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by Dick Gill
24/12/2014, is the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, it was a significant day for the Top End, the end of the old ways.
I had been working for a few years as assistant manager/overseer/mustering pilot on a property called Bradshaw’s Run, a 4000 square mile cattle run on the north side of the Victoria River, 300 km south of Darwin.
Darwin and Katherine were our towns but for a good kickup, during the Wet and weather permitting, we’d head for Darwin. Avgas was just 12 cents a litre and a ninety minute flight compared to an 8 hour drive, if the tide was out at the 6 Mile on the Angalarri.
Darwin was a great, lively place in those days, and the town was a tropical mass of trees so you could barely see a house. A lot of the old cattlemen and their wives had retired up there, air conditioners were a thing of the future, a big bush town run on the old lines and we had a lot of friends there. George Kallis had a 16 foot croc in a caged pool in his back yard, and his neighbours weren’t nervous.
At about 9am on the morning of 24th, the manager Rowly Walker, and his wife and myself left the station to do some last minute Christmas shopping in Darwin, which may infer we were getting low on rum. We left their two little daughters with a couple of good old lubras, and headed north under heavy cloud.
I was flying the new Cessna 185, VH-WTK, which the new station owners, an Israeli company, had recently bought to replace the old Cessna 180, which was a great machine but lacked the power to fly down into the gorges to start up the wild cattle, and then get back over the top.
We were flying in light rain at about 4000ft, and at 80 miles out of Darwin I called the tower for airways clearance. They told me that there was a cyclone to the west of the city, heading southwest, and gave me clearance with advice that it was raining, which was not a problem.
We had a brief discussion in the cockpit and decided that rather than risk getting stuck in Darwin overnight and loading the kids on Maggie and Peggy we’d divert to Katherine, so I advised Darwin of the amended flight plan. We were home at Bradshaw by 1830 with light rain and some heavier stuff on the way.
We had no phone, a radio telephone was due to be installed after the Wet, we had no ABC radio reception being out of range, just the 5300 HF radio contact to VKF Wyndham for telegrams and local skeds, so we were unaware of the drama in Darwin, and it was three days before we heard about it.
The amended flight plan to Katherine was a good idea, the cyclone changed course during the late morning and the aerodrome was closed to all traffic once they established its new course, and while we were still shopping. Every aircraft at Darwin was destroyed, WTK had only 45 hours on it and would have been hard to replace so we were lucky, in more ways than one.
We flew up to Darwin a few days later and the damage was quite incredible, hardly a leaf on any tree but nothing to see with the houses mostly gone. A refrigerator embedded in the side of a water tank 80 feet off the ground on Goyder Road, huge steel beam power poles bent flat to the ground on Lee Point Road.
Darwin was rebuilt, plus the air conditioners, but minus all those great old Top End characters that gave the place its history and charm, those that survived mainly left for Adelaide and stayed there, and we missed them.
As we move on you would hope that things would improve, but it would be unlikely you could improve on Darwin of the early 70’s, but that is just a sentimental biased opinion of a man born out of his time.
In any case, Darwin, good luck to you.
China Walls Tooma
This was written by me and given to my local paper, the Tumbarumba Times, to be printed next Wednesday, 24/12/14.
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