Darwin Street Art – part one

There are so many great reasons to visit Darwin, especially in the dry season. During my visit last year, I discovered another. The Darwin Street Art Festival invites local, national and international artists to transform the streets and laneways of the CBD into a giant art gallery. Eight murals were painted in the  first year, 2017, followed by sixteen in 2018. A further fifteen were added each year in 2019 and 2020. We embarked on a wondrous voyage of discovery one morning, not realising the magnitude of the undertaking. Our introduction was a colourful graphic work by Melburnian urban artist Andrew Bourke (more about him later).

Riece Ranson started as a graffiti writer in London before moving on to murals. He has paid homage to his love of the coastline and fishing in the Northern Territory with his painting of a Queensland Groper.

Belgian artist, Vexx, incorporated his signature colourful ‘doodles’ to put his own twist on Darwin’s deadly animal, the crocodile.

Beneath the crocodile, in 2020 Northern Territory based visual artist, Polly Johnstone (Miss Polly), raised the question of what the future will bring.

Vibrant graphics burst forth from drab walls and a more subtle illustration emerged from the pavement.

Roller doors provided an alternative canvas for a nature-inspired triptych.

Saltwater Home was a collaboration between Sydneysider Tim De Haan (Phibs) and Darwin-born Larrakia man, Shaun Lee (Hafleg) in 2017. Both men grew up by the ocean and have blended elements of saltwater life with a Larrakia design presented in stunning colours of the outback .

Although not part of the Street Art Festival, some quirky animation graced the walls of the Babylon Bar at the Austin Lane end of Air Raid Arcade.

At the other end of the arcade on Cavenagh Street, the recently opened Birth of Venus Bar was similarly embellished.

Melburnian Mike Maka’s (Makatron) 2017 creation, Poppies for the People, was inspired by the location adjacent to the Darwin RSL Club. The mural links and contrasts the iconic red poppies of the World War I battlefield of France to the green of the tropical vegetation in the Top End.

Explorer John McDouall Stuart was the subject of local NT artist Ryan Medlicott’s portrait in 2018.

House of Darwin is a clothing company that reinvests its profits into social programs in remote Indigenous communities. Graphic designer and illustrator Liam Milner (Luna Tunes) painted a huge building in support of the project in 2019.

Native flora of the Northern Territory feature in the vibrant 2019 work by self-taught local artist, Jason Lee.

Once an illegal graffiti artist in New York, ELLE created a collage style painting in 2018 to tell the history of Darwin. The central image of an Aboriginal woman’s face has one Chinese eye, representing the influx of Chinese during the Goldrush. ELLE was fascinated by the accounts of lightning starting fires in the bush and the Black Kite picking up twigs from the fire and dropping them to spread the fires further in order to burn out food. She has used this creature as well as local flora to symbolise resilience, beauty, strength and pride.

Phibs, once again, contributed in 2018 with an abstract impression of the diverse flora and fauna found in the Northern Territory using a colour palette as seen in Darwin sunsets.

Tom Gerrard (Aeon) has a passion for finding shapes that shape a city and in 2017, the Melbourne-based artist teamed up with locals David Collins and Les Huddleston to capture some of the Top End’s most iconic structures. Gerrard has used his distinctive minimalist colour palette of red, black and white for the work entitled Darwin.

In 2018, Andrew Bourke combined his talents with NT artist Jesse Bell to honour the memory of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. The talented Aboriginal musician passed away in July 2017 and, with blessings from his family, the artists have immortalised his image with the lyrics from his song Baru (The Saltwater Crocodile) in the background.

The following year, a piece of traditional Aboriginal design by Nyanpanyapa (Wendy) Yunupingu accompanied her late brother, Gurrumul.

On the opposite wall of the car park are two more magnificent pieces that complement each other. Multidimensional Man, painted by Melburnian Peter Seaton (CTO) in 2018, is a portrait of Hilton Garnarradj an Aboriginal guide from Arnhem Land.

A year later, Brisbane based artist Russell Orrie Fenn (Sofles) added the Interdimensional Space Crab alongside using the same tones as the Aboriginal man.

Polly Johnstone’s 2017 work, For the Love of Reading, features an image of Darwin local Artia Ratahi, representing the diverse culture of the community. The background is inspired by the colours of the Top End from the soil and crystal blue waters to the pinks and purples of the sunsets.

Another Darwin resident, Emma Murphy, combined fashion and nature for her bold creation in 2019. Models faces morph into birds, inspired by the Kookaburra, Hooded Parrot and the Rainbow Bee-eater bird.

Ryan Medlicott’s 2019 mural depicts the rare Oenpelli Python, the longest snake in the NT found only in the sandstone massif of western Arnhem Land.

With a lunch date looming, we ran out of time to complete our mission and returned a few days later but that will be another post. I could find no information on these last two paintings except the second one is titled Winner.

Karlštejn Castle

The last thing I expected to see in a rural location 100km south of Darwin was a Bohemian Castle.

The town of Batchelor, with a population around 500, was established in the early 1950s following the discovery of uranium at Rum Jungle. Czech immigrant, Bernie Havlik, worked in the mines from 1954 until its closure in 1971. For the next six years he served on the town gardening crew before retiring in 1977. He had been frustrated by a stubborn rocky outcrop in a park in the town centre that had proved impossible to move, and set about creating a replica of Karlštejn Castle.

Situated an hour from Prague in Bernie’s homeland, the original castle was built between 1348 and 1357 for Emperor Charles IV, King of Bohemia. The Bohemian Crown Jewels, holy relics and other royal treasures were kept safe within the walls of the castle.

Bernie worked on his construction for five years and continued to add finishing touches and carry out repairs until his death in 1990. Havlik Park is dedicated to Bernie as a tribute to his community spirit.

Unable to travel to Bohemia, I have appropriated a photo of Karlštejn Castle from Google maps for comparison.

Florence Falls

We had worked up an appetite with our morning explorations of Litchfield Park and found a secluded spot for a picnic lunch alongside Florence Creek.

The spring fed watercourse bubbles along, tumbling over a series of cascades until it reaches the escarpment at Florence Falls.

A stunning panorama from the viewing platform takes in the lush monsoon forest surrounding the falls.

The multi-tiered falls drop around 40 metres in total while the main cascade is around 20 metres.

There are 160 steps to the swimming hole at the base of the falls. Tempting though it was to cool off in the pristine water, the return climb would have been a step too far.

Termite Mounds

Not only does Litchfield Park have spectacular waterfalls, it is also home to hundreds of magnetic termite mounds. Unique to northern parts of Australia, the two metre high structures are built with their thin edges pointing north-south and broad sides facing east-west.

Amitermes meridionalis, commonly known as the Magnetic Termite, have cleverly grasped the concept of thermo-regulation and this orientation creates high humidity and stable temperatures within the mound.

A large mound may house up to a million termites comprising the queen, king, reproductives, soldiers and workers. Although the exterior is hard and durable, the material inside separating the chambers and galleries is a papery texture.

Another fascinating inhabitant of this area is Nasutitermes triodiae, the Cathedral Termite. Their mounds are much bigger, reaching four to eight metres in height and the hollow columns inside create a central air-conditioning system to enable the colony to remain cool.

There is a very impressive example of a cathedral termite mound, estimated to be over 50 years old, surrounded by a boardwalk to allow for closer inspection.

These feisty little insects have a long, horn-like snout with which they can cut grass to add to saliva, sand and faeces to make the mound. They can defend the colony by shooting chemical secretions from their snout to irritate and repel invaders.

Some Aborigines believe that anyone who knocks over a mound will get diarrhoea. Coincidentally, termite mounds contain high proportions of kaolin, a compound used for the treatment of indigestion and diarrhoea.

Tolmer Falls

Feeling inspired by our Wangi Falls expedition, we ventured 10km further down the road to walk the 1.6km Tolmer Creek loop before lunch. The trail started with an easy amble along a flat path surrounded by scattered rock formations

and sporadic blooms of Sturt’s desert rose. The floral emblem of the Northern Territory, this delicate flower was named after the explorer Charles Sturt. Interestingly, the stylised version on the official flag has seven petals instead of five.

Hundreds of cycads dotted the prehistoric landscape.

The male plants grow a large, pollen producing cone on the top of the trunk but the females grow a cluster of stalks that grow upward until the seeds at the end get heavy and they droop. They are not recommended for a bush tucker menu as they contain a neurotoxin and are poisonous.

The track became steep and rocky as we neared the top of the falls, taking a moment to ponder some carefully constructed rock art.

The crystal clear water of Tolmer Creek trickled its way over golden sandstone to the edge of the escarpment.

We were rewarded with awe-inspiring views and spectacular cliffs as we made our way to the viewing platform.

Explorer Frederick Henry Litchfield named the falls after his late father’s colleague in the South Australia Police, Alexander Tolmer. The water cascades over two high escarpments into a deep plunge pool where swimming is prohibited.

The panorama from the other side of the viewing platform was quite different but equally as impressive.