Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Darwin General
The name Northern Territory evokes many thoughts and emotions in Australians. The spirit of the Australian Outback seems to pour from the very name. Whenever we (and I suppose non-Australians) tend to think of the "real" Australia, they think of the marvellous natural features of the Northern Territory. Kakadu, Uluru (Ayres Rock), Katherine Gorge, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), Kings Canyon and the Devils Marbles just ooze mystique and majesty. The man-made features like the rock art paintings of Kakadu, the beauty of Alice Springs located inside a ring of small mountains and of course the total destruction of Darwin in Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1975 all are things we have grown up with.
Where else in the world would you find a boat race run on a dry river bed (the annual Henley-on-Todd Regatta at Alice Springs), the annual Darwin beer can regatta (where boats made of beer cans are used), people sitting on an isolated rock for a day and a night (in Darwin), or even the stupidity of a uranium mine inside a World Heritage listed national park (the Ranger and soon the Jabiluka mines in Kakadu National Park)? The Northern Territory of course.
In March 1998 I travelled to Darwin for a spot of diving as well as other pleasures. Not the normal place to go for a diving holiday I hear you say! Sure isn't. Not one to waste a minute, I made certain that I saw as much of the Top End as I could in my quick visit. In other articles I will cover the diving and in this article, a bit on the other things to do if you visit Darwin.
The name of the Territory's Capital comes from John Stokes who in 1839 in his ship, HMS Beagle, sailed into a harbour which he named Port Darwin. In naming the "newly discovered" harbour, Stokes honoured the soon to be famous Charles Darwin. In 1832 Darwin had journeyed on the Beagle to the Pacific Ocean and especially South America. While on this five year long trip, Darwin collected masses of data that he later turned into the controversial and important book On the Origin of Species which first expounded the theory of evolution. Stokes also named the gulf to the north of Darwin, Beagle Gulf.
The town of Darwin was established in 1869 when the South Australian Surveyor-General, George Goyder, surveyed the current location of the town, having decided on the location after reading Stokes' journal. The town was initially named Palmerston but everyone still called it Port Darwin and in 1911 the name was officially changed to Darwin.
The town was never a huge success, as the isolation and climate worked against it. Even gold discoveries did not greatly increase the population. At the time of the start of World War II, Darwin was still little more than a small country town. During the late 1930s, the threat from the Japanese was becoming a bit obvious so in 1939 the Australian Army, Navy and Airforce established bases there. Fortifications were built up, including a massive submarine net across the entrance to the harbour and fortifications at East Point. The population of the area was boosted by 14,000 Australian and American troops.
On 19 February 1942, only just over nine weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, 188 aircraft lifted off five aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea. Only one hour later, the planes attacked Darwin, Darwin Harbour and the Airforce Base. The effect was devastating. The harbour had a large number of vessels in it. These were mostly from a convoy that had departed Darwin on 15 February 1942. In the convoy were four transport ships, SS Meigs, SS Mauna Loa, SS Port Mar and SS Tulagi. These ships were escorted by the Australian warships HMAS Swan, HMAS Warrego and the US warships USS Peary and USS Houston. The convoy had not got far when it was attacked by a Japanese flying boat and on the 16th it was attacked by bombers. They returned to Darwin as the danger was too great to continue.
Considering the attacks on these vessels on the 15th and 16th, it is surprising that the forces in Darwin were really caught with their pants down when at 9.57 am on 19 February 1942, the aircraft pummelled Darwin with the first of many attacks. The planes had been detected at 9.37 am at Bathurst Island when Father John McGrath has sighted the Japanese planes over his mission and he warned Darwin Coast Radio of the threat. As well as the ships mentioned above, there were a number of other large vessels in and around the port. These included HMAS Deloraine, HMAS Gunbar, Benjamin Franklin, Admiral Halstead, Neptuna, British Motorist, Kelat and other assorted vessels.
During the attack, 243 people were killed and the Meigs (12,568 tons), Mauna Loa (5,436 tons), Zealandia (6,600 tons), British Motorist (6,891 tons), Kelat (1,849 tons), Neptuna (5,952 tons) and the Peary (1,190 tons) sunk. There were 62 more raids in the days and months after the first attack. The defenses of Darwin were boosted, including more aircraft and increased coastal fortifications. Today, visiting these fortifications at East Point and the associated museum are a good way to spend two or three hours.
After the attack, more and more resources were pushed into the Top End and by December 1942 there were an astonishing 32,000 troops based there. After the war, Darwin did not recover quickly (before and after the attack, the vast percentage of the population was moved south). It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that Darwin started to expand. By 1974 the population had increased to 40,000 plus.
Located in the tropics, Darwin had suffered the devastating effects of cyclones in 1897 and 1937. However, the mother of all storms was to hit the city in late December 1974. In the early hours of Christmas Day, Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin, killing at least 66 people and destroying more than 95% of the city. A large number of boats were sunk by Tracy, some have yet to be found. Almost the entire population of the city was evacuated south, including an amazing 674 people (306 adults, 328 children and 40 babies) on one Qantas flight to Sydney.
Darwin was totally re-built after the cyclone and today it is unrecognisable from pre-1975. The population of Darwin and its suburbs is around 90,000, more than doubling in the 23 years since Tracy. The Museum of the Northern Territory has an excellent section on Cyclone Tracy. Entrance is free.
Today there are many things to do and see in Darwin itself. Some of the more interesting things are Museum which has an excellent Aboriginal art section, natural history sections (including the skeleton of "Sweetheart", a huge five metre long crocodile) and various maritime display. The East Point fortifications (mentioned above) and the Military Museum ($6 entry) are very interesting and the Aviation Museum ($8) on the southern side of the airport is overpriced and would not be as popular except for the giant Boeing B-52 Stratofortress inside the hangar.
One of the more interesting things constructed in Darwin during World War II were some oil storage tanks near the wharves. Originally eight were planned but only four were built. Today, two of these are open for viewing between 10 am and 2 pm. The cost is $4 and the tanks are really long tunnels driven into the limestone under Darwin's City Centre (including the Parliament - part of which impacted on a tank when it was being built in the 1980s). Today you can walk along the whole of one tank and part of another. Quite different.
Other things to do include the fish feeding at Aquascene ($4) where hundreds of big fish (mullet, milkfish, catfish and flutemouth) arrive at high tide to be fed. Excellent for everyone, especially children. The markets at Mindil Beach on Thursday evenings are said to be excellent but they are only on during the Dry Season (May to November), while the Parap Markets on Saturday morning have excellent food stalls. The ferry to Mandorah could be interesting and the Botanic Gardens, Fannie Bay Gaol Museum are all worth a look.
During my visit, I had some excellent meals, including one at a restaurant at Cullen Bay Marina. However, the most popular activity in Darwin seems to be watching the sunset from one of the many parks along the foreshore. People in their hundreds bring their picnic dinners and have champagne and beer while the sun disappears over the sea. For someone from Sydney, this is quite an experience.
Of course, a bit further afield from Darwin are the magnificent Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks. Kakadu is everything it is made out to be, I certainly recommend it to everyone. There are also other parks closer to Darwin, including the Darwin Crocodile Farm, Howard Springs (excellent safe swimming).
One of the main things I went to Darwin for was the diving. As would be expected, there are many things to dive on including the World War II wrecks, some scuttled wrecks and other real wrecks. I dived with Cullen Bay Dive (08 8981 3049) and can recommend them for their excellent service. I will write about the diving in a couple of other articles.
While I travelled to Darwin at the end of the Wet Season, I would recommend avoiding this time for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the days and nights are unbearably hot and humid, with temperatures of 35° and humidity of 95% most days. Even just sitting around you sweat profusely. The cost of travelling to Darwin is also quite high, with a 21 day advance purchase airfare costing $730 from Sydney. If you can travel at relatively short notice, then you can get this airfare down to $470 or thereabouts when the airlines offer special prices. For example, in April to June 1998 two people could travel for $457 each.
I would really recommend Darwin for a holiday, combined with side trips to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks.
References:Wrecks in Darwin Waters by Tom Lewis