Bathurst Island sits, jungle green, in the turquoise sea. Along with Melville Island, just across the water, it is the traditional home of the Tiwi people and remains an indigenous community that outsiders are only allowed to visit with permission from the traditional land owners.
The ferry from Darwin, an hour away to the south, slows as it approaches, then winds its way up an estuary lined on both sides with deep mangroves and, to my mind, the bulbous watchful eyes of large crocodiles.
It anchors off shore and a small boat bounces out to meet us. We clamber on and, spray in our faces, motor towards the beach, sliding onto the sand with surprising speed. The ferry terminal is a large shed brightly painted in the local style: red, yellow and white ochre whirling in gentle patterns.
Phil has been sent to meet me and drive me the 80km to the outstation of Ranku where I’ll be staying. But first we check out Nguiu, the capital. Home to 1,500 people it has a slightly desolate air. Gardens are overgrown, litter is caught in the long grass, skinny mangy dogs yelp as they chase the tyres of our Landcruiser. On vacant lots and in gardens, groups of people sit in circles on blue tarpaulins under the trees, concentrated and engrossed. Children weave among them, most holding large bottles filled with vividly bright soft drinks.
‘The 3 G’s,’ says Phil when I ask what they’re doing. ‘Gambling, ganja and grog.’ Alcohol is severely restricted but marijuana use (despite its illegality) is a growing issue. And gambling is a favourite pastime. Each blue tarp is a mini casino where a game of cards, sometimes with stakes in the thousands, is taking place. ‘Whoever provides the tarp, along with a tap for water and maybe access to a toilet gets $400 a day,’ says Phil. ‘I’ve heard of people winning $15,000a game. It’s big money.’
We pull up to visit an artists’ collective locally known as ‘the Sistine chapel’. Run by Joy and John, who have lived on the island since 1994, the collective buys work from local carvers and employs 13 artists working across woodprint, painting and batik. It produces highly collectable work in the distinctive style of the Tiwi people, very different to the dot and rock paintings of central Australia. Carved and painted birds, their long necks reaching to the sky, hand printed scarves and vivid ochre paintings are on display and when you tilt your head to look at the workshop ceiling it becomes obvious how the group has earned its nickname.
Eventually Phil drags me away and we set off towards Ranku. As we leave Nguiu, the only paved road on the island abruptly terminates and we find ourselves on a dirt track, winding like a rust red river between the rich green foliage on either side. Sometimes dry, dusty and corrugated then, around the next corner, washed away into deep gullies filled with squelching mud, it’s a slow, bumpy ride. The four wheel drive comes equipped with a winch and inflatable jack for those days when it gets bogged and a chain saw with which to cut away trees that have fallen and blocked the track.
After an hour of jolting along we come to a sign: Welcome to Wururankuwu and a clearing. A dozen, maybe more houses, are loosely clustered here. The grass is mown, there’s a children’s playground and village feels welcoming and cared for.
I meet Stewart and Rin, my hosts and we sit under a lazy turning fan. As the heat of the day cools, Stewart takes me to a local waterhole for a swim. Sandy bottomed and clear, the water tumbles down a small water fall and is fast running and deliciously cool. We dive in with a whoop and float for an age, until I’m finally, and for the first time in many days, cool to the core.
The next morning Stewart takes me on a tour of the island’s deserted and pristine beaches. We bump and jolt our way along muddy paths through rainforests of gums, palms and huge ferns, till out of nowhere the sand and blue horizon of the sea appear. Lined by cliffs in vivid colours there’s something ancient and awesome about this place: it feels as if few people have ever walked here.
Run your hand along the cliffs and you discover that the vivid colours are clay that you can smudge and paint with. ‘Since I’ve seen this place I feel I understand the local art so much better,’ says Stewart and I understand what he means. The colour, the pattern, the rhythm of this place finds a distant echo in the art and sculpture of the island.
That night we eat fish, freshly caught by Stewart and Rin. It is sweet and utterly delicious. Before dinner I sit in the club and have a beer with three of the locals who are quietly enjoying one of their regulation six beers. They ask my name and welcome me with an easy camaraderie that feels utterly natural; making no concession to my foreignness they simply include me in their conversation as if I’ve always lived here and know the people and issues they speak of as intimately as they do. It's unforced, without pretension and very relaxing: no questions to be answered, no expectations to be met.
In the morning I visit Ranku’s tiny primary school. It has nine pupils aged between 5and 11, two preschoolers and two teachers. The kids are generous with their smiles and hugs. They ask me questions about London, sing a song for me, show me their paintings and give me two to take away. But some of them are facing pretty big issues. One nine year old boy's father committed suicide two years ago; two sisters, aged 9 and 11, are being looked after by extended family after their mother brought them over from Darwin and left again; a third boy has a broken arm and empty eyes. He's the only one who doesn't smile all morning. There's hope here but it's tempered by reality.
As I prepare to leave, the village is still in the rising heat of the morning. Two women walk from the store carrying bottles of bright orange soft drink and chatting softly together. They see me, smile wide and welcoming and greet me with a wave. I feel as if I’ve lived here for months and a genuine wrench at leaving.