I will state here and now I was not in cyclone Tracy. I wasn’t even born when it hit. I was born in Darwin two years later and have strong memories of growing up in a town, in an environment, that was slowly recovering from that horrific event.
This blog post is more about how cyclone Tracy shaped my early life and therefore shaped who I am. Even two years after it happened it was changing people, shaping our lives. Actually, it was doing that for many years after it happened. For the first five or so years of my life, people lived in real fear of each and every cyclone that hit. For those who had been in Darwin for Tracy, the memories were still raw and the fear still so real and fresh. For those who had moved into the wreckage, the desolation, the landscape stripped bare by the giant storm, they too were afraid of each new cyclone in case it showed them what it had been like to be in that nightmare.
For those of you reading this and having no idea what I’m talking about, cyclone Tracy was a category four cyclone that hit Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australian on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 1974. It was a huge storm, like a hurricane but spinning in the opposite direction, and it destroyed the town. Wiped basically everything out, houses, trees, planes, boats and people. Sixty six people in all died. Fifty three on the land and thirteen at sea. Horribly, most of the fatalities were children… in some cases smothered to death by parents protecting them from the fierce winds and flying debris.
For more factual information on this massive storm, please visit the National Archives of Australia’s official page on the event. As my post isn’t about retelling the horror of an event I wasn’t even there for. It’s about how the recovering Darwin shaped me. Actually, writing this I’ve found some very fascinating blogs and sites that recount Darwin, the cyclone and the rebuild. I highly recommend anyone interested in learning more to google the topic and start reading. There’s some great stuff out there!
So, I was born in Darwin two years after the cyclone that destroyed over seventy percent of the buildings. A lot had changed by then, new buildings had been built, some of the older buildings had been restored and most of the storm debris was removed. I mean, there was still the twisted “three girders” from a house that later became a monument. There were still the trees with parts of people’s roofs embedded in them. Actually, those trees and their shrapnel were still around well into my adult life. They might even still be there, I don’t know, I moved away from Darwin nearly twenty years ago as it had changed from the one I had loved growing up.
And I don’t mean that in a completely negative way… not really. It was inevitable that Darwin would change because the one I grew up in was more a stop gap measure to most, than an actual city. With the threat of another cyclone still red raw in their memories, the houses were built like concrete bunkers ensuring they would survive another onslaught. The landscape was new and barren. Stripped bare by the winds and destruction, I remember Darwin growing up as being a near treeless place. Lots of bare earth and the ability to watch my father drive home from the university (then Community College) from about the half way point as there was no real foliage in between. Being in the tropics that barren earth soon turned green and was swallowed up by fast growing trees like African mahogany and black wattles. But I still remember it.
Cyclone Tracy shaped where I went to school. As the school chosen for my older siblings and therefore me was one of the first schools restored and accepting students when it was time for my sister to go. It shaped how I played at school as I still have memories of the playground the army had built for the children. It was a lot of wooden structures and netting (think army obstacle course) and I still remember burning my bottom on the searing hot slippery dip (slide) as I studied its construction… being made out of forty four gallon drums beaten flat and then welded together. I can’t see my children being allowed to play on such equipment these days, but this was the late 70’s and early 80’s and kids were different back then. 😉
In a lot of ways Cyclone Tracy even shaped my after school care and activities. As some of this time I spent in good old Building eighteen and the then Darwin Community College. My father worked there and was part of the department that tested blends of concrete and other building materials to ensure they were strong enough to meet the new building codes. The building codes introduced after Tracy. Building eighteen was the science building and so my early childhood was one of science and learning the different things like biology, botany, engineering, geology, entomology and all the other “the study of” sciences there. These were people brought to the north to study Darwin after the cyclone. To see how the plants, animals and insects were doing after such a massive shock to the natural world too.
An example of this people may not believe is when green ants came back to Darwin. Yes, green ants! This happened in my life time! This shaped my upbringing too. See, we used to have a Poinciana tree in our front yard and every year it would be decimated by a type of caterpillar we called a looper. I really don’t remember it’s actual name, they were just loopers as they looped along… a bit like the images I’ve seen of an inchworm. So, these loopers would appear in plague proportions every year and wipe out all the Poinciana trees in the neighbourhood. They would get everywhere and were a real pest. Then one year we noticed this strange orange ant with a green bum. We’d never seen one before and they were new to Darwin in the eyes of we new residents in this ever recovering city. They were the green ants. A native ant that had been in that part of Australia for longer than any of us. But I had never seen one because cyclone Tracy had decimated their population so much they had disappeared. This ‘new’ ant had travelled a long way to this lush new world to replace its dead relatives. They had marched north to discover no other tree dwelling ant in their road and they took over. They weren’t a pest, despite our hatred of their giant leafy nests in our road, they were back where they belonged. It had taken them almost ten years, but the green ants returned to Darwin. We didn’t have much of a problem with the loopers after that and our Poinciana even flowered and had a seed pod it recovered so well! Another momentous moment, seeing a Poinciana flower… as it wasn’t something I’d seen before thanks to the hungry loopers.
Having entomologists setting insect traps in your yard and getting excited over discovering a new bug or moth is another memory. Their fascination on life returning rubbed off on me. I think that’s why the little things in life still fascinate me so much. The miracles of nature most people walk blindly past that bring a smile to my face for witnessing.
For people bored of this blog and not getting the point, let me try and explain it better. I grew up in this new, growing and recovering environment. It was the only life I ever knew. As far as I was concerned this was how life was. Buildings the same age, or younger, than yourself. Panic at the first sign of a cyclone. That siren warning to let you know it’s time to go home and buckle down as another cyclone was about to hit. To me, this was normal. Didn’t everyone grow up in science labs, play on old army equipment and watch trees and buildings grow with them? Discover new animals in their yards and watch life explode into existence from a desolate and dirty barren waste land?
The first time I saw a building that was fifty years old – while visiting family interstate – I was in awe. Real, everyday people got to live in such old buildings? Weren’t old building just special places the rich lived in? Or the Government? Yes, fifty years old was old to me! Buildings in my life were the same age as me. You should have seen my reaction the first time I came face to face with stone statues that were over seven hundred years old! Awe was an understatement. Old things were alien to me, as old meant the same age you were… didn’t it?
And so cyclone Tracy shaped my fascination in old manmade creations. From art and architecture through to books and literature… life existed before cyclone Tracy and not everyone lived in a place as old as them with belongings of the same age. Some were lucky enough to live in places decades older than themselves. Centuries even! How lucky were they? And yet they didn’t even seem to realise this.Yes, I was a child and so my views on the world were limited to what I understood, but I hope you can understand it all the same.
Growing up in Darwin itself also shaped me. What I deemed ‘normal’ others see as rather over the top and in some cases insane. A place that had no rain and bushfires for eight months of the year and then four months of cyclones, mild flooding and near constant rain… that’s normal. What do you mean we’re meant to have four seasons? Two is all we needed. Cold, what was cold? Wasn’t that a stuffed up nose that got you off school for a few days? Of course all the food is in the fridge or freezer or tinned and dehydrated. It would go off otherwise! Nah mate, that was just a python, not anything to be afraid of. Yes it was a snake… but there’s a difference between a venomous one and just a python. Yes, termites fly and the air is filled with them at the first rains of the season. Try and not inhale them. That thing on the wall? It’s just a gecko… no, don’t pick it up by its tail! There’s mould on your leather shoes? I hate to break it to you, but it’s March and there’s mould on everything right now, including you! Hell yes the soil can even kill you, there’s a bacteria in it that comes up with the water table in the wet and I really don’t think you should go walking in it in bare feet with that cut you’ve got there.
No, I’m not making any of that up… I really have said it to strangers to the north over my life time. 🙂
And so, realising cyclone Tracy was forty years ago this Christmas… I started to wonder exactly how many people still in Darwin remember it the same way I do. I know of a few, as I still have friends and family there. But when Darwin lost its fear of cyclones and people from the south moved up there, turned their noses up at what the tropics were like and pulled it all down and put up their view of what the tropics should be like… I had to leave. I’d lost my Darwin and an even newer one had been put in its place.
So as much as I love my Darwin… it doesn’t exist anymore. I still call it my hometown, even if the one I remember is no longer there. You can never go home, but it continues you shape you throughout your life and you need to acknowledge your past, embrace the present and enjoy the prospect of the future. My Darwin has changed and gone, but the one that is there now is just as important and I hope they’re never put through another cyclone like Tracy.
Not exactly the sort of Christmas post people usually send out… but cyclone Tracy shaped Christmas for me too… doesn’t everyone have tape on their windows at that time of year? You mean it’s not part of the decorations? 😉
Be safe, remind your friends and family how awesome they are and how loved they are and realise we don’t all see the world the same way as we didn’t all have the same childhood as you. Or even look on the same environment we were growing up in in the same way you did.
Until next time,
December 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm
Like you I was born post-Tracey (2 weeks after, in PNG) and my Dad moved us to Darwin about 2 years later, he also had a job at DCC, but it was the library that was my playground. There were only a few buildings there then. Our first house was one of those ‘concrete bunkers’ near DCC and then we moved into the newly cleared and built northern suburbs a couple of years later (sheltered from Max and Gretel in the shed underneath our elevated house). My first school was maybe the same one that you went to – I have vague memories of a slippery dip and roundabout built in the same fashion.
Last week I read ‘warning – the story of cyclone tracy’ published earlier this year. I’ve had a strange nostalgia since (but I agree, for a different Darwin, I haven’t been back in 10 years) and I was googling about people’s stories and came across your blog post. It has resonated with me – I understand what you mean about towns and architecture that are older than you are. I couldn’t believe when I went to Rome and looked at hand hewn blocks in the ruins. Some guy in a toga and sandals made those marks with his chisel how long ago?!
thanks for sharing, Colette.
December 22, 2014 at 3:11 pm
Wow! Glad this wasn’t a ‘just me’ moment. 🙂 My first home was a caravan in the parking lot of DCC where the tennis courts are. Then we moved to the concrete bunker out in Anula.
And I was a Tiwi girl myself… also long gone.
Thanks for leaving this comment, it means a lot that others of my generation got the same feel from old Darwin. 🙂