Terra Australis – Australian Capital Territory
I struggled to hide my disappointment. After driving through a thunderstorm to get there, our luxury accommodation was far from luxury. Under the darkening sky of a very cloudy evening we drove round southern Canberra around the parliamentary buildings and I thought to myself that what I had heard was right: here was a part of Australia that wasn’t worth visiting. We had given ourselves two nights here and one whole day on our road trip from Sydney to Melbourne and the place wasn’t really grabbing my attention. I wasn’t feeling it for Canberra. I was wrong. Not only that, but a day was in no means enough to see everything there was to offer, and we left Australia’s capital city knowing there was enough for a return visit.
We were staying within walking distance of the shops in Manuka, to the south of the Australian Parliament building. With a choice of eateries, shops, a cinema and a selection of bars, we found ourselves happy with our location the next morning where the sun shone down on us. With the forecast detailing another thunderstorm for the late afternoon, it was time to make the most of the sunny day and explore Canberra. The city is built in a series of circles and triangles. From the front of the nearby Parliament building on Capital Hill, we could see across Lake Burley Griffin towards Russell on one aspect, and the CBD on another. Marking the top point of the triangle is the large flag staff atop the Parliament itself, and it is clearly visible from most of the city.
From the outside, the Parliament building looks odd and (to me), visually unappealing. A water feature improves the look slightly and above the main entrance, a metal depiction of the Australian crest glinted in the sunlight. Walking inside however, past the security search point, your eyes are filled with the immense expanse of marble. The design and source of the marble was precisely chosen to represent the history of Australia as a nation, and looking around, the entrance hallway alone is worth a lot of dollars. Joining a tour of the premises, I was surprisingly enraptured with the history and workings of it all, learning about the Australian political system and visiting the house of senates and seeing those areas where laws are made and bills are passed. Despite having a largely European founding, Australia has taken a very American approach to its style of governing.
From the second floor, a lift whisks you up to the roof of the parliament which is partly grassed, and wandering around the roof outside, below the towering structure of the flagstaff, there is a 360o view of the city sprawl. The area is largely flat but there are some low hills dotted around. Standing in the centre of the roof, the eye travels immediately to the old Parliament building further down in the grounds, and past the lake to the War Memorial on the far side. The triangulation of Commonwealth Avenue and Kings Avenue complete the vista. Behind the far end of Lake Burley Griffin, the Telstra Tower stands tall in the distance. Back down on the lower floors, a reminder of the country’s ties, a statue of Queen Elizabeth, stands in imposing bronze form in the beautiful and calming environment of the Queen’s terrace next to the cafeteria.
It was an incredibly hot day, well into the 30s, and we wandered round the gardens between Parliament Drive and Capital Circle. The ground was dry and crisp, and hidden amongst the trees lay tennis courts, a soccer field and a cricket oval. Only one garden was in bloom and it was full of yellow and orange flowers and a water feature. Down the road, the old Parliament building is now a museum, and when we were there it was partly hidden by scaffolding. Despite that it was still an impressive and dominating presence and it is flanked by yet more gardens. Facing the front steps, an Aboriginal tent embassy has been set up, and an Aboriginal flag flies on a simple post next to the word ‘Sovereignty’ with the War Memorial visible in the background. The nearby pavement is adorned with traditional Aboriginal paintings.
We took Kings Avenue to the far side of Lake Burley Griffin and drove up the dual road of Anzac Parade to the underground car park beneath the Australian War Memorial. It was the first week of January, and it was exceedingly busy. Standing on the front steps, the view looked back across to the two Parliament buildings, and behind me stood the domed roof of the memorial at the back of the museum. Three years prior, I had just moved to New Zealand from Scotland, meaning that just three years ago, I knew nothing about Gallipoli. In history classes at school, understandably, we were taught mainly Scottish and European history. After all, these cover a much more extensive time frame than that of Australia and New Zealand. With regards to World Wars, our classes focused on key battles between the British and German troops. Gallipoli was never mentioned. I’ve slowly begun to learn about the devastating events and losses that occurred on the Turkish peninsula through stories and memorials scattered between New Zealand and Australia, and I’ve learned the significance of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) day, April 25th which is a national public holiday here each year.
Taking a self-guided tour of the museum, there were displays from the two world wars, including some impressive dioramas, a special ANZAC hall with the remains of several aircraft, and downstairs there were zones depicting more recent conflicts, and a section dedicated to the war in Afghanistan. Probably one of the most sobering parts was the extensive roll of honour which spanned the length of the outside courtyard on both sides, and listed the names of fallen soldiers. The board was adorned with hundreds of poppies, and at the end under the domed roof, lies the tomb of the unknown soldier. A nameless, faceless body, who will forever represent the thousands of people who lost their lives at war.
After lunch I took a wander down ANZAC parade to view the statues that adorned the side, and then we headed to Commonwealth Park for an up-close look of the lake. On the far shore lay the National Gallery of Australia, the High Court of Australia, and on the shoreline, a display of international flags. Within the lake itself, a jet of water shot up in a large fountain as part of a commemoration for Captain Cook. It was uncomfortably hot outside of the air conditioned car, so we drove around the waterfront to the National Museum of Australia and then around the city centre itself. Heading out past Acton, we stopped briefly at the Botanical Gardens but felt it was too hot to get out and enjoy them, so instead we followed the road up Black Mountain to the Telstra Tower. We had been told by staff at the Parliament that it had previously been open as a viewing platform and restaurant but that it had been sold by Telstra and had been closed ever since. Reaching the car park, there were too many trees to see the city, but we discovered upon getting to the tower, that the viewing platforms were in fact still open so we headed up. We could see the impending weather system moving in, but we still got a fantastic 360o view of the city and the ACT countryside around it. From here, the entire extent of the man-made Lake Burley Griffin is appreciable, and Canberra itself is completely visible, demonstrating how small it is as it nestles either side of the lake and in between the various forested areas that surrounds it.
Both evenings in Canberra were spent enjoying different eateries in Manuka, and both nights we went to different cinemas. The first night was at the poshest cinema I’ve ever seen, in Acton, and the second night at the cinema in Manuka. Fittingly that second night, we saw the Russell Crowe movie, The Water Diviner which was based around the events of Gallipoli, and as we sat watching it, the thunderstorm that had crept in during the day, finally broke and it was so loud we could hear it over the movie. When we came out, the whole city glistened as the last of the drizzle fell.
The following morning we were in no hurry to leave. To the east of Capital Hill on the south of the lake is Jerrabomberra wetlands. A mixture of pools and swamplands, there are several bird hides on a couple of tracks that allow you to spy on the feathered occupants of the area. It was also a known platypus zone, but as always, these elusive creatures were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we saw parrots, great egrets, swamp hens, geese, swans, ducks, and surprisingly (due to being fresh water and so far inland), a lot of pelicans. It was a peaceful place to be, and a nice way to pass the time.
Taking a detour to the sports district for my partner to see the Canberra Stadium, we rejoined the Barton Highway heading north west, and in no time at all, we crossed out of Australian Capital Territory, and back into New South Wales on route to Corowa.