I was ten years old when we moved to Darwin in the middle of 1974. Our family left Sydney on a high, excited about the Territorian adventure that was in front of us. A whole new way of life…
Little did we know, we were in for a once in a lifetime experience.. a natural disaster of epic proportions. In fact, the largest natural disaster in Australia’s written history.
We initially moved into a house in Parap, where I went to the local school for a few weeks until we relocated to a house in Britomart Gardens in Alawa, and I settled into Grade 6 at Alawa Primary School. I had the most amazing teacher, Mr McGuire. I can picture him to this day. My cousin Carol was in my class and we quickly developed a close bond, passing notes to each other about boys, attending the school social (as they were called back then) and even playing spin the bottle at parties (don’t tell Mum!). Ha! We were wild back in the 70s lol…
Darwin in those days was a multicultural tropical haven, unlike anywhere else I had ever been. With such a laid back, casual lifestyle we soon settled into a routine of BBQs, camping, socialising and adjusting to the oppressive humidity of the build up to the wet season. My first school camp was to Batchelor, on the edge of Litchfield National Park (Kakadu). I’ll never forget it. The kid from Sydney’s North Shore, now immersed in the wild frontier of the Northern Territory. Everything was just so… amazing.
It wasn’t long before December was upon us and we again relocated to some flats in Vanderlin Drive. I’m now thankful we moved into the ground floor… we probably wouldn’t be here today if we had either stayed in the house at Alawa, or moved into the top floor at Vanderlin Drive.
I’ll cut straight to the quick now… 24th December 1974.
All of Darwin was celebrating Christmas Eve, with parties, get togethers, family gatherings, the works. This included my Mum and Dad, having a few drinks with friends, a little nonchalant about the approaching storm. Most of the population of Darwin were a little jaded with Cyclone warnings as we’d only had one pass by earlier in the month. Cyclone Selma had been predicted to hit Darwin, but it instead went north and dissipated without affecting Darwin in any way. Unfortunately for many, this was probably their undoing in terms of preparation.
So our little family of four bunkered down for the night, in our little 2 bedroom flat on the ground floor… I remember Dad going around, taping up windows, while we listened to the cyclone warnings on the radio, that were now happening on the hour, preceded by that awful wailing siren that still gives me chills to this day.
We put most of our belongings into the front bedroom of our flat, hoping that there wouldn’t be too much damage. We sat around in the early hours of the evening listening to the radio, with my sister Kylie and I singing Christmas Carols, as the wind and rain got stronger and louder. Dad decided to record us singing with the old fashioned tape deck and microphone. The recording finishes with the sound of our front glass sliding doors cracking under the pressure and Dad yelling at my sister and I to get away from the doors… then the power goes out. It’s an eerie recording, to say the least. It was eventually picked up by the ABC and it can still be heard in the Cyclone Tracy Museum in Darwin I believe.
After this little incident, we decided to move to the bedroom that my sister and I shared, with all of us and the cat and a couple of our dolls, squeezing under one single bed. This is where we stayed for the next 7 hours…
As the night progressed, the wind and rain became stronger and the noise louder. The noise is something I will never, ever forget. A constant deafening roar, like a freight train busting through our loungeroom all night long. Flashes of lightning gave us glimpses of each other as we huddled together, wondering what was to become of us.
After what seemed like an eternity of chaos, the wind began to ease. But it wasn’t the end… we knew what was happening. As the eye of the cyclone passed directly overhead, we were blanketed by an eerie calm. I think I remember Dad getting up and checking on a few things in the unit and I could hear people’s voices outside. I remember being worried about whoever they were and wondering if they knew it was the eye and that the wind would return.
And return it did…with a vengeance… after 3 or 4 hours of everything being battered from one direction, many buildings were at their weakest and it didn’t take long for the change in direction to wreak havoc. I could hear screaming coming from the upstairs flat, the crashing of metal and bricks and rain pelting on the windows. At one point Dad decided to get up and open the window in our bedroom, to release the pressure building up and he very nearly got sucked out into the night. At that same moment, a huge water tank from the roof came crashing down and landed next to the bedroom window. Dad told us that he saw the flats next door crumbling to the ground while the lightning flashed. Mum didn’t believe him…
Our room slowly filled with water and leaves and I remember being cold. Very cold. At some stage I wanted to put the cat in the cupboard, which was at the foot of the bed, and I think Dad eventually did. She was safer in there, poor thing.
The night dragged on with what seemed like the end of the world happening outside, and as it turned out, we were one of the lucky families…we escaped with our lives, and most of our belongings.
To walk out of what used to be our front doors on that fateful morning, is an experience that has remained with me for 40 years. Absolute silence, not a breath of wind, a bird, a car.. nothing. No leaves on the trees, barely any trees at all. The place was flattened. Our car was crushed in the middle of a line of cars that were in our car park.. People started emerging from what was left of their houses. Our Greek neighbours from upstairs were crying and screaming as they had lost their little boy. So we formed a neighbourhood search party to find him, and thankfully we eventually did. The flats upstairs were completely gutted. I still don’t know to this day how that family survived.
My sister, Mum and I were evacuated out of Darwin a few days later on an American Starlifter. I distinctly recall that flight. A woman up one end was in labour and a guy at the other end was having some kind of heart failure… all the while, hundreds of us sat on the floor of this gigantic aircraft as we flew to the safety of Sydney. Dad stayed on in Darwin for the clean up and Mum went back a few months later, while my sister and I stayed with my Grandparents until we were allowed to go back to Darwin.
We lived in a demountable for over 12 months until the rebuild started to take hold and we eventually moved into a brand new suburb, filled with concrete houses that were not built for the climate… Darwin changed significantly after Tracy, the old Darwin was left behind with the memories, but still an amazing place to grow up.
The carefree lifestyle of old, where I rode my bike all over the place, for hours on end, with no mobile phone, social media or iPods or much technology at all to be honest. But I always came home when the street lights came on…