Meteors sparkled in the sky on the evening in 1839 when HMS Beagle entered Darwin harbour. It seemed to the crew an auspicious sign, but it was the first of many dashed hopes for Darwin. Thirty years later, a government surveyor dreamed of pegging out a city gracious with wide boulevards and public parks, but the town only lurched into existence, hampered by its remoteness.
The surveyor was G. W. Goyder, who in 1869 decided X marked the spot here on the rusty edge of Australia, and laid out a street grid modelled on his hometown Adelaide. Yet even now Darwin's streets seem tenuous. In downtown Raintree Park a huge banyan rucks up the pavement and dwarfs surrounding shops. The city erupts in lemon-scented gums and vivid tropical flowers, and the air is heavy as wet flannel.
I'm meeting tour guide John Hart on Knuckey Street, one of many downtown Darwin streets named for its original surveyors, and find him beneath a skinny statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart, who points towards an insurance company. Stuart was indeed skinny, John tells me. He suffered from scurvy and malnutrition and finished his last expedition carried on a litter.
This is why I'm doing a tour. Darwin's history is short but wildly improbable. Few of its buildings are camera friendly, but its colourful characters invite astonishment and admiration. Such as Ellen Ryan, owner of the Old Vic Hotel in the 1890s, as John explains as he leads me along Smith Street to Darwin's most historic hotel.
"Imagine a woman in those days and in this raw settlement. She turned the town's first two-storey stone building into the Ritz of its day, and sent her husband packing with only 50 pounds to his name. She's a legend!"
The Old Vic survived three major cyclones, World War II bombing and a servicemen's riot but finally had the character kicked out of it by a shopping complex development. Panels in the courtyard, though, tell the story of the many early aviation pioneers who stayed here and scratched their names in the brickwork. The Smith brothers stayed in 1919 when they became the first to fly a plane from England to Australia. Charles Kingsford Smith arrived in 1930 when he broke the England-to-Australia record with a flight that took nine days, 21 hours and 40 minutes.
My guide John, founder of Walk Darwin, knows all this and more about Darwin's early days, and brings the city to life. Our next stop is the 1929 Star Theatre, once the centre of the city's social life. Bushmen, buffalo hunters, government officials, Chinese and Aborigines all mingled here on Wednesday and Saturday evenings to enjoy the moving pictures. The building is now just a ghostly post-Cyclone Tracy outline of its former self, but you can still see the old projector and the original star that topped the roof, its brackets bent out of shape by the wind.
Between WWII bombing and 1974 cyclone, little of heritage Darwin remains. You can see Japanese bullet holes in the Westpac building. An old bank vault inside Rorkes restaurant is now transformed into a private dining room – a good spot to be if there's another cyclone, as John observes. The 1885 ruins of the town hall are further up the street.
Onward we walk, past colonial-era buildings that were once brothels and trading stores and naval headquarters. They won't win architecture prizes and are seldom seen on Instagram, but they're beautiful with human-interest drama. Darwin isn't a glamorous place, but this larrikin city tells a darn good Australian story.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy NT Tourism and Coral Expeditions.
Walk Darwin has several different tours focusing on World War II, Chinese heritage or influential historical characters. The two-hour Darwin Heritage Walk costs $45pp. Phone 0428 183 444, see walkdarwin.com.au
Vibe Hotel Darwin Waterfront has large, pleasant rooms and great location on Darwin's seafront entertainment and dining hub. Downtown Darwin is a short walk away. See vibehotels.com