Wednesday 25 April 2012

Darwin Unexpected

I've been in Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory for the past few days, on my way to join the Ghan, the train which runs the length of the continent from north to south.

I didn't have many expectations of the northern city, beyond the usual southern preconceptions of a tropical town full of blustery, hard-drinking folk.

What I found was a modern, multicultural city with a surprisingly diverse drinking and dining scene.

On top of that, I kept stumbling across fascinating items of historical interest. Despite the city being bombed by Japanese forces in 1942-43 and knocked over by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, many intriguing fragments of the past remain.

Here are a few I discovered...

1. Darwin Rebellion. This charming cottage is where the Administrator (the Territory's equivalent of a state Governor) lives. In December 1918, however, it was the scene of revolt as hundreds of people marched on Government House demanding political and workplace rights from the Federal Government in Melbourne, which had taken over the NT from South Australia's administration seven years before.

The protesters surrounded the building for weeks, forcing the Administrator Dr John Gilruth to sneak aboard a navy ship to be escorted back south. It's a fascinating story woven about such a dainty residence, and one I was amazed to have never heard of before.

2. Old Town Hall Ruins. This striking set of ruins on Smith Street reminded me in passing of Roman ruins I've seen across Europe and the Middle East.

It's much younger, of course. This 1883 structure was Darwin's first Town Hall, later used as a military building. It survived the wartime bombings, but was reduced to its current state by Cyclone Tracy. It was left this way as a reminder of that cataclysmic event, and it's very moving in its patch of lawn in the middle of town.

3. Darwin's Bust. While waiting for a bus I wandered through the nearby Civic Square and was delighted to stumble upon this bust of the young Charles Darwin, as he would have looked at the time of his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. Around the central figure are several bell-shaped pieces with different species of native birds on top, a tribute to the scientist's observational work.

Darwin himself never came here, but the Beagle called into the harbour a few years later and named it Port Darwin after their former shipmate. Eventually the port gave its name to the city as well, usurping its original name of Palmerston.

4. Stone Remnants. In the same part of town are various stone buildings which managed to survive warfare, cyclones and even the reckless demolition efforts of past Territory governments.

Here's a good example, an 1885 structure which had various incarnations as a shop, bank, and even a torpedo workshop. Nowadays its the Browns Mart Theatre, borrowing from its original commercial name.

5. Explosive Camouflage. Finally, I visited this 1940s ammunition dump hidden within the bush inside what is now Charles Darwin National Park. Built in response to the Japanese air attacks, this dump would have been very hard to spot from the air. Ironically it wasn't completed until 1944, by which point the aerial bombing had ceased and the war was nearly over.

Cleverly, there's signage here which links with the interactive animated displays at the new Defence of Darwin Experience at East Point, a well-publicised Darwin historic attraction which I thoroughly recommend.

Next week: Heading south on the Ghan!

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism NT and Great Southern Rail.

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