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Northern Territory History, Language and Culture

History of Northern Territory

It was as recently as 1869 that the settlement of Palmerston (later to become Darwin) was founded on Australia’s north coast, breathing life into the Territory’s modern history.

The region, however, was about as far from being new to human settlement as it’s possible to get – indigenous inhabitants had occupied the land for up to 60,000 years. It remains somewhere rich in Aboriginal heritage, and a fitting place to learn more about the traditional landowners’ ancient if enigmatic culture.

It was actually the state of South Australia – having recently acquired the country’s “northern territory” – that settled Palmerston, hoping to turn it into a trading post for the British Empire. Things began well with the 1872 opening of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), a remarkable feat of engineering that provided communication links from Australia’s south to its north – and, by consequence, to the outside world.

The line would not have been possible without the pioneering exploits of John McDouall Stuart, after whom the north-south Stuart Highway is now named. More fortuitous was the discovery of gold at Pine Creek by workers erecting pylons for the OTL, which led to a gold rush that saw more settlers descend on the Top End.

By 1911, having survived a cyclone and changed its name to Darwin (a nod to the fact that the HMS Beagle once laid anchor here), the outpost had become a small but efficient government centre. The Northern Territory gained a hard-earned reputation as a place of individual spirit, extreme weather and larger-than-life characters.

Darwin took a battering from Japanese air raids during II, and it was partly a sense of panic over possible invasion that then led to the construction of the aforementioned Stuart Highway, which connected Darwin to another settlement from the OTL era, Alice Springs, and on to South Australia.

The Territory went on to prosper in the decades after war, before Cyclone Tracy rolled in on Christmas Eve 1974 and reduced much of Darwin to rubble. Since then, however, strong links with Asia, a robust mining industry and a growing awareness of the region’s super-sized tourism offering (where else can boast the likes of Uluru and Kakadu?) has given it much to be optimistic about.

Did you know?
• The Museum of the NT still exhibits a 780kg saltwater crocodile caught in 1979. Its name? Sweetheart.
• The remote airstrip adjacent to the Daly Waters pub was formerly used by Qantas as a refuelling stop en route to Singapore.
• On the lookout for aliens? Call in at Wycliffe Well on the Stuart Highway, self-billed as the UFO Capital of Australia.
• In WWII more bombs fell on Darwin than on Pearl Harbour.

Northern Territory Culture