300 km south west of Sydney. The main visitor information centre is a little north of the city centre at 330, Northbourne Avenue (toll-free tel. +61 02 6205 0044). There’s another, more central, information office on Bunda Street, but it does not make bookings. At either you can pick up a detailed map of the city. Northbourne Avenue is the main artery which leads south off the Federal Highway into the city centre.
The city centre is known as Civic, and its heart lies Vernon Circle. Canberra’s main shopping areas are the pedestrian malls east of the Circle.
Commonwealth Avenue runs south from Vernon Circle to Capital Circle, within which stands Parliament House on Capital Hill. Capital Hill is the summit of the ‘parliamentary triangle’ formed by Commonwealth Avenue, Kings Avenue and the lake; within it are many of Canberra’s most important buildings.
For skiing and winter sports information, see below under Detour – The Snowy Mountains.
Canberra has been the federal capital of Australia since 1927. With a population of more than a quarter of a million, it is still considerably smaller than most of the state capitals. Like Washington DC in the United States, its main business is the nation’s business, and it even occupies its own federal territory. This is the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which is not part of any state.
When the separate states of Australia joined together to become a federation in 1901, Melbourne became the national capital. But this was intended only as a temporary measure. The new Australia would have a brand new capital of its own, which owed no allegiance to any of the rival states. It took some years to find a suitable site. In the end, the choice was 2,300 square kilometres of territory in southern New South Wales. This had previously been used for raising sheep, and seemed quite suitable for rearing politicians instead.
A worldwide competition was announced to find an architect to build the new city. This was won by the American town planner Walter Burley Griffin, who was based in Chicago. The powers that be decided to call the new capital Canberra, after the old Aborigine word for the place – which they understood to mean ‘meeting place’. This may seem like a happy coincidence, but it turns out that Canberra’s founders may simply have been told what they wanted to hear. Subsequent enquiries, too late, discovered that the word Canberra in fact means ‘woman’s breasts’.
Griffin (who had never seen Canberra) set to work designing a garden city for a population of 25,000. Closeted in his office on the other side of the world in Chicago, Griffin came up with a revolutionary idea. The city would have five separate centres, each devoted to a different function. The result was a collection of suburbs, with little urban cohesion and no living heart. This was to prove particularly apt. Even with its large state capitals, Australia’s main centres of population were, and to a large extent remain, essentially suburban in character.
The building of Canberra was interrupted by the First World War. Even after this, progress was slow, as the politicians continued to scheme and to bicker over various details of their future home. Namely, how to pay for it – yet at the same time keep the precise cost of this vast project secret from those who were actually paying for it. Eventually, in 1927, the politicians decided it was time to move in, and the capital officially opened for business.
After all the grand openings, the Depression arrived, and building dwindled to a snail’s pace once more. The world looked on in admiration. Long before anyone else, Australia had seemingly solved the problem of what to do about politicians – isolate them in a remote half-built city miles from anywhere. Here they would be entirely free to get on with doing what they knew best: politics.
Not until many years after the Second World War did Canberra begin to come into its own. The National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) was established in 1958, and unlike many such politically appointed commissions, it actually did something. The development of Canberra now began apace. In 1963 the Molonglo River was dammed, creating a lake 11 km long which now forms the central feature of the city. (Other, less revolutionary cities tend to have a central place where people can actually meet.) This stretch of water was named Lake Burley Griffin, after the man responsible for the parts of the city which had not been submerged beneath its surface.
Within ten years, the city’s population had risen from its originally projected 25,000 to more than 100,000 – most of whom were now civil servants and administrators. As we all know, once civil servants have managed to establish this sort of growth in employment, it is very difficult to stop them. Just a quarter of a century later the population of Canberra has leapt by almost 200 per cent – a rate of expansion which leaves even the likes of Mexico City and Rio de Janiero toiling far behind.
Although the main local industry continues to be job creation, Canberra now has other centres of employment besides the government. The city is the home of the prestigious Australian National University, whose philosophy department has long been the finest in the southern hemisphere. And tourism is now a growing source of income. Deservedly so – for there’s plenty to see in Canberra, even if this is mostly of the ‘great capital institutions’ variety.
Sights and places of interest
Canberra’s main sights are scattered – seeing them on foot is not a good idea. There are a number of worthwhile bus tours (for details, contact the visitor information centre, 330 Northbourne Avenue, where many of these tours begin and end).
In fact, the best way to see this city is by bike. Canberra’s green spaces are criss-crossed with cycle paths which link up most of the sights, making this the best cycling city in Australia. A well established cycle hire service is Dial a Bicycle, +61 02 6294 3171. If you want to ride round Lake Burley Griffin, choose Mr Spokes, +61 02 6257 1188, close to the lake.
Sights have been listed in order of interest and proximity to one another, rather than alphabetically.
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes Place; open 10 am to 5 pm daily, entry free. This fairly standard ‘civic modernist’ building houses the national art collection (which is separate from the various state collections). The building is linked by an overhead catwalk to the next-door High Court of Australia.
Inside the National Gallery you’ll find a wide range of respectable Australian art, lightly seasoned with the usual indifferent or atrocious examples which all national galleries carry as ballast. By popular acclaim, the centrepiece of this collection must be Sidney Nolan’s justly famous Ned Kelly series – though I think that some of his others are better still. Also not to be missed are the Arthur Boyds. The Aborigine collection has many peaks (and a few troughs). The bark paintings are superb. There are also works by various European and American big names, and some intriguing pieces of Oceanic origin.
The sculptures aren’t quite as good, but they’re in a pleasant setting looking out over Lake Burley Griffin. During the summer open–air concerts are staged here in the evenings – apply at the ticket office for the latest schedule. The gallery has an interesting bookshop.
Old Parliament House
King George Terrace. This rather laid-back white neoclassical pile is quintessential 1920s municipal in style, and benefits from its fine site overlooking the lake. From 1927, for more than 60 years, this was the home of Australia’s parliament. Unfortunately it’s not possible to go in, perhaps because they’re still clearing up after parliament’s last-night party here in 1988. This monumental thrash lasted until well after daybreak, and included such high jinks as the prime minister dancing the can-can with the leader of the opposition. Politicians in Canberra have enough practice to be able to hold their liquor very well indeed, leaving even the Aussie press astounded when the drinks bill for this jamboree finally leaked out.
Sir Donald Bradman
Donald Bradman was to cricket what Einstein was to physics. What before had been unthinkable was now proved with huge numbers. Indeed, when Bradman started batting, his feats often exercised the mathematicians at the scoreboard as much as they exercised the bowlers and fielders. At the age of 17 he was averaging 100 runs an innings for his local team. Three years later, in 1928, he was playing for Australia. He played for his country for 20 years, during which time he maintained an average of 99.4, and his highest score was 454. Known affectionately as ‘the Don’, he was always a gentleman both on and off the field.
Parliament House – the new parliament building
Capital Hill; open 9 am to 5 pm daily; reached by 352 and 901 buses from the city centre. This cost over a billion Australian dollars and took almost a decade to build. The result is a striking white building whose architecture attempts a blend of the spectacular and the ordinary, and succeeds in being both. It is the work of Italian architect Romaldo Giurgola, who believes that buildings should blend with their landscape. In keeping with this, part of the roof is covered with earth and grass to make it look like the hilltop it replaced. Meanwhile, above this rises a supported stainless-steel flagstaff, which might perhaps have blended in at Cape Canaveral.
Some of the inside lives up to all expectation. The entrance hall has an Aborigine mosaic, as well as panels representing Australian plant life. Other halls and galleries contain many gems, including a huge and highly colourful Arthur Boyd tapestry, and works by Sidney Nolan, Tom Roberts and Albert Tucker. You can also see a copy of that fundamental democratic document, the Magna Carta – signed by England’s bad king John in 1215. Much of this building is intended to have symbolic significance, and a recent political commentator has speculated that perhaps the latter document is intended to show that Australian democracy is a fake. Perish the thought.
Try a visit to the House of Representatives or the Senate (both within the building) and you’ll soon see that this at least sounds like a democracy. The decibels rise to a peak at question time, which takes place most days at 2 pm. This is when the Government has to answer questions put by the Opposition: some have said it should be called Answer Time, while others have cruelly suggested that perhaps Lack of Answer Time would be closer to the mark.
Yarralumla. Because the city is modern and suburban in character, without any overall defining style, the various diplomatic missions have been allowed to choose their own style when designing their embassies. As a result, the world’s nations, both great and small, have shown that Mickey Mouse taste is far from being uniquely American. Nation after nation has succeeded in stereotyping itself in a manner which would surely have caused outrage if it had been done by anyone else. (The Americans have their millionaire slave-owner’s mansion, the Greeks should be wearing fake togas behind those fake pillars, and the Japanese have their usual crematorium garden.)
Detour – The Snowy Mountains
In winter these mountains are a popular skiing area. You can expect snow from late June to September. The best base for exploring the region is Cooma, which is just over 100 km south of Canberra on the Monaro Highway. This is a small town with a pleasant multicultural feel, owing to the number of immigrants from all over the world who have settled here after working on the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme. (The local Avenue of Flags marks the 27 nationalities who worked on the mammoth project.) The main Visitor Centre for the Snowy Mountains region is at 119 Sharp Street.
The best skiing in the Snowy Mountains is at Thredbo, which is 80 km west of Cooma and almost 1,400 m above sea level. It is a popular and expensive spot. A little down the scale in prices, and in terms of skiing level, is the large twin resort of Smiggin Holes and Perisher Valley. Mount Selwyn, up in the north, is also good.
This entire region is part of the Kosciuszko National Park, which covers a vast 650,000 hectares, making it the largest in New South Wales. This is also worth exploring in summer, when everything is much cheaper. A chairlift will take you 2 km from Thredbo to within walking distance (6 km) of Mount Kosciusko peak.
Also worth seeing are the Yarrangobilly Caves, a huge complex of limestone caverns. These are just outside Kiandra, 115 km north of Cooma on the Snowy Mountains Highway. The all-season lakeside resort of Jindabyne lies in the mountains 60 km south-west of Cooma. This resort is entirely new, as the old settlement has now disappeared below the lake. In summer Jindabyne offers canoeing and fishing. In winter, it’s one of the better less expensive resorts.
Parkes Place. This new modernistic National Science and Technology Centre is picturesquely situated by the banks of Lake Burley Griffin (see below). It is a quintessential hands-on museum, with well over a hundred interactive exhibits for the hyperactive young mind. If the kids are still active after that, let them have a go on the continuous spiral walkway. After this, defeat is inevitable – so make for the café which serves cakes which will prove a good match for those with eyes larger than their stomach.
Lake Burley Griffin
This pleasantly landscaped stretch of water forms the central feature of the city. The best of several parks along its banks is Commonwealth Park, at the northern shore to the east. This contains the local oddity: an old house. Blundells Cottage is typical of the sheep-rearer’s cottages which used to dot this region. It dates from the 1860s. Inside there’s a small museum (www.nationalcapital.gov.au/BlundellsCottage).
Just offshore by the King’s Avenue Bridge lies Aspen Island, with its carillon (donated by the British government).
At the other end of the park is the Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet, which can rise to almost 150 m. I was unable to work out the symbolism of this memorial until a local explained to me that this was what happened to Captain Cook’s ship when he first hit Australia and sprung a leak – see A brief history of Australia: Early European exploration.
Canberra is picturesquely contained within ridges of the Australian Alps, which provide some fine views down over the city. Black Mountain, to the west of town, rises to over 800 m, and can be reached by 904 bus. At the top there’s a 200-m telecommunications tower, which has a revolving restaurant (www.telstratower.com.au)
Sights in the Canberra Region
90 km SW of Sydney. The Hume Highway passes hereabouts through some spectacular mountain scenery, and then arrives at the rather ordinary town of Bowral. So why mention it? This is the birthplace of Australia’s greatest sporting hero – in a nation where sport is the national religion. The greatest cricketer of all time, Sir Donald Bradman (see also above), was born here in 1908. The local cricket ground is named after him, and there’s a museum devoted to his exploits.
See above, under The Snowy Mountains..
200 km SW of Sydney. There’s been a settlement here since 1833, making this the second oldest inland town in Australia. Right from the start, the main business here has been sheep. In honour of this they’ve erected a 10-m high sheep, the Big Merino. Like a woolly wooden horse of Troy, you can get inside it (where you learn the inside story of the sheep business). At night the Big Merino’s eyes glow green in the dark, just like those of the shearers emerging after a long session in the local hotel.
Kosciusko National Park
See above, under The Snowy Mountains.