Last updated 17 June 2020
A tour to learn about the history of Darwin
From my high school studies of Australian history, I knew a little about the bombing of Darwin in 1942. And my recent visit to the Tiwi Islands, 80 kilometres north of Darwin educated me further. It was on the smaller of the Tiwi Islands – Bathurst – that Father John McGrath on that fateful day of February 19, transmitted a radio message to the mainland warning a flotilla of Japanese fighter planes was heading towards the city. (If you’ve seen the 2008 movie Australia, with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, you’d recall the scene where the priest is trying to warn government officials on the mainland of an imminent invasion.)
If you’re after a comprehensive tour covering historical locations and museums showcasing Darwin’s War history, this locally owned and fully guided Tub Darwin City Explorer half-day tour is ideal.
A small mini-bus, driven by Tony, a Darwin local of 20 years, picks me up from my accommodation in Parap and we make the rounds of various city hotels collecting other guests. (For an additional $5 they will collect from outer caravan pickups.)
Our first stop is at the WWII Tunnels at the Darwin Waterfront on Kitchener Drive.
WWII Oil Storage Tunnels
The tunnels were constructed in 1942 after the Japanese destroyed the exposed above ground fuel oil storage tanks at Stokes Hill during the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942. The tunnels, lined with thin steel and concrete were designed to store the oil fuel underground. The longest tunnel is almost 200 metres in length and at 15 metres underground took a serious amount of manpower to dig out (seems it was underestimated how long the task would take.)
Unfortunately, there were issues with the tunnels leaking and they were not used before the war ended.
In the 1950s, two of the tunnels (five and six) were used to store jet aircraft fuel for the RAF and RAAF. But after a few years and a solid period of heavy rain, the tunnels leaked fuel into the harbour and were emptied and abandoned. They were re-opened in 1992 to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Bombing of Darwin.
It’s interesting to wander inside and have a look at what would have been an enormous task back in the 1940’s. Around 400 men were employed to manually dig 15 metres underground in the stinking hot Darwin weather. Fans stir the air in the tunnels today, making it comfortable for visitors to wander through and read the historical information posted intermittently on the walls.
Defense of Darwin Experience & Darwin Military Museum
This museum is dedicated to telling the story Darwin and the Northern Territory played during WWII between 1932 – 1945. With interactive displays, objects from the period and a bombing of Darwin theatre experience, it leaves you quite shocked at what the city of Darwin and its people endured.
An interactive attraction called Story Share allows the visitor to tell personal stories of themselves or someone they know who was in Darwin during WWII. The story is recorded in a video recording kiosk where it is submitted and moderated by the Defence of Darwin Experience and once approved is shared through the StoryShare touchscreens.
NT Museum and Art Gallery
This cool respite from the heat has an interesting range of displays including the imposing Sweetheart, a saltwater croc, an array of aboriginal art and an informative and interactive gallery on cyclone Tracy. The exhibits are changed regularly, which makes it interesting for repeat visitors like me. With my last visit (2015) I wandered through an exhibition by Australian painter Ben Quilty. This time I enjoyed a Didjeridu and Yidaki exhibit, featuring the wind instruments that are important symbols for Aboriginal identity. (Yidaki is the generic term for the instrument in Yolngu language.) I came away with an understanding of how these instruments are made and the significance of them to the First People.
Fannie Bay Gaol
The gaol is closed on public holidays and my tour was on a public holiday, but I did take a quick peek through the building during my previous visit to Darwin.
The decommissioned gaol at Fannie Bay was in use from 1883 to 1979 and now is preserved for historical reasons. The stone infirmary on site was constructed in 1887 and in 1920 cells were built for female prisoners. It’s a macabre museum as the gaol has a set of gallows used for the last two hangings in the Northern Territory (two European immigrants were hanged on the 7th August 1952, accused of murdering a Darwin taxi driver.)
(Open Monday to Fridays only)
The Qantas Hangar, constructed in 1934, is in the Parap residential area. The wide street nearby that is now Ross Smith Avenue was originally an airstrip between 1919 to 1946.
The hangar was damaged during the bombing of Darwin in 1942. Evidence of where the shrapnel penetrated a steel support pillar has been maintained to preserve the history. Conveniently highlighted in orange paint so visitors don’t miss the gaping holes shrouded by twisted metal.
The Hangar miraculously survived Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and is now home to an eclectic collection of historical items including relic motor cars, petrol bowsers, and locomotion engines. A collector’s paradise.
The back section of the Hangar is used by the Motor Vehicle Enthusiasts Club Inc. Northern Territory (MVEC) where members tinker away on their beloved projects. My Father would have loved this place!
Aviation Heritage Centre
Our final stop on the tour was at the Aviation Museum and the affable gentleman who greeted us in the foyer, suggested if we have trouble spotting the B52 Bomber we may need to get our eyes checked. (He probably uses that line on everyone, but he raised a few laughs!)
Without a wide-angle lens, it’s a challenge to capture the B52 in the centre of the museum – but there it sits surrounded by other aircraft (18 in total, some are outside the building.)
I was captivated by the display showing the amateur footage of the first air-raid in Darwin. Everyone appeared relaxed moments before the air attack. Darwin was bombed by 188 planes in two air raids, causing widespread damage including the Post Office, which took a direct hit killing 10 civilians who were working inside the building. A Japanese fighter plane crashed on Melville Island (one of the Tiwi Islands. ) The remains of the plane are on display at the museum. It’s pilot, Hajime Toyoshima was captured by a local Aboriginal man.
During the tour Tony’s Aussie drawl crackles over the speakers, “Darwin was flattened three times,” he says.
I didn’t know Darwin has been through so much.
“In 1936 a cyclone flattened her, the 1942 bombing destroyed much of her and cyclone Tracy in 1974 decimated her.”
I didn’t appreciate the duress Darwin has been under historically, but I do after this Darwin City tour and visiting many locations where the city’s tumultuous history ash been preserved.
The tour is definitely one for the history buffs and anyone interested in the story behind the resilience of this tropical star of the north.
This wasn’t on our tour, as it is only open on Saturdays to 8 am 2 pm, but as I was staying in Parap it would be remiss of me not to mention these local village markets. Hands down the best laksa I have had outside of southeast Asia (look for the stall Mary’s Soup.) Also find assorted arts, clothing, craft, jewellery and Kakadu Blue a NT product – incorporating essential oil extracted from the Australian Blue Cypress Pine (smells sublime.)