It was a Sunday afternoon, I was lying on my couch, reading random extracts on line from the digitised diary of GW Goyder, the Surveyor General who was sent to the Northern Territory in 1869 to complete a land survey and select a location for what has become the city of Darwin, when I decided to photograph the Warhol commemorative soup cans I have had on display on my bookshelf since 2012.
Way past their use by date, the tin cans have corroded and have putrefied and like the dead organs of a corpse during an autopsy squirted and exploded their bile across the adjacent wall.
While staring at the putrefying cans, wondering whether these were a metaphor, a memento mori for the planet, society or the self, another strange thought emerged. A voice inside my head convinced me that I should take Stanley, my dog for a walk in the rain.
I usually take a walk in my neighborhood towards East Point Reserve or around Hinkler Crescent and Philip street in Fannie Bay, noting as I walk the landmarks and landscapes constructed on what was once a world war 2 airfield.
I have photographed my neighborhood incessantly, trying to comprehend how significant this specific location was to world events.
My apartment block on Philip street is built on a former WW2 hangar site. Across the road is Hinkler Crescent, which was once a taxiway for the original Darwin aerodrome. Over the years I have realised that I live in a suburb rich in aviation history.
In December 1919, pioneering aviators Ross and Keith Smith landed on the Parap Police Paddock, behind the old Fannie Bay Gaol, winning the Great Race and becoming the first to travel from England to Australia in 28 days, securing Darwin’s place as the Northern Gateway to Australia. Burt Hinkler became the first person to fly solo from England to Australia, arriving in Darwin in February 1928 and shaving the previous 28 day record to 15 ½ days. Pioneering female aviator Amy Johnson landed in Darwin in May 1930, whilst Lores Bonney set forth from here for her solo flight to England in April 1933.
I read in a social media thread that in WW2 a fighter pilot crash landed on a banyan tree on Hinkler Cres after his plane was shot. He was found in his aircraft hanging in the tree still breathing but died soon after. It has been rumored that his ghost haunts the location. Some have reported that at night they can hear strange heavy breathing sounds while others claim that on the location where a block of flats now stands, his poltergeist leaves the bedrooms cold.
Historical fact or urban myth, I have walked the surrounds of this park on Hinkler Cres looking for the tree, trying to imagine what his fleeting thoughts were as he was dying.
On the eve of my city’s conception 150 years ago, I decided to take a different route and head in the direction of Darwin’s Botanical Gardens.
As soon as I stepped out, I was engulfed by wild passion fruit vines that cover fences and walls. I was surrounded by nature outside of me wanting to devour me. My nostrils flared, infiltrated by plumes of frangipani and lime blossoms mingling with the scent of grass and rain.
I walked past the bus stop which exists under the canopy of majestic banyan tree, roots hanging and exposed, past a group of Indigenous men and women sitting near the old Fannie Bay gaol, a place where people were once hanged.
I thought of Rodney Claude Spencer, who was sent to Fannie Bay Gaol in 1890. He was the first European man to be convicted of killing an Aboriginal man in the Northern Territory.
Nermaluk from the Wadeye region also came to mind. He was tried and found guilty in 1934 of the murder of three Japanese shark-fishermen. His death sentence was later commuted to life. His notoriety was stoked when he escaped from the Fannie Bay Gaol while awaiting his trial. The tracker Bul-Bul assisted police in tracking him down.
I was filled with great alacrity by such thoughts. As significant as the devestation of Darwin during the Japanese bombing in WW2 and Cyclone Tracy in 1973 are, Darwin’s history comprises more than these events.
As I continued my walk down that strip of East Point, I noticed that many of the houses now were rebuilt after Cyclone Tracy. My study of the exterior of these houses felt elegiac.
I walked past dwellings in which families with familiar Greek and Italian surnames I grew up with - houses either camouflaged or ramshackled- showcasing the torn and traumatised individuals who inhabit them. In a small town we all know each other’s sorrows and regrets.
More recently on a recent bush-court trip to a remote community in a small plane, I had the advantage of a bird’s eye view, when I noticed cars moving like ants in single file across different directions along Bagot Road, Stuart Highway to the Westralia Steer shops. I struggled to pin point the location of my grandmother’s Stuart Park home under the thick canopy of green.
As the plane climbed higher, I saw Darwin as part of a floodwater system, with the Adelaide and Alligator River systems meandering into the interior through a myriad of estuaries, creating a plateau of wetlands which in the height of the wet season, attract a plethora of birdlife, wildlife that swarm Darwin and live beside the asphalt, concrete and steel.
In Darwin, suburbia exists inside nature. In Darwin, small insignificant lives breed and decay, love and hate, prosper and despair, linger and fester like blisters under the direct glare of an equatorial sun. Yet, these houses contain extraordinary tales which have never be written.
Living inside a floodplain, I am woken up by musical score which erupts at dawn when finches, cockatoos, galahs, psycho plovers, magpies and crows, all types of birds sing jubilantly at the rising sun, or I fall asleep to droning frogs and crickets, to the eerie cries of the Kirlew in the dark, and these bird sounds were as salient, and along with the swish of car tyres across wet streets formed the soundscape to my walk through to the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens.
Darwin, the place of my birth and my home town, is 150 years old. It is only recently that I have cared to learn that George Goyder and his team arrived on 5 February 1869, setting up camp just below where government house is located today.
A little before I left on my walk, I read an entry in the diary kept by G.W. Goyder, Surveyor General of the Northern Territory Expedition. It read:
3 February – Wednesday Schultze catching fish. Mare dropped foal Dr -9 cases “Lowther with a gathering in his hand – off duty – the most serious”
Friedrich Schultze, an Adelaide-based German naturalist, was the official naturalist on Goyder’s expedition. William Webster Hoare was the surgeon’s assistant and dispenser. Hoare was commissioned to paint watercolours to illustrate specimens collected by Schultze. Hoare also made an oil sketch of the landing place and camp upon the expedition’s arrival into Port Darwin on 5 February 1869.
In eight frantic months, Schultze and his son Alfred, sent 995 plant specimens back to Adelaide Botanic Garden and Museum. They also collected shells, fish, corals, sponges, fish, small vertebrates and insects and more than 600 bird skins. Hunting in the bush with loaded shotguns, they meticulously shot at the bird life, scattering a spray of bullets as such to secure a hit with minimal damage, collecting the most intact to preserve.
I wanted to take photographs of my walk to the Botanical gardens on the eve of Darwin’s 150th anniversary. As a student of art history, I was conscious of the grand art historical narratives shaping interpretations of the Australian landscape and botanical art. Much of this type of art developed out of scientific studies - in Hoare’s case to capture the colour of the flora and fauna specimens collected. In days before colour photography, drawing and painting served scientific purposes.
I photographed the landscape to make it tangible; trying to understand my relationship to this space; trying to connect my time with its history; trying to figure out what this history has to do with me.
Goyder’s diary on 6 February 1869 reads as follows:
Most of the country thickly timbered, grass long and of but little service for stock. Visited in the evening by two native boys in a canoe.
The young men in the canoe that visited Goyder’s group were Billiamuk and Umballa.
Many of the Top End Indigenous tribes had had contact with the outside world prior to Goyder’s arrival. They had traded with Macassans in trepang. Naval and merchant ships had been charting through the Torres Straight for hundreds of years meeting the local indigenous groups. There had been earlier failed British settlements at Fort Dundas (1824-1828), Port Essington (1838-1849) and the settlement at Escape Cliffs (1864-1867).
Historians have claimed that the initial contact between the survey party and the local Larrakia was friendly. It began to deteriorate, understandably, when the surveying party armed with guns, theodolites, stakes and string, started to measure, demarcate and appropriate territory. Tensions flared, leading to the spearing of two of Goyder’s expedition party at Adelaide River.
John Bennett was speared alongside William Guy, while they were compiling a vocabulary of the Wulna language and place names. This sparked a series of reprisals from other members of the surveying party, including an immediate vigilante style gunning down of five innocent Larrakia men at Fannie Bay. The ‘killing times’ of the 1880s and 1890s began.
Darwin is the only Australian capital city to have been photographed since its inception as a city. Joseph Brooks was the official photographer on Goyder’s expedition. He was soon joined by Captain Samuel Sweet whose photographs are distinguishable by the characteristic anchor he inscribed onto the glass plate before printing.
Darwin’s first police officer, Inspector Paul Foelsche who arrived a year later, was also an avid photographer. His portraits of many Larrakia people include one of Billiamuk, taken in 1880, wearing a kangaroo teeth headdress. Incidentally Billamuk who also spent some time in Fannie Bay Gaol for various misdemeanors involving alcohol, made some pencil drawings which featured in 1888 “Dawn of Art” exhibition in Melbourne, copies of which are now on display inside the Fannie Bay Gaol museum.
While I am mindful of the role photography has played as an instrument of colonial expansion, I am intrigued by the early photographs of my city. I note depictions of Fort Hill which no longer exists, the first road, winding up what is now Hughes Avenue. I study with immense curiosity, the group photo of Larrakia people taken in what was then named Cavanagh square, now the Mirambeena Hotel. I note that while the image was taken in 1870, several men are wearing shirts and trousers.
As I walk, I have a sudden flashback to a young Aboriginal person I represented who appeared in the local court dock with a swollen, broken jaw. Then just as sudden I am flooded with images of the number of forensic photographs, I have seen of aboriginal victims bruised, slashed, stitched, violated, amputated, dismembered, mutilated, dead.
The Fannie Bay Gaol, now a museum, was superseded by Berrimah Jail, which is now the notorious Don Dale Juvenile penitentiary. The adult prison is now Holtze Correctional Centre with its revolving doors, swallowing in and pumping out recidivists who return for longer terms, the stark irony of today’s post-contact lot for many Indigenous people.
As I crossed Goyder Road and entered Gilruth Avenue, I passed Salonika street, so named by the number of Greeks from Thessaloniki who congregated there post WW2. Almost 10 per cent of contemporary Darwin’s population is of Greek heritage and most of them hail from Kalymnos.
My father left the small Aegean Island of Kalymnos as a 16yo boy in 1954 to work as a labourer in construction in this inhospitable climate. My mother was 12yo and thriving at school before she was torn from the opportunity her intelligence afforded her, moving to Darwin with her family in 1960 to settle for anonymity and a dull domestic life at the edge of a frontier.
My maternal grandfather was the leading cantor in St Nicholas Orthodox Church on Cavenagh street. For over fifty years he chanted in Church every Sunday. He then drove his taxi around the streets of Darwin whistling and chanting orthodox hymns. My maternal grandparents are buried in the McMillan’s Road cemetery.
My father’s family was displaced from Asia Minor, and impoverished by relentless Ottoman, Prussian, Italian and German wars. My paternal grandfather fled to Kalymnos with his mother and four siblings from Tsimoukli, a little village north of Bodrum. His own father, a prosperous farmer was killed in the population exchange wars between Greece and Turkey. My mother’s parents were displaced during WW2 and spent time in refugee camps in Palestine.
I am the product of people ripped apart, impoverished and displaced by the accumulation of horrendous wars to these shores.
As a child I had dreams of running backwards along streets in Stuart Park, to get away, unable to move, in lucid dreams I felt the forces pulling me back. As an adolescent, cyclonic forces would lift me up until I was high above the clouds, throwing me and thrashing me, until I was left to drop, falling, falling, about to splat, until the same force lifted me up, suspending me, my nose just touching the ground.
We are the people at the edge of a frontier traumatised by forces we don’t know how to understand.
I come from a community who languished under the weight of nostalgia. A community that rarely engaged in culture making, producing little to no written narratives, poetry, or songs to assert that we exist in this place with a desire to form a significant part of its cultural and heritage record.
Over the entrance to the Kalymnian Brotherhood Hall, in Marrara, an outer Darwin suburb, there is the inscription, over the car park entrance that reads μην τη καλυμνο ξεχναs or never forget Kalymnos.
We are the people at the edge of frontier who have struggled to belong.
As I wandered down Gilthruth Avenue, I became aware of the little footbridge, the first project my brothers’ building company scored in the early 2000s. It’s a wooden footbridge, not a significant landmark, not a structure that would necessitate a historical record.
I remember driving past the little footbridge, with a car-full of friends, noting my father, two brothers and an infant nephew working on site. I had never walked it until now, the slow walk across the weatherproof planks, took me back into a time that has faded and will eventually be lost.
As I walked into the heart of the Gardens and noticed the play equipment where my brothers and sisters once played when we were young, I felt the bittersweet pain of lost innocence.
I exited the Gardens and noticed the old cemetery. I resolved to find a way to stitch the random meandering memories and reflections together, to undertake the task of writing the sum parts of an afternoon’s walk as a historical instance, not to understand my place in terms of world history, but as an exercise on the eve of my city's sesquicentennial anniversary to articulate my own connection to this place.
This writing piece was informed by the following excellent resources: