In 2007 when I first came to Australia I did not visit Darwin. I saw it just as a stopover for my Darwin – Adelaide adventure. This time I decided to visit this tiny state capital and I discovered that Darwin is much more than just the gate away for Litchfield and the World Heritage-listed wilderness of Kakadu National Park.
Darwin general info & history
Darwin is a lovely little city characterized by a dry and a wet season. It is famous for having gorgeous sunsets especially during the wet season – I happen to be there during the dry season and I can say that sunsets are gorgeous as well even though they do last a lot less in comparison to the once that occur during the wet season.
We were staying in Rapid Creek, a lovely neighborhood close to the beach and a 40min bike ride to the city center. I reckon that the bicycle is the best way to explore Darwin and they can be rented directly in town. Said that there is a Hop on Hop Off sightseeing bus which can be another option.
I had time to explore the city therefore I did not rush at all and took my time but if you are tight on the clock I would recommend staying 3 days – this would give you plenty of time to visit the historical sights of Darwin (and there are as you will see if you keep on reading), to enjoy the markets spread throughout the city and to enjoy simply a bit of relax close to the beach. Please be aware that crocodiles can be found in the sea and also box jelly fish therefore take care.
The Larrakia people have been living here long before the first European settlement was established (in 1869). The name Darwin was given in 1911 – till then it was known as Palmerston. In the 1870´s Chinese came to build the overland telegraph line, but it was the gold discovery near Pine Creek that brought a big flow. With the pearling industry (1884) Japanese, Philippines etc. came to Darwin making it become one of the most multicolor cities Down Under.
Darwin – where to swim?
As said before crocodiles & box jelly fishes can be found in the sea therefore there are some other options if you wish to go for a swim.
Saltwater Recreation Lagoon
If you wish to go swimming there are pools around town or you can relax at the saltwater Recreation Lagoon at the Waterfront Precinct (the entry is free and there is also a lifeguard from 9am to 6pm. There is a wall which separates the Lagoon from the Darwin Harbour therefore it is safe to swim).
The Wave Lagoon
Another option you have is the Wave Lagoon (which is a pool with 10 different wave types which run for 20 minutes and every half an hour. Here you can find boogie boards and floatation tubes. It opens from 10am – 6pm but it is not free)
The War Museum
I started with the War Museum which is in the East Point Reserve which is a gorgeous place. Please be aware that the Northern Territory is rich in wildlife. If you happen to see injured or orphaned wildlife, please call 8988 6121 or 0408 885 341. The number you need to dial if you find a snake and need help is 0409 326 307. The path that will lead you to the Museum is directly along the beach therefore I do recommend you stop along the way to admire the views.
If you have time stop at the series of WWII gun emplacements that you will find close to the museum.
Who has never heard about the Pearl Harbor attack? What I personally did not know is that on February the 19th 1942 Japanese attacked Darwin with two raids (the first one at 9:58 with 188 aircrafts – the second one at 11:45 with 54 aircrafts) destroying 31 aircrafts, 11 ships, the wharf and other buildings and killing 235 people. At that time Darwin was an important Allied base due to the fact they had the only main port and aircraft facilities along the entire north coast of Australia. This meant that Darwin was a strategic threat to Japanese forces occupying the Dutch East Indies. The air bombing continued till November 1942 – the NT was raided 64 times in total.
The Darwin Military Museum was established in the 1960s and features a film showing the attack on February the 19th. Beside that there are other very interesting things such as aero engine, naval engine, artillery and vehicles and much more. Inside the Museum you will find toilets and a café in case you get hungry. Please be aware that Darwin is a very hot place and that if you plan to get there by bicycle you should take a lot of water and sunscreen with you. I love the heath but believe me if I say that it can get very hot. The path on which you will be riding your bike is not in the shade therefore please take precautions.
The Darwin Heritage Trail
I spent another day (if you do not have much time you can easily do it in half a day) doing the Darwin Heritage Trail which is a self – guided tour of historic sites in the Darwin Central Business district. You will find leaflets explaining all these historical buildings and a lot of other interesting information in the information center of Darwin. Please be aware that the list of buildings is different from leaflet to leaflet or at least some of the buildings are not shown in all of them.
The first building I visited was the Lyons cottage which was built in 1925 and housed the staff of the British and Australian Telegraph, before becoming the home of John Tiger Lyons (Mayor of Darwin from 1959-1963).
The Memorial Cairn
The Memorial Cairn is located close to where the original cable from Java to Darwin was brought ashore up the cliffs and into the BAT cable room.
The Government House
The Government house which survived cyclones included Tracy and the bombing of 1942.
Browns mart which is now used as a theatre and was once used as the Mining exchange and by the Navy during WWII.
The Roadmasters House
The Roadmasters House was built to accommodate staff of the Northern Australia Railway. The building is one of the only three prewar houses remaining in Darwin. In 2005 it was declared a heritage place.
The Heritage Precinct Myuilly Point & Cullen Bay
Beside the Darwin Heritage Trail there is also the Heritage Precinct Myuilly Point which consists of 4 houses constructed prior WWII that are listed on the NT Heritage Register and the National Trust Register of Significant Places. If you ride a bit further you will arrive to Cullen Bay which is a lovely area famous for its marine and the ferries to Tiwi and Mandorah Islands
The Engineering Heritage Sites
The Tunnel Oil storage
The Tunnel Oil storage tanks which construction started in May 1943 (after the oil storage tanks were bombed by the Japanese). Only 6 tunnels of the 8 commissioned were finished – they were kept secret to the public till 1992 when they were opened to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing.
The Navy Steam – driven oil pump house
The Navy Steam-driven oil pump house built in the years 1927/1928 was built for steam driven pumping engines used to pump oil from tankers in the harbour into storage tanks and then into vessels. They were used till the end of WWII and disconnected from the oil supply lines just in 1989.
The Overland Telegraph Line
To commemorate the Overland Telegraph Line which was a sub-sea cable from Java to Australia (which construction started in 1870 and was completed on August the 22nd 1872) there are some sights in Darwin – one is a memorial cairn at the place where the sub-sea cable from Banjowangie (Banyuwangi, Indonesia) was joined with the Overland Telegraph Line on November the 20st 1871.
The first official message from London to Adelaide was received on October the 22nd 1872. The message had taken a mere seven hours to cover the colossal distance.
The Royal Flying Doctor
Another sight that I found interesting is the Royal Flying Doctor which is an air medical service based in Australia which provides emergency and primary health care services for people living in the Outback.
It was founded by The Reverend John Flynn who, after years of study, was appointed by the General Assembly to head of a new organization called Australian Inland Mission (AIM) whose purpose was to provide medical care for people of the outback. In 1916 he wrote a letter to Prime Minister William Hughes telling how much an aerial medical service was needed. But it was not until May the 17th 1928 that the first plane took off after having found an agreement with Qantas founder Hudson Fysh for the lease of an aerial ambulance in 1927.
From 1942 till 1945 it was known as State section of the Aerial Medical service of Australia and from 1945 till 1954 it was known as Flying Doctor Service of Australia & it was given the honorific “Royal” in 1955.
Fred Mckay was the successor of John Flynn who died of cancer in 1951.
The Mindil Beach Sunset Market
Darwin is also famous for its markets which are held during the dry season. We went to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market which is held on every Thursday and Sunday (April to October) from 4pm to 9pm. Here you will find a variety of handmade craft arts, live bands, street performers and food.
If you happen here you must try Ken’s Crêpes – my favorite once were the Cajun chicken & avocado (savory option) and the Darwin mango, banana and passion-fruit (sweet option) – simply delicious. Please be aware that it is an icon of the market and therefore be prepared to a long queue, but I do assure you that it is worth it.
I do suggest coming a bit early in order to grab something to eat and have a picknick watching the sunset on the beach. It is definitely a must if you happen to be in Darwin during the dry season.
Rapid Creek Market
A similar but much smaller market is the Rapid Creek Market is held on Fridays from 5-10pm
There are other markets that are held during the dry season such as the Parap Market & Nightcliff Market
Aboriginal Flag & history of paintings
Do you know that there is an Aboriginal flag? The flag has three colors: black which represents the Aboriginal people of Australia, red which represents the red earth and a yellow circle which represents the Sun. It is one of the 3 (the other two are the National Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag) officially proclaimed flags of Australia and holds special legal and political status.
The National Flag which is probably the most famous has three elements on a blue background: the Union Jack represents the history of British settlement, the Commonwealth Star with its seven points represents the unity of the six states and the territories of the Commonwealth of Australia and the Southern Cross which is represented by a constellation of five stars (a reminder of Australia’s geography)
In Darwin you will find many Aboriginal Galleries – in one of them I read something interesting about the history of the Aboriginal paintings.
Australian Aboriginals have been using ochres as body paint on bark and rocks for tens of thousands of years but it was not until the 1930´s that the first paintings were done. These paintings were not done in ochre or in dot art (my favourite once) but in water colors illustrating desert landscapes near Alice Springs.
A teacher called Goffrey Bardon was the one who began the Aboriginal Art movement. In 1971 while working with Aboriginal children he figured out that while telling stories the Aboriginal men use to draw symbols in the sand, therefore he encouraged them to do it on canvas and board.
Color and style differ from region to region. Ochre or iron clay pigments were used to produce colors such as white, yellow, red and black from charcoal. It was not until the mid-1980´s that they began to use other brighter colors
The sunset cruise
Another highlight was a sunset cruise – there are a lot of tourist operators which organize such cruises, but I can´t tell you more about it because we were lucky to have friends who took us on their boat. Cruising along watching the sunset is relaxing, really relaxing.
The Museum & Art Gallery of the NT
The Museum & Art Gallery of the NT located in Fanny Bay is very interesting and hosts exhibitions such as “Transformations” (how the tropical climate and geological history have shaped evolution in the NT), “Sweetheart the crocodile” a 5.1m saltwater crocodile who died in 1979 when an attempt was being made to move him away from a popular fishing spot where he had attacked some small boats & “Cyclone Tracy” which was the greatest natural disaster in Australia´s history.
Cyclone Tracy began as a tropical low on December the 20st. On December the 21st it was declared a Cyclone and called Tracy. When Cyclone Tracy hit in 1974 soon after midnight/early Christmas morning wind speeds of over 200km/hour created a storm of flying corrugated iron, which wrapped around structured. In many cases this increased their wind resistance, causing them to buckle and collapse. By dawn Darwin was literally devastated, with most of the houses collapsed, communication cut off, power lines destroyed, and water and sewage put out of action.
In December 1974 the establishment of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission was announced in order to supervise the reconstruction of the city and to adjust the reconstruction to the code of safety which became known as the Cyclone Code. After passing through Darwin Cyclone Tracy weakened rapidly. Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people.
The Darwin Festival
The Darwin Festival is held in August and it hosts a lot of free events. We participate to a few of them.
The Santos Opening Night concert
The first one was the SANTOS OPENING NIGHT CONCERT featuring artists such as Ali Mills, Caiti Baker, Adrian Eagle and Yothu Yindi which is the most successful and internationally recognized of Australia’s Indigenous bands. Their fusion of traditional music and performance with contemporary rock is inspiring, uplifting and a lot of fun.
This event was hold in the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens. It was a lovely evening – please be aware that you are not allowed to bring drinks inside but there are food trucks where you can buy drinks.
The National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA)
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) opening award held on a green area at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT was another free event where we went. We were told that this is Australia’s longest running and most prestigious Indigenous art awards. Beside the awards we enjoyed live music and dance performances. Food trucks where there as well.
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair
The third one was the DARWIN ABORIGINAL ART FAIR (13th Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair). It is another free event that lasts 3 days and hosts more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community art centers from across Australia, who collectively represent more than 2,000 Aboriginal artists at the Fair.
Here you will find and purchase Indigenous art of all kinds such as paintings on canvas, bark paintings, works on paper, sculpture, didgeridoos, textiles and cultural regalia. Beside that you can participate in artist workshops, children’s activities, cultural and food experiences and enjoy traditional dancing performances.
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation encourages the production of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and is committed to professional development opportunities for artists and arts workers. I was told that 100% of all sales generated at the Fair will be donated to support the arts center’s communities. Outside the Fair you will find food trucks – we had a tasty kangaroo burger
The Deckchair Cinema
Something that I was really looking forward to was the Deckchair Cinema which is open just during the dry season (April to November). It is located in the city center and features 250 deckchairs and around 150 straight- backed seats with cushions. Inside you will find a licensed kiosk which sells wine, beer, soft drinks and snacks. They also allow you to bring your own food but strictly NO BYO alcohol. Please be also aware that it is a non-smoking venue. Please be aware that if you bring food along you might be finding a possum close to you or searching in your bags. They are so used to people that screaming won´t help – besides the jokes they are harmless. The movie we had chosen was not good at all, but the Deckchair Cinema & its atmosphere made it worth anyway.