Canberra Bit

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Actually, I Can berr a lot (yeah, sorry about the title) of Canberra in spite of what I’d heard from others. This oft talked-down Australian capital was my next destination, in spite of being warned it was a hole, dead, cold, hollow, and not worth the time by many locals. So maybe I went in with my expectations low, but I did think it worth at least a full day’s attentions. I had initially planned to stop there en route to Melbourne, but with Mike coming in to Sydney and going to Hunter Valley for some wine tasting (something I’d rather do with a friend than alone), I decided to take a couple days and head out there before he arrived. I left before lunch and, it finally being a hot and beautiful day, stopped off at Bondi beach for a couple hours first. The surf was really up and the beach, with no tsunami warnings, was pretty packed with surfers. I waded in and found myself getting tossed in all directions from the waves. They’d come in from the ocean, they’d come in from behind, and occasionally would crash together and produce sideways waves. It was interesting for body surfing because sometimes, you’d miss a small front wave but it would give you enough momentum that you’d catch a bigger wave following right behind it without even trying – or knowing what was going on. And then you’d be surfing along that wave and it would collide with a wave going back out to sea and you’d be unceremoniously and immediately ejected. Such fun! But, on to Canberra.

I left Sydney’s snarling traffic and took the inland route towards Canberra, leaving the city at 4:00 and driving mostly after dark. Oh, I almost forgot. While in Bondi I stopped at a nice little French café called Le Paris and also got a spare key cut for my car. Anyway, the drive there was uneventful and uninteresting as a result. I pulled into town expecting to get lost – I’d been warned by everyone that it was confusing – and doing the speed limit (I’d also been warned that due to lack of crime, there are radar traps everywhere). I found my way right to the YHA with neither ticket nor misdirection, and checked in beside some friendly and nice-looking German girls. So far, so good. I made my way upstairs and there were two English girls painting a mural in the stairwell, and I excused myself as I snuck by.

On the way back down to retrieve my other backpack and move my car, they stopped me to ask if I was American as I’d apparently said “my bad” or something walking by them and then we talked for a bit and they invited me out with them and their Cirque du Soleil group (no, just vendors, not performers – sorry Larissa) to the bar downstairs, which was having a karaoke night. I also met a fellow Canadian, Doug, from Winnipeg, and chatted with him a bit as well. He’s studying in Melbourne and had a line on a 4 weeks on, 1 week off type job that paid extremely well. One month of working there would basically replenish my funds to the point they were at when I left in January, and bear in mind I was doing a LOT of extreme (and expensive) adventure stuff in New Zealand.

So it was that we hit the karaoke bar around 10:00. Doug and I got there first and had a couple beer, and whatever he’d eaten for dinner, well, the two definitely weren’t agreeing. I was a little embarrassed when we joined the Cirque group a little later as I didn’t want to get credited with the rather constant odour supply. We sat with them for the rest of the night and though we did eventually put our names down to sing something, it was too late. It wouldn’t have been the same without my PC mates anyway.

I had seen a sign offering a free nights’ stay for a couple hours of work, so the next morning, that’s what I did – changed and checked light bulbs all over the place with a guy from Finland. It was time consuming and tiring because every bunk bed has its own light so you’d have to climb or jump up to check it, and it’s not a small hostel. Plus my Finnish friend seemed to have trouble changing a lot of the lights and I’d have to go and help him. They were, admittedly, a tricky sort, but once you saw how they clipped in it really wasn’t. Anyway, that was my morning, but it helps. I was up early anyway to plug the meter for my car. Ah yes, the unimagined fun of driving yourself. It may have been a mistake to have a car (time will tell). First of all, parking it a headache. Secondly, it can be expensive unless you can find somewhere free to park. I spent the equivalent cost of a meal on parking my car that day. And finally, unless you’re traveling with others, it’s more expensive than by any other mode of transport except maybe flight. Maybe. You have the gas costs plus keeping the car running (hopefully the last of my woes for a while have been seen on that front). BUT, it does give you the flexibility to go where and do what you want, when you want, most specifically off the beaten path. National parks, remote beaches, that sort of thing. Since I’m paying the price anyway, I intend to start getting my money’s worth out of those advantages.

Anyway, noon came and I set off from the hostel. As I’d moved my car to all day parking, I was already on the same street that led to the parliament buildings, so I decided to venture there first. Well, let me tell you, Canberra is not a city designed for walking. There are plenty of bike trails, and the roads are laid out expertly to avoid congestion (the beauty of a planned city), but there are some decent distances. Doing it again, I would definitely have what they like to call a ‘push bike’ around here. But I walked, and it was nice regardless. The man-made lake was pristine and had a huge (almost 150m high) water jet in honour of Captain Cook. I like all these things in honour of old sailors and explorers, it adds a lot to the sense that when you’re in Australia, you really are in the middle of nowhere.

My first stop was the Old Parliament building. It was in a direct line with the War Memorial, which I could see across the water, and also with the New Parliament (built in the 1980s) further up the hill. I strolled up and checked it out. Very Australian. The whole place was tightly knit and you really could feel that being in the building. Press and prime minister shared hallways and toilets and there were no such things as secret meetings because, well, there are no secrets in a building like that. It reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Bart makes a long distance collect call and charges it to a kid in the outback, whose father goes to ‘call the prime minister’ which means sticking a head outside and yelling at a man floating on an innertube in a little pond (which I really want to call a billabong, strangely). There is none of this ‘ruling class’ nonsense here, and you really get the sense of that in these walls.

Finishing there, I traveled up the hill to the New Parliament building. Well, I didn’t like it from the start. First of all, I walked up the grassy hill which the building actually sits beneath. It’s a decent walk up, especially tired and hungry as I already was, and as I neared the top, there was a small fence that declared no trespassing, commonwealth property, criminal act, etc. And five metres further up the hill, another fence behind which were plenty of tourists wandering around. It was not my desire to go all the way back down and try to find a way to the top elsewhere, and I would easily have hopped the fence but for a security guard pretending not to be watching me. I didn’t like the sound of “Criminal Act” either. So I turned down the hill wondering what could be so precious in that five metre strip of grass and walked around the building trying to find a way up. Nothing.

I had earlier tried to go in, but there was a long line up through security and I’d seen enough political interior for one day. As I was leaving, having given up on finding a way up the hill, I took a look back and noticed there was no longer a line. Figuring I’d regret not going in, I decided to take a quick peek and went inside. Where I discovered that the route to the top of the hill was FROM inside and since 9/11 they had to secure that entrance from access. I recommended a sign at the bottom saving the walk, but we’ll see. Maybe someday that will be my claim to fame in Canberra. “No hill top access” or something. My fingers are crossed.

Inside was actually quite remarkable and lavish, especially for something built so recently. Lots of marble and exotic timber and all those things that drop jaws. I did finally walk up to the hill top for some nice views of the city and there I ran into my Finnish friend who persuaded me to go on a tour with him of the building. So we did and learned some interesting tidbits about the city itself as well as the building and parliament. For example, the city was designed with a water axis, crossing perpendicular to a land axis which housed the parliament. The building itself was on a time axis, and the walls, floors, and ceilings tell the story of Australia as you pass through it. Their government seems to work much like ours, except with an elected senate and a few other peculiarities.

The two of us grabbed a bite at a local pub he told me was cheap – I should’ve remembered he was traveling from Finland, but oh well. It’s funny how unhealthy food is always the cheapest, and it’s definitely time for me to get doing groceries or something. I was pretty tired from the day’s walking not to mention hopping up and down bunk beds, and resolved to stay in at the hostel and relax – maybe read or watch the featured Aussie movie of the night in the hostel lounge. I had no sooner laid in my bunk and got out Cell, the new Stephen King book I’ve been reading and loving, then a girl from Hong Kong walked in the door. She was friendly and we chatted for a bit before she went in the shower. “Finally, I can read,” I thought, but she’d no sooner walked out then a couple from Austria came in, and they were also exceedingly friendly. We talked for quite a time and then they invited me to play cards with them. I played for a while and as we were all getting tired, we decided to show each other a bit of magic. I showed them my simpatico trick and he showed me one I unfortunately already knew, and then the Aussies came in.

The Austrians were too polite to say that they wanted to go to sleep and so we all stayed up until about 12:30 when they went to bed despite the noise. That didn’t stop the Aussies from talking and joking loudly, and at a bit after 1 AM, as I was reading, I decided I should say something on their behalf, so I mentioned that people were trying to sleep and they should probably keep it down or go in the lounge or outside, at which point they agreed and decided to go to sleep themselves, though they did continue to talk in bed for a while. I know it’s crazy to think people might want to sleep in their room, but there you have it.

I left for Sydney the next day to meet up with Mike, but before doing so, I had a few more things I wanted to see. Having learned my lesson from the day prior, I drove out to the war memorial and found a free parking spot and checked out the place. It’s actually a memorial, museum, and archive all wrapped into one, and at free admission, it’s easily the best thing there is to do in Canberra. It really was a terrific historical document of Australia’s part in the wars, complete with shows, dioramas aplenty (not something I normally would think of as amazing, but they were excellent), and lots of cool artifacts. Including, and this was an unexpected thrill, some stuff scavenged from the Red Baron and his plane, which apparently went down over Australian lines. From there, I went to the equally free but much less impressive National History Museum. I should’ve learned my lesson when in Vienna, but never go see what a building is just because it looks interesting. Last time, a recycling centre some 10 km walk. This time, something utterly forgettable. It would probably be good for kids, but I was bored and out of there pretty quickly.

At last, I hit the road to Sydney, stopping in Goulburn to look around. It’s Australia’s first inland city and that’s about all there is to say about it. After checking out the world's largest Merino and looking through its eyes, I stopped at the information centre hoping for some hints and actually got quite a bit of help, at least I think so. See, he gave me some information on the coastal drive I plan to take to Melbourne in a few days. However, I’m not sure how good that information is given what he told me to see in Goulburn. First was Australia’s oldest brewery. How can you go wrong, you ask? Well, imagine this: you park your car beside some old building in a completely barren lot. You walk in and there’s a solitary old and wrinkled man nursing a Victoria Bitter ale (NOT the beer of this particular brewery) who takes you to the bar, gives you a map, and tells you to follow it around. Feeling negligent, he then mentions that the stills are at the far end of the room and extends a crooked finger. You walk over and see nothing that is even remotely involved in the brewing process, only some curtains and dusty floorboards. Perhaps they poured the beer through the floorboards? Or, more likely, he said it “was done there”. Past tense.

Finished examining nothing, he then recommends going upstairs. You walk down an ill lit hallway, passing a room with a locked door that has some casks in it. At last! Brewing equipment. You can’t see much though, as there is a curtain on the window of the other side of the door offering only a small glimpse. You press on up the rickety staircase and furrow your brow – it’s like an attic shrine to the Egyptians. They talk about the golden ratio and Australia fighting the good fight near Giza’s pyramids and you wonder not only what this is all doing up here, but whether you turned some wrong turn and moreover, how this ties in to the brewery, but discover no hints among the various diagrams and posters. Having had enough, you decide to just sample the beer and be on your way, but back downstairs, the ancient caretaker smiles wanly and says that you shouldn’t miss the brew hall, and somehow you don’t dare disagree. In the brew hall, you find two large wooden kegs (more beer stuff!) and posters and displays on ancient imperial measures. Cubits, furlongs, rods, it’s all here! And at last, the final piece of the puzzle. It turns out that the architect of this brew hall didn’t believe the golden ratio was the square root of two, but instead 2.54, the number of centimeters in an inch and, somehow, relevant to the human foot as well. Ruefully, you turn back, meet the kindly bartender and owner, and try the three ales, which are certainly not bad, but not the sort of thing you buy a 3L stubby of, however novel the idea. I actually debated buying one to send home, as they’re basically oversized Grolsch-style bottles and I thought my dad would like to see it, but I can only imagine shipping costs. A photo should suffice, I imagine.

So that was the brewery. Worth every penny of my $5.50 admission. I drove up to the war memorial on the hill, again, nothing too fantastic, and pressed on. I took the scenic highway from the inland route to the number one along the coast through Moss Vale. A very nice trek and the towns were really quaint along the way. I fought through traffic and managed to meet Mike, his sister, mom, and his sister’s boyfriend at a restaurant on King’s Wharf after some difficulty. They were having mussels that smelled pretty good, but it was pricey and I stuck to water and a beer. We chatted and they were all very nice and then parted ways, Mike and I planning to meet tomorrow. I was going to go out since it was early and I was in the city anyway, but nothing appealed and you have to be in a certain mood. So, for the first time, I took the train back home to Diane’s, but stepping from the station, I heard music pumping. Convenient. A place I could stay at and still not have to walk the hour long trek back. So I checked it out for a while, a not bad place at all, and finally went home.

Canberra Photos

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