Torres Strait: A Guide To The Enigmatic Islands In Australia

The Torres Strait Islands mark the beginning of the Great Barrier Reef and are a unique destination where two of the oldest cultures on Earth converge
Thursday Island, Torres Strait
Thursday Island, Torres StraitShutterstock

The Torres Strait Islands are home to the Indigenous Torres Strait Islander people, who have their own identity and traditions distinct from Aboriginal Australians. While there are approximately 300 islands in the Torres Strait, only 14 are inhabited. Thursday Island and Horn Island are the most visited islands, with regular air and ferry connections and developed facilities for visitors.

These islands also serve as gateways to other, more remote and less accessible islands. The Torres Strait Islands are where the Great Barrier Reef begins and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures come together. Art lines the streets and pub walls, giving you a unique view into the life of the Torres Strait Islanders. By following this Torres Strait itinerary, you can experience all of this for yourself in just four spectacular days.

Before Going

Obtain A Permit

To visit the outer islands, you will need to obtain a permit from the island's council or chairman to respect the rights and wishes of the local communities, who have a strong connection to their land and sea. You can apply for a permit online or via a phone call, providing details about your visit, such as the purpose, duration, and number of people. You will also need to pay a fee, which varies depending on the island and the type of visit.

Pack For The Climate

The Torres Strait Islands have a tropical climate, with hot and humid summers and mild and dry winters. The average temperature ranges from 25°C to 32°C, and the average rainfall is about 2000 mm per year. The wet season is from November to April, and the dry season is from May to October. Pack light and comfortable clothing, such as shorts, t-shirts, and sandals, as well as a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, and a raincoat. Bring your snorkeling or diving gear, fishing rod, camera, and binoculars. Also, carry cash, as some of the islands do not have ATMs or credit card facilities.

Once You’re There

Immerse Yourself In The Culture Of The Torres Strait

Dancers from Torres Strait Islands perform at Mabo Day festival
Dancers from Torres Strait Islands perform at Mabo Day festivalShutterstock

Thursday Island will be your base for the trip and after you have checked in to your accommodation on the island, be sure to explore the flower-lined villages and sandy shores. To get your bearings, let the locals show you around for the afternoon – it’s the best way to experience the island. Immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of the Torres Strait with Peddells Thursday Island Tour, which includes visits to the old fort, cemetery, museums, and local township.

Celebrate The Traditional Ailan Kastom

Australian Aboriginals men demonstrating fire making craft during Aboriginal culture show
Australian Aboriginals men demonstrating fire making craft during Aboriginal culture show Shutterstock

Alternatively, join the Island Stars for a celebration of traditional Ailan Kastom (island custom) through dance, song, and storytelling guided by local Torres Strait Islander artists and dancers. It’s a fun-filled way to learn about the fascinating customs and ancient traditions that are kept alive in the Torres Strait.  

You can also add another notch to your history belt by visiting Australia's northernmost pub, the Torres Hotel, which is a local favourite. This pub is an excellent place to grab dinner and a beer while enjoying the unique atmosphere of the island.

Explore The Islands

Some of the popular islands include Friday Island, known for its pearl farm where you can learn about the history and process of pearl cultivation and taste pearl shell meat, as well as enjoy the clear blue waters and white sand beaches. Badu Island is famous for its art and culture, home to many talented artists and carvers. You can visit the local art centre, buy authentic souvenirs, and explore the island's natural beauty, such as the mud springs and the turtle nesting sites.

Warraber Island is a nature lover's paradise, surrounded by coral reefs and marine life. You can also experience the island's culture and history, such as their traditional dance and the World War II relics.

Visit Roko Island

If you're looking for an adventure in the Torres Strait, you might want to consider visiting Roko Island, which is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the region. This island is privately owned by the Tchen Pan family and once was a pearl farm. Nowadays, it offers a unique glamping and adventure experience for travellers who seek a different taste of the Torres Strait. Upon arrival, you'll be greeted by a long floating jetty made of logs, bamboo, floating barrels, and hardwood.

Then, the adventure begins, whether you choose to go on a fishing charter, boat tour to surrounding islands, enjoy some time on land, or check out the range of jewellery and treasures made with local White South Sea Pearls. And when you get hungry, the in-house chef will prepare a feast of locally caught seafood and vegetables grown on the island's organic garden. You can spend the night on the island in one of the comfortable glamping tents.

Visit The Bazaars

Visit Monas Bazaar for clothing and artwork, and Tribal Boutique for locally designed jewellery made with pearls and beads sourced from nearby Roko Island and Turtle Head. Spend some time exploring the Gab Titui Cultural Centre located on Thursday Island. The centre showcases a unique and fascinating slice of Australian history through its artefacts, stories, cultural dress, and art. Participating in local events and festivals, such as the Coming of the Light, the Winds of Zenadth, or the Mabo Day, is also highly recommended.

The Torres Strait Islanders

Torres Strait Islander culture consider as the most ancient in the world
Torres Strait Islander culture consider as the most ancient in the worldShutterstock

The Torres Strait Islands are a culturally diverse and vibrant region, with a mix of Indigenous, Malay, Polynesian, and European influences. The Torres Strait Islander people have a strong sense of identity and pride, and they are keen to share their culture and stories with visitors. Respect their customs and beliefs, and ask for permission before taking photos or entering sacred sites.

Learning some basic words and phrases in the local languages, such as Kala Lagaw Ya, Meriam Mir, or English Creole, is also a great way to demonstrate your respect.

Where To Stay?

If you're planning a trip to Thursday Island or Horn Island in Australia's Torres Strait, there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from. Hilltop Hideaway is a great choice for those looking for a comfortable and convenient stay in Green Hill, Thursday Island. The Jardine Motel is another popular option, located in the heart of Thursday Island, while Jumula Dubbins Hostel offers budget-friendly dormitory-style accommodation.

For those looking to stay on Horn Island, the Elikiam Holiday Park and Gateway Torres Strait Resort are both great choices, offering a range of accommodation options and easy access to local attractions. And if you're looking for a classic island pub experience, the Wongai Beach Hotel is a must-visit, located just a short walk from the ferry terminal on Horn Island.

Getting There

To reach the Torres Strait, you can choose to travel by air or sea. If you prefer to fly, Qantas offers flights from Cairns to Horn Island, which is the primary airport in the Torres Strait. From there, you can take a 10-15 minute ferry ride to Thursday Island, which will be your base for the next four days.

On the other hand, if you have been travelling through Cape York, you can take the ferry from Seisia Jetty directly to Thursday Island, which takes about an hour. The ferry ride is one of the most scenic rides you'll ever have, so be sure to have your camera ready.

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