Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 5, 2009

Exploring the World of Indigenous Peoples, with Graham Simmons

… a podcast with Graham Simmons

Northern Hemisphere meets Southern Hemisphere

I first met Graham Simmons, an Australian travel writer and photographer, in the northwestern state of Gujarat, India. We were part of a small group of travel journalists who had been invited to this part of India because its tourism department was attempting to attract more visitors to the state.

The itinerary that was planned for us took us to some very out-of-the-way sites and we found ourselves enjoying some very grassroots experiences. In our chats in India and subsequently in cyberspace, Graham and I discovered that we share a number of preferences and interests in terms of travel, in particular an appreciation of and interest in aboriginal cultures.

According to Graham, he started travel writing in an attempt to get away from himself. But, he says, “It didn’t work.” He now says that “travel is a cure for which there is no known disease.” Graham is a member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers. He is also part of a collective of Australian travel journalists; that group is called Global Travel Writers Syndicate. This is a group of highly experienced travel writers and photographers, all of whom “have scoured the globe to bring you unusual insights into this fascinating homeland that we call Planet Earth.”

What’s in a culture?

The study of human culture is a huge and complex discipline, not to be underestimated nor taken for granted. Like so many words, “culture” is one of those that we often just toss into a sentence assuming that our interlocutors have the same conceptual and practical understanding of the term as we do — or indeed that we ourselves clearly understand what we are referring to. In addition, it is a word and a concept that is highly contextual.

For anthropologists, sociologists, and historians especially, the word evokes a mosaic of human history and human experience that is for all intents and purposes limitless. There are however common elements in the diverse cultures on this planet: belief systems, language, objects, norms, collective behaviour patterns … and the list goes on. Cultures also have dynamics that sometimes are not all that well understood; culture can be a “civilizing” force, can encourage dominance behaviour, can oppress, can liberate, but can also be the sum total of that which is human.

When, why, and how does a culture become a majority culture? How does a minority culture survive colonial forces? How does an imbalance in cultural power or status at times actually stimulate a minority culture and make it stronger? When we, as travellers, visit indigenous cultures, who is observing whom? These are the kinds of issues that Graham and I have pondered.

Tiwi Culture

In his article “Tiwi Time” (reprinted below) Graham gives us a glimpse of what most people would consider a minority culture. And yet, there is in this story something universal. As we are wont to say at Travelosophy, “We travel to explore the diversity of the human experience, and in so doing we discover the commonality.”

“Cultural” resources

(a) Tiwi Art

(b) Aboriginal Tourism Association

(c) Travel Australia Aboriginal Culture webpage.

(d) Aboriginal Australia tour company

(e) Global Travel Writers Syndicate

(f) Graham Simmons’ Photographic Portfolio

(g) The Australian Society of Travel Writers


by Graham Simmons

“You whitefellers should thank us Tiwi for saving you from the Japanese!”, said my guide Richard Tungatalum on Bathurst Island, just offshore from Darwin. “It was a Bathurst Islander who captured the very first Japanese prisoner of war on Australian soil, back in 1942”.

It is rare indeed that the cultural and natural history of a place so closely intertwine as in the Tiwi Islands, just offshore from Darwin. These islands (Bathurst and Melville Islands, separated by a narrow strait) have managed through a series of fortuitous historical accidents to maintain their unique and sophisticated culture almost completely intact.

Far from being isolationist, the Tiwi have looked to Asia for thousands of years. The Makassans of Sulawesi in Indonesia established trading contacts with the Tiwi islanders at least several hundred years ago, and introduced three innovations that are still a part of daily Tiwi life: the steel axe, the dugout canoe and… playing cards!

The Europeans were very late in arriving in the Tiwi Islands. The Dutch came and went around 1705. The British set up an outpost at Fort Dundas in 1824, but were stricken with disease and soon beat a hasty retreat. It was not until as late as 1911 that the Tiwi islanders had their first sustained contact with the outside world, with the setting up of a mission by the French priest Father Xavier Gsell.

It must be said that Father Gsell was a comparatively enlightened figure, who did his best to encourage the Tiwi to maintain their rich traditional culture and language. As a result, the Tiwi religion is today a unique blend of traditional beliefs and Christianity. Tiwi murals adorn the Church altar; pukamani poles surround the gravestones in the Nguiu cemetery; in the Mission Church, mass begins with the traditional Tiwi smoking ceremony. The smoking ceremony, later demonstrated for us by the village elders, is a ritual purification (I certainly needed it), in which our shoulders were anointed with smoke from the leaves of the Murtangipila (ironwood) tree.

The manifestations of Tiwi culture caress your eyes the moment you land at Nguiu (pronounced NGOO-you) Airport and catch a glimpse of its terminal buildings, their walls painted in vibrant traditional designs. As evidence of a huge sense of community spirit, murals and other artworks adorn virtually every square metre of public space, making the whole of Nguiu town a living art museum.

Nguiu also has its own formal museum, the new Patakijiyali Museum, with signs both in the tongue-twisting Tiwi (the first language of the Islands) and English.

In the Tiwi Tours compound, villager Doreen shows us the art of bark painting, using traditional local ochres only. It must be said that these ochres produce colours every bit as vibrant as the newer acrylics used in the Western Desert region of the Northern Territory. Ochre rocks are crushed and blended with water to form a smooth paste, which produces a richly opaque patina on the bark.

Right now, we’re off in search of ochre rocks. Our destination is Mawuntuwu Beach, south-west of Nguiu. Richard drives us along the dirt roads that connect the island from east to west, through grasslands and past stands of age-old cycad trees rapidly rebounding from the traditional burning-off cycle. The sacred Mawuntuwu Lake, sheltered in the dunes near Mawuntuwu Beach, is believed to be the home of Ampiji the Rainbow Serpent. Despite re-assurances that it was “OK” to do so, I felt reluctant to take photographs of the Lake, for fear of disturbing Ampiji. Maybe it’s the fear within us of prematurely arousing the serpent, possibly akin to the Kundalini of ancient wisdom, that impels us to be careful.

Mawuntuwu Beach is a colourful sight, fringed with red ochre cliffs rich with iron oxide. Along the beach are strewn yellow ochre rocks, while patches of green grass run right down to the water’s edge, providing food for the dugongs that come here to dine.

Mawuntuwu Beach is also home to hundreds, maybe even thousands of turtle egg nests. Richard shows us how, from time immemorial, islanders have selectively raided these nests for their rich source of a highly nutritional food. I wasn’t looking forward to the flavour of a semi-raw turtle egg. In fact, the very idea of eating one, thereby depriving a would-be baby turtle of a future life, seemed completely beyond the pale.

But Richard insisted that the small number of eggs we had raided from the nest were only an infinitesimal grab, compared to those in the countless nests dotting the shoreline. So, in the interests of “science”, I grudgingly let my conscience take a holiday.

The taste came as a surprise – like a super-rich hen egg, yet with a delicate flavour, as though a perfectionist chook had gotten itself reincarnated as a turtle just to produce better eggs.

“Our football players are raised on turtle eggs”, Richard said. “That’s how they get their strength and stamina. It’s all those vitamins and minerals…” Indeed the Tiwi Islands, just offshore from Darwin, have produced a highly disproportionate number of top Aussie Rules football players. Many Tiwi players have made the pilgrimage from Bathurst Island to the Melbourne Football Ground the traditional home of the game, and throughout the Islands footy is a passion ranking equally with traditional survival skills. Fourcroy Point, known to generations of Tiwi as “the end of the world”, is the most westerly point on Bathurst Island. While the Indonesian islands to the north and the Australian mainland to the south were well known, west was a totally unknown direction. As in Aussie Rules football, the most important direction has always been “up”.

Along the way back to Nguiu from Fourcroy Point, we pass the encampments of families who have brought their kids out bush during the school holidays, teaching them the ancient arts of hunting, fishing and gathering bush tucker. If anyone should question the viability of Tiwi civilization in the modern age, a visit to one of these encampments would dispel all doubt. This is a culture that is not just surviving, but positively thriving.


Getting There: Several airlines, including Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines, fly from Europe to Darwin via Singapore.

Tours: One and two day tours of Bathurst Island (with 3-day and 6-day tours also including Melville Island now in the planning stages) are run by Tiwi Tours, a Tiwi-owned tour company. For details and bookings contact Aussie Adventure Holidays, tel (+61 8) 8981 1633 or 1800 811 633, or click on the link above.

Best beds: There is as yet no accommodation on the island except for bush camping


1) Nguiu town

2) Patakijiyali Museum

3) Mawuntuwu Lake

4) Mawuntuwu Beach

5) Pukamani burial poles


1) Take insect repellent. Mosquitoes can be a problem at night.

2) Remember that no alcohol is allowed on the islands, except for a two-hour session in the bistro every evening (no take-away allowed).

3) Respect local customs and traditions.

4) Avoid taking photographs of people without first asking permission


1) A good introductory guide, though now a little dated, is The Tiwi Islands by John Pye (1983, ISBN 0 9598787 2 6)

2) The Tiwi Islands are just 80 km from Darwin.

3) The Tiwis are self-governing, with their own 16-member Legislative Assembly and flag. They also elect their own member to the Northern Territory Parliament.

4) The Tiwi divide themselves into eleven tribes and four totems. Tiwi take their tribal name from their father and their totem from their mother.

“On Tiwi Time” is reprinted here courtesy of Graham Simmons. This article and all photographs on this webpage are the copyright of Graham Simmons. Graham can be contacted at

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