Day 12 of the “Ultimate Australian Rail Holiday” Sunday 29th May 2016
Half way through our tour, and here we are in the “Top End“, the northernmost part of the Northern Territory* of Australia. Darwin, the capital, “was founded in 1869 and was originally called Palmerston before being renamed Port Darwin in 1911” (Wikipedia). Port Darwin was the name first given to the area by the early European explorers on the HMS Beagle, in honour of their now famous shipmate, Charles Darwin.
* The difference between a State and Territory in Australian terms has to do with boring political clout and administration stuff.
Darwin is the smallest capital of Australia, only about 0.5% of the total population call it home. The official recent population count was 136,245, which is less than half that of Wollongong where I live. It is also remote from the centre of our universe – Canberra – being much closer to Singapore or Jakarta, and it has somewhat of a wild west reputation, with a laid back attitude.
All the same, it is a modern city, with waterfront developments and high rise apartments, which did not exist before Darwin was flattened on Christmas Eve 1974. Cyclone Tracy wiped out the place and caused the mass evacuation of all its citizens, about 48,000 at the time. I was on an overnight train from Adelaide to Melbourne that night, and when my girlfriend met me at the station the next morning, she greeted me with, “Darwin’s gone!“. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I soon got the drift. I was a young dental nurse, and many evacuees were sent south to Adelaide. For weeks we treated patients with broken teeth. They came to us after their more immediate injuries were attended to, but one group of larrikins sticks in my mind. They had spent the evening somewhere underground – on the grog – imagine their surprise when they emerged in the morning! I seem to remember that most of their injuries were incurred in helping others trying to retrieve possessions and Christmas presents from their dangerously unstable former homes. The song “Santa Never Made it into Darwin” tells it all – “a big wind came and blew the town away . . . it ripped apart the buildings like an atom bomb had struck.”
The other “famous” challenge for Darwin was the bombings (plural) during WWII, following the raid on Pearl Harbour. We are to hear and observe references to both these catastrophes over the coming days.
Darwin has two seasons, wet and dry. We are supposed to be here in the dry, but in line with changing weather patterns the world over, today decides to be rainy. Consequently, many of our outdoor photographs from our city introduction tour are not worth posting. We do, however, see many indoor items of interest, commencing with the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre. Not every woman’s cup of tea, but I just love these museums, and this one is dominated by a B-52 Bomber. Then there is also a Sabre, Mirage, F-111, Zero, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Wessex Helicopter – just a few of the aircraft on offer. There is also an extensive exhibition of our early flyers, which does include a good dose of pioneering women! (Think Amy Johnson for one). Readers need to keep in mind that in those early days of long distance flight competition, Darwin was a critical touch down point – proving that one had really flown from London to Australia for example.
I never completely gain my bearings on this city tour, but other places we visit include the East Point Military Precinct, which is where I think we looked back to enjoy a panorama of the city of Darwin. There is also a Botanic Garden, and a Chinese Temple. The Stokes Hill Wharf area was shrouded in misty rain, so we didn’t get out to explore. But another great indoor visit is the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory whose popular exhibit is Sweetheart a huge male crocodile, who is now “stuffed” (I think “taxidermied” is the politically correct term – but I am not even sure that is a real word).
Out the back, they have a maritime history exhibition which captures my interest, again keeping in mind that if you are sailing from Asia, Darwin is about the first port of any influence you are likely to land in, so many asylum seekers find themselves in these waters.
In fact, from our hotel window we can see one of the vessels of the Australian Border Protection Unit. I have a relative who works on one. He has a relative who works as an immigration lawyer. They consider themselves “asylum seeker neutral” – he brings them in, she gets them released (if she can). Australians have a weird habit of calling these people illegal immigrants, when their case for asylum or refugee status has not yet been established, so no one yet knows whether they broke any Australian immigration laws in attempting to reach here. Whoops! Insert accidental political view. Anyway, our influx is nothing compared to what is happening in Europe, yet here in Darwin we are at the coalface, so to speak. Not that anyone seems to notice as the border protection vessel quietly slips out to sea again.
One of the BIG things to do in Darwin is to attend the Mindil Beach Sunset Market which runs on Thursday and Sunday evenings. We are given the option to leave our tour at this point. I don’t know quite what is wrong with our group, whether we are fatigued, fed up with the rain, or not in the mood to find our own way back to the hotel, but we all take a pass. My excuse is that we are to meet a long lost friend for dinner. Funny how I seem to have friends scattered all over Australia. Maybe my friends find my company easier to take in small doses 🙂 . . . Anyway, this one is a lady after my own heart. She has been heading up a major grocery distributor for decades, and much as I admire how Tesco moves it product around Britain, you cannot claim to know how to move groceries until you have transported ice-cream to some of the most remote parts of the Northern Territory of Australia (disclaimer – I used to work in shipping and logistics).
I seem to remember that the restaurant we met at – Outback Jacks Bar and Grill – served crocodile, camel, kangaroo and emu. We passed on all that and choose beef steak 🙂 We couldn’t face eating our national emblem. But if you are visiting Australia for the first time – those choices may appeal. I certainly saw many tourists tucking in!
Distance log: Running Total = 8300 klm (approx) or 5160 miles.
For Reference: We booked our tour through the Australian Holiday Centre.