Whenever my wanderlust becomes too strong to ignore, my thoughts turn to faraway places. I put this down to Australia’s physical location: it seems like the beauty of other countries and richness of other cultures are worlds away. For those not as familiar with the distances we’re talking about, it’s a ten-hour flight from Australia to Asia, a fifteen-hour flight from Australia to the west coast of America and a twenty-two hour flight from Australia to western Europe.
I’ve mentioned my need to travel as far and wide as I can to expat friends living in Australia, and relatives who come to visit, and their response is always, ‘But why would you want to go to cold/crowded X/Y? It is beautiful here. You have beaches and the ocean, you have space, and everyone is so friendly.’ These people, who are from the very places I long to see, the very places I think are beautiful, are telling me I’m not seeing what’s right in front of me. I was reminded of this recently when the opportunity to visit Canberra, Australia’s capital city, presented itself.
I’d been to Canberra once before. It was winter, and the two things that spring to mind when I recall that trip are the novelty of sleeping with an electric blanket (I’m from tropical North Queensland) and turning into an icicle at a Saturday morning football match. This time, I was determined to see the place with my eyes wide open.
I was not expecting the city’s natural beauty. It’s spring in Australia, so it’s one of the better times of the year to visit. The flowers are in bloom, the weather is mild and with daylight-saving time in effect the days are long. Memories of grey misty mornings have been replaced with those of clear blue skies. Canberra is one of the most picturesque capital cities I’ve visited. If you want to explore a new city, nothing beats lacing up your walking shoes and exploring on foot. You see more than you would through the window of a moving car, and you really soak up the vibe of the place. The combination of Canberra’s weather and prettiness made me want to spend as much time outdoors as possible.
Did you know that Canberra was purpose-built as our nation’s capital? This means it is well-designed, particularly from an infrastructure perspective. From a photographer’s viewpoint, it also means some spectacular shots, one of the most iconic being from the front steps of the Australian War Memorial. From there, you look straight down red ANZAC Parade to Old Parliament House, a sprawling but grand white building, and then to Parliament House, with its Australian flag the size of a double-decker bus perched at its apex.
For art lovers, Canberra offers pieces both inside its galleries and outside. From the outdoor sculptures at the National Gallery of Australia to the architecture of the Australian National Museum and the giant rock xylophones outside Questacon, there are interesting pieces around every corner. We spent a couple of hours in the grounds of the National Gallery, and the Gallery encourages this by offering picnic lunches to purchase. Fujiko Nakaya’s 1976 Fog sculpture was an unexpected bonus; it comes to life a couple of times a day and is reached by a yellow winding path that simply begs to be followed.
In 2003, Australia threw its support behind the residents of Canberra when the area was devastated by severe bushfires. The natural disaster resulted in four fatalities, the destruction of 470 homes and damage to 2000 businesses, houses and vehicles. More than a decade later, the National Arboretum Canberra is a special example of a human response to nature’s harshness. Just under 50 000 trees have been planted on the site destroyed by the fires, and conservation efforts are a central part of the Arboretum’s program.
Rounding out our Canberra adventure was a stop at Black Mountain Tower (Telstra Tower). Although not as grand as Seattle’s Space Needle or Sydney Tower, I have fond memories of dining in its fabulous restaurant on my previous visit. Alas, I was unable to recreate this experience as the restaurant has closed, but the views are still spectacular and did alleviate my disappointment.
The verdict? Canberra is an easy city to explore. With a population of just under 400 000 (although this number increases dramatically when Parliament is sitting), there’s no congestion or crowds, so it’s easy to feel like you have the place to yourself. The city centre all but shuts down on the weekend, which I found refreshing. The dining scene is accomplished, and there are many galleries, museums and national attractions to see.
I was too quick to dismiss Canberra as a place to play tourist.