Sunday, April 28, 2013

Canberra: The Nation's Capital

Ask nearly any non-Australian what the capital of Australia is and most will tell you Sydney.  Or maybe Melbourne.  Ask any Australian what the capital of Australia is and most will sigh and tell you in a very disappointed tone – that the capital of Australia is a little, boring place called Canberra.

Most outsiders have never heard of it, but Canberra is indeed the capital of this big prosperous nation.  It was selected as such in 1908 after a few years of squabbling between Sydney and Melbourne over which of the two would become the principal city of the newly federated Australia.  Canberra is a fairly small city – with a population of about 370,000 – though it’s about on par with Washington DC when looking at the metropolitan population as a percentage of the country as a whole.  Most Australians hate Canberra.  They think it’s boring and devoid of all liveliness and located in the middle of nowhere – just a pit stop off the highway that connects the country’s two largest cities.  When you tell a Sydneysider or a Melburnian that you are headed to Canberra for the weekend, they pause and give you a puzzled look that I can only imagine would be the same look they would give you if a mini-UFO were to land on your head and bite size aliens jumped out to wash your hair.  Seriously puzzled.  And then they proceed to tell you how awful Canberra is and how they went there once on a school trip when they were a teenager and how it was the most boring place on Earth.

Them:  “Why the fuck would you waste a weekend in Canberra?”
Me: “Well, I want to see what’s there.  Plus, I’m a bit of a nerd and a politics junkie so I think I might actually like it.”
Them:  “Oh.  Well, maybe you’ll enjoy it then.”

Thanks.  Way to kill my pre-trip excitement.  I’d like to point out that most of those people went to Canberra when they were in school 20 years ago and I imagine a lot has changed since then.  I actually found Canberra to be quite delightful – chock full of cafes, restaurants, outdoorsy options, and all the usual stuff you’d find in any big city – just with a lot of nerdy museums and other activities thrown in on top.  I’ll admit that I’d probably never want to reside there, but I think it’s an awesome weekend get away from Sydney.

The only thing people actually tell you to do in Canberra when you tell them you’re going to Canberra isn’t actually even in Canberra at all.  It’s about an hour outside Canberra and conveniently located just off the highway in a town called Goulburn.  What is it?  It’s a big thing.

This is a Big Merino.  Actually, it’s the Big Merino and it’s probably the most famous thing to do in Canberra even though it’s located nearly 100 kilometres before you hit Canberra.  If you don’t know what a big thing is or why it exists, I’ll just point you to a past blog rather than re-explain here:

No big merino is complete without big merino balls… oh my.

Canberra is centered on two different axes.  The first is a land axis which runs down from atop Mt Ainslie through the Australian War Memorial, along Anzac Parade (the main drag), and onward to Parliament.  The other axis is a perpendicular water axis comprised of Lake Burley Griffin, formerly a river which was dammed and named after the architect of the city.  The city itself actually does resemble Washington DC to a substantial degree – lots of straight roads radiating out from large round-a-bouts, no massively tall structures, a river running through it, and tons of monuments and museums everywhere.   To demonstrate both the axes and a bit of DC-ishness, I present to you various views, including a view of the land axis from the roof of Parliament:

From the other end, the view of the land axis taken from atop Mt Ainslie:

The city centre and Lake Burley Griffin from atop Mt Ainslie:

Another road radiating from the giant round-a-bout that surrounds Parliament.  It runs at approximately a 45 degree angle to Anzac Parade and leads to the Australian American War Memorial.  Notice the eagle on top:

We arrived at the Australian War Memorial at 4pm.

What I thought was simply a memorial where I’d walk up, read an inscription, snap a photo, pay my respects, and leave, turned out to contain a giant war museum underneath as well.  It outlined every war Australia has participated in and paid extra special tribute to World Wars I and II.

The museum is huge and houses some pretty incredible artefacts, including one of the Japanese submarines that attacked Sydney Harbour during WWII.

Having only an hour to run like the devil through the museum, I had to do more of a quick peruse rather than devote proper time to each section.  Despite that, I was amazed at the detailed coverage of different wars.  Aside from the big obvious wars, there were also displays on the Boer War which began in South Africa in the 1800’s and is often considered the first war in which Australian soldiers fought (even though Australia was yet a federated country when the Boer War started).  Of course there was Korea, the Gulf War, and a substantial section on Vietnam:

I was surprised that there were already displays on Afghanistan and Iraq, and a bunch of other conflicts that I knew nothing about as I don’t think the US was involved and therefore not prominently featured in our high school history textbooks.  As an influential country in the Asia Pacific region, Australia has helped out with conflicts in Indonesia, Malaysia, and East Timor, as well as peacekeeping missions in Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the Solomon Islands, and many others.  I knew absolutely nothing about any of these conflicts which surprised me, though I wonder if Australian students learn too much about Panama, Grenada, Kosovo, etc.

One thing I know Australians learn more detail about than Americans is Captain Cook, though we certainly did learn about him in the US.  This globe on the waterfront serves as a memorial to Captain Cook:

Look closely:  all of the different coloured lines trace each of his voyages.

After a few good nerd moments, I decided to do some other non-nerdy stuff, mainly because I like to spice it up but also because I think my travel companion, Cade, would have had a nerd overload if I made him cram in museum after museum.  We hit up the Old Bus Depot Markets which turned out to be fantastic.

They had all sorts of trinkets, paintings, clothing, and other random items along with a massive food section with spices, honey, fresh squeezed orange juice, chocolates, and some delicious macarons, among other tasty treats.

I was also totally stoked that Canberra has not one, but two different Ethiopian restaurants to choose from.  Do you know how many Sydney has?  None.  Well, at least none until about four months ago when one allegedly opened somewhere in the northern suburbs, but reviews have brought me to the conclusion that the one here in Sydney might not be so authentic and may be more of an African fusion type restaurant as opposed to true Ethiopian.  But I digress.  We drove into Canberra on a Friday after work and our very first stop in the city was Ethiopia Down Under.  Not bad.

There was also some delicious brunch in the Kingston neighbourhood, a vast assortment of fine dinner options in the city’s centre, and even a gay club for us to dance away the evening at.  Who knew?

Now, I’m obviously missing one major item from Canberra (take a guess!) but I’ll save that for the next post.  Overall, Canberra was delightful and I can’t wait to go back and hit up some of the other museums soon.

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