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Top End, Down Under

Darwin, Australia

Australia’s amazing Northern Territory. You’ll never never know if you never never go.

Growing up, I remember a book of my parents about life in Australia’s outback in the early 1900s. What fascinated me the most about the book was the title, ‘We of the Never Never”. What was the never never? As I grew older, I read the book and finally discovered exactly what the never never was. It was author Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn’s description of the harsh, desolate, yet beautiful landscape in which she lived and worked, an account of her life experiences at Elsey Station near Mataranka in the Northern Territory some 500 kilometres south of Darwin. She was the first white woman to settle in the area and to share her life and experiences with the indigenous peoples.

Since then, I have always been fascinated by the Northern Territory and the so-callednever never, so with my wife’s sister Helen (Mel) living in Darwin, Dinah and I had the perfect opportunity to visit the Top End and explore a little of Darwin and the Territory. We were not disappointed. What an amazing place. Darwin is a very liveable city, particularly if you are keen to escape the peak-hour traffic chaos of the southern capitals. The trade-off is the weather. The Northern Territory has two basic seasons, the Wet and the Dry. The busiest time for visitors is during ‘The Dry’, the period between April and October. It is still hot compared to southern states, but the humidity is less. During our time in the NT, the temperature hovered in the low to mid-30s. Still hot enough to cover up and wear a hat.

Darwin. A city of memories

Looking at Darwin today, it is hard to believe that the city was bombed almost into oblivion by Japan’s Pearl Harbour veterans on 19thFebruary 1942. 243 people were killed and almost 400 military personal and civilians were injured. During WW2, Darwin became the first mainland state in Australia to come under direct attack from the enemy, with more bombs dropped on the city and harbour than on Pearl Harbour. In all, the Japanese attacked Darwin 64 times, with the last attack occurring in late 1943. Today, gun emplacements, oil storage tunnels, bunkers, military airstrips and lookout posts can still be seen scattered throughout the city. Most are easily accessible and many are free of charge to explore.

East Point Military Reserve was a main defence point to protect Darwin and the oil stores at Stokes Hill Wharf. The 9.2-inch gun emplacements remain today, minus the guns which, in a cruel twist of fate, were never fired in anger and eventually sold off as scrap to the Japanese after the war. Anti-submarine boom nets, ammunition magazines, lookout towers, communication rooms, searchlight emplacements and command posts still stand today.

Also at East Point is the Darwin Military Museum. I love war museums. There is something about viewing the displays of war memorabilia and the wartime stories and artefacts that makes me proud to be an Australian. The museum boasts fantastic relics, an extensive photographic collection, displays of war instruments and even restored guns constructed for use during the conflict. Plus, there is an excellent wide-screen recreation of the Japanese attacks on Darwin in the museum’s cinema. We spent a great half day exploring historic East Point, leaving with a real appreciation of the heroism of Territorians. For more information, visit: www.darwinmilitarymuseum.com.au

Christmas Eve, 1974

Few of us can really remember WW2. I was born after the end of the conflict. But I can certainly remember the impact of another major catastrophe to befall Darwin some 30 years later – Cyclone Tracey. An event that all-but whipped the city off the map! Cyclone Tracey was arguably the most significant tropical cyclone in Australian history accounting for 65 lives, the destruction of most of Darwin and profoundly affecting the perspective of the tropical cyclone threat. The entire fabric of life in Darwin was catastrophically disrupted, with the majority of the city’s buildings being either totally destroyed or badly damaged, with very few escaping unscathed. Driving around Darwin today, if you know where to look, you can still see damaged and deserted buildings from those 2 days of horror that have never been rebuilt.

We visited the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), the NT’s premier cultural organisation. This is a fabulous contemporary museum located on Larrakia Land at Bullock Point on the shores of Fannie Bay. The museum is beautifully presented, with a great selection of exhibition themes and displays of internationally renowned artistic, cultural and scientific collections. One of the most amazing exhibits was a section dedicated to Cyclone Tracey. The exhibit featured recreations of 1970s Darwin homes, photos of the cyclone’s devastation, media coverage, as well as relics found after the cyclone had passed. A small room in the corner of the exhibition was totally blacked out. You entered the room to be immersed in the pitch-black horror and terrifying sounds of the cyclone. Truly frightening! The museum also featured displays of aboriginal art, including a special exhibition called ‘Yidaki’; the story and origins of the didjeridu as told by Yolngu Elder Djalu Gurruwiwi.

What a croc!

In line with the Northern Territory’s reputation for the ‘biggest and best’, the largest saltwater crocodile ever removed from the Katherine River in remote NT was proudly on display in the museum’s main auditorium. Measuring 5.1 metres in length and weighing in at over 600 kg, Sweetheart was responsible for a series of attacks on boats between 1974 and 1979. Unfortunately, the crocodile drowned while being captured for relocation. Even in death, this is one frightening animal. You’ll find more information on MAGNT, including current and forthcoming exhibitions at: www.magnt.net.au

While on the museum and exhibition trail, we visited ‘A Territory Story’ exhibition at the Northern Territory Library in Parliament House. This is a small but really excellent exhibition providing a unique journey among the people, places and events that have shaped the Northern Territory. Of particular interest was the role of the indigenous people in shaping this place through art and music. Displays showcased Aboriginal art in the form of beautiful woven artefacts as well as the role of the iconic didgeridoo. They also addressed the issues relating to the ‘ stolen generation’ and the 1928 Coniston Massacre , highlighting the resilience of the Aboriginal people. The exhibition explores the development of the Territory through a series of themed interactive displays. Covering major events such as the WW2 bombing of Darwin and the devastation of Cyclone Tracey in 1974, the exhibition displays major newspaper headlines of the day – including the Beatles’ arrival in Darwin in 1974. Also on display, an original first edition copy of Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn’s novel ‘We of the Never Never’, signed by the author herself. For details on current and forthcoming exhibitions, go to: www.ntl.nt.gov.au

We also visited the Charles Darwin University (CDU) Art Gallery and the ‘Reinvigorating the MECA Collection’ exhibition. The exhibition showcased the work of the Milingimbi and Ramingining peoples, a heritage collection of Yolngu bark paintings, sculptural objects, hollow logs, and weavings collected at Milingimbi in the 1970s and not previously exhibited. An experience not to be missed. More information is available online at: www.cdu.edu.au/artgallery

To market, to market

Darwin is well known for lots of things, including the markets. Saturday morning, the Parap  street markets are in full swing with vendors selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to indigenous garments and artefacts. Food here is delicious with a strong SE Asian influence. Sunday sees the Rapid Creek markets happening. As luck would have it, they were just around the corner from Dinah’s sister Mel’s home, so no parking problems. Here the focus is on fresh fruit and vegetables with a massive selection of locally produced Australian and Asian varieties to choose from. The big weekly Darwin markets are the Mindil Beach Markets. Held every Thursday evening from around 5.00 pm, the markets are huge, attracting thousands of locals and visitors. There are dozens of stalls selling all kinds of tourist-orientated products, including a range of Aboriginal artefacts and didjeridus. There is also a massive variety of take-away foods available which can purchased and then eaten on the beach while one watches the sun go down. The sunsets here are spectacular.

And speaking of sunsets, no visit to Darwin is complete without a Darwin Harbour Sunset Cruise. Cruising the magnificent waters of Darwin Harbour aboard the Charles Darwin is the perfect way to enjoy the Top End lifestyle while enjoying a sumptuous dinner on the top deck. The cruise takes about 3 hours, leaving Stokes Hill Wharf at 5.30 pm and returning at 8.30 pm. Facing almost due west, Darwin Harbour is a great place to enjoy a perfect sunset. Bookings are essential. Go to: www.darwinharbourcruises.com.au

As luck would have it, we were in Darwin for the conclusion of the Arafura Games and managed to see a number of the finals. The Games feature 17 sport disciplines, over 1500 athletes from over 40 nations at 11 Darwin venues. The Games are held every 2 years and in 2019, Darwin was host city.

The ‘Never Never’

Perhaps the highlight of our trip to Darwin and the NT was a visit to Arnhem Land and Kakadu. While we didn’t get as far south into the Territory as Elsey Station and Mataranka, we did get a real taste for this magnificent country. The drive from Darwin takes about 3 hours down the Stuart and then the Arnhem Highway. The road is excellent with very little traffic. Kakadu National Park is 20,000 square kilometres in size, larger than some European countries, so the cost of the upkeep of the park is considerable. Park permits help fund this. The busiest time for visitors is during ‘The Dry’, the period between April and October when about 200,000 people visit the park. During the wet season, many of the roads flood, making access to parts of the park virtually impossible.

Our first stop was Ubirr (pronounced oo-bir), the site of arguably the best displays of Aboriginal rock art to be found anywhere in the NT. This is a mind-blowing place, particularly when one considers that the rock paintings date back up to 3,000 years. Most of the paintings in this rock gallery are from the freshwater period, so within the last 1500 years. Legend has it that during the creation time, when the First People created the landscape and all it contains, Garranga’rreli visited this place as the Rainbow Serpent. She painted her image on the rock to remind people of her visit. Her stop here is part of a larger creation path which links this place with Manngaree, the East alligator River and other places in Arnhem Land. Her painting of the Rainbow Serpent is inspiring.

We stayed overnight at the Anbinik Kakadu Resort in Jabiru, enjoying a late afternoon dip in the swimming pool to cool off in the 35 degree-plus temperature. Great spot in the heart of Kakadu. Check out the Anbinik Resort at: www.kakadu.net.auThe following morning we were back on the road for an absolutely essential Kakadu experience, a Yellow Water cruise of the billabongs and rivers of the Ngurrungurrudjba area. Yellow Water Cruises take you on a discovery tour of the world-famous Yellow Water Billabong and South Alligator River where you will see different wildlife and birdlife and of course, the occasional crocodile or two. You can take an early morning tour or an evening tour, or one of the daytime tours. We were incredibly fortunate to see a number of large crocs resting on the river banks, but the highlight was an up-close and personal viewing of Mrs Croc lying on her nest of eggs. Her open-mouth smile meant that she was happy to see us – we think! Bookings for the cruise are essential so visit www.kakadutourism.comor call 1800 500 401

Travelling back we visited Burrunggui and the site of yet another gallery of Aboriginal rock art. This a an amazing country. You can travel for miles along roads through scrubby flat land then, right in front of you a huge outcrop of layered sandstone rock rises above the tree-line to the sky. These mountainous formations have provided a natural canvas and gallery for some of the most amazing examples of ancient art. For over 20,000 years, people came here to camp for a short time in the shade of the sandstone cliffs and to hunt and gather food from the country nearby. Only since the 1950s have visitors come here to see the art. The ‘gunbim’ (rock art) in the shelter of the overhanging rock ledges and caves is left as evidence that this place has traditionally been a place of living and learning.

Back in Darwin and preparing for our flight back to Brisbane, our visit to the Top End was over. This is an amazing place to visit. As they say, “You’ll never, never know, if you never, never go.”  We’ll absolutely, absolutely be back!

Photo Gallery

Main picture: Measuring 5.1 metres in length and weighing in at over 600 kilograms, Sweetheart is one huge animal.

  • First edition signed copy of ‘We of the Never Never’ in the Northern Territory Library
  • Darwin’s ‘D Day’
  • All that is left of the WW2 gun emplacements at East Point
  • The fascinating Military Museum at East Point
  • The headline says it all. Catastrophe!
  • After the cyclone, a Chinese children’s shoe
  • Humour in the face of tremendous adversity
  • Yolngu Elder Djalu Gurruwiwi and the Yidaki exhibition at the MAGNT
  • Arafura Games Beach Volley Ball Grand Final
  • Parliament House and the NT Library
  • Aboriginal artefacts on display in the ‘A Territory Story’ exhibition at the NTL
  • Amazing Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu
  • Up close and personal with Mrs Croc on her nest
  • Rainbow Serpent rock painting at Ubirr
  • Food preparation at Rapid Creek Markets
  • Territorian culinary humour
  • Dinner and a spectacular sunset onboard the Charles Darwin on Darwin Harbour

 

 

 

 

 

 

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