Darwin, Northern Territory
Australia ‘s only tropical capital, laid-back Darwin melds European, Asian, and Aboriginal influences into a vibrant stew. Famous for beautiful sunsets and colourful characters along Darwin’s cosmopolitan foreshore up here in Northern Australia.
The traditional owners of the land around Darwin are the Larrakia Aboriginal people. Like Aboriginal peoples elsewhere, the Larrakia cared for the land that surrounded them, mosaic burning grass during the dry in order to make resources abundant. They fished, hunted, and gathered local fruits and vegetables. While the Bininj/Mungguy of Kakadu and the Yolngu of Arnhem Land recognised six seasons, the Larrakia understood their ecosystem in terms of seven overlapping seasons:
- Balnba (rainy season): November- December
- Dalay (monsoon season): January-March
- Mayilema (speargrass, Magpie Goose egg and knock ‘em down season): March-April
- Damibila (Barramundi and bush fruit time): April-June
- Dinidjanggama (heavy dew time): June-August
- Gurrulwa (big wind time): July-September
- Dalirrgang (the build-up): September- October
The first European to see Darwin Harbour was John Stokes, the surveyor aboard the Ship HMS Beagle. This vessel was then circumnavigating Australia on its Third Voyage (1837-1843). Commander John Clements Wickham was reminded of his famous shipmate, the naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin (who had accompanied them on their Second Voyage around South America, New Zealand, Australia and western Africa), and named the harbour ‘Darwin Harbour‘.
The government was keen to establish a settlement in the Top End, to prevent foreign occupation and establish a ‘New Singapore’, a trading post for the British Empire. After three failed attempts – including Victoria in Arnhem Land – a settlement, known as Palmerston (after Viscount Palmerston, the Prime Minister of Great Britain) was established in 1869 on Darwin Harbour. Palmerston was renamed Darwin in 1911.
The new settlement saw the arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line, following a route established by John McDouall Stuart in 1872. Around this time, gold was discovered at Pine Creek, drawing settlers from around Australia and a number of Chinese migrants, many of whom form part of Darwin’s population today.
During World War II, Darwin was the front line against Japanese expansion in the Pacific. It was severely bombed by the Japanese in 1942 – the only Australian city to see bombing – killing hundreds. The extent of the damage was kept secret from the Australian population, in order to better keep up morale.
On Christmas Eve 1974, Darwin was devastated by Cyclone Tracey. 71 people died, 70% of buildings were destroyed (including 80% of houses), and more than 25, 000 people (out of 47, 000 people) were made homeless. 30,000 were evacuated from the city, many never to return. The city was totally rebuilt in the aftermath of the cyclone.
Today, Darwin has a population of around 148,564, the smallest of Australia’s capitals. Closer to Bali than Sydney, the city is home to over 50 nationalities, and has an Aboriginal population of 8.7%, by far the largest of any capital city.
Things to see in Darwin:
Locals like to say that “If you don’t like sunsets and markets, you won’t like Darwin.” The city is marked by extraordinary sunsets, vivid skies of orange, pink and purples, flanked by palm trees. The sunsets are best viewed from Darwin’s beaches – Mindil Beach, Nightcliff Foreshore, Cullen Bay and Fannie Bay – or on a sunset cruise around Darwin Harbour.
As for markets, the decisive winner here is Mindil Beach Sunset Market. From Thursday to Sunday, around half of Darwin congregates on this vibrant beachside market. Over 200 speciality stores offer cuisines from around the world, while arts and crafts stalls sell Aboriginal artefacts, pieces from Indonesia and Malaysia, and local artisan wares. Similar markets are found around suburban Darwin on the weekends.
However, we might have to disagree with the locals: Darwin has plenty to offer, even for those who can take or leave the markets and the sunsets. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is home to an extensive collection of Aboriginal art, including pieces from the Tiwi Islands, bark paintings from Arnhem Land, and dot paintings from the desert. An entire room is devoted to the history of Cyclone Tracey, including an interactive exhibition where you can listen to the whirring sound of the approaching cyclone. The Maritime Gallery collects sea vessels from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Cocos and Keeling Islands, showing the entwined histories of South-East Asia and the Pacific.
Unfortunately, thanks to Japanese bombing and Cyclone Tracey, Darwin is light on historic buildings. The Fannie Bay Gaol, the Northern Territory’s main prison from 1883 to 1979 is now a fascinating historic site. Lyon Cottage, built in 1925, is Darwin’s only remaining colonial bungalow. It is now managed by the Museum and Art Gallery, and currently houses Aboriginal Bush Traders, an Aboriginal art gallery, store, and bush foods cafe. Government House, built 1869, was the first ‘grand’ public building constructed after settlement; while Brown’s Mart, dating back to the 1880s, is now a community theatre that has been a centre of the arts for over 40 years. The National Trust-listed Burnett House, built 1939, is the only surviving example of Beni Car Glynn Burnett’s Type ‘K’ architecture, a radical structure designed to be suitable for the tropical weather.
Darwin also has an number of fascinating sites for those with an interest in military history, particularly World War Two. The Defence of Darwin Experience, opened in 2012 as part of 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing of Darwin, is a powerful exhibition delving into the 1942 bombing, while the next door Darwin Military Museum collects objects from all conflicts in which Australia was involved. The Darwin Aviation Museum has a giant B52 bomber, only one of two outside the United States, and a Japanese Zero fighter, shot down in World War Two.
WW2 sites dot the city, including the Sandy Creek Observation Post at the Casuarina Coastal Reserve, built to allow a clear view of approaches from sea; while remains of a WW2 military base can be seen along the Stuart Highway. The Navy Victualling Yards were vital to the logistics and supply requirements of the army, navy, and air force personnel stationed in Darwin during the war. The Adelaide River War Cemetery shows the impact of war on Darwin, while the nearby civil cemetery honours the civilians killed in the 1942 bombing.
The Oil Storage Tunnels, located on Darwin Wharf, were built in World War II by the Civil Construction Corps to protect the Darwin’s oil supplies from the Japanese. Today, the tunnels – lined with photographs and other information from Darwin’s war experience – take visitors deep under the city.
Charles Darwin National Park, on the southern edge of Darwin, is noted for its collection of World War II bunkers, one of which has been converted into a visitors centre and museum. The park also has a long Aboriginal history, with shell middens indicating that the Larrakia people have lived in the park for thousands of years.
Charles Darwin National Park also encloses Port Darwin wetland, an important ecosystem home to 36 out of the Northern Territory’s total 51 species of mangrove.