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Darwin Festival: 40 Year Bloom

Darwin Festival has grown to be one of the hottest attractions on the national festival calendar, with over 100,000 attendances in 2018. But it all started with humble beginnings as the Bougainvillea Festival, which was created to bring the community together after the devastation of Cyclone Tracy.

By Tamara Howie

The seed for the Bougainvillea Festival was first planted when Dr. Charles Gurd joined most of Darwin’s population at Vestey’s Beach for the Beer Can Regatta in 1977.  It was the first major communal gathering since Cyclone Tracy caused widespread destruction in 1974.

According to an article in print publication Accelerator (1982), Dr. Gurd felt the energy could be channelled towards rebuilding Darwin’s spirits. Inspired by Victoria’s Rose Festival, it felt fitting that Darwin have its own floral festival – and what could be more appropriate than our bright and colourful bougainvillea?

The first Festival was held 40 years ago in July 1979, to celebrate and mark the one-year anniversary of self-government. The Grand Parade became part of the annual tradition, when the title of Bougainvillea Queen was bestowed upon one lucky lady who judges felt represented the essence  of Darwin.

In 1982, Robyn Kuhn was named Bougainvillea Queen, which these days she says was pure luck.

“I was nominated by my church – Darwin was very much a big country town in those days. A lot of service clubs, churches and businesses would enter the Parade and they would nominate someone for Bougainvillea Queen. There were a group of about eight very nice girls who were in it. It would have been a hard decision for the judges because there were a lot of lovely girls from different backgrounds – I was just lucky I think.”

There were a lot of perks for Kuhn, including a trip to Hong Kong with her husband, and representing Darwin at all the biggest events on the social calendar.

“It was a real privilege to represent Darwin and be involved in a real pivotal festival. It was a lot of fun and a real spirit of community and family, which was great and represented what Darwin was back then,” Kuhn says.

The Grand Parade is one of the most iconic parts of the historic Festival. Floats would make their way through the city, celebrating the diversity of community, cultural and business groups in Darwin.

“In 1981, we had an entrant in the parade from our church who was a taxidermist, and made a replica of (the famous crocodile) Sweetheart. 

"It was incredible – unfortunately I don’t know what happened to it,” Kuhn says.

For many locals, the transformation from the humble Bougainvillea Festival to the current day Darwin Festival is a reflection on the constantly changing face and energy of our growing city.

This year’s program promises to conjure notions of nostalgia as audiences are led down memory lane, a time to pause, reflect and appreciate how the Festival has become the feast it is today. Three free events have been especially programmed to honour the 40th anniversary.

The Festival’s iconic big top, The Lighthouse, provides the perfect canvas for Parade Days – a video installation by local artist Huni Bolliger with archival images of The Grand Parade and Bougainvillea Festivals past, sure to get the memories flowing. It’s Festival Season presents a panel of pros, expert in the area of festivals, and you're invited to join this lively conversation to unpack the history of festivals in the Northern Territory.

To close out the 2019 Darwin Festival, Drumming Up the Storm is a mass log drumming spectacular starring 40 drummers performing on 40 log drums. The drums are crafted from the fallen African mahogany trees from Cyclone Marcus last year – the same trees that were planted after Cyclone Tracy to provide much-needed shade and greenery. See out the Festival’s 40th year with, quite literally, a bang – well, thousands!

Jam-packed with an exciting mix of art forms from local, national and international performers, get set to spend 18 hot August nights celebrating 40 colourful years of Darwin Festival. Party hats on!

Darwin Festival Thu 8 - Sun 25 Aug

Parade Days Fri 9 – Sun 25 Aug | Festival Park 

It’s Festival Season Wed 14 Aug | 5.30pm | Northern Territory Library 

Drumming Up the Storm Sat 24 Aug | 6pm | Festival Park

Also showing...

BLANC de BLANC Encore – every night of the Festival!

Image credits: Top - Bougainvillea Queen Robyn Kuhn 1982. Image Courtesy of Robyn Kuhn.

Bottom - Institute of cartographers float, 1986. Image courtesy of Anonymous.

Header: Institute of cartographers float, 1986. Image courtesy of Anonymous.

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