The Far North

Darwin is the furthest north city of Australia and also serves as the capital of the Northern Territories. It is distinctly tropical, being a scant 12.5 degrees South of the equator latitudinally. To give you an idea of where it’s equivalent is in North America…well, there isn’t one. You’d have to go south of Cuba, south of the Dominican Republic, south of Mexico. All the way down to around Nicaragua. So Darwin indeed is very tropical and very hot year round.

Being the end of winter time, this was the tail end of the major tourist season for Darwin. Most of the hostels were still well packed and many tours booked up. I had prebooked my hostel though and fit in my tours without too much issue, but I first had a few days to explore the city of Darwin itself.

One of the real joys of visiting in late August is that this is the ‘dry’ season and the ‘cool’ season. While it is undeniably dry in the sense of a lack of rain, there was still noticable humidity (to me). And by cool, it meant that the highs were around 30C. On a whole actually, the weather was downright lovely with nary a cloud to be seen during my stay.

The city of Darwin itself has quite a bit of interesting history. There were two major, major events that occurred in Darwin, both of which pretty much demolished the town when they happened. I had a basic knowledge of one of the events: The World War 2 bombings of Darwin.

I’ll admit, I came with only cursory knowledge at best of the Darwin bombings during the war. Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere is aware of Pearl Harbor, and may like me have a basic knowledge that Darwin got attacked, but to what extent, and what impact did it have on Australia?

My curiosity piqued, I naturally set about learning what I could while I walked the city. Along some parkland there was quite a bit of information, detailing just the extent that the Japanese carried out attacks on Darwin.

The initial attacks took place on February 19, 1942 (two raids on Darwin were made that day). It was actually the same fleet that had bombed Pearl Harbor just a few months prior. The magnitude of the bombing was considerable – more than twice as many bombs were dropped on Darwin during the first attacks than on Pearl Harbor. The attacks caused massive damage to the town itself, though military damage and casualties were relatively mild. The total death toll is hard to get factually certain, but estimates of around 250 casualties are often used. The largest grouped loss of life was actually on an American destroyer, the USS Perry. The ship was sunk and 88 lives were lost. 10 of the 45 ships in the area were lost.

The effect on Australia was immediate. Darwin was in ruins and a sudden fear of Japanese invasion was sparked (though the Japanese are not believed to have had any plans of the sort). The Australian government muted the impact of reports to try and keep citizens from shock. And it made the Australian government realize one very important point – the British, their caretakers and protectors for so many years, were completely unable to help them. It would mark a major turning point in Australian culture as many felt abandoned by the British. It was the United States that would end up sending considerable personnel and forces to the area, and from then on ties with the United States would only grow stronger. Darwin would be rapidly rebuilt by the joint US and Australian forces and the area would see considerable infrastructural upgrades.

As for the northern part of Australia? While none would be to the extent of the attack of February 19th, the Japanese would carry out 62 more attacks. Australia had never been attacked on it’s own soil prior to Darwin being bombed, and has not seen an attack since the end of World War 2.

For an interesting quirk of history, the sunken boats remained in Darwin’s harbour until 17 years later, when it was decided the wrecks should be salvaged and removed. The company that was hired on to do the salvaging was Japanese.

My walk along history was at an end as I came to a lovely spot in Darwin at the Harbourfront. In it contained one of the few swimable beaches of the town – entirely man made and created to be safe from the numerous deadly things that inhabit Darwin’s tropical waters, such as jellyfish and crocodiles.

But I wasn’t about to be finished with my exploring! I ventured a different direction, which saw more stretches of vacant beaches.

Until I made it to my destination for the remainder of the day, the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory.

This was an excellent little stop with lots of great information. Most notable was the exhibit on Cyclone Tracy. This was a Cyclone that hit Darwin on Christmas Day, 1974. It pretty much completely flattened the town. 41,000 of the 47,000 residents were left homeless, while killing 71 (shockingly low, given the destruction). More than 70 percent of all of the structures in Darwin were destroyed.

This wasn’t a massive cyclone or anything either. It was the smallest ever recorded Cyclone in the Australian Basin, registering gale-force winds only as far as 48 kilometers from the eye. So it was a tiny, tiny cyclone. But it hit Darwin dead on. And packed a wallop, with estimates of around 200km/h sustained winds.

The city once again had to rebuild. So the version of Darwin that I was seeing was actually the third iteration. Hopefully this time the city has more luck. If one was to look at the history of Darwin, the city existed in the 1800s but only gained the name of Darwin in 1911. 31 years latter Darwin was flattened by Japanese bombs. 32 years after that attack, Darwin was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy. If one was to extrapolate based on that pattern…Darwin is long due (2007 or so)!

I wasn’t going to stay too long, just in case.

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