Canberra - The Nation's Underdog

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Sophie P's Fun Flat

Flag of Australia  , Australian Capital Territory,
Sunday, February 12, 2012


I touched down at Sydney Airport one disorientated and cramped Fran. After a slight confrontation in the customs queue with a fellow passenger and several assurances to customs officers that I was indeed not smuggling meat, wood or mud into the country, I shuffled gluey eyed and carrying the bulk of a teenager on my back into arrivals. I was greeted by a cheer, or more accurately a "WHHHEEEEEEEEY', from Old Soaph (an old pal who moved to Oz three years ago for a charming young Aussie) and the smile crept back onto my face.

We hopped on a bus to Canberra and spent the 3 hour journey catching up in our favoured, no subject barred, manner to the silent horror of the other passengers. What caught me immediately was just how desolate the the journey between the two cities is. There is NOTHING between them; bar bush, trees and frequent signposts proclaiming blunt teachings such as 'DRINK, DRIVE, DIE IN A DITCH.' It gave me my first introduction to the spacey nature of Australia and simultaneously it's loveable forthright nature.

Canberra itself is quite lovely and completely undeserving of the gentle mocking tossed its way by the majority of guidebooks. Grassy verges are shoehorned into every last crevice and lend the place a leisurely, at one with nature feel. The people are overwhelmingly friendly and shop assistants watch you from the minute you enter their domains, poised to gegg in on conversation. Which is actually quite enjoyable. The air is pure and fresh and I gulped it into the old lungs enthusiastically.

We spent my first night with Sophie's pal Maddie in a bar called La-Di-Dah, which overlooked the lake, was missing a wall and which I was frequently assured was 'Much too Cool for Canberra.'

Sophie woke up with a rotten hangover and the exhausting prospect of having to play tour guide to an inquisitive Brit, fresh off the boat and completely unaffected by an equivalent handicap. To her credit she handled the situation exceptionally well. 

We started at the Australian War Memorial, which I cannot recommend more highly. It's set in huge grounds, littered with statues with kind faces that pay homage to individuals and groups who epitomize the Australian war spirit. My favourite was John Simpson, who is famed for carrying huge numbers of wounded soldiers to the safety of the beaches on the back of his donkey for 24 days before being fatally wounded.

As we looked down to Parliament House, the sun came out, tarting up the view and highlighting the unique, geometric structure of the city in all it's glory.

The Memorial itself, is elegant and beautifully maintained. Housed in the climax of the building lies the grave of 'An Unknown Australian Solider' who poignantly underscores the great losses suffered by Australia in both of the wars (in terms of losses equivalent to population Australia suffered the greatest). The tomb where he lies is majestic. Surrounded by stained glass, paintings and a mosaic roof, it makes for a very reflective place.

Leading up to this tomb are two walkways, one dedicated to each war, which list the names of every soldier lost to that war. Poppies are arranged beautifully around them and amongst the countless names I stumbled across W. Penfold and wondered who he was.

In the afternoon we went to sit in on Question Time at Parliament House. An opportunity that only crops up once a month and luckily enough coincided with my three day trip. Watching the two parties sling mud across the chamber as they performed a dance of twisting words was most enjoyable - Despite Sophie often having to whisper the relevance and background of the insults to me.

If you plan to visit Canberra it's well worth checking out when Parliament are sitting and planning your trip accordingly. The fact that you can drop in on a random afternoon to watch the most influential people in the country bitch and humiliate their rivals like teenage girls, ON LIVE TELEVISION - really sets Canberra and Australia apart (It tops The Jeremy Kyle Show and I've seen that live thrice).

We followed this with a stroll down to Old Parliament House where the main attraction was The Aboriginal Tent Embassy which sits stubbornly on Parliament's immaculate lawns. It consists of a collection of tents and their inhabitants which attest to Aboriginal sovereignty and which have been providing the Australian government with a headache for 40 years. Apparently, questions are raised about its purpose every time there's an official visit - Can you get a more brazen and ballsy wall to make a point! There is an unsettling irony in standing outside Old Parliament House (which has now been turned into a museum), admiring it's architecture and reading all the flags that adorn the lamposts touting 'democracy', Then turning round to notice the squat little shed (the Aboriginal Embassy's Head Quarters), hand painted signs and people who feel so strongly otherwise they have been living in tents for 4 decades.

It certainly wasn't mentioned in the guidebooks and when we stumbled across an official photo of Old Parliament House in the Telstra Tower the following day, the Aboriginal Embassy had been impeccably airbrushed out. Is there a better place to see Australia's clashing cultures first hand? 

This alternative tour was interrupted by my first tropical thunderstorm. If you want to experience the real smells and character of a foreign country going out in the rain is a pretty good tactic. With the perfume of Canberra resting in my nostrils, we headed off home with the rain coming down so thick and fast it was impossible to see the road markings.  

The next morning we popped up the Telstra Tower, for a panoramic view of the city and an overpriced coffee. We followed this with a quick turn around the National Botanical Gardens which showcase the vastly different landscapes and eco-systems from Tropical Queensland, Sydney and Canberra.

Early afternoon was spent browsing the National Museum of Australia and sitting by Lake Burley Griffin in the sunshine.

The National Film and Sound archive was next on the list and an absolute MUST for anyone with a passing interest in film. Memorabilia and video clips from classic Australian films are in abundance and we spent a good 20 minutes watching an exhibition on politically incorrect adverts from the 1950's - which consisted mainly of advice for Australian housewives on how to retain a husband by purchasing the correct ready made stuffing. 

We made an impromptu trip to the supermarket to buy tea and I discovered a recent law I know would make my Mother swell with admiration. In the state of Australian Capital Territory it is illegal for ANY supermarket to supply plastic bags. People MUST simply bring their own. And so we shoved the shopping into our handbags and headed home to refresh ourselves for the trip up the coast.
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