Getting To Grips With History

Sun. 30th June 2019

Don't be ridiculous. Of course we weren't on this!We’ve got used to coincidences happening and unexpected connections being made as we travel – for example, the story of Janet replayed yesterday of John McDouall Stuart and the Overland telegraph; or crossing the Adelaide River as we drove in to Darwin both neatly join together the beginning and the end of our time in Australia. Today though, we’re going to have to make a bit more of an effort and try to get our heads around at least the European history of Darwin. To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, Janet has pieced together a walking tour of the city for our first car-free day in two months.

Tree of Knowledge with bust of Charles Darwin and the Ship's Bell chimesA good example of what we need to understand comes right at the start. There is a park behind the Civic Centre close to our apartment and in the park is a large banyan tree, known locally as the Tree of Knowledge (when we eventually twig that the location shown on our tourist map is indicative rather than precise). This tree is known to pre-date the European settlement (1869) – not necessarily old by European standards but Darwin has been flattened by two tropical cyclones in 1897 and 1974 – the former completely destroyed the nascent settlement and the latter 70% of the buildings and 71 people. So, this tree has pretty strong and capable roots!

Each of the chimes has a different member of the parrot family  on itBetween the tree and the Civic Centre are the HMS Beagle Ship Bells – a set of (playable) musical chimes and a brass replica of the Beagle’s bell (each with a bird from the parrot family on it). After a bit of digging on the Internet (thank you, Wikipedia) we get to the bottom of the naming of the city. The port of Darwin was named by the captain of HMS Beagle in 1839 in honour of his friend Charles Darwin, but this was after Darwin had left the ship (his voyage was 1831 – 36). The first settlement was actually named Palmerston (after the then Prime Minister) and was only renamed Darwin in 1911. The bells were commissioned in 2009, to commemorate the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. So, Darwin never went to his eponymous Port / City and perhaps more interestingly, he was in his 20s for his voyage on the Beagle and only just 30 when the port was named after him. We are so used to seeing pictures of Darwin as an old man with a long beard.

Cathedral combining the old and the newAs we move on, we get further reminders that Darwin hasn’t exactly been lucky in its 150 years of existence – there is Christ Church Cathedral that interestingly retains part of the original building built in 1902 but then flattened in Cyclone Tracy (1974), or the old Town Hall of which only the front and back walls buttressed with iron scaffold remains. Government House at least has fared better and is fully preserved as built back in 1883 – however, this itself is a replacement for the original wooden building that was destroyed by ants!

USS Peary memorialOf course, we can’t go far in Darwin without seeing reminders of the 1942 bombing of the city. The Esplanade is a park running along the cliff looking out to sea along one side of the city. Hosted within the park are a plaque marking the attack, the city’s official war memorial and an old gun serving as a memorial to the crew of the USS Peary which was at anchor in the bay just offshore. What we weren’t expecting though was a memorial to Ludwig Leichardt – we came across his name at Wildman Wilderness Lodge as the sunset tour went out to Leichardt Point. Then, however, the name didn’t mean anything to us – but it transpires that Leichardt led a party of pathfinders from Brisbane (our next stop) to Darwin back in 1845. The coincidences keep on coming!

No matter how hard you look, you won't spot Janet!In the afternoon, we decide to head down to the waterfront and see that part of the city. Whilst there are some historical sites – such as the oil storage tunnels built after the Feb. 1942 bombing – much is modern and bereft of historical relevance. The worst offender in this category is the Big Buoy Water Park which looked like something from It’s A Knockout (maybe that is the historical connection?) One of the two of us was disappointed that we hadn’t brought our swimmies! Further on is a man-made beach complete with multicoloured parasols. We can only assume that there are some anti-croc measures to protect swimmers – but then again maybe they are going for Darwinian selection!!

Tugs on Stokes Hill WharfWe then walk along Stokes Hill Wharf one of the arms of the harbour. This is supposed to be a good place to watch sunset from and so we’d come equipped not just with cameras but with tripod and filters and other paraphernalia. We should know by now that when somewhere is advertised as being good for sunset, it means pay money, have a drink and watch the sun drop below the horizon. There is history associated with this wharf, but it is long buried under a string of bars and restaurants. The best that we could manage was this pair of tugs moored up against the harbour wall.

Master chef at work!Whilst our mood is not as melancholy as yesterday, there is still a feeling of anti-climax hanging over us. We clocked up 8,390km in The Beast and around 2,000km in our tin box before that – enough to feel that we’ve achieved our ambition to see the west half of Australia. There is culture (and history) in Darwin and we probably haven’t really done it justice before we move on tomorrow. What we do have though, is a bottle of Howard Park Cabernet Sauvignon wine, bought all those weeks ago in Margaret River. Since the apartment has a BBQ on the terrace (this is Aus after all!) we buy a steak in the supermarket (ambitiously a thick double steak) and fire up the barbie. Inspired decision on all fronts – I manage to cook the steak to perfection and it is so tasty and juicy and perfectly matched to the wine. All the while we think back on our own little bit of history and try to cast our minds back to the start of our trip.

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