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Near the Darwin cruise terminal on Kitchener Drive you will find the main entrance to the disused Darwin WWII oil storage tunnels which date back to the 1940s. We stumbled across this unique Darwin tourist attraction by chance on our first visit to Darwin. The main tunnel was shrouded with lush vegetation and covered with metal bars and held an air of mystery and intrigue. We could see someone moving around inside and an elderly gent soon emerged carrying a carton of postcards and an armload of history books.

Darwin oil storage tunnels guide
Darwin oil storage tunnels entrance

It costs $8 for adults and $5 for children to explore the Darwin oil tunnels underground storage facility which was built to protect oil and fuel from aerial bombardment after the 1942 bombing. We left Darwin’s bright morning light behind and entered tunnel number six. Halogen lights cast eerie shadows overhead and it was silent except for the drip, drip, drip of water trickling down the walls. Oil was crucial to the war effort so when almost every above-ground storage tank was destroyed during the bombing raid, the Allied forces commissioned eight underground oil storage tunnels. Construction began in 1943 but progress was slow.

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Tunnels were driven into a natural escarpment surrounding the city centre but digging machinery kept causing the walls to collapse. Workers had no choice but to complete the work by hand, using picks to dig out and shape each of the huge tunnels in Darwin’s tropical heat. Thankfully it was much cooler on the day we visited than when the tunnels were being built. Despite this, we were still drenched in perspiration. It was hard to believe how terrible the conditions must have been like for the workers.

Darwin storage tunnel 5
Looking down storage tunnel 5

We stepped over pipes connecting tunnels five and six and ran our hands over the walls. These were covered in concrete and lined with thin steel sheeting which was used to form an oil-tight tank. Only five of the eight tunnels were completed. The project ran over time and over budget and was cancelled after the war ended. It would have ended up costing more than £1,000,000 and was an engineering disaster as none of the tunnels could be used.

Darwin oil tunnel tour
Walking through the tunnel

We splashed through the trickling water beneath our feet which was the project’s downfall. Water began seeping between the tunnels’ steel lining and concrete walls almost immediately after they were built. Two of them were initially used to store jet aircraft fuel but the water made it unusable. The tunnels were abandoned until 1992 when they were reopened as a tourist attraction to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. If you are visiting Darwin on a cruise ship, this attraction is a great do-it-yourself Darwin cruise tour option as it is so close to the port.

Oil storage tunnels sign
Walk from the port and look for this sign

Tunnel number five is the longest and runs 120 metres beneath the city. Only two of the five tunnels are open to the public but the rest of them remain deep beneath the city streets. Building a new office or underground carpark in Darwin’s CBD can be a challenge as the tunnel system is extensive. We strolled down the length of the longest tunnel, pausing to look at the historic World War II photographs on display. Images of the bombing showed the harbour covered in billowing plumes of black smoke but most of the photos were candid shots of those who served.

Darwin oil tunnel photos
Darwin oil tunnel photo display

Airmen leaned nonchalantly against an aircraft fuselage as they conducted a de-brief; pretty girls and their beaus kicked up their heels at a dance and a young soldier in full regalia smiled shyly at the camera. The photo exhibition inside Darwin’s WWII oil storage tunnels is a moving display which shows the human face of the war effort. Darwin’s underground storage tunnels now hold something more precious than oil.

Disclosure: The writers paid for their visit to the visit to Darwin’s oil storage tunnels.

Don’t miss our suggestions for the best romantic things to do in Darwin and where to find Darwin’s best restaurants. It is also worth allowing time in your itinerary to visit Litchfield National Park and the Australian Aviation Heritage Centre.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.