Four days in Darwin


In my last post I wrote about the two days it took me to get 1600km to Darwin from Mount Isa. Now I had four days where I planned to do no driving at all. The name of my motel was City Edge and that described it perfectly, nowhere was too far to walk to. Darwin Harbour had surprisingly high cliff faces with a large tidal range and there were great views over the harbour and out to the Arafura Sea.


There is a long and pleasant path along the cliffside promenade. From where I stood to Cox Peninsula on the other side of the harbour was a long 120km journey thanks to the harbour’s many channels. So perhaps too far to walk.


It didn’t take long to find a reminder of the Second World War. I’ve written before about the bombing of Darwin, based on the book An Awkward Truth. The book was critical of the lack of preparation and secrecy that hamstrung recovery efforts but there was also great courage. The Japanese bombing raid took place February 19, 1942 with the sinking of the US destroyer Peary the biggest loss of life. In the 1950s a diver salvaged this four-inch gun from the ship and the Australian Navy restored it for the 50th anniversary in 1992. The gun points to Peary’s final resting place.


Further along the promenade was parliament house, the seat of the Northern Territory’s unicameral Legislative Assembly. Building work commenced in 1990 and it opened in 1994. According to the NT parliament website, the building was designed for Darwin’s tropical climate. “Its facade diffuses 80% of direct sunlight.  Visitors are invited to note the top of each of the corner columns of the building, which represent an architectural salute to the site on which Parliament House stands.”


I moved on to give architectural salute to another building celebrating a different branch of government. The Supreme Court lies just south of parliament house and the building in Darwin was officially opened in November 1991 when it was proclaimed that it “shall be surrendered and delivered to the Judges of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory for the purposes of the administration of justice in and for the Northern Territory of Australia”.


The trifecta of government buildings in the area is completed by government house. Of distinctly older vintage, the home of the NT Governor dates from 1870, the oldest surviving European building in the city. The mid-Victorian Gothic villa, has been adapted for the local climate with shaded verandahs and porches and has survived earthquakes, cyclones and Japanese bombing.


Moving along I get my first view down to the revamped portside. Raised stairwells and lifts offer a quick way down but I want to detour to a museum dedicated to part of the city’s Second World War story.


My destination is the underground oil storage tanks. When the Japanese bombed in 1942 a major target was the open air fuel oil storage tanks at Stokes Hill. As a result engineers began looking at designs to put the tanks underground tunnels. In 1943 contractors began work on a series of tunnels running 15m under the escarpment.  The longest tunnel was 200m long and pipe headings connected to an underground pumping station. The tanks were designed to hold distillate, diesel and furnace oil. Work was hard and slow but the tunnels leaked and corrosion set in as water seeped between the steel lining and the concrete walls. The tunnels were kept secret after the war and stored fuel for the RAAF until heavy rain made the system inoperable. It was reopened to the public in 1992.


The Darwin portside area has been used for thousands of years by the Larrakiah people who traded sea cucumbers with Macassan sailors. In 1865, surveyor, W.P. Auld, named Stokes Hill after the Commander of the Beagle, (of course the port was named for the Beagle’s most famous passenger) who had visited in 1839. The first of three wharfs was built in 1885. With an 8m tidal range the jetty stood high on timber piles. Cyclone damage in 1897 and worm infestation weakened the structure and the second, Town Wharf, was completed in 1903.  It severely damaged in the first Japanese bombing raid. The third and current Stokes Hill Wharf was built in 1956 of steel and concrete with timber decking. It served as the main port of Darwin until facilities were transferred to the new Port at East Arm in 2000. The Wharf has been transformed into a tourist precinct of bars and cafes.


Another tour of Darwin took me towards the northerly bays. Above is Doctors Gully, home of the fish-feeding establishment Aquascene (feeding times are related to the tides so it was closed on low tide as I arrived). The area is named for Dr Robert Peel, the medical officer with Goyder’s survey party in 1869. This was an important site of Chinese market gardens and in the war was a base for Catalina Flying Boats.


Continuing north I ended up at Cullen Bay, home of the Marina and ferries out to the Tiwi Islands and Mandurah on the Cox Peninsula. It was also the home of a lovely pub called Lola’s Pergola where I stopped to soak in the seaside atmosphere.


It being a Thursday I kept on the northward journey towards Mindil Beach and the Mindil night markets. The markets date back to 1987 and they moved from their original location at Darwin Mall after local businesses complained. They have been under the coconut palms of Mindil Beach ever since and now hosts 300 stalls every Thursday and Sunday evenings, not to mention thousands of visitors looking for bargains, live music and great food.


Meanwhile there was a film crew on the beach. A close-up of the clapperboard revealed it was a scene in Top End Wedding. According to Screen Australia, this new feature film co-written and starring Larrakiah local Miranda Tapsell and directed by Wayne Blair is a “hilarious and heart-warming comedy of successful Sydney lawyer, Lauren, and her fiance Ned. Engaged and in love, they have just 10 days to find Lauren’s mother who has gone AWOL somewhere in the Northern Territory, reunite her parents and pull off their dream Top End Wedding.” Not sure about the movie but I was told off about the clicking of my phone camera on set.


What the filmmakers and everyone were here for was to watch the famous Mindil sunset. Mindil comes from the Larrakiah word ‘Min-deel’, meaning sweet nut grass. The beach has always been a popular place to camp, and swim and was a significant cultural site.  In the war years it was a rest site for military personnel. Cyclone Tracy destroyed a caravan park on the site in 1974.


Another day, another beach. Fannie Bay Beach is further north of Mindil Beach and part of the East Point Reserve. Behind the beach is Fannie Bay Gaol, site of the NT’s last execution and these days home to a museum. The water looks inviting but the “danger: crocodiles” signs are everywhere. Best to stay out and admire the view.


Also at East Point Reserve is a monument (and empty beer bottle) commemorating the arrival of the first flight from England to Australia in 1919. After the First World War the Australian government offered £10,000 for the first Australians in a British aircraft to fly from Britain to Australia. Six entries started the race and the winners were pilot Ross Smith, co-pilot brother Keith Smith and two mechanics in a Vickers Vimy bomber. The Vimy left Hounslow Heath on November 12. It flew 17,911km via Lyon, Rome, Cairo, Damascus, Basra, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Akyab, Rangoon, Singora (Songkhla), Singapore, Batavia and Surabaya, reaching Darwin on December 10.


A friend alerted me to the fact that Shellie Morris was playing in Darwin that night. Sadly I was already booked in that night but found that the Garrmalang festival where Morris was playing did have a free opening event I could attend. Garrmalang is the Larrakiah word for Darwin and the Festival showcases Indigenous talent and celebrates song, dance, language, knowledge, heritage, family and country.


But the reason I couldn’t hang around to watch Morris was that I had a date with the Deckchair Cinema, the cinema under the stars on Darwin’s tropical waterfront. There I sat in one of the deckchairs, enjoyed a beer or two and watched an excellent movie (The Death of Stalin) in balmy surrounds with only the occasional bat reminding me I was outdoors.


On my last morning I walked out past Mindil Beach again to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. NT’s premier cultural organisation has been at Bullocky Point since 1981, and is home to internationally renowned cultural and scientific collections and research and exhibition programs. These include Sweetheart, the legendary 5m crocodile which was caught and accidentally killed in 1979. The body was presented to the Museum where the taxidermist prepared Sweetheart as a skin mount and a skeleton.


The Cyclone Tracy exhibit tells the story of the weather event that ripped through Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. It features the sound booth which captures the spinechilling howling gales that caused so much destruction that day. The Category 4 Tracy is the most compact cyclone ever in the Southern Hemisphere, with gale-force winds extending only 48km from the centre. Tracy killed 71 people, caused $837 million in damage, destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings leaving half the city’s 47,000 inhabitants homeless and required the evacuation of 30,000 people.



The museum’s most interesting exhibit was by artist and cartoonist Franck Gohier. His exhibition “A thousand miles from everywhere” brings together works that cover the major themes of Gohier’s work from the global influence of Pop art and capitalism through to the bombing of Darwin, Cyclone Tracy and the city itself. Inspired by the anarchic spirit of punk, Gohier has been making art since the 1980s since studying at Charles Darwin University. Importantly, Gohier has made a career in Darwin, with regular exhibitions in Sydney and public institutions in the southern states.


On my way home I popped into the peaceful George Brown Botanic Gardens (named for a former Darwin mayor). The gardens cover 42 hectares with a notable collection of north Australian and tropical species. The gardens are a popular exercise spot and often combined with a visit to the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets. The gardens have been in Darwin for over 130 years, surviving bombs and cyclones. This is one of the few botanic gardens in the world with marine and estuarine plants growing naturally.


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