This month marks 30 years since the devastating cyclone that wrecked Darwin. Tony Wheeler visits the city to find out how it bounced back

The airport anemometer recorded a wind speed of 136mph, and then spun itself into oblivion, at 3.05am on Christmas morning. It is estimated that, before dawn, the wind reached 175mph, in the process totally destroying more than 6,000 of the town's 11,200 houses; only 400 houses survived relatively undamaged. By dawn on Christmas Day 1974, Cyclone Tracy had devastated Darwin and killed 66 people.

The airport anemometer recorded a wind speed of 136mph, and then spun itself into oblivion, at 3.05am on Christmas morning. It is estimated that, before dawn, the wind reached 175mph, in the process totally destroying more than 6,000 of the town's 11,200 houses; only 400 houses survived relatively undamaged. By dawn on Christmas Day 1974, Cyclone Tracy had devastated Darwin and killed 66 people.

This year, three decades after it was almost erased, Australia's northern capital was put on the railway map when the train line was extended north from Alice Springs. Now the tropical "Top End" is enjoying a tourism boom.

A cyclone is simply a southern-hemisphere hurricane, just like its north-of-the-equator relation except it rotates clockwise. Squarely in the cyclone belt, Darwin has been visited by more than Tracy; a big one hit the town (still known as Palmerston at the time) back in 1897, and there was another serious cyclone in 1937. But it is the 1974 event that explains why so much of Darwin has that freshly built look.

Tropical storms haven't been the only things to inflict damage on the city. During the Second World War the Japanese attacked the town 64 times; Darwin was the only city in Australia to suffer so much.

Despite its history, the 1974 big blow came as a surprise. The city had grown rapidly since the war and cyclone memories had faded. As a result, Darwin had plenty of flimsy, quickly built buildings just ready to fall over with the first big puff.

In fact Tracy was a curiously small puff, measuring not much more than 20 miles across, but a very powerful one. She turned up, and was named, when she was still 500 miles north of Darwin, on 20 December. She wandered around for the next couple of days and, by 22 December, was assumed to be bypassing the city. Then on Christmas Eve Tracy changed her mind, reversed direction and, around midnight, zeroed in on the city centre.

"The wind and rain had been building up all day," recalls Don Whitford - then a young forecaster working for the government weather department's Darwin division. "Coming back home from the Berrimah pub I stopped in at the Met department at the airport. On the radar you could see the eye of the cyclone was already in Darwin Harbour. I went straight home and Helen and I did all the right things. We filled the bathtub with water and closed all the louvre windows and taped them shut.

"Before long the wind was so strong and the rain so heavy that it was coming in through the louvres. Then the roof started to disintegrate. About half of the roof had gone when suddenly most of our next-door neighbour's roof simply flew off and sailed across to land on top of our house. So for a spell we lost one roof and gained another. Pretty soon that started to disintegrate as well. It was a typical Darwin house, built on stilts, and about this time it started to lurch first in one direction and then the other. That was pretty scary.

"Everything was lit up by lightning, it was almost continuous. And there was an indescribable noise which also never stopped. But the thing I remember most clearly was how cold it was. It's never cold in Darwin, particularly in the middle of the summer, but we were freezing.

"Then it suddenly stopped. The eye of the storm had arrived directly over us. We went outside and I remember looking up and seeing stars. A neighbour had climbed up on his roof with a hammer and nails to try and pin down what was left of his roof. I told him he should get down pretty quickly because I knew what would happen next."

As a cyclone or hurricane approaches, the winds get stronger and stronger until the eye arrives and from maximum velocity the winds drop straight to zero. Then the eye passes over and the storm restarts at the same maximum speed, but now moving in the opposite direction.

"That was when most of the damage occurred. There were fridges and cars actually flying through the air. Many of the deaths were from people hit by flying debris."

One Tracy survivor told of watching sheets of corrugated iron, a popular building material throughout tropical Australia, being ripped off roofs and striking showers of sparks, like giant Catherine wheels, as they cartwheeled down the road.

After the cyclone Darwin was without electricity or running water, so most of the population was evacuated. Rebuilding commenced almost immediately and by April of the following year the population had already rebounded from 10,000 to about 30,000, many of them still in temporary accommodation. Today Darwin is a bigger (the population has jumped from 48,000 to around 100,000), brighter, brasher and, hopefully, more cyclone-proof city than the pre-Tracy version.

You can see more evidence of the terrifying power of nature at the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Besides a good Cyclone Tracy exhibit, it contains the stuffed carcass of Sweetheart, a salt-water crocodile which became a Top End star after a series of attacks on fishing dinghies in a river near the city. It weighed in at three quarters of a ton, and a nibble from Sweetheart was unlikely to do your boat much good. Crocodylus Park features the Northern Territory's favourite scare stories in action.

Australian tourism took off in the mid-1980s and Darwin, the jumping-off point for the wonders of the Kakadu National Park has become a major tourist centre. With a casino (for all those Asian gamblers, Darwin is closer to Singapore than Sydney), a string of backpacker hideaways, a balancing collection of four-star hotels and the trendy Cullen Bay Marina with its line-up of yachts and open-air restaurants, it bears little relationship to the Darwin destroyed on Christmas morning, 1974.

"Finally around dawn it ended," remembers Don Whitford. "The storm moved inland and simply dissipated. We went outside to this scene of utter destruction. It reminded me of those scenes of Flanders or some other First World War battlefield. Apart from the flattened houses, all the trees were stripped bare - there wasn't a leaf to be seen. And it was eerily quiet, you couldn't hear a bird anywhere."

Will there be another big one? The records for the last century suggest another should blow through within 10 years and, despite much-improved cyclone proofing techniques, many Darwinians reckon they'll jump in the car and head down the highway the next time a big cyclone moves Darwin's way.

Sounds Familiar: A History Of Delays On The Railway

The extension of the Ghan train from Alice Springs to Darwin this year funnelled even more visitors northward. Australia's 2,000-mile north-south transcontinental railway has had a long, colourful and stop-start history.

The original decision to build a railway from Adelaide to Alice Springs, smack in the middle of Australia and almost precisely halfway to Darwin, was taken in 1877. The line started out on broad-gauge from Adelaide, but 400 miles north, at Marree, enthusiasm ran out; the line shrank to narrow-gauge when it was eventually extended another 250 miles north to Oodnadatta in 1884. And there it stopped.

If you wanted to continue on to Alice Springs there was only one option: camel train. Which was appropriate, because the line's name honours the Afghan camel drivers who were instrumental in opening up central Australia. It took more than 50 years for the Ghan to reach all the way to Alice Springs but long before that extension opened in 1929 it was clear that the whole thing had been a very bad decision. For starters the line was built in totally the wrong place: it might not have rained along the Ghan's route for a decade or more but when it fell it really fell, frequently cutting the line and, on more than one occasion, washing it away. Furthermore, the line had been built cheaply and quickly and it roller-coasted all the way - the carriages bucked and pitched so badly that a fast trip averaged 20mph. On particularly bad sections passengers would get off and stroll along beside the train as it inched along buckled stretches of line. On one occasion flood delays stretched the two-day trip to nearly two weeks and another time supplies had to be parachuted in to flood-stranded passengers.

The decision to dump the disaster was taken in the 1970s and the new Ghan line, further west, flood-proofed and more than twice as fast, went into service in 1980. Another generation passed before the line was extended to Darwin, but it has proved immensely popular with Australians and overseas visitors alike since it opened in early 2004. The railway line also carries a great deal of freight and there are hopes that Darwin will become a major transit point for trade between Australia and Asia.

The trip from Adelaide to Darwin takes about 48 hours, with a four-hour stop in Alice Springs. If you don't believe that getting there is half the fun it's usually cheaper to fly. One-way fares start at £185 for a seat, and at £580 for a sleeper. A six-month Great Southern Railway pass valid for the Sydney-Adelaide-Perth Indian Pacific, the Melbourne-Adelaide Overland and the Ghan costs £250, or £190 for students and backpackers (one qualification for which is a valid Youth Hostel card).

More details: 00 61 8 82 13 45 92; www.gsr.com.au.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Flights to Darwin are scarce. Good connections and the lowest fares are available on Royal Brunei from Heathrow via Bandar Seri Begawan. Alternatively, you can connect at Singapore to the Qantas offshoot, Australian Airlines. If you plan to travel on the Ghan (see below) between Adelaide and Darwin, you can get an "open-jaw" ticket - flying into one city and back from the other.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Darwin is well equipped with campsites, backpacker hostels, guest houses, motels, apartments and hotels. Some of the best hotels are along the waterfront Esplanade a short stroll from the city centre. The city's cosmopolitan nature and strong Asian influences appear at the colourful food stalls which pop up at markets such as the Mindil Beach Night Market. The restaurant choice is equally varied with the glossy new Cullen Bay Marina development a favourite for Darwin's in-crowd. The men's loo-with-a-view (thanks to one-way glass) is a talking point at the popular waterfront Buzz Café.

MORE INFORMATION

Northern Territory Tourist Commission, 43 Mitchell Street, Darwin, NT 0800 (00 61 8 89 51 84 92; www.ntholidays.com).

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