On Christmas Eve in 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin, destroying three quarters of houses and killing 66 people with its 135mph winds. John Hardy, a government official, remembers folk comparing the destruction to Hiroshima. It is part of Darwinian legend that, immediately before the cyclone arrived, Aborigines had already fled: the Aborigines saw it coming. There is some evidence to support this.
Historian and one-time police officer, Bill Wilson, told the ABC documentary, Blown Away, that the Aborigines saw it coming because they noticed birds leaving and ants building on higher ground. The result was that “There seemed to be fewer traditional people around in the immediate aftermath than I might have expected.” In her autobiography, Very Big Journey: My Life as I Remember It, Hilda Muir echoed this: “They could tell from the birds.” Said one Aborigine, “I know that a lot of the traditional mob, they actually left because they were reading the weather signs and the warnings from the animals and things like that.”
Not only the Aborigines saw it coming: said one Skippy: “The strangest thing was that there was no birds around, nothing, and it was broad daylight and no birds, nothing … My mother knew that something was going to happen tonight and blow me down, the wind started picking up.” Said another: “The evening before, all these flying foxes (fruit bats, the largest bat in the world) came over our house from east point and they all flew off towards the airport, just hundreds of them, so many of them.”
Rainbow serpents, creatures of Aboriginal mythology, are associated with cyclones. Before Tracy, something was sighted by non-Aboriginal fisherman near Mandorah on a rainbow serpent dreaming track that fitted the description of this fantastical beastie.
A woman has come forward, announcing that she was why the Aborigines saw it coming and left Darwin before the cyclone. Betty Pearce, an Aborigine from Central Australia, was residing in the city in 1974 and was involved with the Labor Party. In the run-up to that year’s general election, she travelled to Oenpelli in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory. People recognised her surname. They told her to warn people in the Aboriginal community of Bagot at the heart of Darwin that they should return to their homelands before Christmas. They knew not exactly what was coming, only that it was “something really bad.”
When Pearce returned to Darwin, she acted as instructed and warned people. Some replied, “No, ah, that’s olden times stuff, we won’t go.” Nevertheless, word of her warning spread, and by Christmas Eve, even those who had been sceptical had taken their leave. Pearce described this as “one of the most amazing experiences I’d ever had.”
Two years post-Tracy, Pearce went back to Oenpelli, where eldsters thanked her for passing on their caution, but instructed her to never mention it again. 40 years later, she feels the need to speak out because “It’s valuable knowledge that our people, Aboriginal people, are losing. Just listening to me talking, maybe some of the younger ones might pick it up and start going back to learning those ways.”
The Aborigines saw it coming then and they do again. Bilawara Lee, an Aboriginal elder of the Larrakla people, told a crowd of 250 at a service in memorial to the cyclone that it was caused by the spirit, Dareba Nungalinya, otherwise known as Old Man Rock, who was upset by human actions: “With all the rapid construction and the disturbance of Mother Earth here in the Top End, I honestly fear we may experience another such disaster and it is not too far away.”
Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”