Archive for the ‘Central Station’ Category

Canberra: Gateway to Everywhere Else!

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

When I was a junior in high school I took AP Lang and one of the books we had to read over the summer was Bill Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods. I had never read any travel literature or anything by Bill Bryson before, and I found myself completely enamored with the genre and the author I discovered it with. Since then I have made it a goal to read all of Bill Brysons books and have yet to find one that has disagreed with me.

One of my favorite books of his,  In a Sunburned Country details his travels around Australia and had me laughing out loud the first time I read it. I added it to my Christmas List one year and received two copies from different people. I brought one of those copies with me to Australia but Justin took it home with him when he left, and then my friend Jordan told me to keep his copy when I asked to borrow it to write this entry, because he didn’t want it. In my absence my mother bought a copy of her own to read while she planned my family’s Australian adventure. So I have two copies of this book to my name, but three in my family. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

Funny, grumpy, sarcastic, and so correct. Read this book.

When I first read the book my freshman year of college I remember the chapter on Canberra as being particularly hilarious. Having now travelled to Canberra I can say with full authority that everything Bill Bryson said about it was 100% correct, and so for my blog entries on Canberra I am going to quote him and invite you to laugh along with me at my favorite grumpy travel writer who couldn’t have been more correct in his observations about this odd little town.

Justin and I woke up (or rather Justin woke up and then fought me out of my sleeping state) around 6am on Friday morning to catch our 7am bus from central station to Canberra. We were both groggy and grumpy but made our bus on time without incident and then promptly went back to sleep. The bus ride was around three hours long and once we got out of Sydney the scenery was filled with lots of mountains and odd looking trees. When we got off the bus Angela, Justin’s friend from the Citadel, was there to greet us and walk us to her apartment where we would be staying for the weekend. Angela is currently working on her masters degree in peace and conflict studies (somewhat ironic since she went to a military school for her undergraduate degree) and when she heard that Justin was going to be in Australia demanded that he spend a weekend in Canberra.

As Justin and I surveyed the landscape on our walk from the bus stop to Angie’s apartment we were very underwhelmed. It was around 11 am on a Friday morning and nobody seemed to be around. Things were eerily quiet. All the buildings we saw were sleek and modern looking, but devoid of any real character. Already we were judging.

Angie had glowing things to say about the city, but it is the only Australian city she has visited, and she spends most of her time in it studying. I think Canberra would be a very good place to work on a masters or doctorate degree since there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of distractions in the city. I would think you would find plenty of time to study because the city doesn’t give you many other options.

A little history on this odd little place from Mr. Bryson:

“Years were consumed with squabbles about where the Australian capital should be sited before the selectors eventually settled on an obscure farming community on the edge of the Tidbinbilla Hills in Southern New South Wales. It was called Canberra, though the name by then was often anglicized to Canberry. Cold in the winter, blazing hot in the summer, miles from anywhere, it was an unlikely choice of location for a capital. About nine hundred square miles of surrounding territory, most of it pastoral and pretty nearly useless, was ceded by New South Wales to form the Australian Capital Territory, a federal zone on the model of America’s own District of Columbia.  So the young nation had a capital. The next challenge was what to call it, and yet more periods of passion and rancour were consumed with settling the matter. King O’Malley, The American-born politician who was a driving force behind federation wanted to call the new capital Shakespeare. Other suggested names were Myola, Wheatwoolgold, Emu, Eucalypta, Sydmeladperbrisho, Opossum, Gladstone, Thirstyville, Kookaburra, Cromwell, and the ringingly inane Victoria Defendera Defender.

In the end, “Canberra” won more or less by default. At an official ceremony to mark the decision, the wife of the governor-general stood up before a gathering of dignitaries and, “in a querulous voice,” announced that the winning name was the one that had been in use all along. Unfortunately no one had thought to brief her, and she mispronounced it. Never mind, the young nation had a site for a capital and a name for it and it had taken them just eleven years since union to get there. At this blistering pace, all being well, they might get a city going within half a century or so. In fact, it would take rather longer. Although Canberra is now the sixth largest metropolis in the nation and one of the most important planned communities on earth, it remains Australia’s greatest obscurity. As national capitals go, it is still not an easy place to get to. It lies forty miles off the main road from Sydney to Melbourne, The Hume Highway, and is similarly spurned by the principal railway lines.  Its main road to the south doesn’t go anywhere much and the city has no approach at all from the west other than on a dirt track from the little town of Tumut.”

“In 1996 the prime minister, John Howard, caused a stir after his election by declining to live in Canberra. He would, he announced, continue to reside in Sydney and commute to Canberra as duties required. As you can imagine, this caused an uproar among Canberra’s citizens, presumably because they hadn’t thought of that themselves. What made this particularly interesting is that John Howard is by far the dullest man in Australia. Imagine a very committed funeral home director – someone whose burning ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director, whose proudest achievement in adulthood was to be elected president of the Queanbeyan and District Funeral Home Directors Association – then halve his personality and halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard. When a man as outstandingly colorless as John Howard turns his nose up at a place, you know it must be worth a look.”

- Bill Bryson

The history of this location is very exemplary of the reality of it.

Justin and I hung out with Angie for a bit in her apartment and then she gave us a quick walking tour of some of the sites nearby before handing us a map so we could do some exploring of our own. Since she had a paper due by midnight she said she would take us out on the town Saturday but needed to work till then. When she gave us the map she cautioned, “things look like they are close together on the map, but when you start walking you will see that it takes forever to get anywhere”

Bill Bryson had this to say about that:

“My one tip for you if you ever go to Canberra is don’t leave your hotel without a good map, a compass, several days provisions, and a cell phone with the number of a rescue service. I walked for two hours through green, pleasant, endlessly identical neighborhoods, never entirely confident that I wasn’t just going around in a large circle. From time to time I would come to a leafy rotary with spooked roads radiating off in various directions, each presenting an identical vista of antipodeans suburban heaven, and I would venture down one that looked most likely to take me to civilization only to emerge ten minutes later at another identical rotary. I never saw another soul on foot or anywhere watering a lawn or anything like that. Very occasionally a car would glide past, pausing at each intersection; the driver would l0ok around with a despairing expression that said, “Now where the fuck is my house?”

“On paper Canberra looks quite inviting, with its serpentine lake, leafy avenues, and 10,000 acres of parks (for purposes of comparison, Central Park in New York is 840 acres) but at ground level it is simply a great deal of far-flung greenness, broken at distant intervals by buildings and monuments” - Bill Bryson

Being that it was around 3pm when we set out, Justin and I set our sights on walking up Capital Hill to see the Parliament building, which seemed reasonable to accomplish before it closed at 5. We walked for about 25 minutes before realizing that it was much further away that we originally thought, and not easily accessible on foot. We walked across the bridge over Lake Burley and found that in order to get to where we wanted to be, we would have to dash across four lanes of highway traffic, leap-frog a set of jersey barriers and then scale a fairly steep hill covered in bushes. We decided against this.

After this failed expedition we headed back into the center of town and found a quaint local bookstore where we ordered hot beverages and rested for a few minutes. With grumbling tummies we soon left the bookstore in search of dinner. We found a large shopping mall where we got wraps and salad and then wandered into a Borders Books to try and find a copy of Bill Brysons book so we could compare our experiences to his.

Justin had been trying very hard to stay positive about the city, but when I read him this quote from Bill Bryson he cracked up and couldn’t help but to finally admit that this city was in fact quite crap.

“I glanced at my watch, appalled to realize it was only ten minutes after ten, and ordered another beer, then picked up the notebook and pen and, after a minute’s thought, wrote, “Canberra awfully boring place. Beer cold, though.” Then I thought for a bit more and wrote, “Buy socks.” . . . Then I decided to come up with a new slogan for Canberra. First I wrote, “Canberra — There’s Nothing to It!” and then “Canberra — Why Wait for Death?”
- Bill Bryson
After several u-turns and phone calls to Angela we somehow found our way back to the University and chatted with Angela for a bit before deciding we were ready to call it a day and get some decent sleep. We briefly contemplated going out with Angela and her friends once she had turned her paper in at midnight, but only operating on four hours of sleep this notion was soon pushed aside by our heavy eyelids. We headed back to Angela’s apartment, showered and crawled into bed exhausted and confident that our decision to spend less than 48 hours in Canberra had been the right one.