Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Darwin, NT

These are a few scribbles of my experiences of Darwin over the years.

I have fond memories of Darwin with my first visit being the 31 December 1967, New Years Eve, we arrived on HMAS Attack one of the first Attack class Patrol Boats to be commissioned. We were the first warship to be stationed in Darwin since the second world war, so it was a big event in Darwin and for us crew.
(HMAS Attack underway on show before heading to Darwin)

The population of Darwin those days would have been somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 at most, there were no major supermarket outlets in fact the married men that had their wives in Darwin used to join syndicates to bring fresh vegetables in sharing the cost of freight as it was cheaper than getting it from suppliers in Darwin. There was a good number of the population to see us arrive in Darwin. The problem was that I think we arrived on a record low tide and we probably looked so small to those looking down from the wharf that they probably thought we were the escort.

New Years Eve and I copped first night duty, but it was not all that bad other ships (non-naval) at Stokes Hill Wharf had parties going on and some young ladies attending would wonder over with a drink or two and keep me company a few New Years kisses here and there, I was enjoying myself so much I did not wake my mate to take over the watch at 0200 hours in the morning I went right through to 0600 hours, my mate cursed me the next morning.

These earlier days in Darwin were a lot of fun of course socialising was centred around pubs, BBQ's, or smokies (parties), basically it all had to do with drinking. Hotels had the normal opening hours of 1000 to 2200 hours Monday through Saturday not open Sundays. A number of Hotels had a late night which was shared, Darwin Hotel Wednesday, Fannie Bay Hotel on Thursday, Parap and Dolphin Hotels  Friday and the Sea Breeze Hotel on Saturday. Late night meant they stayed open until midnight and they had a band to dance to those nights and naturally everyone would converge on that late night hotel. Those days the general population were government workers and essential services and many worker lived in hostel type accommodation. The Bank of NSW (now Westpac) staff lived in the upper floor of the bank. The main shopping area was in and around the main streets of Darwin, Nightcliff was just starting to grow with the opening of the Dolphin Hotel out there

I left the Attack later in 1968 with a medical problem with my left ear I was crash drafted, the first day I saw the new doctor he flew me out to HMAS Penguin  the Naval Hospital in Sydney. I had to do the milk run flying Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne then Sydney arriving in Sydney at 2330 hours where a WRAN Driver was there to pick me up to my surprise and the drivers at the time, it was not normal for a lowly sailor to get such transport. The driver was a little displeasured on this our first meeting but we have stayed long life friends since our meetings later.

I had a return visit to Darwin in 1970 and 1971 when on a survey ship HMAS Moresby and naturally went ashore for an ale or two, we went to the Green Room at Hotel Darwin and I can remember this bloke coming up to me and asking if I remembered him, Chris Powell, we went to school together when I was 11 years of age in England. Darwin had changed in 1971, they had television and that buggered the place people had stopped socialising and stayed home to watch the box the place became civilised.

The place grew over the years and by 1974 there was a population of around the 43,000. 1974 saw me back for a visit as I had just left the Navy and had near three months leave before I could start work at Alice Springs where my wife then Sandy and I had decided to give a try. I had friends off the Attack in Darwin that had paid off before me and we thought it would be good to catch up. They tried to talk us into staying, I even had a job offer on the spot if I stayed. It was a blessing that we did not as in that 1974 Christmas Day cyclone Tracy hit and destroyed more than 70% of Darwin. HMAS Attack was driven ashore still chained to a hurricane buoy weighing some 75 tons and cracked the hull but another patrol boat HMAS Arrow was sunk after the storm had ripped the anchor winch and chain from the deck that was secured to one of the other hurricane buoys she hit the wharf and two good crew were lost.
(Cyclone Tray damage around Darwin 1974)
(HMAS Attack was dragged ashore still attached to the hurricane 75 ton mooring)
(The damaged HMAS Arrow after it was salvaged from near Stokes Hill Wharf and dragged to Francis Bay)
I was in Alice Springs and the first I had heard of the cyclone was at 2300 hours Christmas Eve, my wife then Sandy wanted to go to late church, not that either of us were religious so I agreed to go, we had been working hard helping a friend get a new shop up and running and for some days I left my normal job to go and work on the friends shop so we had not heard any news. It was not until the Padre said lets us pray for our friends in Darwin and hope the cyclone passes them without damage.

I don't know why I did not sleep that well that night and I remember turning the radio on early in the morning and heard that all communications to Darwin had ceased no one knew what was going on no contact could be made. I don't recall why but I got my portable radio that had shortwave frequencies and connected it to the whip antenna on my old Toyota 4x4 and started going through the frequencies and actually picked up the first communications out of Darwin which was transmitted from a merchant vessel, after this broadcast they stated that they would transmit the same broadcast in 15 minutes if anyone was listening and had a tape recorder to record it and play it to others that may have friends and relatives in Darwin which we did . I sold the reel to reel tape recorder to a friend in 1987 when I left the Alice and not thinking that recording went with it.

I volunteered to return to Darwin if I could help but it was not to be, I worked with a volunteer group escorting the Darwin refugees from the outskirts of the Alice to the registry office and made sure they were looked after. My wife then and I would finish work have some dinner and go out and work as a volunteer till early hours in the morning then go to work the next day. One afternoon just as we started the escort duty a car pulled up and a familiar head yelled out to me, it was Danny the charge engineer off HMAS Arrow that sank in the cyclone he had some of the crew with him. I made sure they were OK and asked to be excused for the night from volunteer duties, I found out where they were billeted and went and got two cases of beer and we sat drank and talked, they had been through an horrific ordeal not just the sinking and having to abandon ship but when all settled they went home to see the house was no longer there and did not know what had happened to their families. They did find that some sailor had been driving around during the cyclone saving families and taking them to a safe place. I believe the same sailor lost his own wife during this storm.

I finally got to Darwin in 1975 and it was eerie with all the trees that were now without branches but had new growth which made for skinny trees. Whilst I lived in the Alice I was to return to Darwin socially and for work and after the cyclone Darwin just kept growing. My last visit was 1996 and there is some incredible changes since that visit and now. The Vic Hotel is still there although modified a little but still has the same stone walls. Hotel Darwin is a new hotel, the original Darwin Hotel bought by Paspaley  that had a heritage listing suddenly disappeared over night, obviously had an accident with a dozer. The Paspaley family was the rich people when I first came to Darwin and I would imagine that the original Paspaley then is probably no longer with us but the family business has grown, Paspaley Pearls is a big thing here now with a number of Pearl Farms the family own let alone the real-estate they have done very well over the years.
(The Victoria Hotel Darwin, known as the Vic Hotel, I met some characters in this place in the old days, Johnny the Ringer comes to mind, he used to get barred from different hotels from time to time but was a harmless bloke worked on a station to earn money then come to town a blow it)

Darwin is still a lovely place and it is still laid back probably not as much as in the 60' and 70's no place is, but it is still a relaxed place. I guess I classed myself as a Territorian once when I lived in the NT and I don't really think that ever left me because I always felt more at home in the NT not saying I would return for good but after the years I lived hereit had a great impact in my life.

Darwin City skyline ahs change over the past few years with multi story buildings and they appear to be growing in numbers. We are still finding our way around but I am amazed how the place has grown down towards Humpty Doo areas. Helping Rob yesterday setting up to haul his yacht out at the Dinah Beach Yachting Association Club and also having diner there on out first night ashore I have to agree with what Rob said, this club is the old Darwin, very laid back nothing really flash but good to be there. The yachties would suffer badly if it weren't for this club.
(Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Club)
(A sign on the gate to the dock at the club)





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