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Heritage Tourism in the North: Darwin’s Historical Heritage | Unlock the Past

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Heritage Tourism in the North: Darwin’s Historical Heritage

By Shauna Hicks

Neither my partner nor I have any family history interests in Darwin but we do have a son and grandchildren who have moved there recently. On a visit there in February 2010 we decided to explore Darwin’s historical heritage. My partner served 25 years in the Australian defence forces (including an army posting to Darwin in the 1970s) so he was more interested in the military perspective while I took more of an interest in a general historical overview, particularly the 19th century. Either way there was lots to see and do.

Military Heritage

In 1942 Darwin was bombed by the Japanese and a number of physical sites relate to that era. The WWII oil storage tunnels that still extend from the Wharf and run under the City were constructed during the War in 1943 to protect Darwin’s oil supplies during bombardments. Now the tunnels house a photographic exhibition of wartime activities and a tour guide informs visitors about the history and construction of the tunnels.

East Point Military Museum and ReserveThe Aviation Heritage Centre has many displays showing the Territory’s involvement in civil and military aviation. It has a very impressive collection of aircraft. The wreckage of a Japanese Zero fighter is a stark reminder of WWII and the Bombing of Darwin display visually depicts the extent of the attack and damage. There is even a huge B52 bomber, one of only two located outside of the USA. Tour guides provide even more information and context to the exhibits and are most helpful in answering questions.

The East Point Military Museum and Reserve is actually located in an original WWII bunker where the army planned Top End Defence strategy. It houses all kinds of war memorabilia, military equipment, photographs and even a video showing live footage of the Japanese bombing of Darwin. You could spend hours there and not lose interest.

life size cut out planeThe 200 hectares Reserve itself is dotted with numerous ruins including 9.2 inch gun emplacements, ammunition magazines, lookout towers, command posts and communication rooms which are explained further by informative signs.

The Strauss Airstrip is directly beside the Stuart Highway and has been recently upgraded with a new information shelter and life size cut out plane images which attract your attention. We originally passed them and turned back because we wanted to know more about the planes and why they were beside the road. We didn’t even realise it was an airstrip when we went past.

19th Century Heritage

Lyons Cottage, a restored stone cottage built in 1925, is the only remaining example of colonial, bungalow style architecture in Darwin. The stone is local but the roof shingles were brought out from England. It now houses a photographic display and artefact collection depicting the early history of Darwin.

Fannie Bay Gaol MuseumFannie Bay Gaol Museum is another 19th century legacy. Originally opened in 1883, the old galvanised iron and netting wire gaol is a depressing place to walk through. It served as the major detention centre for almost 100 years before it closed in 1979. The heat and humidity on the day we visited was almost unbearable. The old gallows section is still haunting and photographic displays provided interesting information and context on some of those executed at the gaol. The last execution took place in 1952.

The Australian Pearling Exhibition provides a history of the pearling industry in the NT through static displays, memorabilia, industry relics and audio-visual exhibits. The comparison with modern day pearling makes it very obvious just how dangerous this occupation was in bygone days.

The Chinese Temple was originally built in 1887 but was destroyed by a cyclone in 1937. It was rebuilt but bombed by the Japanese in 1942 and finally destroyed again by cyclone Tracy in 1974. It has once again been rebuilt and restored and is open to visitors. A photographic display on the surrounding walls of the temple complex traces some of the Chinese history in Darwin.

Darwin City Heritage

The free visitor guide Destination Darwin and the Top End includes the Darwin City Heritage Walk and most of the 18 points of reference are located in the CBD within easy walking distance of each other. Each location in the guide has a small paragraph on its history and significance and it is well worth doing the walk.  It is so easy to walk past some of these sites and not even notice the building. For example, the Victoria Hotel in the Smith Street Mall is obviously an old building but it is not until you read its history that you fully appreciate the fact that it is still there.

Called the North Australian Hotel when it was built in 1894, the ‘Vic’ on Smith Street Mall is a survivor of every cyclone and bombing raid that the elements and man have thrown at it.


This is just a brief overview of the places we were able to visit on this trip to Darwin. There are other military places of interest and other places of historical interest. Hopefully we can get to explore them the next time we visit the family.

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