The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!
In case you are as unenlightened about Australia as I was before I read the Bryson book, you might be surprised to learn that Canberra is actually Australia’s capitol. When Australia’s colonies were federated in 1901, the remarkably diplomatic decision was made by rival cities Sydney and Melbourne to establish an entirely new site for the nation’s capitol, roughly half way between to two. At the time, Canberra was occupied by Aborigines and a few European farm settlements. The government “bought” a giant, landlocked piece of real estate (the area is now entirely enclosed by New South Wales) from the indigenous Ngunnawal tribe - the Aborigines were still struggling with the concept of buying and selling land at the time, as their beliefs were that the land belonged to everyone, so this arrangement was arguably a bit dodgy - and dubbed it the Australian Capitol Territory (ACT). The Canberra metropolitan area takes up about a quarter of the ACT, the rest is mostly comprised of national parkland, nature reserves and a chunk of the Booth mountain range. An international design contest was held to establish Canberra’s layout. Kits with topographical maps and supporting cultural and natural details about the area were send to countries around the world, so that architects could compete without every seeing the site. Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin won and work was started. The plan included massive landscape regeneration, both in the future metropolitan area – two million trees and shrubs were eventually planted - and on the nearby hills, landscaping, geometric street layouts and, eventually, an artificial, ornamental lake. It wasn’t until 1964 when Lake Burley Griffin was finally completed - containing the Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet which discharges a staggering plume of water 482 feet into the air - and the original design finally came to fruition. Since then the “temporary” Old Parliament building (it served its purpose for 61 years) was replaced by the dramatic modern Parliament Building in 1988 at the top of Capitol Hill which sits at one of the three corners of the Parliamentary Triangle. The city is a modern architecture wet dream. Buildings are striking, pleasing sculptures are everywhere you turn, often seemingly just for the hell of it, and numerous stylized monuments in tribute to various things Australian pepper the city. There is nary a street corner where there isn’t something that inspires you to stop and stare in admiration. And to top it all off, admission to all the best attractions is free!!! What the hell were these Aussies talking about when they said there was nothing in Canberra??? Everything is in Canberra!
On that note, and I love this, Canberra is supposedly the Porn Capitol of Australia! Woo hoo! I can’t find supporting facts for this, but purportedly either the laws on prostitution - sorry “escorts” - are very lax or the authorities just look the other direction. Hmm, the Porn Capitol of Australia just happens to be the same city that’s bursting with those, ahem, notoriously straight-laced and well-behaved politicians and foreign dignitaries. What a coincidence! Oh and liquor licensing restrictions are nearly non-existent, so bars can, and do, stay open 24 hours a day. How convenient! And under-aged drinking is strictly controlled! Isn’t that gr… No wait, that’s no good. OK, so drunken high school girls are a no-go, but in every other respect it’s game-on in Canberra! But don’t tell the Aussies or it might turn into another Surfer’s Paradise. Mum’s the word.
I was picked up at the bus station by a very friendly woman and ferried to Victor Lodge which turned out to be one of my favorite hostels in all of Australia. Victor Lodge was clean, quiet, the beds were comfortable, all linen was provided, they provided free coffee/tea all day long (usually, if this is offered at all, the coffee/tea is locked up after 9:00AM) and a huge complimentary breakfast. Plus they rented bikes.
In lieu of ongoing exhaustion (which was, surprisingly, not alleviated by my late night drinking in Sydney) and having an extravagant seven days to cover Canberra and Melbourne, I decided that a day of rest was in order. I had intended to do this at the much anticipated Base Backpackers hostel in Melbourne (read the Melbourne journal entry for details about this hostel cum hotel), but faced with the peace, comfort and free coffee at Victor Lodge, I chose to do the rest day in Canberra instead.
After getting settled, I made a half-hearted attempt to write a little, had dinner, chatted with a few people and retired for bed at 9:30. I was pooped and I had a full day of biking ahead of me.
The next morning was glorious. The weather was perfect; sunny, warm and completely devoid of humidity. I ate a decadently large breakfast, acquired my bike and helmet and set off. It was clear the moment I pushed off that the bike was going to be challenging. It was your run-of-the-mill, mildly beat up rental bike, but at some point some twit had swapped the cranks and pedals with those off a child’s dirt bike. The cranks were comically short, which when combined with the imminent need for a full grease bath for the gears, chain and components, meant that even when I was pumping full-out, I was still being passed by punks on skateboards. However, it was quite a bit faster than walking, so I persevered.
My first stop was at the National Library which supposedly had free Internet with unblocked media drives. This was only half true. Internet was free, and there were a gratifying number of PCs available, but the floppy drives had been blocked in a half-assed way by some desktop hack, who knew just enough to irritate me. With a little monkeying around, I was able to get my stuff off the disks, send pre-typed emails and save new stuff. Two points for the aspiring geek!
I hopped back on the circus bike and headed for the nearby Old Parliament House. Well, nearby is a relative term in Canberra. Nearly every building in the Parliamentary Triangle is separated by fields of grass that could accommodate a nine hole golf course or on the other end of a gigantic roundabout or, in one case, at the end of a kilometer long parkway. Canberra seems to unintentionally be a microcosm of the whole size issues that present themselves when you travel Australia. Even things that are seemingly right next to each other on the map are shockingly distant in reality. Although the massive effort I was putting into pedaling my friction machine on wheels was getting me around at a modest pace, it was still light-years better than huffing it on foot for 20 minutes between each building in the potent sun.
After abandoning the wandering sidewalk and off-roading through a scraggly pasture I finally found myself in front of the Old Parliament building. It was engaging, but there was something better right behind me on the “lawn” (it was the size of four football fields). People were camping out in front of Old Parliament! Tents, camper vans and even a structure built out of trash were lining the sides of the lawn, under the cover of the bordering trees. Upon closer inspection it was clear the campers were all protesters. Many of them on behalf of the Ngunnawal Aborigines. They even had a prayer circle, or perhaps a meeting circle, set up with a fire going in the center (there wasn’t anyone milling around to ask). I took a bunch of pictures and moved on to the modern Parliament Building.
The Parliament Building is a design triumph and has to be seen to be believed. Its five buildings house all of Australia’s Bicameral offices, both parliaments and a variety of meeting halls. From a distance the place looks like a setting for a futuristic movie on planet Green Stuff. Like all of Canberra, Parliament House is very geometric. The 266 foot high, four legged flag pole that straddles the entire complex acts as the central focal point at the end of an imaginary line that starts 2 and ¼ miles away at the Australian War Memorial. Starting at the Memorial, the line goes down the endless Anzac Parade, over Lake Burley Griffin across the fields of grass and colossal decorative pond in front of the Old Parliament building, through Old Parliament, over yet more grassland and finally through the modern Parliament complex to the top of the flagpole, which features an Australian flag the size of a double-decker bus. It’s a stunning sight from any direction. Free tours of Parliament run every 30 minutes. Starting in the giant, marble festooned foyer, we were lead through the Great Hall, sporting a 52 ½ foot high tapestry - the second largest in the world - and then through both the House of Representatives and the Senate buildings. As with many modern Australian buildings, a special effort had been made to decorate the buildings with natural, native, colors and materials from Australia. The House of Representatives was a light blue/green color, representative of the crap secreted from gum trees. The Member’s Hall is decorated with three different types and colors of native timber. The best part, by far, is the roof. After the tour you are let loose to admire the portraits of former Prime Ministers and their cherished copy of the 1297 Magna Carta, but knowing what was waiting for me, I hopped right into the elevator. The grass-covered roof (what in Canberra isn’t grass-covered?) offers a 360°, sprawling view of all of Canberra and the nearby hillsides. Priceless.
From the Parliament House, I powered over the Commonwealth Avenue bridge to the National Capitol Exhibition, where a comprehensive display on the history and development of Canberra is on permanent display. It respectfully starts with a brief history of the Ngunnawal people and early European settlers, before blasting off with the progress of Canberra’s development using interactive audio/visual displays and laser model in six languages. It’s very gnarly.
From there it was a quick sushi lunch in the retail district and then off to the Australian National Botanical Gardens. I arrived two minutes before the afternoon free tour and despite my trifling interest in plant life, beyond strolling serenely among them, I decided the freak timing of my arrival was a sign that I should partake in the tour. I stood for a while at the tour staging point with a several other people before a garden representative came out and nervously told us that the volunteer guide was running late, but she would be along shortly. After another 15 minutes I took the guide’s tardiness as a revised sign that I should hang the tour and wander by myself. I started out on a leisurely amble through the gardens that quickly turned into an abbreviated trot when I looked at my watch and eyeballed the distance from my current location to the two other sights that I wanted to hit that day. I planned to ride along the lakefront to the beginning of Anzac Parade, close in on and photograph the Australian War Memorial as I pedaled down the length of the one kilometer long Parade, tour the Memorial, then jump back on the bike for a four mile “sprint” to the Royal Australian Mint. Then 3 ½ miles home for Miller Time.
Well, as I should have anticipated, the vast distances between places in Canberra, combined with some poorly planned bike paths that added the odd mile or two here and there to my already daunting itinerary succeeded in killing me before I even reached the War Memorial. I stupidly followed the lakefront bike path that led me out to an unannounced dead end on the Acton Peninsula, then doubled back, managed to get around Commonwealth Avenue and finally to the beginning of the Anzac Parade. I didn’t know that it was over a kilometer long (over half a mile) before I started and it didn’t occur to me that riding straight down the middle of the gravel, slightly uphill Parade on a bike with six inch cranks and no oil in the freewheel, under a punishing sun would suck every last bit of energy out of me. It was also at about this point that I belatedly realized that my arms were getting very sunburned. You’d think by now, with my various other regrettable sun encounters in Australia that slathering on a full-body coating of SPF 30 would be a just-out-of-bed, daily task, whether I was going outside or not. Well, the zero humidity and cooler temperatures in Canberra had lulled me into a false sense of security about the effects of the sun and now I was scorched.
After an eternity I finally puffed to the door of the War Memorial. For some reason I had imagined that the Memorial would just be a large, but quickly toured monument. Boy was I wrong. It's a full-on, humungous museum, with room after room of dioramas, models, uniforms, weapons and man-sized plaques detailing virtually every skirmish ever attended by an Australian soldier. I don’t mean to belittle the deciding involvement of Australia’s military in many of the major wars around the world, but the length and detail of coverage devoted to every war, battle and bullet fired by Australia was a bit overwhelming, especially for a totally exhausted, sunburned guy who still had to pedal all the want across Canberra to see coins being stamped out by giant machines. Every time I thought I had reached the end of the Memorial, there was another set of rooms devoted to another conflict, with every piece of debilitating minutia you might ever need to know. After the fourth set of rooms, I kick out the jams and flew through the next four rooms before discovering that there was a similarly sized lower level with just as much memorabilia to examine. I discretely made for the nearest exit. It was nearly 3:30PM now and I had no idea what time the Mint closed. I prayed that it was 5:00 instead of 4:00 as I made the slightly easier, downhill trip back down the Parade (on the shaded sidewalk, upsetting numerous tourists), rode around the lake, back over the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and started the long haul up Adelaide Avenue.
I never made it. By the time I was passing the Parliament building, it was already after 4:00 and I was spent. There was no way I was going to push on in the hopes that the Mint would still be open at 4:30 and then race through the entire exhibit before closing.
I steered back toward the hostel and pressed on. It was clear to me now that it wasn’t just the cranks and my exhaustion hindering progress and wearing me out. Nearly all of the components of the bike were making conspicuous, grinding and clunking noises. This may have been the result of the run up the Anzac Parade over loose gravel and dust that succeeded in gumming up the works, but I suspected that the bike was just long overdue for some TLC. I was utterly spent by the time I gasped up to the hostel door. The overall body fluid loss and sunburn of the day was starting to do terrible things to my body. I dropped off the bike and accessories and staggered three blocks to the grocery where I bought and guzzled two successive bottles of red colored Gatorade.
That night, the expected pain from my ass to my toenails set in. Especially the ass. Anyone who bikes knows the uniquely unpleasant and delicately located pain of that first day on the bike after a long winter. It’s like the first time you rode, every time. I was walking funny and generally crippled. Bedtime was early and deeply welcomed.
The following day I resolved to take it easy. First, a lavish breakfast and toxic levels of coffee. Then, an easy walk to the library for online duties, followed by an idle wander through the neighboring embassy district to ogle some of the more photogenic embassies and consulate buildings and finally, if I felt like it, a bus ride out to the Mint for closure from the previous day.
The library was just down the road (35 minute walk). This innocent trek quickly turned insufferable. The welcome lower humidity levels in Canberra marked the tormenting return of the Australian Lip Shitting Fly. I had briefly forgotten about these maddening pests, which I had first encountered in Sydney. Perhaps the sapping heat of the north was too much for them to find the energy to get out of bed in the morning for a day of laying eggs in my ears, but in Canberra was party time all around. I hadn’t been bothered by the Lip Shitters the day before while on the bike, which led me to surmise that moving along at eight miles per hour on a bike is enough to outrun the suffering, while walking at three miles per hour was well within their attack speed. It was non-stop misery the moment I exited the hostel until I ducked into the library.
Just as I got myself deep into tying up future travel details, the library decided to have a fire drill. They pretended like it was a genuine alarm, but the fact that all the building fire marshals had their red hardhats and directing signs out before the fist announcement was over was a dead giveaway. I reluctantly closed down the five browser windows I had open, containing, hard found, pertinent information and dutifully filed out of the building with everyone else. The lead fire marshal, who had a shiny new bullhorn and wasn’t afraid to use it, kept us apprised of the situation every few minutes. e.g. “Good morning everyone! We still don’t know when they’ll let us back in the building, but I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as I know something.” This message went on like hold music for a maddening amount of time. When she wasn’t telling us that she didn’t know anything, she was using the bullhorn to warn people approaching the building, sometimes while they were still a full 200 yards away, that they couldn’t enter the building because they were in the midst of a “situation.”
Thirty five minutes later we were allowed back into the building and I started my work from scratch.
Bagging that unpleasantness, I crossed the road (15 minute walk) and continued “just up the street” (30 minute walk) into the embassy district. Between brief periods of being lost (15 minutes each) I found and admired the embassies/consulates for the U.K (boring), New Zealand (boring), France (gay), Canada (boring), Papua New Guinea (very cool), Indonesia (dull, and the promised, colorful, neighboring cultural center closed for lunch two minutes before I arrived), USA (humongous and imposing, but otherwise forgettable), India (understated but charming) and Thailand (letdown). As I exited the district and resolved to find a bus to the Mint, I noted that I was already ¾ of the way out there and decided to just walk the rest of the way, stopping in a small business alcove to eat lunch.
Immediately after lunch was when I inflicted the first of, no doubt numerous, injuries as a result of desperate stupidity on this trip. I had two choices on how to approach the Mint; Either walk the considerable distance around something called the Deakin Oval, a social club with a park-like thing directly in my path, or cross my fingers and cut through the Oval in the hopes I could get out on the other side. Although I had done my best to stick to the shade during my walking, the prior day’s sunburn was starting to get fired up from moderate exposure and I wanted to get indoors as fast as possible. The Deakin Oval appeared to just be a large field with a once respectable soccer pitch on the far end. Although a tree line prevented me from clearly seeing a way out on the other side, it looked promising enough for me to risk the shortcut. At about the ¾ mark across the field, I became aware of a seven foot fence on the other side of the trees. At the point of no return I realized that the fence was topped with barbed wire. Well, with sun exhaustion weighing on me and the amount of time I had put into the shortcut, I sure as hell wasn’t going to turn back, walk all the way back across the Deakin Oval, just to walk all the way around the effing thing. The fence looked old and neglected, the kind of fence that probably had a spot where the neighborhood boys probably cut themselves a little escape hole for private access to the field at night. I walked along the fence until I found a spot where the fence was half pulled down and the barbed wire was bent down and out of the way. It was go time.
I used the fence cross bars to support my weight while I hoisted myself over the brink. The chain link itself had been pulled off the support bars so much that actually using the fence for a brace point was useless. It was just a swaying, accident waiting to happen. Well, at the top, predictably, I got my crotch caught on a piece of wire and while I was coping with that, I lost my balance on the support bars and with nothing but the flimsy fence to hang onto, I sort of half fell, desperately clinging to the feeble chain link, to keep from hitting the ground head first. I didn’t hit the ground, but I bobbed to a stop, still hanging onto the bowed chain link, now at a 90° angle to the ground. The success of this recovery was dampened by the dozen or so abrasions gouged into the insides of my left arm and leg by pieces of broken chain link and stray barbed wire. I also somehow tore a hole into the outside of my shirt sleeve. As I was stepping down and freeing myself from the fence, I noticed the anticipated little kid escape hole that I had been hoping for in the base of the fence, right below where I had been trying to climb the damn thing. I squeezed through the hole and stopped under the shade of a tree to examine myself. There were a few immediately visible scratches on my arm, but nothing to worry about. Then over the course of the next 15 minutes, the blood slowly started flowing. There wasn’t much blood. It wasn’t trickling down, but it was definitely oozing out of several places. I became newly aware of additional, deeper cuts on my body every few minutes. Then I sensed that the joint in the my left thumb was swelling up, becoming very stiff and tender. By the time I limped up to the Mint, I was a mess. I made a beeline straight for the toilets to clean my cuts and use the mirror to examine the ones that were on the blind spot on the back of my leg. It was not good. The deepest leg cut had been rubbing up against the leg of my shorts, creating blood stains. I did my best to clean everything and rolled up the left leg of my shorts to prevent more irritations to the cut and blood stains on the shorts, before emerging to half-heartedly tour the Mint.
Even if I hadn’t been distinctly uncomfortable, the Mint was a bit of a let down. It was mostly a giant coin collection with a few modestly absorbing displays, including a mini-coin press that you could activate to mint your own $1 coin (cost $2.50). The part that I really wanted to see, the room with the actual machinery and minting processes going on, was mysteriously dark and abandoned, despite being early on a Friday afternoon. But there was a nice recording playing on overhead speakers that described all the stuff that you might have seen if people were actually working. Sigh.
I ducked into the toilet and checked my wounds once last time, before heading out of the Mint intent on catching a bus back to the hostel. Well, it turns out that the Mint’s bus stop is an ill-serviced, “signal stop” (meaning you have to somehow notify the bus driver that you are waiting down at the end of the road as he passes by on the main road, a half mile away. There was no one around to guide me through the signaling process and no posted bus schedule. I was out of patience with the entire ordeal. Even though I was dealing with a constant, searing stinging on the left side of my body and my sunburn was without a doubt significantly worse than the day before, with new affected areas to boot, I decided rather than sit at a dusty, lonely bus stop for the rest of the day that I would walk back to the hostel. I plotted a complicated route through four neighborhoods that was more or less a straight shot to the hostel, along what I hoped would be mercifully shady, tree-lined streets and got started. Well, it was mostly tree-lined and shady, but there were still far too many stretches of sun, which was now noticeably wounding my arms and the back of my neck. This discomfort was almost too intense for me to notice that I was cutting through what was clearly Canberra’s upper class neighborhoods, filled with giant mansions, complete with eight foot hedge walls and security gates at the ends of circular driveways.
I lurched into the hostel 70 minutes later. It took a very long time, but I managed to get undressed, showered (exacerbating the throbbing of my wounds) and finally planted in the TV room to pitifully mend my shirt sleeve, while being forced to watch Australia versus Pakistan in cricket while “The Simpsons” were airing on another channel. Stupid cricket.
While I was feeling sorry for myself, a bus-load of Oz Experience travelers pulled up. The Oz Experience is a tour company that more or less ships young aspiring alcoholic travelers around Australia, while keeping them continually stewed like brandy cherries. I fled the hostel and dined alone at a mediocre local restaurant. The owner took a special interest in me, regaling me with the lucrative business possibilities in Canberra and going as far as to point out where I might go to pick up willing women later in the evening, before I returned to the hostel to write what you’re reading now, watch the last 30 minutes of “Apollo 13” and skulk to bed.
My last day in Canberra was spent in the Victor Lodge’s dining room, behind my laptop and relaxing in the TV room, before catching a bus to the transit station for the midnight run to Melbourne. This day of lazy productivity and rest was boorishly interrupted by the Victor Lodge’s chickenshit manager, who saw me, left the building and then called in, ordering the poor girl on duty to invent an on-the-spot “use of facilities” sur-charge for scum like me that have checked out, but are spending the day in the hostel while awaiting transportation. This move was probably inspired by my shameless abuse of the free coffee, while flouting the Lodge’s left luggage service being offered for a preposterous $15 a day. If I had been dealing with the manager himself rather than the mortified clerk, I might have respectfully informed him that using the hostel as a waiting room is a practice that goes on in every hostel around the world and if he didn’t like the idea of backpackers quietly and inconspicuously hanging around the property, he had better damn well find himself a job at a genuine hotel where budget fleecings like this go down a little easier. As it was, I was faced with the very sweet, kind and helpful clerk that I had been dealing with for three days, so I simply handed over the money before marching over and promptly mixing a shamelessly gluttonous “Big Gulp” of coffee into my water bottle for later.
Canberra epilogue: Upon reviewing the unusually long and comparatively enthused commentary in my Canberra journal, when weighed against the journal entries for the preceding three or four cities on my trek, I realized why the previous 7-10 days had seemed especially uninspired and tedious. While it wasn’t like a night-and-day transformation, akin to a European border crossing, Canberra had easily been the most unique and absorbing destination I had found thus far in Oz. Until Canberra, it had all been beach-town-with-snorkeling-and-rain-forest-tours, followed by a beach-town-with-snorkeling-and-rain-forest-tours and then a beach-town-with-snorkeling-and-rain-forest-tours-AND-sailing. (Yay.) The east coast of Australia is very enjoyable, full of adventure and perfect for relaxation if you have the luxury of lollygagging - a pleasure I hope to eventually encounter - but it is severely wanting in diversity. It reminded me of traveling the US. While there’s mild distinctiveness here and there, for the most part, particularly in the cities, it’s a whole lot of the same shit. True, my itinerary could have probably benefited from some forays into the continent, or even just a little bit away from the sea, but I suddenly found myself less regretful for only giving Australia two months, whereas popular opinion holds that you need at least six months and up to a year to get the full picture of the country. I was craving something really different. I wasn’t sure I was going to find this divergent element in New Zealand, my next stop, but dawdling around Oz for four more months sure wasn’t gonna satisfy my craving. While this self-exoneration may have been short sighted and biased, I knew that I was not going to find bona fide variety, with new and exciting attractions, until I got my ass to Southeast Asia. The sooner the better.
Meanwhile, Melbourne, Perth and a very long train trip across the Australian
continent still needed my undivided attention, not to mention New Zealand, which
is widely regarded as being Backpacker Heaven on Earth. (Ooo, gotta be careful
with my expectations here or I’ll have another Florence on my hands.)
©Leif Pettersen 2012