Revisiting Darwin (Part 2)

October 12, 2023
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My previous post, which leads onto this one, is called Revisiting Darwin.

STILL IN DARWIN, I caught a bus to Casuarina to do some shopping. All the same, what with the 35-degree heat I didn’t feel like doing too much shopping in person and lugging everything back on the bus and then on foot to my Airbnb.

Instead, I bought some camping supplies over the Internet, to click and collect after I’d hired a car to go roaming outside Darwin.

But the city buses aren’t the only kind of buses in Darwin.

Another bus I can very much recommend is the Hop-on Hop-off Darwin Big Bus Tour, which operates from Monday to Saturday (but not on Sunday), plus the usual closures for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and so on. I bought a ticket for $47 from the Top End Visitor Information Centre, downtown.

The Top End Visitor Information Centre

The Information Centre occupies the former Reserve Bank of Australia building, a reinforced concrete structure of the rather fortress-like type that was in fashion when it was erected in 1967. As such, it was one of the few buildings in Darwin to survive Cyclone Tracy without much damage, and became a disaster relief HQ in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone.

Visitor Information Centre Information Panel about the building it occupies

Near Cullen Bay, the Hop-on Hop-off tour took me past the Mindil Beach Casino Resort, which is quite a nice place to stay but a bit too expensive for me, and, just before that, the Myilly Point Heritage Precinct, which includes Burnett House, built as recently as 1939 but still counted as heritage.

One of the houses in the Myilly Point Heritage Precinct

Anything still standing from the 1930s or earlier is counted as part of Darwin’s built heritage, as the city was destroyed by a typhoon in 1897, partly destroyed by another one in 1937, destroyed by a bombing raid in 1942 (of which more below), and then almost completely wiped out by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. And because the town was so small before World War II, there wasn’t that much heritage to start with.

The heritage buildings that survive mostly consist of a few stone buildings from colonial times plus some pre-WWII wooden houses that also somehow survived, such as the ones at Myily Point. Those are mostly built in what the Australians call the Queenslander style, a house designed for hot climates by having the main living area above an empty space below.

It is harder for termites to get into a Queenslander than into an ordinary house; cool air can circulate below the floor at night; and Queenslanders are also less likely to be flooded by tropical downpours. They have some other local advantages as well.

The Hop-on Hop-off tour also took me past the main site of the multi-campus Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. This was MAGNT Darwin, on Conachter Street.

I really enjoyed that. Both the museum exhibits, which included the remains of a huge crocodile named Sweetheart who terrorised the locals for several years by attacking boats and was accidentally killed when he was captured in 1979.


And the really stunning contemporary aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands art on display in the art gallery section, both in the form of paintings and more sculptural works such as the Dhamuw Koedal cultural group’s 16 Canoes.

16 Canoes by Dhamuw Koedal. Freedom of panorama is claimed as a photorealistically rendered model of this artwork, with cultural explanation, can also be seen on the website of Sketchfab.

A note about the 16 Canoes installation

The museum also had photos of the damage from Cyclone Tracy, and a video, of which I show a short extract here.

Fair dealing / Fair use is claimed plus Freedom of panorama, as this is an installation permanently free for public viewing.

The information plaques that I read in the museum state that there was a lot of complacency about tropical typhoons, the locals not really believing that their town could be destroyed by an unusually powerful one (even though it had been in 1897), and the Australian government not really having any special building codes for areas prone to hurricane-force winds as well.

The town had expanded greatly in the years leading up to 1974, with building standards essentially the same as in the more temperate parts of Australia. A blurry photograph taken just after Tracy is worth a thousand words in that regard.

Houses that were severely damaged by Cyclone Tracy. Photograph by Billbeee, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

After Tracy, Darwin’s building standards were significantly (and belatedly) tightened up, so it should withstand the next big blow.

Between hurricanes, as I’ve mentioned, the city was also destroyed by 242 Japanese aircraft on the 19th of February 1942, a really major raid intended to stop Darwin from being used as a staging post for allied counterattacks into the East Indies, as the area around Indonesia was known in those days.

‘The explosion of the MV Neptuna and clouds of smoke from oil storage tanks, hit during the first Japanese air raid on Australia’s mainland, at Darwin on February 19, 1942. In the foreground is HMAS Deloraine, which escaped damage.’ Photograph from the Australian War Memorial Museum collection, ID 128108, via Wikimedia Commons. Photographer unknown. Copyright has expired, leaving this image in the public domain.

Here, too, a lack of preparedness, or failure to anticipate the exact nature of the threat to come, was partly to blame. According to a plaque I came across elsewhere, there had been “only two planes that were available for the defense of Northern Australia” in mid-February 1942, and one of them had been shot down four days before the raid, thereby cutting Darwin’s fighter defences in half. Ten American fighter planes from a newly established squadron were dispatched to Darwin on the same day, but this small and inexperienced force was almost completely wiped out on the 19th.

On the other hand, the government did send 7,500 ground troops to Darwin, and evacuated all the women and children from the town, with the last evacuation aircraft leaving one day before the 19 February 1942 air raid.

There are quite a few museums in Darwin. The main exhibits about the bombing of Darwin were at another campus of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the Darwin Military Museum at East Point.

The entrance to the Darwin Military Museum

There were medals, memorabilia, machines, and guns; photos of the damage suffered by Darwin in World War II and of evacuees; and uniforms. It was interesting how much some the nurses’ uniforms from the 1940s resembled nuns’ habit, which I suppose they probably evolved out of.

Nurses’ Uniforms

One thing that is a constant is the way that transport links between Darwin and the rest of Australia have often been subsidised for military purposes. This included roads collectively known as ‘The Track’ that were built or upgraded during World War II and, more recently, the Alice Springs to Darwin Rail Link.

There was an inside area that had these sorts of exhibits, and an outside area where the heavier exhibits were parked.

Tracked vehicle at the Darwin Military Museum

The history of the war was well told. I couldn’t help thinking of current rivalries with China.

Just before the military museum, we drove through the East Point Reserve, where many people go and picnic in the dry season. There is a very good restaurant there called Pee Wee’s at the Point, where lots of people go.

There’s also a massive World War II naval gun emplacement for the defence of Darwin Harbour, matching a similar emplacement the other side of the harbour at Wagait Beach.

East Point Emplacement

The East Point gun emplacements were built in the 1930s and made more powerful during World War II. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to have bolstered Darwin’s air defences, which remained all but nonexistent at the time of the city’s first and heaviest air raid, on 19 February 1942.

Between the two museums. the bus also takes you past the Darwin Sailing Club, another west-facing hospitality venue where you can dine and watch the sun go down, something that really is a special attraction of Darwin: all the more so as the sun tends to go down around dinnertime, the days never either especially short nor especially long.

And the bus also takes you past Fannie Bay Gaol, a historic prison (Australia is, of course, the land of historic prisons).

After East Point, the bus does a turnabout and takes you back down south to the Darwin waterfront.

A Map and Information Panel describing the Darwin Waterfront

The waterfront area was nicely developed, with swimming pools, and I liked it a lot.

Stokes Hill Wharf, on the waterfront, is really worth visiting in its own right, with eateries, a ferris wheel called the Skyline Precinct-Darwin, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility, open to the public and a kind of museum in its own right.

The Ferris Wheel on Stokes Hill Wharf

A view of the inner harbour and waterfront area from Stokes Hill Wharf

Boat cruises also set sail from Stokes Hill Wharf.

Probably, the best time to see the waterfront would be at 6 a.m, before the day gets too hot.

On foot, you can cross over the main road to the government precinct on The Esplanade, by way of the Darwin Waterfront Sky Bridge, shown in the next two photos.

Attractions include the old stone offices of the early-times administrators, and the underground World War II oil storage tunnels, which are now full of wartime museum exhibits.

Administrators’ Offices

Commemorative stone outside the oil storage tunnels

The government quarter was being re-landscaped at the time.

You can do self-guided and guided tours of the Parliament House, which was opened in 1994. Here’s a photo of the Parliament House with Liberty Square in the foreground: a construction site at the time I took the photo. Locals call the Parliament House the ‘wedding cake’, and you can see why.

Near the waterfront is Bicentennial Park, a long thin park which runs along the tops of local cliffs and often receives a welcome breeze. A new artwork honouring the Larrakia was unveiled there in July, mirragma gunugurr-wa. This is also where the Darwin Cenotaph and some other wartime memorials are to be found.

Here’s a naval gun at the USS Peary Memorial in Bicentennial Park. It is a 4-inch gun, salvaged from the Peary, which was sunk during the bombing raid of 19 February 1942, and pointing to the spot in the harbour where the Peary lies to this very day.

The Peary was repeatedly dive-bombed and most of her crew were killed, yet gun crews on the burning deck kept firing at the Japanese aviators until the last of them had flown away, only abandoning the Peary afterward as it became clear that the ship was going to sink.

The USS Peary ablaze in Darwin Harbour, as photographed from the Hospital Ship Manunda. Photograph by Captain Jack Morlet from the Australian War Memorial Museum collection, ID 132536, via Wikimedia Commons. Copyright has expired, leaving this image in the public domain.

An information panel about the Peary and other sunken ships in the harbour.

And here is a close-up of the plaque that you can see on the right side of the photo of the gun from the Peary, a plaque to USAAF 2nd Lt Robert J Buel, shot down on the 15th of February 1942 in a fight with a lone Japanese patrol plane, which Buel also managed to shoot down, both of them then crashing.

This is the plaque I mentioned above: it was Buel’s that was “one of only two planes that were available for the defense of Northern Australia” just four days before the terrible air raid of 19 February. And after he was shot down there must have been but one.

These days, more and more of Australia’s defence establishment is being shifted toward Darwin. About 2,500 US marines are currently based in the Darwin area during the dry season, training jointly with the Australians as the Marine Rotational Force — Darwin.

Behind Bicentennial Park and its many monuments is Mitchell Street. As with the shopping at Casuarina, you are spoiled for choice by the restaurants along Mitchell St and nearby.

Also on Mitchell Street is Crocosaurus Cove, where for $185 alone or $285 for a couple, you get to go into a clear plastic tub called the ‘Cage of Death’ right next to a crocodile: you don’t even need diving gear. Actually, this reminds me of an old Cheech and Chong joke — maybe you get to go in for free but have to pay to come out.

Weird! More cheaply, for $34 single, you get to see the crocodile being fed pieces of meat: it was something of a relief to see they keep it well fed. On the other hand, the pieces of meat weren’t very big. For, I suppose the other side of the coin is that the show wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if the crocodile were completely full and inclined to doze off.

(On a visit to Queensland, I once saw crocs being fed live chickens: the nearest thing to a Roman spectacle, as we aren’t allowed to feed them Christians these days. But that was in less enlightened times by today’s standards, all the same, and it wouldn’t be allowed now.)

I’ve got a video of Crocosaurus Cove, here.

A much less fearsome place to hang out in this area is Darwin’s pedestrian mall, which runs parallel to Mitchell Street, just behind the government quarter and the waterfront.

The Mall

To sum up, you really should take the Hop-on Hop-off bus to see the highlights of Darwin. Most of what I have talked about in this post is on its route, and the tickets are valid for long enough to let you have a good look around.

After Darwin, I planned to head east on the Arnhem Highway to the Corroboree Billabong and Kakadu National Park. This will be the subject of my next post!

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