Details: Parent Category: Travel Category: Australasia | Published: 27 August 2013 | Hits: 28671



On our return from Europe we spent a few days in Darwin and its surrounds.  We had a strong sense of re-engagement with Australia and found ourselves saying things like: 'isn't this nice'.

We were also able to catch up with some of our extended family. 

Julia's sister Anneke was there, working on the forthcoming Darwin Festival.  Wendy's cousin Gary and his partner Son live on an off-grid property, collecting their own water and solar electricity, about 120 km out of town. 

We went to the Mindl markets with Anneke and her friend Chris; and drove out to see Gary, in our hire-car, who showed us around Dundee Beach in his more robust vehicle. Son demonstrated her excellent cooking skills.


Cafe at Darwin Museum
Cafe at Darwin Museum - nice


Darwin harbour was named after Charles Darwin by the captain of the Beagle.  Darwin had sailed with the Beagle on the earlier, more famous, expedition of the Beagle to Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos Islands; and had stopped in Sydney; before taking the southern route, by the Bight, to Cape Town.  He never visited the remote harbour named for him.


LNG loader Darwin
LNG (liquid natural gas) loader Darwin Harbour


Initially a small settlement was founded on the harbour in 1869, originally called Palmerston, after the British Prime Minister.  A year later the Overland Telegraph connecting Australia to the rest of the world terminated in the town.  The association of science and technology cemented the name 'Darwin' from that time onwards.  This is an interesting Australian affirmation of  Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection; quickly supported and taught by universities and natural history museums in Sydney and Melbourne at the time.  This central tenant of modern biology remains controversial in less scientifically literate societies to the present day.

The contrast between Darwin in Australia and similar sized cities in Britain, Russia and Germany is dramatic.   In early August, in the dry season, temperatures in excess of 30 C are pleasant when the humidity is very low.  And it is just so Australian.


Watching the sunset; with take-away Asian meals from the markets
Watching the sunset; with take-away Asian meals from Mindl Markets


There is a difference of scale and landscape and just getting there by air from Sydney takes four and a half hours; or four days by road. 

Australia is larger than Europe, nearly 32 times larger than the UK.  While much of Australia is desert, large areas receive more annual rain per hectare than the European average.

Darwin, for example, gets over twice as much rain as anywhere in Europe. But the soils are poor and heavily leached by water and age; including thousands of years of burning of undergrowth and leaf litter; that might otherwise have composted to form topsoil.

Australia is the oldest continental land mass on the planet; scoured by age and mostly flat.  Northern Australia lies in the tropics. The northern extremity of Cape York is just 10 degrees short of the equator; while the southern tip of Tasmania, South East Cape, has a latitude similar to that of southern France.    


Kakadu - just 140km from Darwin
Kakadu - 140km inland from Darwin


Although Darwin is the most remote Capital city in Australia  it is more famous in Australia for being devastated twice.  It was heavily bombed by the Japanese during WW2; and it was destroyed again by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1974; suffering the worst bomb then cyclone damage ever sustained by an Australian city.



Japanese Attacks


In December 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour sinking four US battleships and damaging 13 others, at the same time destroying or immobilising over 350 aircraft.  Later that month they sank both the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse off Malaya; removing naval opposition to their thrust south and exposing Australia to attack.

The first raid on Darwin was a few weeks later on the morning of 19 February 1942.  It was equally large, and unexpected, with 188 Japanese warplanes arriving in two waves.  The first two raids targeted the port infrastructure and 45 ships in the or near the harbour.  The Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbour.   23 aircraft were destroyed including a squadron of American planes that attempted to engage the Japanese; 10 ships were sunk and 25 damaged.  Some 300 were killed and more were wounded.  The town itself was heavily damaged and civilians had to be evacuated.  The Japanese lost just 7 aircraft.

Darwin Harbour was protected by a series of large gun emplacements that effectively denied enemy ships approaching or entering the very large harbour and theoretically protected allied shipping in the Harbour.  Troops were stationed against a possible landing of a small force up the coast that might take the guns from behind. 


Gun placement
Gun placement around Darwin Harbour


This was nice state-of-the-art protection appropriate to the 1920's but the Japanese had since become expert in carrier based air warfare.  So the big guns became white elephants; consuming most defence resources; but useless.  This remains an object lesson to military strategists.  Thus large guns around Australia have mostly been sent off to scrap.


9.2in Gun Emplacement Darwin
9.2in Gun Emplacement Military Museum Darwin
(good for engaging battleships - useless against aircraft; or an invasion down the coast)


In my article on Malta I remarked that when it is probable that an enemy will be nuclear armed, a fortified Naval Base like Malta is a strategic liability; and has thus been abandoned by the British Navy. 

By the end of the war there were some thirty ships sunk in Darwin's harbour.  These needed to be removed to allow the harbour to develop.  By a twist of fate a Japanese salvage firm won the tender. 

The Military Museum has an experience theatre where visitors can relive the first raid.  The Museum also attempts to show a Japanese perspective and the factors that led to war; both in a spirit of reconciliation and because many people in Darwin are of Japanese heritage.


Thousands of miles of coastline 
can't be defended by fixed guns
Thousands of miles of uninhabited coastline can't be defended by fixed guns




Cyclone Tracy


I remember Cyclone Tracy well.  I was indirectly involved as my first job after graduating was with the Department of National Development in Canberra.  In 1969 I was rotated through the Northern Development Division and worked briefly on the Darwin Harbour development project.  Much of this work was quickly undone 4 years later by the cyclone; in just one day. 

At that time most of the housing in Darwin was raised on stilts for better air circulation in the dry and comfort in the wet season.  The materials used were light as the city had expanded quickly and the transport of building materials to such a remote location was costly.  The Cyclone tore whole buildings apart and hurled them around in a similar way to the tornado damage we see in the US; except a cyclone (known as a hurricane in the Northern Hemisphere) is a whole lot wider; and comes with a storm surge.  Over 80% of the houses were destroyed leaving 41,000 homeless. Miraculously only 71 were killed.   In Darwin's main Museum you can relive the cyclone in an 'experience room'; this time darkened.  Sensitive people are warned not to.

This time 35,362 were evacuated while the city was rebuilt.  Cyclone resistant housing designs were adopted, with a cyclone safe area, and these standards continue to be applied.  Darwin has been hit by smaller cyclones on several occasions since; without loss of life.  In the meantime the population has grown to over 132,000 people (mid 2013).


Darwin - Wikimedia Commons
Darwin City Centre
Source: Wikimedia Commons - not my photo


No matter where one goes in Australia there is an immediate familiarity.  We all share a government and its institutions; laws; political debate; newspapers, television, other entertainment and the currency.  The shops are similar, and the various chain stores and supermarkets are almost identical, as is traffic in the street. Somehow housing seems familiar even when construction reflects different climates. 

Australians share a universal, and immediately comprehensible, accent; that varies more from the country to the city than from region to region.  Australians are familiar with this range and because there is a cultural imperative to fit in, unconsciously modify their accent and word speed to suit their environment.  I noticed Wendy's accent became broader in Darwin; just as my mother became suddenly 'very English' when talking to other Englishwomen.

Of course Australia has the world's largest proportion of recent migrants, many of whom do not have English as their first language; but once people have lived here for more than one generation there is more variation in accent across London than there is across Australia. 

This has the impact of establishing an immediate connection, and subtlety of understanding, between Australians that does not exist across Europe, where different languages and accents seem to engender, at least an initial, circumspection.  I was particularly struck by the way that Emily socialises in Berlin now that she is relatively fluent in German; even though all the Germans I met speak at least some English.

I'm reminded of the Papua New Guinean (PNG) Pidgin word ‘wantok’ (one talk); meaning a person from the same clan.  In PNG there are over 850 languages so that wantok implies a special relationship.




Aboriginal Australians


The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of indigenous Australians of any State or Territory.    The population of the Northern Territory is less than a quarter of a million; of which aboriginal Australians make up 32.5%.   This compares to Australia as a whole, that has just over 23 million people, of which people who consider themselves to be of indigenous descent make up 2.5%.

More than 92% of all Australians descend from Europeans; the remainder are principally of Asian ancestry. 

In the more populous States most aboriginal Australians too also have non-indigenous ancestors.  But in the Northern Territory there remain people with relatively unmixed ancestry back to the earliest indigenous people; with perhaps some periodic interactions with Indonesian, Melanesian and Polynesian seafarers.  These people in turn may, over the past five hundred years, have had ancestors who were Dutch or Portuguese sailors.  There are language clues to such interactions, at least at a cultural and trading level.   DNA studies have potential to spread more light on this history.

For a longer discussion follow this link to When did people arrive in Australia?

Aboriginal Australians I have worked alongside in Sydney are similar to any other Australian in the workplace; sharing capabilities, education and personal objectives. Australia has such a diversity of ethnic backgrounds that aboriginality needs to be expressly pointed out to be noticed.

But in the Northern Territory many indigenous people live 'on country'; have very distinctive features; and do not have English as their first language. 

The Warradjan Cultural Centre at Kakadu provides insights into indigenous lifestyles, language and culture of the Murumburr, Mirrar Gun-djeihmi, Badmardi, Bunitj, Girrimbitjba, Manilakarr, Wargol clans.  It's very interesting; displaying methods of hunting and fishing as well as weaving and other crafts.  Some people tell their own stories. For example, missions are mentioned in several of the personal stories as places of abuse; both cultural and physical. 


The Aboriginal Calendar
The Aboriginal Calendar - Warradjan Cultural Centre



Low levels of education and various forms of dependence have resulted in high indigenous crime rates and very high rates of incarceration.  Across Australia this 1,891 people per 100,000 of adult population, compared to 136 for non-Indigenous people; with much higher rates in the Northern Territory.

This is a very sensitive area in Darwin everyone is very careful when discussing these vexed issues.  But there is no sense of Darwin being at war with itself; as we experienced in place like Baltimore; or in North London.  Private houses do not have obvious high level security precautions and people of different races, including many Asian immigrants, seem to live happily alongside their neighbours.   While indigenous unemployment rates are high it seems that this is less the case in the city than in settlements out in the countryside. 

Darwin has alcohol free areas; mainly on the outskirts where public drinking, by anyone, is illegal.  This effectively prohibits anyone entering an area where they do not live carrying opened alcohol.  But Darwin is an outdoors sort of place and there are numerous pubs with beer gardens or table areas in the open in areas; mainly along the coast.  We didn't see any drink related misbehaviour anywhere.


The warfside cafes and bars Darwin
Some of the cafes and bars on a wharf in the old Harbour Front - diners are looking at the huge fish


Responsibility for managing the necessary cultural transition is increasingly being placed on the Aboriginal community itself.  Europeans possibly because of our preconceptions and different values;  like the need convert people to Christianity on one hand; and to preserve indigenous lifestyles or language on the other; have pitifully failed to find a solution over the past century and a half.   Increasingly settlements themselves are banning alcohol and other drugs. 








One of the outcomes has been handing the responsibility for a lot of land management back to the indigenous community.  This includes a return to regularly burning the countryside during the dry season. 


Burning the undergrowth at Kakadu


For tens of thousands of years, prior to the Europeans arriving, Aboriginal people used fire to clear the undergrowth for ease of travel; to herd and or kill animals for food; and to create areas of new growth to attract game.  This reduced the number and type of trees that grew to maturity and produced parkland more suitable for hunting and gathering.  It has resulted in some species predominating that actually require the smoke from fires to germinate.

The effect can clearly be seen in early pictures of Sydney that show relatively bare foreshores that are today forested with large trees. 

Regular burning certainly reduces the the combustible load so that the fires are small and contained; as opposed to the highly destructive bush fires that now periodically devastate parts of Australia.

So now in the bush around Darwin all the trees have fire-blackened trunks and small undergrowth fires dot the countryside; with whips, or palls, of smoke rising at regular intervals. 

Its not evident that people are any longer eating the game thus killed; but the birds of prey love it; as the burnt bodies of numerous small animals are simply left for the picking.  We were told by our driver to Kakadu National Park that some of these birds have even learnt to carry burning branches to start their own fire. Urban myth?

The Warradjan Cultural Centre also proclaims the benefits of regular burning. 

A Park Ranger on the Alligator River was the only person we heard cast doubt on the universal benefits of the return to frequent burning.



Kakadu National Park


With only a day to see some highlights in a park that is half the size of Switzerland, with four major river systems and six major landforms, we decided to take a package tour.  This managed the fourteen hour day more efficiently than we might have.  It included a river excursion on a billabong (Guluyambi) linked to the South Alligator River and provided entrance to the park and a guide see ancient Rock Art; in addition to visiting the Warradjan Cultural Centre and providing an ample smorgasbord lunch.  It also meant that I didn't have to drive several hundred kilometres with wildlife hazards.

The crocodiles are famous for eating people.  They are protected in the wild but are also farmed for their skins and their meat - so we get to eat them; and we did - nice as a stir fry. 


Never Smile...
Never Smile...


At one time they were hunted close to extinction but now they are numerous again.  They mostly eat fish or carrion; when they can't grab a child or tourist or two; and are occasionally cannibalistic. 


A medium sized 'Salty'
A medium sized 'Salty'


They come in two varieties: salt and fresh but the distinction is more in size than in habitat as the 'salties', the bigger ones, are quite happy in fresh water alongside the 'freshies'. 


Salties smile back - Freshies don't
Don't be taken in... 'Salties' grin and show their teeth    'Freshies' don't



People fishing in their 'tinnies' need to be wary as big crocks can grab an arm or hole a boat. 

The northern media loves Crocodile stories; as do the locals. This is a long tradition, as part (bottom right) of a page ot the Sydney Morning Herald from 1955 demonstrates: 


Crocodile Story
'Crocodile Missed By One Inch - BRISBANE...'  SMH May 25 1955 
(see my Bonfire Night recollections )


They are much more fun than the snakes that, although numerous, hardly ever kill anyone.


A freshie resting or hiding(?) on a tree branch
A 'Freshie' resting or hiding(?) on a tree branch


As I write there is a news story on the radio in Sydney about a tourist in a kayak being chased and then stranded ashore for some days by a six metre 'salty'.



There were many more
And there were many more


But the park wetlands have many other attractions. 



Wetlands in the dry season - add three metres in the wet



Among these is the wide variety of bird life; some of which are quite large like the brolgas:



others are small; like this little kingfisher; or medium like the eagle: 



And there are many others:






Rock Art


With its ample water diverse flora including edible plants and abundant wildlife this area has long been home to indigenous Australians.   It is probable that many of their tools and manufactures were made of wood or woven and did not survive for long in this climate but in some places rock art has survived for at least 2,000 years.  Aboriginal rock art can be found all around Australia but traditional lifestyle has been maintained in the Northern Territory for longer than anywhere else and the art retains its original significance; recording important events and handing down knowledge to the young; in addition to ritual.

In Kakadu some of this art has been made accessible to tourists.

The text says that: "in Northern Australia where art continues as part of the traditional lifestyle the young artist learns his clan designs from his close male relatives".

Men are the artists and keep the clan secrets.  

But some art is instructive; passing on local knowledge and rules for living:


Some is ancient and some quite recent.  It is quite usual to overwrite previous images; using the rock like a blackboard.





The Economy


Darwin is the only substantial city in the Territory.  It is the capital city; centre of government and focus for Australia's northern defence.  Government encompassing administration; defence forces; education; health services; and law and order; as well as utilities and public transport; is therefore by far the largest employer; followed by retail trade; accommodation and food services.

Mining; related manufacturing; construction and services are the Territory's major industry contributing around a third of Gross State Product (GSP).  For example the LNG terminal mentioned above encompasses resource extraction;  manufacturing; and transport; as it receives, compresses and ships gas from the nearby Timor Sea oil and gas fields. 

The Ranger Uranium Mine just 230 km east of Darwin is also a significant mining resource.  The present open-cut mine is surrounded by, but separate from the Kakadu National Park. There are believed to be massive uranium reserves in the Territory. 


Ranger3 - Wikimedia Commons
Ranger 3
Source: Wikimedia Commons - not my photo


Uranium is widely distributed in small concentrations but it is highly soluble.  It can be dissolved and transported in ground waters to be precipitated, and thus concentrated, by subtle changes in oxidation conditions.  Among the features that create suitable conditions for its deposition are geological unconformities, the interface between two strata of differing type and age, that acts as a barrier or filter to the dissolved metal salts.  In the above photo the unconformity is clearly seen against the slanting sandstone in the top left-hand corner.   Very large additional reserves are available to underground mining and it is possible that additional very high grade deposits occur in the sandstones above the unconformity.

It is estimated that energy resources presently 'locked up' within the park are greater than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.  The park is managed by the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation on behalf of the traditional owners. 

More distant mining operations include bauxite at Gove Peninsula and Manganese at Groote Eylandt and the McArthur River silver lead and zinc mine, further south near the Gulf of Carpentaria.



Poor country for Agriculture
Soils are poor and heavily leached by water and age - difficult for Agriculture


Despite various attempts to promote rice and cotton in Northern Australia, including construction of a dam on the Ord River in Western Australia, these have been problematic.  Rice is a very dense (heavy) but relatively low value crop and its viability is very sensitive to transport costs.  Although Darwin is close to Asian markets, distance and the high cost of transport, means that domestic markets are more economically serviced by farms elsewhere.  Shipping to Asia requires port infrastructure on a sufficient scale to keep costs competitive. This in turn requires that a large area be successfully cultivated.  But to date every attempt has been thwarted by a range of factors from inadequate capital investment to the wildlife eating the crop.

But mangoes have provided a crop of sufficiently high value to be economically flown out and, serendipitously, one that is ready for market before fruit from elsewhere in Australia; or the world.  Mango orchards have become the main agricultural pursuit around Darwin area; with thousands of acres under trees.  They too are attacked by the wildlife, in this case fruit bats, but orchardists have evolved a squat flat top, dense tree shape that minimises this loss.

The northern Cattle industry predominantly supplies the live trade to SE Asia and the middle east. It is still recovering from recent problems that the locals blame on the Commonwealth Government for perceived mishandling of cruelty revelations in overseas abattoirs - not too many votes won in the Gulf Country.

Tourism is obviously an important local industry; contributing around 5% of  GSP.  The Territory is said to receive well over a million visitors a year; mainly from elsewhere in Australia; with a strong contingent of 'Grey Nomads', retirees travelling around the country by caravan or campervan; and others, like us, seeing Australia by air and using local accommodation.


Touring Darwin by amphibious 'Duck'
Touring Darwin by amphibious 'Duck'


Apart from Darwin itself, the principle attractions are Kakadu and Uluru (Ayers Rock).  Less popular destinations include Katherine; Tennant Creek; and Alice Springs.



When I originally published this article it included my attempt to resolve the glaring contradictions in current anthropology and archaeology about the age of Aboriginal culture and when the first Australians arrived.  I felt that it was misplaced in what is essentially a holiday story.  This now has its own separate article - follow this link






More Photos of Darwin