Island Lodge at Milikapati, and the remote Johnson River Camp.
A lodge on Bathurst Island, which opened in March 2013, is up for sale. This is a shame given the lodge underwent a $2.5m makeover after being closed for more than seven years.
Access to the lodges is by a 30-minute, or thereabouts, charter flight from Darwin. Melville is Australia’s second largest island, and the runway at Milikapati is better than some you come across in more heavily populated rural towns in southern Australia. Melville Island Lodge is built atop a bluff overlooking Snake Bay, with an uninterrupted view across the Arafura Sea.
Milikapati is a small township on the northern edge of Melville Island, abutting Snake Bay. Set back on a bluff overlooking the bay, Melville Island Lodge is a neat, completely refurbished lodge that fulfilled a dream for former owner, Mike Baxter.
Mike said he promised himself that if he made it big in business, and the lodge came on the market, he would buy it. Not only did he buy the lodge, he rebuilt the place, before selling it to Tiwi Island Adventures.
Melville Lodge is ideal for couples to stay with six twin rooms, each featuring a queen size double and king size single bed. The lodge has another six single rooms, and all rooms are air-conditioned.
A stay at the lodge does not preclude other activities. Most guests prefer to maximise their time on the water fishing, but this doesn’t need to be the case. If you are looking for an authentic indigenous community experience, you will be certain to enjoy a visit to nearby Jilamara Arts & Craft Centre, a dip in a local swimming hole or even a visit to the Milikapiti Sports & Social Club.
Johnson River Lodge is a remote bush hideaway, and access is via a dirt runway, followed by a 45-minute drive through lush bush on graded roads. The trip is an eye opener for wildlife aficionados. Birdwatchers are in their element, and there are buffaloes, brumbies and wallabies.
The Johnson lodge offers a refreshing end to a long hot day on the water, with eye candy in the form of normally spooky buffalo mooching past the outdoor dining table within casting distance. Some days there are brumbies, wallabies, dingoes and bandicoots.
The fishing is difficult to pass up, and all too short, but memories linger. On my last visit to Bathurst Island I was with a noted coffee Nazi, Bob Hart. Most people go to the Tiwis to hook barramundi, but Bob wanted to fish for the black jewfish that haunt a couple of old moorings about half a kilometre offshore from the lodge.
On that day Bob hooked a dozen or so jews; one after another after another. He couldn’t miss. And Bob wasn’t holding back when it came to reminding me how well he was doing. We even swapped sides on the boat, albeit after he had landed a half dozen fish. But it made no difference.
That day was Easter Sunday and Bob proclaimed himself “King of the Jews,’ but at least he didn’t attempt to walk on water.
Another adventure took place on Melville Island with Mike Baxter. This day we were fishing with Queensland scribe Rod Harrison and guide Scott Mathews. It was August, but Top End winters are a far cry from the icy blasts of southern States.
Our lures ranged from surface fizzers and minnows to integrated, weighted plastics. Harro made the first cast, hooked up a barra and the bite was consistent from then on.
Mike was working a small, bibless, sinking plastic minnow fitted with fine gauge No. 4 treble hooks. It turned out that small and deep was the way to go. Mike’s lure was taken amid a boisterous strike. Initial impression was that it was another of the 50-70cm barra we were hooking; that was until that long slab of silver speared a body length clear of the water, went over on its side and fell back sending out a metre-high spray of white water.
The barra was hooked deep, which meant that Mike’s 20kg fluorocarbon leader, relatively fine for trophy fish, was subject to the full ravages of the sandpaper jaws. Fighting trophy fish on the back foot forces the angler to surrender, for a time, the initiative. Carefully measured rod work, carefully applied is absolutely essential when there’s a risk of tackle failure at any moment.
Twice that barra was brought close to the net, only to take off again, diving deep, around and even under our boat. Finally, Scotty netted Mike’s fish and everyone breathed easier. A couple of quick photos and the fish returned to the water, chastened but healthy. It wasn’t a PB for Mike, but at least it was a “metery,” the benchmark size sought by barra anglers.