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We were looking for the capital city of Australia. According to the last signpost, it was less than thirty kilometres away but somehow we had ended up at Piccadilly Circus.

Lake Burley Griffin

That might seem like a pretty major map reading error, but in fact this was Australia’s Piccadilly Circus. No statue of Eros in the middle of a congested junction. Just a patch of grass in the middle of a turning circle, in the middle of a forest, at the top of a mountain called Brindabella. Not that we hadn’t noticed the incline some way back or the pot-holed track that the road had become. It was just that we knew Canberra was located in a bit of an offbeat place, so we hadn’t thought much of it. The city is served by four main roads and linked to everywhere else by minor ones, some of them, dirt tracks. So with this in mind, we’d pressed on, chatting away and admiring the dramatic scenery – it had gone from dry brown fields to lush green forests – until we’d reached a point where a large swathe of trees had been cleared, opening up a view of our altitude. That was when the doubts had begun to creep in.

We hadn’t managed to get there yet, but already we were getting a flavour of the capital’s little eccentricities. We’d set off that morning from the Wee Jasper valley, where we had been camping amongst sun-seared hills and greedy possums, and arrived at a small junction with a signpost pointing the way to Canberra. The road had looked promisingly surfaced, so we’d settled back in our trusty white Ford Falcon for a smooth ride all the way to the city. A few kilometers later, however, the black stuff ran out and we were back to gravel and dirt. We bumped along like this for quite some distance and then hit the bitumen again. They must have started surfacing the road at both ends aiming to meet up in the middle, we thought, but they hadn’t quite finished the job yet. It would be plain sailing from here. But no sooner had we resumed the cruising position than we were jolted back to ruts and humps again. And so it remained all the way to the borderline, as we negotiated our way towards Australia’s political epicentre on a road best suited to tractors and four-wheel-drive trucks. Then by the side of it, in amongst the sheep and the scrub, the sign confirming that we were indeed entering Australian Capital Territory.

Eventually we emerged at the junction to a main highway and a large green sign pointing the way to Canberra – in both directions.

I had read about the city’s Land Axis plan – the much lauded and equally vilified wheel and spoke layout of its main roads – and its potential to disorient the casual visitor. But we weren’t even on the outskirts yet and already here was a road that promised to take us to Canberra no matter which way we chose to go. We tossed a coin and opted to go right. We’d soon be there now.

When you’re sitting on a mountain, surrounded by trees and you are struck by the realization that you have actually got lost trying to find the capital city of a major industrialized country, it is easy to feel stupid.

On the other hand we probably weren’t the first. That must be what the Piccadilly Circus turning circle is for, we assured ourselves: so that people looking for Canberra, could turn round and go back. Which is what we did.

Back at that big green sign, we found on closer inspection, that there was at least one other person who had been sent the wrong way. In a public-spirited endeavour to prevent others from making the same mistake, someone had scrawled a clarification onto the sign in black felt tip.

It said, “Canberra – turn left in 1K”.

Pity it was only legible close up. Sure enough, though, further up the road was an easy to miss turn off. It was a relatively narrow country lane. The kind of lane you might expect to lead to a village, rather than a city. The highway we had just turned off was the kind of road you might expect to lead to a city, rather than a mountaintop.

There’s not much of a build up to Canberra: no gradual transition from suburban sprawl to municipal hub. One minute you’re in the bush, the next you’re in the city. It’s weird.

Straight away, Walter Burley Griffin’s grand axis ground plan grabbed us, pulled us in and had us driving round in concentric circles. We’d already spoken to a couple of people who had warned us about this. One guy from Uralla said that he’d driven round and round all afternoon trying to find a parking space, but gave up and went home. This probably wasn’t for lack of spaces. Space is something that Australia rarely lacks even in the city. More likely, it was because the parking signs are not clearly marked. The blue P’s are very small and you get no advance warning, so if you pass one by, you’re stuffed. You just have to drive round again.

To the driver, Canberra is essentially a series of ring roads, intersected by long, straight avenues. To the pedestrian, Canberra is essentially a series of very long avenues interrupted by some very big parks.

A driver unaccustomed to Canberra may wonder why they seem to be spending so much time inside the city, while simultaneously bypassing it. A similarly unacquainted pedestrian, may wonder why it’s taking so long to get into town and at the end of a leg aching day, might be forced to ask, “where the hell is the town, anyway?”

This is because everything is spread so far apart that you never get the feeling of being in the heart of a city. Nothing is just down the street, or across the road. Everything is a considerable hike away from everything else, separated by vast tracts of open green space.

For anyone in doubt as to what this place is for, a long stroll to the middle should clear it up. But if you’re looking for the shops, turn round and keep going, because Canberra city centre is Parliament House.

As if Canberra wasn’t already green enough, the new parliament building has been discreetly tucked into a hill. A grassy slope forms the roof with a very impressive flagpole on top and several blokes on lawnmowers scooting up and down it. Directly underneath meanwhile, in the Senate, some of Australia’s elected representatives were having a bloody good scrap.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity to sit in on a proper Aussie session of political mud slinging, I took my seat in the gallery, just as a senator on the government side was speaking. I listened intently but I was finding it difficult to understand what it was she was talking about. At first, I put this down to the fact that I had walked in during the middle of her delivery and had missed something important. Then again, it was possible she was talking complete incomprehensible gibberish. That certainly seemed to be the consensus of her opposite numbers, who were laughing so raucously you could have been forgiven for thinking that she was a rather good stand up comedian.

The issue, as far as I could gather, revolved around genetically modified food, or at least food with antibiotics in, and whether the latter constituted the former or visa versa. The senator had got herself into a right old muddle by adopting the example of a banana to illustrate her point, and was getting intractably bogged down in the scientific detail, which by her own admission, she didn’t understand. Nobody was taking the banana business very seriously and it was all descending into an admirable piece of high farce. By the end of it, even the banana minister (or whatever she was) had to crack a smile and a good time was had by all.

The next senator to speak was making a statement about some kind of electronic box that Telstra, the Australian telecommunications company, were planning to bolt onto the Black Mountain mast that overlooks Canberra. Evidently this had stirred up some discontent. Mid flow, a volley of vitriol was fired at him from the seats opposite. One short, plump man with a beard was getting especially agitated. Suddenly the chamber erupted into a verbal war zone, everybody shouting to be heard above everybody else. Then, rising above the din, the little bloke with the beard hollered something about a “black spot” (the term used, I now know, to describe regional areas of poor television reception).

At this, the senator responded, “Your black spot’s up here, mate” and pointed at his head.

This remark was greeted with howls of approval, followed by more general pandemonium, at which point the speaker, who up until now had been keeping a low profile, decided to get a grip on the proceedings. He gestured at someone, who stood up and started to read a question. Whereupon the speaker interrupted, “No, not yet. I haven’t called you,” and the guy with the question said, “oh right. OK then”, and sat down. Then someone from the Liberal side tried to raise a point of order and got into a debate with the speaker over whether or not he was allowed to say it without first “seeking leave” to say it. The speaker seemed to think that he probably did have to seek leave to say it, so the Liberal bloke said, “OK then, I seek leave,” and then said it.

Arriving at Parliament House, slap bang in the centre of it all, can leave you in no doubt that Canberra belongs to the politicians. Being inside Parliament House can also convince you that the politicians belong in Canberra. When you look at it like that, the Burley Griffin town plan makes perfect sense. It revolves around them as they revolve around it, each going round and round in circles without actually getting very far. And like so many of the best political plans, Canberra looks fantastic on paper, but on the ground, it’s maddening.

As we walked back along Commonwealth Avenue and over the immense lake, we were passed by the umpteenth pair of “fast walkers” that day. Everybody’s doing it; striding about in their serious sporty kit, never quite threatening to break into a jog and rarely walking much faster than us tourists. Then I realized something: we had hardly seen another person all day who was just walking normally like us. Virtually everyone else on foot was fast walking. They weren’t walking to get somewhere; they were walking to get fit. It’s perfect for that: over the bridge, round the lake and back again in a big Burley Griffin loop. Better than a treadmill, for sure. Why else would any right-minded resident want to walk around this town? Anyone who actually wants to get somewhere goes by car.

For all this, the quirks and foibles are what make Canberra such a fascinating place. The decision to locate it in the heart of bush land was unconventional from the start. The capital’s architect was a visionary. He was given a lot of space to work with and he used it. And it’s so, so green.

We’d arrived in Australia during the worst drought on record. Dead kangaroos littered the roadsides; lured by thirst, killed by cars. Wollomombi, one of the biggest waterfalls in the world, was bone dry. People’s boreholes were down to their last drops. Out in the bush, the prevailing colour was brown. And in the middle of it all, here we were in a green oasis. Clearly there were gallons aplenty to water the grass. But like a mirage in the desert, this only underscored the reality: Canberra was surrounded by kindling. In less than two months from now, not far from Piccadilly Circus, lightning in the Brindabella Ranges would provide the spark.

(Written before the great fire. Nov 2002)


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Dear Rai,