As we rolled towards Darwin on the last day of our road trip, we noticed many signs for World War II airstrips along the route. Like many non-Australians, before I came here I was almost completely ignorant of Australia’s role in the war. Associating Australians with the British, I imagined they had fought in Europe. But the British Empire encircled the globe at that time, and as we saw in Hong Kong and Singapore, it was very much part of the Pacific war.
So there are many signs in the Northern Territory of Australia’s defense against being invaded by Japan. Oh, and it was bombed. The same Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor bombed Darwin in February 1942. But twice as many bombs were dropped on Darwin, and the bombing of Australia continued through 1943.
During the Vietnam war some of the U.S.’s allies were critical of decisions to bomb Indochina. Perhaps it was because those countries had memories of all the bombs that had been dropped on them. For all the American planes that have flown over other countries dropping bombs, it’s only happened to the U.S. once. But of course American ships were among the targets in Australia, and we got to learn more about them at an excellent, though quirky, museum. The “Willy B” and its commander both escaped skilfully; the U.S.S. Peary was not so fortunate. She was sunk on 19 February 1942 in Darwin harbor.
There’s a memorial to the Peary along the esplanade. We tried to find it, but access was cut off by tree damage from a cyclone only a few weeks before. As we were to discover, periodic cyclones are a curse of Darwin’s climate.
The real curse, though, is 95% humidity. I don’t know if it was exhaustion from our road trip (I hadn’t felt well for the last few days of it) but I do not remember ever being hotter than I was in the Top End. We have been followed by weird weather as have many people in the world these past few months: narrowly escaping the flooding in Queensland, just missing the warm beach weather in Adelaide. In the local Darwin paper I saw reports that it was the most humid April in 60 years. Given that the temperature was already in the 90s F, you can imagine it was pretty enervating.
Our first day in town was Good Friday, and the hop-on, hop-off bus guy offered us a deal: two days’ tickets for the price of one. Most attractions were closed on the holiday anyway. So the first day we just spent riding around in the breeze and checking out where we might like to go on Saturday. We were staying at an exceptionally nice Airbnb, where our hosts offered us home-cooked Thai food and even Easter chocolate! Not that we could eat the latter until Sunday, as T. solemnly forbade it.
As mentioned, there was a quirky museum on the harbor. It combines a virtual-reality experience of the bombing of Darwin with the seemingly unrelated history of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. I don’t really get the VR thing, especially given how heavy the gear is on one’s head, but T. seemed to get a kick out of it. Then we were treated to a hologram of Etheridge Grant, the U.S. commanding officer who was separated from his ship, the U.S.S. William B. Preston, yet survived the bombing. It was an interesting perspective and one of the few North American accents I’d heard in weeks.
The other hologram at the museum was of John Flynn, narrating his vision of what became the Flying Doctor Service. I had been intrigued by Flynn’s accomplishment since seeing the memorial to him at the Threeways junction.
At the museum one can climb inside a plane that was used by the flying doctors. It really brings home the life-and-death difference the mission has made to people living in far-flung parts of this land mass. Nothing makes you realize the vastness of a country like driving across it.
The other museum we went to was the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. It has the twin benefits of being free and coolly air conditioned—we appreciated both! The gallery had a number of exhibitions including contemporary Aboriginal art. The art works varied greatly in theme and material, but one of the most striking was this bust of Captain James Cook, by Jason Wing.
A bust of Cook is on display in Sydney, representing the founding of Australia from a European perspective. The artist wanted to depict the face of colonization from another perspective: as armed robbery. To complete the picture, he surrounded Captain Cook by copies of some of the online criticisms he received on the work, showing how powerful people’s emotions still are about narratives of the past. Confederate statues come to mind.
There are several other exhibits in the museum including one of “Sweetheart,” a 5-meter estuarine crocodile who attacked many boats (but not people) in the area in the 1970s. An attempt to capture Sweetheart and rehome him in a sanctuary was botched somehow, and the ironically named crocodile was drowned. He became more famous in death than in life and is still one of the big hits of the museum today.
The other big story of Darwin also took place in 1974. Cyclone Tracy hit during the wee hours of Christmas morning, destroying more than 70% of the city’s buildings. Sixty-five deaths were blamed on Tracy but I find it surprising there weren’t more. The postwar rebuilding of Darwin had resulted in many houses on stilts with entirely louvered walls, to let in cross breezes and keep out the fiercest sun. Almost none of these could survive the direct force of a storm like Tracy.
The combination of bombings by imperial Japan, and Cyclone Tracy thirty years later, means that there are few old buildings in Darwin. Some, such as four houses still standing at Myilly Point, are the only surviving pre-war houses of their kind. Others, such as the old town hall, stand as ruins themselves, a kind of memorial to Tracy.
The next day, Easter Sunday, found me in Christ Church Cathedral. The only part of the Anglican cathedral that remains from the early twentieth century is its porch. On top of this, a large, incongruous post-Tracy church has been rebuilt. But buildings still have to acknowledge the climate: the walls of the church were wide open to let some cooling air in.
Darwin is a small city, with only about 120,000 people. For its size, it is surprisingly diverse, with many communities ranging from Greek to Timorese. It also has one of the largest Aboriginal populations of any Australian city, and this diversity was apparent from the moment I walked in, on the face of the greeter. In fact I can’t remember being part of such a rainbow congregation. The saying in the States used to be that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of the week. Well, in Darwin, church was at 9:00—any later and it would have been just too stifling!
Unlike Christmas carols, Easter hymns are limited in number, which means that pretty much anywhere I am on Easter Sunday, English speakers are going to sing “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today.” There is nothing like a little Charles Wesley to get me going. A bonus was the Handel tune recast as “Thine Be The Glory,” plus some organ playing of Messiah during communion time. The organist, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, played “I know that my Redeemer liveth”and “He shall feed his flock.” It was a wonderful celebration, with lots of kids present. But as I said, it was already uncomfortably hot.
Our hosts amazed us again on Sunday afternoon by cooking a roast dinner. Between the heat and whatever else was draining me, it had been some days since I’d been able to enjoy my food, let alone a glass of wine. But my appetite came through on Easter and we were made very much at home.
It does seem wrong that we spent a week in Darwin and never made it to Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is the famous place in this part of the world, but as I discovered, it’s too rushed to do from Darwin in a day; we’d have needed a multiday tour and to stay in the park. After all our driving, we weren’t up to getting another vehicle and visiting Kakadu on our own. There was also the matter of its being the wet season. Until the Dry kicks in, the Wet makes many roads four-wheel-drive only, or impassable. Finally, there’s the small matter of not being able to swim in Kakadu. At all. The waters are full of estuarine crocodiles, poor Sweetheart’s salty friends. And the heat was so oppressive that a day without swimming seemed impossible, even if only in the pool downstairs.
We started our day at the Adelaide River, not to be confused with Adelaide. The town of Adelaide River has the largest cemetery of Australians killed during the bombings in World War II. But on the river itself, the attraction is seeing crocodiles in the wild.
Unlike the “salties,” freshwater crocodiles are not aggressive and flee human beings. That doesn’t mean I want freshies in my swimming area, though. Fortunately, Litchfield had some swimming holes that were croc-free, so we finally got a dip in the waters of the Top End. And welcome it was, too, in the relentless heat.
We swam at Buley Rockhole, an old-fashioned place where kids could jump off a rock into the plunge pool below. Later some of us hiked down to the bottom of Florence Falls. It took some strong swimming to get behind the falls. The hike back up was called Shady Creek and once again, the shade was welcome. We saw a lot of plant life on this walk, as well as birds and a large monitor lizard—one of the crocodile’s harmless relations.
Another feature of the Northern Territory landscape was the large number of termite mounds. We'd seen a lot of these on the side of the highway, some dressed in old shirts, which was a weird tradition. In Litchfield National Park we saw a particularly large example of a "magnetic" mound, found only in Australia. The termites build these so that the ridge facing north--which gets the fierce afternoon sun in the southern hemisphere--is the narrowest and gets the least heat from the sun, keeping the mound comfortable. I always thought of termites as insects that ate wooden houses, but there are many species here and they play a vital role in returning nutrients to the land.
Later in the week we decided to borrow our hosts’ bicycles and explore East Point Reserve. These kindly offered bikes were quite fancy mountain models, and to be honest, I was a lot more comfortable on junky one-speeds in Thailand and Vietnam. Nonetheless, we pedaled on past the Botanic Gardens and along the beach, whereupon the heavens opened! It was a real tropical thunderstorm, so we sought shelter at the only structure nearby: the public toilets.
As we reached the park, we could hear a group of people whose conversation was constant and very loud. “Those women are just fighting!” T. remarked; but a short while later, we saw that they were dancing. It reminded me of Cher telling the story of when she first met Sonny Bono’s family, and a fight broke out on the doorstep. Then she realized they were just saying hello.
We got to talking with this group, because they came to the toilet block for shelter also. We learned that they were from the Tiwi Islands. One of them, who introduced himself as Tim, had really been through the wars: he had facial burns and had lost his hands, so we fist-bumped. Upon learning that T. is from England, he called us “Poms” and said that they, i.e., Australia, would “kick your arse in the Ashes.” It’s a cricket thing.
One of the woman introduced another as “my wife,” by which we think she meant sister-in-law. T. responded by indicating me and saying “My wife!” This isn’t a term we use, but it certainly got Tim’s attention. By this time the rain was coming down so hard that we had to shelter in the women's bathroom. The mixed-sex group of people all crowded into the the one neutral bit of territory.
Where else would you want to party during a tropical thunderstorm but a disabled loo? We were almost sorry when the storm petered out and we had to finish our conversation. While Americans have the misfortune of always being asked about the president, British people abroad tend to get asked about the latest royal wedding. “I love Prince Harry,” our new friend with the “wife” enthused. “But Meghan got there first!”
It was unexpected fun hanging out with the Tiwi Islanders, but we hadn’t gotten to swim in the artificial salt lake, as we’d planned. You can’t swim in the sea around Darwin because of—you guessed it—crocodiles (plus stinging jellyfish and other tropical nasties). We made up for this by spending our last afternoon at the wave lagoon. Darwin, on the Timor Sea, doesn’t really get waves, except of course when a cyclone hits.
The many Asian and other communities in Darwin, which is just a short hop from Indonesia after all, mean that the city is blessed with an extraordinary variety of restaurants. I’m not sure we did the selection justice, but we did enjoy some wonderful tapas and sangria at a place called Moorish. And we could not resist going back to the R.S.L., the Returned and Services League of Australia.
We had a great time at the Top End of the Northern Territory, given the limitations of the Wet. It would be nice to be here a month or so later and catch the beach markets, or the Thai festival our host was rehearsing to be part of, or the renowned sunsets (Darwin is on a peninsula stretching southwest out into the water). And the hospitality here is extraordinary. Darwin has that small-town feeling and people are extra friendly compared with other cities, even just working in the shops.
But when the heat has outweighed the sunset, it’s time to move on to more moderate climes.