We left the Ghan behind disembarking in Darwin, Australia’s northern most city. It’s a small city in comparison to Melbourne the population here about 150 000, around about the size of Dalkeith in Midlothian, but here in Australia it is a City. Darwin is a natural harbour and closer to Indonesia than it is to Southern Australia. Its climate is tropical and the heat and humidity are instantly identifiable. Darwin has two memorable events in its history that of the bombing by the Japanese in World War II in 1942 and Cyclone Tracey in 1974, both devastating the City and resulting in a rebuild.
Darwin was a strategic communication link following the development of the telegraph links with the south, a gateway to the rest of the world. During the war it was also of strategic importance for the Allied and American forces fighting in the east. We learned that the bombing of Darwin Harbour was much more severe than that of Pearl Harbour, over 200 planes led by the same pilot responsible for Pearl Harbour hit the Neptune on 19 February 1942. Although some two months after the Pearl Harbour assault, little was shared beyond Australia about the loss of 42 lives that day or the devastation to the City. We would learn that there was almost a complacency apparent in Australia’s leadership at the time of this attack which might well have contributed to that perception and the fact that little preparation or planning had been considered in the wake of America’s experience.
This disparity was sharply contrasted in the story highlighted at the must visit ‘Bombing of Darwin’ exhibition. Captain Etheridge Grant an American, was only too keenly aware of the impact of unpreparedness in Pearl Harbour. His seaplane ship the William B. Preston was well prepared for any potential attack. His crew briefed, his ship prepared, even though he was absent when the attack on Darwin occurred, his ship just as much of a target as it anchored in the harbour. His forethought, preparatory work and procedures he enforced beforehand ensured the safety of his ship and his men when the attack took place. The Awkward Truth; the bombing of Darwin 1942 by Peter Grose tells this story in more detail.
Following the devastating cyclone in 1974 much of Darwin has been rebuilt, as a tourist there are a few cultural nuggets to digest but overall the short stay was probably all we required. The Star Cinema is worthy of a visit, stepping back in time when the Cinema was the equivalent of Instagram. Posters advertising Buffalo Bill and High Noon were typical films of the time. Locals would crowd here on Wednesday nights to watch Cowboy films and then reframe themselves with hats, lasso and spurs when they got back onto their old ranch to emulate their hero’s.
The waterfront at the harbour has seen huge investment, artists enhance the experience with quirky but relevant artwork that intermittently pops up as you stroll along the skywalk and take the lift down to the lower water levels. There is no beach here but they have created a fantastic wave pool for families and a beach with volleyball net and safe swimming area. It was a roasting 37 degrees the day we sauntered down in that direction and what I would have given for a plunge in that pool. Cafes, bars and restaurants with the odd shop line the harbour walkway and you can idle many hours away here. But it was unearthly quiet at this location, the result of the corona virus curtailing many ardent explorers. Not us though.
Don’t expect fine dining here, food mainly consists of Parma chicken and burgers. We did find a little diamond at the rear of the Mantra hotel where we stayed, called Alfonso and their Pizzas were simply exquisite.
There was a bit an historic moment while we were in Darwin visiting the Bombing exhibition, as we waited in the queue ready to mention our tour company for the requisite discount when the teller asked whether I was a senior. I’ll let that sit with you for a moment, as I did. Did I look like a senior, if so I’m mortified with my appearance, or is this a standard query for the majority of older patrons? I had to admit this, although pointed out the Lion was yet to achieve senior status. Nevertheless she allowed us in for the vastly reduced price and off we popped to enjoy everything the centre has to offer, old age has its benefits. It is an experiential centre with virtual reality headsets and bomb alerts and shuddering, providing you with the real throbbing and noises of war in the relative safety of the exhibition.
Almost immediately the local Aboriginal people were apparent; the Larrikia People who are the indigenous peoples of Darwin who provided the first settlers in the area with food. Initially despite conflict and marginalisation the two peoples lived amongst each other, but this has not lasted. Most of the Larrikia people live outside the city. They have the longest running land claim in the Northern Territory but it has not yet been returned to the indigenous people the way other areas have. Whether this had some bearing on our experience of the aboriginal people I cannot say but it was one of despair, aggression and frustration. Most of them drinking all of the day and shouting or violent toward one another or anyone they did not like. Some of the group were laying by the pool when a group we recognised as causing a bit of aggression around town, came boldly up to the pool opened the gate and jumped in. Those around the pool watched this with interest as the staff poured outside to ask them politely, it must be said, to leave. Soaking from her recent fully clothed dip the aboriginal woman cursed us, soaking the Lion as he lay trying to be nothing but nice. She scurried away shouting expletives but leaving us in no doubt that we were not welcome in her country.
Out and about in Darwin that evening, it was like a Saturday night in any town, but aboriginal people were the ones fighting in the street, shouting, drinking and looking the worse for wear. It was clear there was a real intolerance for the indigenous people here.
As we wandered along the esplanade giant fruit bats took to the sky as dusk started its descent. Their high pitched squalling apparent at the busy streets where trees lined the walkways and roads. Hundreds of these massive bats could be seen as you watched the sunset over Darwin Harbour a beautiful sight with flurries of bats swooping and curling around you. Away from the pubs and busy streets in the main areas of the city the atmosphere is more congenial and you could enjoy looking at the old buildings here, not many of which are left. I did like Darwin but felt an increasing sadness about the people there. Perhaps if the land case was agreed things might start to work toward a partnership, a shared understanding, but as it is the hostilities evident in WW II were just as apparent today as they are now.