AUDIO: Kicking Tiwi goals: sport in the tropical north 

IT was like breathing through a wet pillowcase in a sauna. Dizzyingly hot. My clothes wringing wet, eyes stinging from melting sunscreen. I wandered, bewildered and suffocating, in a swirling kaleidoscope of colour and noise.

On my left, a near-naked toddler flat on his back in a deep and muddy puddle, dead still with only his nose above the waterline. People were everywhere but no one other than me seemed to notice him.

Sensing an audience, he lifted his head. With a broad grin betraying his cheeky intent, he got to his feet, leapt high in the air and executed a spectacular bellyflop.

Upright again in a flash, he puffed his chest like a gymnast before the judges, flashed me a Hollywood smile and laughed off howls of protest from mud-splattered bystanders as he scampered off through a hole in the fence.

On my right, the thinnest woman I have ever seen, with a shock of wiry grey hair and veins bulging in her neck and forehead, screeched maniacally at impressive volume "How you like us now, huh?". Her display attracted the attention of an enormous woman, whose bosom provided a substantial billboard for the words "CROWD CONTROL".

"Git beck," she snarled, and then barked a sentence in a language I didn't understand but with a tone that required no translation. The skinny woman wisely retreated, grumbling under her breath.

Behind me - a pained yelp. I swung around as a little girl was sent flying. A canine sniffing session had escalated into a snarling, snapping mobile melee and she was collateral damage. Two teenage boys gleefully joined the dogfight, swinging sticks.

Suddenly, another eruption of noise and everyone was cheering something behind me. I glanced back just in time to witness a lithe young indigenous man in full AFL kit, arms outstretched, doing the "aeroplane" along the boundary line to celebrate what was, judging by the reaction, a spectacular goal.

My delirium compelled me to join in the applause and I let fly a "woot" and a "yeah".

This was exotic beyond imagination. Nothing seemed familiar.

Truly I was a stranger in a strange land. And yet, this was my land.

This dripping, dazed fish out of water was a born-and-bred Australian there to watch indigenous Australians cheer their countrymen as they played Aussie Rules football on Australian soil.

There is, perhaps, no more quintessentially Australian sports experience but nowhere, from New York to Nagoya, have I witnessed a contest so completely foreign.

I was outside a boundary fence of Stanley Tipaloura Oval, Nguiu Shire, Bathurst Island.

BATHURST and Melville Islands together form the Tiwi Islands, part of the Northern Territory but about 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Arafura and Timor seas.

Next stop north is West Papua.

Between 1500 and 2500 people live there, all indigenous, but for a handful of school teachers and government administrators.

You cannot set foot on the Tiwi Islands ground without a permit.

I would get to spend almost two weeks living like a local in a vibrant but isolated Aboriginal community.

I lived on the white bread and two-minute noodles that are the staples of the lone shop on the island.

I listened to women discuss whether young people still enjoyed blue-tongue lizard as bush meat or whether only the elders could stomach it these days.

I stood in a sweltering tin shed as everyone within walking distance made the pilgrimage for a funeral that lasted the entire day.

I grew comfortable with little children I'd never met sitting on my lap, giggling as they touched the blond hairs on my arms and singing me the mudcrab song in Tiwi.

I would trudge the three kilometres from the social club to the tin shed that was my home to collect my driver's licence because "Sorry mate, grey stubble innit proof of anything. We need ID".

As required, I registered on the formal document for my four-drink limit and I sipped on my tepid XXXX Gold, because full-strength beer is banned.

I would walk home again at 7.30 because that's what time the club closes, on the four days a week it opens for three hours.

I would also rediscover my love of sport.

I have, to some extent, been involved in sports journalism and broadcasting for more than two decades but had grown increasingly disillusioned and disenchanted, and not without reason.

When I wandered outside my home-shed to get two bars of reception on my phone, I'd glimpse my Twitter feed full of bile about Tom Waterhouse dominating NRL coverage and how some footballer had ingested some chemical intended for a racehorse.

I wondered why I had devoted my life to these "games". But then, these games were the very reason I was beyond the Top End.

The Tiwi Islands don't have a motel, a bank or a post office but they do have a thriving Australian Rules Football League, the TIFL.

Teams with names like the Tuyu Buffaloes and the Muluwurri Magpie Geese have long been VFL/AFL nurseries.

Hawthorn star Cyril Rioli spent his formative years on the Tiwi Islands. The TIFL Premiership Cup is named after Maurice Rioli, local and Norm Smith medallist in the 1982 VFL Grand Final.

Tiwi football is played over the tropical wet season - the southern summer.

It is fast, free-flowing, intuitive and untouched by the more cynical strategies of professionalism.

A Tiwi team in full flight is more Harlem Globetrotters than Hawthorn Hawks.

Unsurprisingly, then, the Tiwi Islands once again filled my head with football dreams.

Visionaries in the shire council and the ABC sold me on a hope that, one day, a football fan in Melbourne could be driving to watch the Sydney Swans play the Geelong Cats while listening to indigenous commentators beaming in from the tropical North, speaking their native tongue, describing the live action as Pumarali Thunder and Lightning play the Melville Island Roos in round 8 of the TIFL.

I was in Nguiu to find potential Bruce McAvaneys, or more properly Gerard Whateleys, and share with them the science of sports commentary in the hope of developing a broadcast team capable of delivering weekly live descriptions to the far reaches of the islands, and across the world via the internet.

I was to run a two-week commentator training course I'd developed in conjunction with ABC International Projects and already successfully rolled out in Papua New Guinea.

There, course graduates returned to highland villages and coastal towns and proceeded to describe rugby league and netball games in Pidgin, English and local tribal languages.

Some years ago (no one seems quite sure when), footy enthusiasts on Bathurst Island took to recording games on an old video camera, leaning in close to the effects mic to describe the action.

This rudimentary call would play to packed houses when projected against a wall in the town on a Wednesday night.

In 2013, when anyone with a smartphone can make a radio show, the entire world could access such a service, if revived.

Eight indigenous Australians - Samuela, Vicky, Charlotte, Fab, Alfie, Nich, Daniel and Casey - aged from their early 20s to late 40s, some unemployed, and with varying levels of footy experience, were recruited as the people most likely to create and maintain a regular broadcast.

Happily locked in the shire council chambers, one of only a handful of airconditioned rooms on the islands, they spent day after day wrestling with the concepts of play-by-play commentary, expert analysis, hosting a pre- and post-match show, researching, show preparation, interviewing techniques and laws of the game.

Offering additional inspiration, a man who helped define sports broadcasting in Australia, Greig Pickhaver.

His alter-ago, HG Nelson, would delight in the irony that the man who teamed up with Rampaging Roy Slaven to make mainstream sport bizarre was now charged with taking bizarre sport to the mainstream.

"I believe you have an exciting opportunity to take your brand of football and give it to the world," he told the recruits with trademark effusiveness.

AT times, the would-be broadcasters seemed overwhelmed, sometimes amused, often bemused as I did lap after lap of the council meeting table, gesticulating wildly and repeating "You are the eyes of the listener. Your mouth paints the pictures in their head".

But they worked. They bit off more than they could chew and bit down hard.

They said things they'd never said in ways they'd never said them.

They were brave and open and by the time they sat down in front of a TV screen and inserted a DVD of the epic 2009 Anzac Day clash between Essendon and Collingwood, they were ready to join HG in a faux call.

The next day, in a scene worthy of an episode of "Tiwi's Got Talent", Fab was flown to Darwin to be the boundary rider for the ABC Grandstand NTAFL grand final broadcast, singing the pre-match national anthem for good measure.

Nich and Daniel had the bittersweet experience of interviewing members of the Tiwi Bombers side beaten in that game.

Those interviews aired the next day as part of the ABC's coverage of the TIFL grand final.

Fab seamlessly slotted into the commentary box alongside HG and Charlie King, offering special comments, this time singing a local song. He was the epitome of the "big occasion player".

"I was so nervous," he admitted later.

"But it all happened so fast. When I was driving around after people were shouting out saying 'You did us proud' and I was really proud of myself. My mum came up to me [and] said she wished my dad was alive to see it."

The Imalu Tigers stormed home in the final quarter of the grand final to beat the Tapalinga Super Stars in front of a big crowd on another scorching day, further entrenching themselves as the greatest club in Tiwi football history and bringing down the curtain on 2012-13 TIFL season.

Lawrence the curator won't have to mark a goal square again until the other side of the dry season.

Dust will settle, literally and figuratively, and it'll take a big effort from a lot of people to pull together a Tiwi broadcast by round one next season.

It should be done though, because this island sport and the people who love it might be strange but not nearly as strange as professional footy has become across the codes further south.

The Tiwi people deserve to share their exotic blend of sport and culture and suffocating sports fans as mainland Australia deserves the chance to wander bewildered in Tiwi's dizzying, swirling kaleidoscope of colour.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide