Every year in March the tiny community of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island, about 80 kilometres north of Darwin, springs to life for the the Tiwi Islands Football League grand final. Ordinarily you need a permit to visit the island, which has a population of just 1,500 people. But the restriction is lifted for the grand final, which this year saw the Tuyu Buffaloes up against the Muluwurri Magpies.
Bathurst Island was first sighted by Europeans in 1644, when Abel Tasman passed on his way from Batavia. In 1911 a church minister, Father Gsell, persuaded the South Australian government to give him 10,000 acres of land on Bathurst Island to build a mission for the Tiwi people.
It was a Catholic Brother, John Pye, who first introduced AFL to Tiwi Islanders back in 1942. "They're made for it," he told the ABC. "Nobody can go in after the ball like they can. They're so sprightly; they get in every grand final and every big occasion in Darwin."
I hopped a charter plane for the half-hour flight over the Arafura Sea and arrived at the Wurrumiyanga community with just a few hours to spare before the first bounce.
Walking to the football oval, I passed the old wooden church—built in the 1930s—which was filled with members of the community singing their religious songs. As I strained to hear the lyrics, a young man appeared and fell in step beside me. "Yes," he affirmed before I could even ask a question. "They're singing for both teams."
We continued on past locals who sat out the front of their houses and waved hello. Another man named Dan introduced himself, telling me about his life and background. He used to be an AFL player. He was an Aboriginal Australian, with a mix of Jamaican and American heritage.
When I arrived at the oval, I saw that the spectators were mesmerised by the spectacle. Men, women and children were beaming with passion and love for the sport.
During the game, fans edged onto the field, getting closer and rowdier than they should have. Dogs ran across the pitch. I saw Dan smiling from the sidelines. Passions reach a fever pitch at the end of the game, when a fight nearly broke out between the players, with supporters joining in and runners trying to break it up. Everybody was very emotionally invested in this match.
When Muluwurri defeated the Buffaloes by two goals, I could feel the spectators share in the ecstasy of the players. It's clear that football is a way of life for the Tiwi Islanders, many of the supporters I spoke with were either ex-coaches, ex-players, supporters since they were babies, budding players, children or close relatives of the players; everyone has a semi-spiritual connection. It's like a passion that grips the community—a belief even.
At the end of the game, I flew back to Darwin. You could say I was converted. All I need now is my own team to worship.
Isabella is a Darwin-based photographer. You can follow her work on Instagram.