Canberra – A Capital City


St David’s Day passed without note in Australia, especially in Leura where it was once again pouring with rain as we packed up the car for the next leg of our trip.  We left the Blue Mountains as we met them on Saturday, in the wet.  Strangely as we descended towards the south, the weather picked up, it stopped raining and by the time we were on the motorway the sun was shining as we made our way south towards Canberra.

It was clear as we crossed into another state (Australian Capital Territories (ACT) the rain that had so afflicted us had barely touched these parts.  The countryside was dry, scorched and brown and as we tracked down alongside the massive Lake George it was clear that there had been very little rain this summer.  Lake George is normally enormous and makes Windermere in the Lake District look like a garden pond, but the waters edge had receded about half a mile from the road.  It could just be seen glistening in the sunshine.  I don’t know how big it normally is but it still looked huge in its reduced state. Lake George is an endorheic lake, as it has no outflow of water to rivers and oceans and is believed to be more than a million years old.  At 16 miles long and 6.2 miles wide, Lake George is long, largely flat and extremely shallow, with a very small catchment which makes it a very shallow lake in places, in many areas it is only around 3ft deep; its deepest point being around 25 ft.

For a Capital city, Canberra is quite small, only 330,000 people live there. It is the largest inland city in Australia but only the 8th largest across the country.  Normally, when you drive into, say, London, you start to see signs of habitation from miles away.  Canberra nestles in a valley and sort of popped up out of no-where; we were 15km away and still in the countryside.  The first thing you notice is the space, there is so much of it.  Despite being a capital city the skies are wide and expansive, like some parts of the East of England and the city is light and airy and in no way claustrophobic like many old world cities.  We only had one full day here so we quickly had to identify where to go and what to see.

On our early morning run we got some idea of how spread out this city actually is.  From our hotel we ran to the Australian War Memorial and Museum, about 1/2 a mile away.  From the hill there is a stunning view across the valley, down Anzac Parade to Capital Hill and Parliament House, over a mile away.  No industrial chimneys, no factories, no industry to speak of.  The city is purely administrative with National and state government being the main employers.

There are no official walking tours so we made up one of our own.  It was very ambitious and I think we underestimated how much time we would spend walking between the places we wanted to see.  From a lovely breakfast in a cafe our first stop was the Canberra Museum and Gallery.  It was a fascinating insight into the birth of Canberra and its rise to the become Australia’s capital. It was selected to become the capital as a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne, in 1908.  It is unusual among Australian cities, being an entirely planned city outside of any state, similar to Washington, D.C. in the United States, or Brasília in Brazil. Following an international contest for the city’s design, a blueprint by American architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin was selected and construction commenced in 1913. The city’s design incorporates significant areas of natural vegetation and every district has its own park and large green space.  Most suburban streets are tree lined with the housing built behind these to mask the roadways.  This design has earned Canberra the title of the “bush capital”.  The museum also It also featured stories and paintings depicting Australia’s most notorious outlaw and gangster, Ned Kelly.

Left: How the name of Canberra evolved. Bottom L-R: Painting reflecting the bush ranger and gangster Ned Kelly; ACT – The smallest state; Aboriginal Family;  

From there we thought it was a short walk (well it did not look too far on the map!) to our next destination, the National Library via the Commonwealth Bridge.  As we walked  we noticed  how uncongested the roads were.  Very little traffic in the city centre and the arterial roads in and out.  The way the city has been assigned and built has ensured that public transport, car walker and cyclist can all pass by with minimum of fuss and hassle.  Very welcome and very unusual.

Empty Road

This is a main road out of Canberra – It is a Thursday not Christmas day!

This bridge crosses the Burley Griffiths Lake, named after the two architects who “designed” Canberra. On the south bank is a long lakeside path with small concrete bollards sited at regular intervals.  On some of these bollards is a plaque commemorating an award winner for the Australian of the Year. Each year the country celebrates the achievement and contribution of eminent Australians through the Australian of the Year Awards by profiling leading citizens who are role models for all citizens. As well as Australian of the Year there are other awards and the winners of these are also added to the plaque for that particular year. There is plenty of space and plenty of empty bollards so there is some way to go yet before they have to think of an alternative way of marking the awards.

lyn selfie 1

Us on the Commonwealth Bridge

L-R Avenue of trees; South bank with Australian of the Year plinths; North shore

lyn pano

Panorama of the Burley Griffith Lake 

The library itself is a massive building not far from Capital Hill and Parliament house.  As well as a library it is also houses an exhibition centre and a large cafe.  We stayed only for coffee and a walk around the Reading Room which was light and airy.

Clockwise from Top left:  Lyn outside the National Library; Views of the Library

From here a 15 minute walk took us to the National Portrait Gallery.  This building was brilliant. Many sections with portraits in different media, oils, acrylics and many photographs of both old and new.  After a delightful lunch in the gallery cafe we set about exploring the exhibits.  Australians old and new were celebrated as well as sculptures commemorating the indigenous population at the time of settlement.  Some very interesting portraits in a series of very large galleries.

Some Portraits from the Gallery.  The last one on the right is Barry Humphries painted in 1955!

Next on the list was a walk through an extensive Rose Garden in front of the old Parliament building.  By this time the dark clouds were building to the north east so rain was imminent.  We decided that a trip round the Old Parliament Building would do to shelter us from the forthcoming downpour.

The Australian War Memorial; Crest on the Old Parliament Building; Rose garden

This Parliament Building was the original, opened as recently as 1927 and only replaced by Parliament house, which was built to celebrate the Australian Centenary in 1988. The building was intended to be neither temporary nor permanent—only to be a “provisional” building that would serve the needs of Parliament for a maximum of 50 years. Interestingly, and typically Australian, once the old Parliament House was no longer needed, there were calls to demolish it and build something else (typically Australian) but it was transformed into the “Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House”. Far from being dull, it was a fascinating insight into the politicians and workings of the Australian government through the years.  We were able to visit all the offices of state, the  Prime Ministers offices, The Cabinet Room and the Speakers rooms, as well as the two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  We also went upstairs to look at the press rooms where members of the print and Broadcast media had their offices.  Even Lyn, who has little interest in parliament and politics was captivated by what we both saw.

Inside the Old Parliament: Clockwise from top left:  Prime Ministers office DH in Speakers Chair; House of Representatives; Cabinet Room; Lyn in Speakers Chair

It got me thinking……what if we built our politicians a new Parliament building in London and in the mean time repaired the old one and turned it into a museum.  Most of the incumbents in our own upper chamber would qualify as exhibits with little adjustment needed! Just a thought to throw out there.

Left Another view of the War Memorial; Us at the Parliament

By the time we had finished here it was too late to continue our planned itinerary so we walked back to out hotel.  An indication of how spread out Canberra is, when we got back to our hotel we found we had walked nearly 10 miles through the day.

Our one day visit over, we prepared ourselves for the long, long drive to Melbourne.


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