The city of Darwin is the capital and administrative centre of the Northern Territory, Australia. With a population of just over 130,000 it is the smallest of all state capitals in Australia. Darwin is actually closer to Jakarta in Indonesia (2,700 km) than it is to Canberra (3,137 km). Ambon, Indonesia, is only 881 km from Darwin. The proximity to Asia makes it a gateway for international trade and tourism. Darwin connects directly with Adelaide via the Stuart Highway and Ghan railway and to Queensland and Western Australia via National Highway 1.
The older part of the city is located on Darwin Harbour. Surrounding suburbs continue to the south and east. Nearby Palmerston and Litchfield have some of the highest population growth rates in Australia.
Darwin has a tropical climate with distinctive wet and dry seasons over the Australian summer and winter respectively. The temperature does not vary much during the year with an average daily temperature of 23 to 32 degrees but humidity is almost constant. The heavy monsoonal rains during the wet season are accompanied by magnificent lightning displays and followed by regular cyclone activity. However during the winter dry season many days feature sunny skies and mild sea breezes.
For many thousands of years, the region has been home to the Larrakia people who had well established trading routes across Australia and South East Asia. In the 1,600’s the Dutch charted parts of the Northern Territory coastline and the Timor Sea on their exploratory and later their trading expeditions. The HMS Beagle arrived into Darwin Harbour on 9 September, 1839 while on a surveying expedition in the area. Lieutenant John Lort Stokes was the first to sight the harbour. Commander John Clements Wickham named the area ‘Port Darwin’ in honor of Charles Darwin as the two officers had sailed with the renowned naturalist on the ship’s previous voyage.
The areas now known as Queensland and the Northern Territory were originally part of the Colony of New South Wales. In 1859, Queensland became a separate colony and it included the Northern Territory region. Only 4 years later this region became annexed to the Colony of South Australia.
George Goyder, the Surveyor-General of South Australia, established a small settlement of 135 people at Port Darwin on 5 February 1869. This settlement was named Palmerston after the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. It was renamed Darwin in 1911.
By the late 1860’s competition had become fierce amongst the colonies to secure the contract to survey and build the Australian Overland Telegraph Line. This would open up communication with the rest of the world and boost opportunities for local employment and international trade. The Colony of South Australia was the successful bidder and following numerous difficulties, the telegraph line was completed in August 1872.
Within a few years workers on the line discovered gold, sparking a gold rush which contributed to the growth of the territory. By 1875, the lure of gold had boosted Darwin's population to approximately 300. On 17 February 1875 around 125 people, including miners, government officials and families boarded SS Gothenburg bound for Adelaide. The ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef during a cyclone and only 22 people survived. The resulting death toll had a crippling effect on the small Darwin community.
The Port of Darwin grew rapidly through the export of live cattle walked overland to Darwin by droving teams from cattle stations up to thousands of miles away. At the same time the blossoming mining industry attracted workers from around the globe. Since word spread of the stunning landscapes, gorges and waterways there had been a continuing stream of travellers and natural enthusiasts using Darwin as their base. The area later proclaimed as Kakadu National Park has long been a drawcard and is now a World Heritage Area.
Planes and trains
Before the end of the 19th century advances in science and industry sparked the expansion of railway across Australia. Plans for a line from Adelaide to Darwin existed as early as the 1870’s. The line from Adelaide reached Alice Springs in 1929 and the historic Ghan Railway was born. The North Australia Railway line was built in stages from 1883 to 1929. It extended south from Darwin to Birdum but never reached Alice Springs. It was not until 2004 that the standard gauge line across the continent finally reached Darwin. This opened up a new era of tourism opportunities.
In the early 20th Century, Darwin became a pivotal part of the dawning Australian aviation industry. Aviation pioneers in the region included Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson and Bert Hinkler. The Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS) originally operated a small hangar at Parap where the first Australian international passenger aircraft stopped for refuelling. (This is now home to the Motor Vehicle Enthusiasts Club museum.)
Rising from the ashes (twice)
With the outbreak of World War 2, it was quickly realized that Australia’s northern coastline was vulnerable to attack from Japan. Thousands of Australian and US troops were sent to Darwin and the military undertook the development of essential infrastructure including an improved airstrip, roads and administration.
On 19 February 1942, Darwin was bombed by the same Japanese air fleet that had attacked Pearl Harbour but with much heavier artillery. Most of the town was flattened and 243 people were killed. Showing true resilience, the residents stayed and rebuilt with much government assistance. The Australian Aviation Heritage Centre is one of only 2 places outside the USA where an original B52 bomber is on display as part of a testimony to this devastating era.
Only 3 decades later, on Christmas Eve 1974, Darwin was again almost wiped out. This time by Cyclone Tracey. Nearly 70% of the buildings were completely flattened, 71 people were killed and around 30,000 of the town’s 46,000 residents were evacuated making it the biggest rescue effort in Australia’s history.
Darwin was almost completely rebuilt for the second time, as a result it is arguably the most modern city in Australia. Since that time the largest employers in the region have remained the government, military, mining and tourism industries.
Thriving on diversity
Trade with Asia has continued strongly and the region boasts a diverse multi-cultural population. In addition to those of Australian/British heritage there are also now several generations of families originating from China, Greece, Italy and many parts of Indonesia. The local aboriginal communities also remained strong alongside the growing migrant communities. Australian Census statistics show that there are around 70 different ethnic backgrounds represented within the district population.
With such a diverse cultural background, it is no small wonder that the variety of cuisine on offer is dazzling. Fresh local produce, busy marketplaces and an abundance of seafood have made Darwin become known internationally for its wonderful dining experiences.
Tourists are also attracted to the spectacular beaches, nearby Tiwi Islands, diverse cultural displays and numerous festivals and events.
From its humble beginnings as a remote outpost, Darwin is now a vibrant city with great appeal for residents and tourists alike. No doubt the coming years will further secure its place for both the Australian economy and its heart.