Another two hours’ drive south will bring you to the town of Katherine, another significant strategic place in the defence of Australia during World War II and the location of two Australian Army hospitals during the war. Katherine, now a town of around 10,000 people, was the southern-most point of Japanese bombing raids on the Northern Territory; it was bombed once, on 22 March 1942. There is still a Royal Australian Air Force base just outside the township, so don’t be surprised if you see (and hear) military aircraft overhead.
The Katherine Museum is a good starting place to learn more. Housed in the former air terminal, built in 1945, the museum has wartime displays as well as a large collection of Aboriginal artefacts, photographs, furniture, maps, tools and pioneer memorabilia. Among the highlights are Overland Telegraph objects dating back to 1872 and the De Havilland Gypsy Moth plane used by the first flying doctor, Dr Clyde Fenton, in the 1930s.
Just 3km down the road from the museum, take Knotts Crossing Rd, for a look at the shrapnel scars and bomb crater at the historic Old Gallon Licence Store. It’s a gorgeous setting, near the banks of the Katherine River, surrounded by large Boab and Bauhinia trees.
To the south of Katherine, Mataranka is best known for its hot springs, but during the war it was the base for more than 100 military units. The Mataranka Aboriginal Army Camp was established in late 1943 for 350 indigenous workers who were supporting the war effort by working for the army. The army also set up Aboriginal camps at Adelaide River, Manbulloo and Larrimah and as far south as Alice Springs.
On the return trip to Darwin, about 45km south of the city, take time to stop on the Stuart Highway when you see the life-size shapes of aircraft looming along the north-bound side of the road. These fantastic cut-outs tell the story of the highway’s former role as the Strauss Airfield, used by Australian, British and American aircraft during the war. Built in 1942, the airfield had a 1.5 km long, 30 m wide runway, as well as huts, tents, and parking bays for the aircraft, and interpretive panels tell their stories.