In Darwin the sun sets quickly. That glowing orb of burning gas plummets towards the horizon, crossing the sky in what seems like mere minutes. As it does so, it colours the evening in shades you wouldn’t believe. The vibrance of an artist’s palette, warm hues blending together as the sun sinks into the sea. That’s a tropical sunset for you.
Darwin is essentially a small, tropical, seaside city that just happens to be a state capital because it’s pretty much the only city in the state. The Northern Territory is like that: vast expanses of desert, bush or wetland punctuated with the occasional huddle of humans.
Despite its young appearance, Darwin has actually existed for quite a while (since 1869, in fact*), but there’s rather a lack of historical buildings and other such signs of long habitation due to the fact that huge swathes of the city were completely destroyed on two separate occasions: first in the Japanese air raids of World War II, and then again by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day, 1974. These two events have shaped Darwin in both the national consciousness and in the character of the city itself.
Darwin’s military history is documented at the Darwin Military Museum, an excellent facility with interactive exhibits documenting the reasons for and the experiences and outcomes of the Japanese attacks during WWII. Darwin’s strategic position (it is the northernmost capital city in Australia and therefore was the closest city to the main theatres of war in the Pacific) led to its extensive use as a military base, making it a perfect target for the Japanese, and it remains an important military location today. Wartime stories from many points of view are recounted in the museum, and outside a large garden/small tropical forest is home to many examples of wartime vehicles, weaponry and so on.
Darwin’s military history is also highlighted at the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, situated on the highway a little out of Darwin itself. This enormous hangar is home to a huge collection of aircraft of all shapes and sizes, from a B-52 bomber to helicopters, biplanes, seaplanes, jet fighters, and so on. These beautifully maintained aircraft provide an eye-opening look into the (often dangerous) realities of the history of aviation. A visit is highly recommended.
It’s clear that, unlike almost anywhere else in Australia, Darwin’s history is tied up with war and destruction. But Darwin’s attitude is certainly not depressing or overly introspective. This is a city of glorious beaches and tropical sunsets, year-round hot weather (though with regular monsoons) and a population so laid-back they’re almost horizontal.
This laid-back attitude, so in contrast to the military undertones of the city’s history, is on display every Thursday and Sunday night at the Mindil Beach markets. What seems like half the population of the city turns out for an evening of wandering around stalls selling food from all corners of the world, arts, crafts, trinkets of all kinds, clothing – you name it, it’s probably there. The warm evening air is filled with the songs of buskers, the clamour of commerce and the saltiness of the sea carrying from the beach. The hippie vibe is strong, as is the scent of cooking that’s enough to make your stomach rumble loudly and obtrusively.
As the evening begins to darken we take our food and sit, along with hundreds of others – Darwinians and travellers alike – on the beach itself, watching that spectacular light-show as the sun plunges into the sea once again. We sit spellbound on the sand, munching our dinner and staring out to the horizon as the spectacle unfolds. It is over all too soon.
* I understand that a city founded in 1869 might not sound old to those living in most of the rest of the world, but bear in mind that the first white settlers only arrived in Australia in 1788.