Best laid plans and all that - Canberra

Published: November 26th 2015
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We had initially planned to travel from Sydney to Adelaide, in order to catch the Ghan train there. We had no definitive plans on how or when to do this journey and had deliberately not booked hotels for this leg to allow us some flexibility. As it happened, the weather in Sydney was not conducive to staying longer (19 degrees and drizzly and we are due to revisit later anyway) so we decided to move on.

Our initial plan to move straight on to Adelaide was scuppered when, unless we were prepared to pay with a first born child and a kidney for a hotel room for 4 nights, we realised that Adelaide was full on the dates we needed - who knows why - we wondered if it might be cricket or something or even C & C again. We considered hiring a campervan for the journey (it would come with built-in board and lodgings) and even thought about flying between the two cities but decided against that too, wanting to stay on the ground if we could. So, we needed a Plan B. In the end, after looking at a map, just about my only contribution to the arrangements was to suggest 2 nights in Adelaide (we could get a hotel for 2 nights) and take our time getting there by going via Canberra, a place we never intended to visit, and Melbourne, a place we did intend to visit but not until later in the itinerary. How to get there was resolved by a quick trip to the Greyhound bus offices where we were greeted royally and bought tickets to Canberra and Melbourne for the reduced price of $99 pp (about £50). A bargain! We met a driver in there (Michael) and he was super-friendly; Steve and he hit it off straight away with their 'bus driver banter'. We booked a hotel in Canberra and we were good to go.

Our bus was scheduled to leave Sydney bus station (close to our hotel so we walked) at 12.30 pm on 14.11.15. It was lovely to discover that we had the same driver that we had met in the offices the day before and he very kindly moved us to the front two seats so that we could fully appreciate the views. He pointed out things of interest along the route and it was like having our own personal chauffeur, just fantastic. We passed Goulburn, which was the first inland city to be built in Australia, who knows why, and is now known for a huge prison, and Lake George, which is vast but has no water in it at the moment. Michael also pointed out dozens of spent cartridge cases on a bridge where he reckoned a farmer had been taking pot-shots at animal predators (across a dual-carriageway??!!). Michael was funny and interesting and I was pleased we got him as our driver. He said he had never seen anyone smile so much during a journey!

After our last experiences on a bus (think Laos) the Greyhound bus was great. It had reclining leather seats, free water and WiFi, an on-board loo and there were only about 15 passengers on it! All Greyhound buses have the letters DOG in their registration number so that was one way of getting my dog fix! Getting out of Sydney was hideous (traffic merges from 7 lanes into 2 to get into the underpass and it took forever) but thereafter the journey was smooth with Michael telling us we travelled about 3 kms every 5 mins normally and the trip itself was 283 kms. We arrived in Canberra 40 minutes later than scheduled at about 4.15 pm, got a taxi to the Best Western Tall Trees where we had a fire alarm and a visit from the Fire Brigade before we could check in, a steady walk around the local area and early to bed after a bite to eat.

The following day we walked to the city centre. Now I like cities. They are usually vibrant, busy places with plenty of activity and lots going on. Not Canberra. OK, it was a Sunday but we struggled to see any signs of life in the suburbs (no-one in the gardens, no children playing, no cars or pedestrians) and the city centre was a ghost town. We struggled to find anywhere open for lunch and decided to take Canberra's version of the red bus city tour. Apparently, Canberra can't sustain a double decker red bus so their version was a minibus - it seems we can't escape the minibuses!

Canberra was chosen to be Australia's capital city in the early 1900s after Melbourne and Sydney vied for the privilege and lost. There was literally nothing there at the time and the city was planned from the beginning after an international competition. The first two streets to be built were called Melbourne and Sydney, apparently in recognition of those two cities' interest but it seemed a poor consolation prize to me, though the streets are pretty enough. Canberra stems from an Aboriginal word, appropriately meaning 'meeting place'. The architects had a blank canvas and a blank cheque and the city is carefully and creatively planned with long straight roads affording wonderful views intersected with circles. The bus tour was interesting and informative. We saw the Australian War Memorial (we later realised that the Australians are into war memorials in a big way - no bad thing in my view but I hadn't realised the extent of ANZAC involvement in as many events) the National Library, Art and Portrait Galleries, High Court, the old and new Parliament Houses, the National Museum of Australia, the lake and the embassies. The American embassy was, of course, the biggest, and the Israeli embassy was the most fortified. Not too long ago the embassies discovered that they had each been secretly spying on each other with hidden equipment which resulted in the Chinese embassy being rebuilt with every brick, tile and labourer being brought over from China. The labourers had to be paid at Australian labour rates and earned 7 times more than when at home and, sensibly, didn't want to return when the work was completed.

The driver, when asked, said that Canberra was generally a quiet place, with only 390,000 inhabitants. He reckoned you could fire a shotgun down the main street and miss everything/everyone! We returned to our hotel via the Edgar's Inn where we finally interacted with some local residents, doing the things many people do on a Sunday afternoon, having a drink and mixing with friends/family. I met Shadow the dog and her owner; Shadow was clean and tidy and her owner had the remains of his 'barbie' lunch in ample evidence down the front of his tee shirt.

Our city tour bus ticket was valid for 24 hours so we got up early the next day, having decided to revisit Parliament House. The new building is perched on top of a hill and, after visiting the House of Representatives and the Senate, we went up on the roof to enjoy the view, which was stunning. So inspirational, in fact, that someone must have had a Lazarus moment as he abandoned his wheelchair and walking sticks to appreciate the view. The roof is a grass mound which covers the building and the locals use it as an exercise area. It is topped with a flagpole known locally as The Coathanger which carries a flag as big as a double decker bus and can be seen for miles. We got some money out of the ATM there, hoping to get a receipt so we could prove we got some cash from the government rather than us giving it to them. We got the money, but no receipt ... trying to reduce potential littering I suppose. Just goes to show the government will give you nothing for free.

Being the capital city and governmental centre, most inhabitants of the city are employed in public servant roles and it showed. Apart from Shadow's owner, everyone we met was clean and smart. It struck me that there was no evidence of individuality or counter-culture. No-one we met or saw had tattoos, dyed green/pink/blue hair, clothing that was anything but respectable and it was a bit like something out of Stepford Wives, with everyone toe-ing the party line. It was as though the robot invasion had started, and it had started here! Very conservative, conventional and conformist and most peculiar. The birds were colourful, flamboyant and extrovert though. There were many more different varieties than we had previously seen.

Canberra had been an unscheduled and unanticipated stop for us and I found it interesting. The weather was much better! I don't think it's a typical Australian city but we'll see - our knowledge base for comparison purposes is pretty small at the moment. I'm starting to think that we would be more likely to call their cities towns, though, based on size alone. I am beginning to realise that Australia is very big and very empty!


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