In spite of its modest size, torrid climate and often traumatic history, DARWIN manages to feel young, vibrant and cosmopolitan, a mood illustrated as much by the buzzing bars along Mitchell Street as by the joggers and cyclists making the most of the tropical parks and waterfront suburbs. Travellers accustomed to the all-enveloping conurbations of the east coast can initially be underwhelmed by its low-rise, laidback mood, but Darwin more than matches its billing as one of the fastest-growing cities in Australia, and its population of some 125,000 accommodates a jumble of different ethnic backgrounds. To fully appreciate Darwin you should allow a minimum of three days to absorb its heritage buildings and wildlife attractions, visit the gleaming new waterfront quarter and enjoy the steaming nightlife.
Day-trips from Darwin include the ever-popular Litchfield National Park as well as the Aboriginal-owned Tiwi Islands, a thirty-minute flight from town. Crocodylus Park, on the city’s edge, makes for a full day out when combined with the excellent Territory Wildlife Park. On paper, Kakadu is another day-trip option, but to appreciate it properly you’ll need longer, possibly on a tour.
Setting up a colonial settlement on Australia’s remote northern shores was never going to be easy, and it took four abortive attempts in various locations over 45 years before Darwin (originally called Palmerston) was established in 1869 by the new South Australian state keen to exploit its recently acquired “northern territory”. The early colonists’ aim was to pre-empt foreign occupation and create a trading post – a “new Singapore” for the British Empire.
Things got off to a promising start with the 1872 arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), following the route pioneered by explorer John McDouall Stuart in 1862 that finally linked Australia with the rest of the world. Gold was discovered at Pine Creek while pylons were being erected for the OTL, prompting a gold rush and construction of a southbound railway. After the gold rush ran its course, a cyclone flattened the depressed town in 1897, but by 1911, when Darwin adopted its present name (a legacy of Charles Darwin’s former ship, the Beagle, having laid anchor here in 1839), the rough-and-ready frontier outpost had grown into a small government centre, servicing the mines and properties of the Top End. Yet even by 1937, after being razed by a second cyclone, the town had a population of just 1500.
During World War II, Japanese air raids destroyed Darwin, killing hundreds, information that was suppressed at the time. The fear of invasion and an urgent need to get troops to the war zone led to the swift construction of the Stuart Highway, the first reliable land link between Darwin and the rest of Australia.
Three decades of postwar prosperity followed until Christmas Eve 1974, when Cyclone Tracy rolled in overnight and devastated the city. Despite the relatively low death toll of 66, Tracy marked the end of old Darwin, psychologically as well as architecturally, and most of the population was evacuated before the hasty rebuilding process began. Over the last couple of decades links with Asia, and an influx of Aussies seeking warmer weather and a slower pace of life, have transformed the city into a vibrant multicultural destination. In 2004 tourism and the mining industry were boosted by the completion of the Darwin rail link with Alice Springs (and Adelaide). More recently, the billion-dollar waterfront regeneration project and the discovery of vast amounts of natural gas offshore have attracted more migrants and money.
The modern city spreads north from the end of a stubby peninsula where a settlement was originally established on the lands of the Larrakia Aborigines. For the visitor most of the action lies between the Waterfront Area and East Point, 9km to the north.