Razed to the ground four times in its short history, the city of Darwin, Australia, has picked itself up out of the debris to not only rebuild but grow. Darwin has known catastrophes and resurrections; it has endured misconceived projects and birthed visionaries. To write about her home town, Tess Lea waded knee-deep in memories of the city, including those of her family and her own. The story begins in 1974, when Cyclone Tracy shattered Darwin, and Lea was a little girl. Then it takes us back to the wild times of early settlement, explores the backstory of the White Australia policy, paints a vivid picture of the bombing of Darwin during World War II, and guides us to Australia’s militarized future, led by Darwin, sitting as it does under the largest aerial defense training space in the world. Lyrical and visceral, Tess Lea’s ode to her hometown is suffused with the textures, colors, scents and the many gritty realities that beset this tough, fragile, magical, foolhardy, and unique place.
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By Tess Lea
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2014 Tess Lea
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Building from the ruins
The roof took seconds to peel upward, hurling metal and nails into the wild night. The external wall was next to go, opening my little-girl bedroom to a dark vortex, a world where missile ribbons of corrugated iron, trees, wires, shards of wood, car doors and lampposts were lashed to crazed dance by the spearing wind.
A small piece of wall cladding cracked, smashing down onto my splayed hands as I cowered on the bed. I clung to that cladding against the wild forces that would steal it back into the howl beyond. It was all that I had left for a ceiling, a futile shield against the screeching winds and black objects swirling in that wild night sky.
'MUM! DAD!' my sister and I cried, just as they swooped in, herding us downstairs to the relative safety of the kitchen, where I got to take my first sips of Tia Maria from the adults' celebration stock.
The screeching went on and on, for just over six hours, petering to a stop only after dawn.
It is this, the uncanny howl of shredding worlds, which most people remember about Cyclone Tracy. It was a sound of a thousand nails on chalkboards, the warning wail of the banshees, a keening and thrashing that foretold deaths and devastation. Before the anemometer instrument was itself destroyed, just after the eye of the cyclone passed through, the wind gauge at Darwin Airport officially recorded winds of 217 kilometres per hour.
Today, visitors can enter a cyclone room at the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery to take in a piece of that sound. Behind a corrugated iron screen tagged with faux post-cyclone graffiti, the museum visitor can listen to the disjointed sounds of a recording made by priest Ted Collins. As he bunkered for the night at St Mary's Cathedral, Father Collins predicted the scraping of roof metal and roaring winds would be his end. I will make this recording, he thought, and perhaps they can find it in the morning.
It was a strange day, the day after the cyclone. Christmas Day 1974. The air was grey and heavy with moisture, the sun bleak. A desultory wind flapped at scraps of material; shredded plants sagged anew in the sodden air. Broken wires dangled from twisted electricity poles. At first people wandered about in a daze, dressed as they'd spent the night, the men in shorts, singlets or no shirts at all; the women braless, in nighties and cotton dresses. Others were still in their party clothes. Some were already picking through the piles of shrapnel for the salvageable.
Being a bush surveyor, my father had a Nissan Patrol, good axes, industrial wire-cutters and crowbars ready to hand. He set off to check on his parents and brother in Sabine Road, Nightcliff, carefully avoiding the debris littering Bagot Road, driving past the torn remnants of homes, past light aircraft draped over fences, past uprooted trees and corrugated iron sculptural ruins. My grandparents and uncle were still alive, the back half of their house blown apart.
Meantime, from our house in Brown Street, off Ross Smith Avenue in the now upmarket suburb of Parap, we could see all the way to the shell of what would be the new Darwin Hospital, miles away in the suburb of Tiwi. There were no visual obstructions. There was no fence around the Fannie Bay racecourse, no entry gates, no bush, no buildings. Just a flattened horizon strewn with wreckage, as if the town had once again been bombed. Even the green ants had disappeared.
* * *
The night's furious levelling revealed just how flat Darwin really is. Built on a small peninsula, the airfield occupies the highest and most desirable ground. Deeply weathered cliffs shield skinny bands of suburbs from the surrounding mudflats and swamps, an expanding delta which has been carving at the cliffs and extending further out to sea since the last ice age. These mangroves and waterways give Darwin its love/hate allure: the famous barramundi and waterbirds, the infamous crocodiles and the loathed mosquitoes, sandflies and midges.
Today, amid the dense rebuilding, another way to see Darwin's low relief is from the air. Approaching Darwin by plane, one can look down on the tortuous course of its waterways, twisting first this way, then that, lurching from side to side for want of a change in the level. With no gradient drops to force a straighter exit, the rivers, streams and creeks carve figures of eight as they wend their way out to sea, writhing like giant serpents.
The flat-lying sediments on which Darwin is perched are underlaid by ancient Proterozoic rocks that form part of the Australian 'craton' – the continental mass. The extended shelf keeps the seawater milky as equatorial tides drag over it, back and forth, before the edge of Australia drops into ink-dark ocean deeps just shy of Timor.
It is this original ancient land which forced molten magma up through flat surfaces to create the rich assortment of minerals which, together with militarisation, today sustains northern settlement. It is this intractable geography and climate that so knocks white settlers about. And it is this geology that makes Darwin the living paradox of being hot and swampy, yet arid for most of the year.
It is far less verdant than people imagine, with only a few dwindling rainforest patches to match the western desire for a tropical aesthetic of palms, flowering trees, vines and cascading streams, and no mountains to attract year-round rain. The water-thirsty palms, green lawns and vivid flowers tourists marvel at are the product of modern reticulation systems and imported plants. The cultivated tropical veneer rubs off at the edges of the city, where it is replaced by spindly trees stunted by their battles with termites, sparse pandanus and organically depleted rust-red laterite soil, leached each year by the extremes of wet and dry.
During the Dry, leaf litter cracks underfoot into little shards against the unyielding baked ground, while grasses spear their seeds into the softer parts of foot flesh. During the Wet, Darwin's iron-rich soils invite one of the highest lightning strike rates in the world and roads become impassable, while the hot sea boils up the winds for the inevitable, devastating cyclones.
Both Father Collins and his sound recording made it through that night. While only 6000 of the 47 000 residents still had homes, the official death toll was small (though people still harbour suspicions of an undercount). Tracy came in on a low tide, so there was no surge to drown low-lying suburbs and, being a sodden Christmas Eve, with the rain already pelting down by six in the evening, most residents were tucked inside, celebrating or sleeping, before the cyclone hit.
Officially, only seventy-one people died. Yet many people left Darwin after that long night, traumatised to their core, never to return.
Les Liddell had been serving as a Unit Officer with the Tennant Creek Emergency Service when he heard news of Darwin's devastation. As the little town of 3000 people prepared for the unknown influx of refugees bound to head down the Stuart Highway, they had no idea of how many would come, or in what condition. The first man to drive in was still in his pyjamas. He had not dared to stop in Katherine: at 316 kilometres south of Darwin it was still too close to the terror he was fleeing. The man was still in shock. As Liddell later told the Northern Territory Archive Service, 'He said to me, he was looking out his kitchen window at two small children, a boy and a girl, and the boy was holding onto his sister's hair to try and stop her from blowing away when a sheet of iron came and cut both his arms off. He said, "And that was it."'
As Liddell tells it, the town of Tennant Creek battled its own shortages and the exhaustion of volunteers working round the clock, yet little miracles counteracted the grim encounters. The people of Alice Springs were working hard too, raising money for the folk in Tennant Creek so the residents could manage the expense of running a first port of call, as hundreds came in, with no clothes or food, no spare tyres, no fuel. The Commonwealth, advised by Defence, had agreed to meet evacuation expenses, picking up the tab from Mount Isa to the east and Alice to the south. Since the folk at Tennant had orchestrated an emergency response without seeking official approval first, they were told the bills they were racking up would be theirs to pay. Without the public support of folk in Alice Springs, places like Tennant and the even smaller towns along the Stuart Highway would have been stripped bare. A modern-day version of a bucket brigade slotted into place.
Toward the end of the long fortnight's operation, Liddell took a phone call from the airport. It was three in the morning, the dark hour of catastrophic news. A plane was coming in to land with a peculiar request: could the pilot please have a pint of milk and a bucket of water? Liddell asked: 'Well, how many passengers have you got?' The pilot radioed back: 'Oh, don't you worry about the passengers; you just bring out the pint of milk and the bucket of water!'
The milk was for the pilot, the water for his passengers. Inside the Connellan DC-3 plane, down one side, sitting quietly with name labels and destination tags, was a row of dogs, tied up; cats huddled down the other side. Having survived Tracy with their owners, the animals were to be euthanised by official order. For many locals, this was yet another assault. The unknown pilot saved these lucky few. Says Liddell: 'They flew these animals from Darwin to Alice Springs, and then on to Sydney. And it was the greatest thing – a humane thing – I've ever seen, to see all these animals sitting quietly there in this aircraft.'
* * *
My family stayed safe; my cat, too. Huddled in our kitchen through that long, wild night, I sat on my brother's lap and our cat slept on mine, three tiers of mutual support. Snowball had rendered herself unconscious early in the night, waking only when it was all over. Other animals were not so lucky. Wounded stock had to be shot; pets had disappeared into the night. Police were ordered to shoot dogs on sight, as many had been let loose by fleeing inhabitants, or were assumed to be strays, whether they were or not. Dead marine animals swept in by the stormy waters and crushed against rocks started to rot on the beaches. The stench, like the sound, refuses writing. The odour comes to the tongue but not into words. But survivors recall the smell of rotting things, dead flesh rotting in wet ground, food putrefying without electricity, sodden materials rotting, sewer pipes dribbling and everywhere the dank clotting of mildew as vividly as they recall the terrifying howl of the wind.
* * *
As the cyclone gathered offshore, I was training in the Olympic pool across the road from our house. The pool manager had begun his Christmas revelries as we swimmers drilled up and down the familiar black line, bubbles swashing with each out-breath. Instead of threatening the naughty kids running on cement and dive-bombing unwary swimmers with rubbish duty or expulsion, that day the manager slurred cheerfully, raising his bottle to the microphone: 'Virsh a shyklone comin' tonight!' Next day, the pool was filled with the broken parts of Darwin.
The pool manager's relaxed attitude was typical. A warning about the impending cyclone had come through earlier that week and again that day. A cyclone named Selma (they were all given female identities back then) had come through three weeks earlier, but it was a fizzer, heading east without causing any damage. Cyclone Tracy warnings were duly broadcast but mostly ignored.
Given the authorities had so little impact, could we locals have known better? We all remember the stillness of the day before. The silence. How the birds had disappeared. But there were good reasons for ignoring all the signs.
Importantly, Darwin is a place where the imported seasonal markers of summer, autumn, winter and spring have no meaning. Locally, people note two main seasons: 'the Wet', a brief but intense monsoonal deluge from January through to March; and 'the Dry', a long drought extending from April through to September. By December, people are willing storms to break the searing heat and rising humidity that precedes the Wet. Locals call this bridge period 'the build-up', a reference both to the climbing humidity and temperatures, and the mounting stress of the sticky, sapping heat. Alternative names are mango madness, the silly season, even the suicide season.
It is as if the body registers as a psychic assault the lowering air pressure from thunderstorms brewing over warm water. The early 1970s were days without air-conditioning in schools, shops or houses; of vinyl seats in cars and no reticulation to make lawns plush. Adults drank beer and didn't bother with much clothing, for even cotton stuck to hot skin. Children ate frozen oranges and dived in and out of the local waterholes and backyard pools. Flooded drains would draw out whole neighbourhoods, kids bouncing into the shooting water as fearlessly as ducks, racing little sticks down the drains. We targeted sprinkler tripods on ovals, slicing the hot air with their interrupted sprays: szsh-szsh-szssssh. Storm drains, a broken drainpipe, a roadside fire hydrant. Kids swarmed over anything that banished the swelter.
You are in a stifling sauna, not a romance novel of languid afternoons under the palms. Your brain seems to be melting and tempers flare; irritability spreads from itching skin to the whole world. Only the fish, mozzies, fleas and cattle ticks are happy, breeding faster in the steaming heat.
But in the early Wet, a good storm pushes down a welcome rush of cold air. Raindrops soothe the broiling concrete paths and the tar on the roads stops melting. A heady smell of dust-mixed steam sends a message: the suicide season is over. Exuberant with the thrill of mating, frogs croak long into the night while gentle breezes flow over damp clothing, cooling and calming nerves brought to wit's end by the build-up of explosive heat. The early rains in December 1974 relaxed people: the build-up was broken, the monsoon had arrived. Time, at last, to celebrate.
Of course, it was also hard to get fussed about another cyclone, so soon after the false alarm of Selma and so very close to Christmas. The experience of strong storms appearing in the stead of cyclones had become so commonplace that plaintive engineers could not budge Canberra planners from declaring that Darwin was outside any cyclone zone. It took another cyclone to hit Townsville, also on a Christmas Eve, before tropical building codes contained any requirements for wind-proofing. Besides, Tracy was expected to do more or less the same as Selma: hit the town with some squally weather and then head on out to sea.
For a while that seemed to be Tracy's itinerary – that is, until the morning of 24 December, when the cyclone turned west rather than east and set a direct course for Darwin. By early Christmas Day, Darwin had ceased to function as a city. Two weeks later, following an official program of evacuation supervised by the military, less than one quarter of the population, 10 638 people, mostly men, were allowed to remain. Women and children were evacuated, whether they wanted to go or not.
My mother, older sister and I went on a plane to an army barracks in Brisbane on 30 December 1974. We were stabbed with needles immediately on disembarking, fears of cholera and typhoid galvanising nurses who handed out styrofoam cups brimming with barley sugar lollies as solace. We could take our pick from trestle tables laden with donated clothing. I chose a red velvet dress with long sleeves and white cuffs, and a pale blue satin shirt – materials the like of which I'd not seen (nor had any use for) in Darwin – and enjoyed the generous serves of jelly and ice-cream in the mess hall.
Meantime, Darwin had become a city without children. As local politician Dawn Lawrie put it, we 'realised then just what a dreadful act the Pied Piper had perpetrated on Hamelin'. Later, the Commonwealth Department of Social Security commissioned psychological tests on survivors. It reported that those who had been evacuated suffered more than those who were allowed to stay and protect their homes and recover the odd belonging. Those who were evacuated and never returned suffered most of all: alone, unconsoled and with little hope of closure.
Excerpted from Darwin by Tess Lea. Copyright © 2014 Tess Lea. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 Building from the ruins,
2 Dangerous proximities,
3 Living it,
4 Future Darwin,