Canberra - a Capital place to visit
People often complain that there is nothing to do in Canberra! This is nonsense. The problem is finding something else to do after you have done it”.
Alan Fitzgerald takes an insider’s look at Australia’s capital in a thin paperback I plucked from the muddle of a dusky second hand book shop, the sort that provide a reason to stop in many of the small towns of NSW and Victoria. Twenty-five years after publication, it seems nothing much has changed.
Canberra is a place not directly on track to anywhere. Strategically positioned half way between Sydney and Melbourne, the geographically ordinary, tucked away city, is inland and flat.
Rolled out, held in check by hills, its broad tree lined avenues stretch between monuments and disappear in a hazy shimmer. Official buildings are plain solid stone or concrete, standing apart between tidy green shaded spaces.
Over the couple of days we sightsee, Alex and I decide Canberra bears a distinct similarity to Washington, DC.
The two purpose built low lying capital cities, where key political buildings, subject to building height restrictions, sprawl outwards, feature wide paved paths to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles.
Population numbers are similar, with Canberra under 500,000 and Washington DC a little over.
On our first day, even though Parliament is sitting and PM Kevin Rudd is delivering his ‘save the nation speech’, in the centre of the city it’s small town quiet. Even in morning rush hour, main road queues are short.
Around us, most of the people are sombre suited men and women carrying briefcases, with identification tags swinging from their necks. For the morning’s chill wind and grey sunless sky, we cover up with scarves tucked firmly into the top of wool coats. By the afternoon, the sun is blazing in a sharp blue sky, and I load my arms with outer layers.
We plan to be in Parliament at 2pm to hear Rudd, so the National Canberra Library, is perfect timing for lunch. Sitting outside to enjoy water views rates a guide book mention, but alterations are taking place.
We sit inside. ‘The Bookplate Café’ is dark with dramatic thick black lead channeled Baroque stained glass windows filled with strong purple, ink blue, gold and amber, triangle, rectangle and hexagon shapes, letting in limited light.
The lunch is good. Fresh filled baps, a thick square of chocolate topped caramel slice and coffee hot and full flavoured.
There are many swinging label wearers.
Approaching New Parliament House, gums and spruces line and dot the entrance slope and high mounds of raised earth grow out of the sides of the hill. At our feet, scurry the mounds’ inhabitants, giant Army ants triple the size we are used to.
The modern building is buried under a grass roof. Long plain curved walls stretch out on each side and a soaring central stainless steel pole flies the flag. Standing at 81metres, I calculate it to be as high as a twenty storey building.
We collect our passes from the Cloakroom desk. They don’t cost anything, but our early morning phone call has reserved our seats. Leaving behind cell phones, cameras, ipods, water bottles and other liquid, there is no problem taking in a handbag with its usual contents. Security in place is similar to international air travel. We walk through a metal detector and place personal and metal items in trays for screening. Then it’s down a glass lined corridor and into the debating chamber. Our seats are central and overlook the house with the speaker directly in front of us.
A note tells us to be silent and not to clap or interrupt the proceedings of the House in any way. Just in case we choose to misbehave, a uniformed guard, just an arm or two lengths away, stands with his back to the house facing us.
Very few of the two hundred or so public seats are empty and only one or two of those on the house floor dedicated to Members of Parliament. Rudd makes his $10.4b economic security strategy announcement.
We walk back via old Parliament Buildings, an Art Deco structure now a political history museum, admiring gracious columns, Australian black bean and Tasmanian Blackwood paneling, and Jarrah and silver Ash floors. We sit in the courtyard on sunshine yellow plastic chairs, looking out to a thick cascade of butter coloured Banksia roses covering a wood pergola. A waitress from Leigh, New Zealand serves us great coffee, apple crumble and upside down pear and ginger cake with icecream and cream on white china. A necessary indulgence after the Parliamentary experience.
Wandering back late afternoon along the banks of the man-made Burley Griffin Lake, cyclists are prolific. Engrossed in watching the struggles of a rowing crew training I stray on to the wrong side of the footpath missing the ringing of the cyclist’s bell and hear only a loud mutter approach and pass me.
Canberra shows itself off from the ‘Auckland sky city’ look alike Telstra tower. Known locally as ‘the giant syringe’, it sticks up on top of Black Mountain. We drive the five kms from the city centre for full circumference views. We pay $7A to take the lift to an enclosed viewing gallery on the 2nd level, then walk up to an open viewing platform on the next level.
The view deserves sit and enjoy appreciation. It’s mid morning. The revolving restaurant is shut, the coffee shop is closed and a basic coffee machine next to the display of a few souvenirs inside on the second level is the only unappealing option. Where this is a brief stop, the Australian War Memorial is something else taking us by surprise. It’s a reason to visit Canberra. Fitzgerald should be warned. So involved in what we are looking at, the hours go by and we miss the 5.5 metre bronze soldier representing the spirit of those who had fought for their country and the towering 24.5m high and 1272 sq m mosaic stained-glass windows.
Our walk there takes us through suburban streets. Single storey houses are white, cream and ochre coloured, made of brick and plastered, with little gardens of native bushes and flowering bulbs in front and wide grass verges. Very few have hedges or fences. In Canberra Australian wattles and gums dominate, complemented by imported walnuts, liquidambars, oaks, maples, silk trees, elms, poplars, olives and pepper tress. A few of these enhance the parks we pass.
The Australian War Memorial building, cross-shaped and copper domed is described as stylised Byzantine. Brick and cream Hawkesbury sandstone, houses thousands of pieces of war memorabilia. We walk in, adding to the throngs that make it the most visited tourist attraction. We wander, get lost, are amazed and linger in two floors filled with intimate, graphic and informal pictures – dioramas, photos and paintings - thousands of mementoes from hand written diaries and finely embroidered handkerchiefs donated by local women to away from home soldiers, to huge helicopters, the bridge of HMAS Brisbane, a Lancaster bomber and a Japanese midget submarine, made up of the remains of two subs damaged and sunk in Sydney Harbour. On display are uniforms, a war quilt, medals, epaulets, guns, water bottles, flags, boots, plaques with stories from old soldiers and nurses, tanks, army vehicles, motor bikes and side cards, spitfires, Hurricanes with the Lancaster 'bomb aimer' WWII enemy territory experience very realistic.
The ANZAC Hall’s sound and light shows warn some experiences involve loud sounds and bright flashing lights. And they do. In “Mash” fashion, the reverberating clacking and echoing boom is the whirring heavy blades of an Iroquois helicopter.
Our visit is cut short at 5.00pm, when the Last Post closes the Memorial. Chattering school children and multi-lingual conversations cease. We stand facing the lone bugler, dressed in a crisp scarlet gold buttoned jacket, black trousers and a straw boater trimmed in red. Behind him are double copper doors, several times his height and in front, the Pool of Reflection.
Fitzgerald thinks Canberra is boring, “It is the only place in Australia where people (residents) actually listen to parliamentary broadcasts rather than stumble upon them while changing stations” he says.
If I could talk to him, I’d tell him it’s a relaxing place to visit, with a variety of sightseeing highlights and there are also the gourmet benefits of an international population.