The best view of Canberra is from the back of a departing train. – Bureaucrat Percy Deane, 1928
Like Percy, I’m not a Canberra person. I’ve always thought of Australia’s capital city as dull and contrived, an artificial place without surprises. But I’m here for a week on a business trip.
So I’m going to experiment, taking a leaf out of the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel, released in 2005. The book aims to liven up your travel by throwing in a random element or two. Following one of its experiments, I’ve taken a map of Canberra’s city centre, otherwise known as Civic, and drawn a square based on City Hill, cutting across the CBD’s hexagonal street patterns.
I’m going to follow the borders of that square as closely as possible, even if it leads me through buildings, to see what happens if you throw the guidebook away. Go on Canberra, surprise me!
West: From the midpoint of the northern border of my square, I cross Northbourne Avenue, the major thoroughfare leading north from the city. From here my line doesn’t run west along a street, but through buildings between two streets. But the Jolimont Tourist Centre offers a way through.
In the centre of the space sits a lady at a small tourist information desk. We discuss why the city centre is called Civic, when I haven’t seen a single sign with that name. On my map it’s called just “City”. I wonder if this is an attempt by the ACT Government to make the place sound bigger and more bustling.
I eat a sandwich on a weather-beaten bench in the adjoining bus station, with its pebble concrete surfaces. Its worn appearance makes me think more fondly of Canberra; I remember it being too clean and tidy, but now it’s a little tarnished and all the better for it.
As I cross Moore Street, on my left I can see the 1920s Melbourne Building, one of the oldest buildings in Civic. It’s a beautiful colonnaded square building with orange-brown tiles. There’s something vaguely Spanish about it today, and its graceful lines make it stand out among its neighbours.
Next is a fenced-off pre-school, quite empty. On the grass just outside it, I find surprise number one: a small plastic yellow helicopter with red rotors. I toss it back over the fence, like returning a fish out of water.
South: Turning at the north-west corner of my square, I pass the Street Theatre located on the edge of the Australian National University campus; it looks bit like a 1950s Railway Institute or an abandoned service station. A production called Wish You Were Her is showing, the poster featuring a photo of former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. Possibly not a complimentary biographical work.
I have to cut through ANU’s School of Music. A student leans thoughtfully against a wall, holding a cello in its case. Then two excited guys run past me, one of them saying “You did it!” They disappear into a lift as I leave through a far door, clueless.
After navigating a tricky intersection and its traffic islands, I find myself on Marcus Clarke Drive. For an Australian history graduate, Canberra is a freaky place to be. Place names aren’t just names: the suburbs and streets constantly evoke past prime ministers and other famous Australians.
Then I’m confronted by surprise number two: a flying saucer. It’s a concrete building which whose exterior is a single vast dome surrounded by a moat, reaching right to the ground, with curved gaps for windows. It turns out to be the Shine Dome of the Australian Academy of Science. A sign on the door regrets that the building’s not open to inspection. I regret not being able to inspect it.
I realise I’ve veered way off my path; I need a GPS device, or at least a compass. Making a correction through a patch of bushland, I get my first glimpse of Lake Burley Griffin. It’s quite an expanse, and I can see Parliament House in the distance, flag flying. Nice view.
East: I walk past Rydges Hotel, and I can see the ACT flag flying from City Hill ahead and to the left. Back on track.
Crossing parkland between traffic feeder roads, I’m suddenly dive-bombed by surprise number three: two magpies. I’m crossing a completely open space, but the whooshing sound is quite distinct. I break into a half-run from this pair of small creatures, no doubt looking quite ridiculous to the passing drivers.
Having escaped, I look for the Olympic swimming pool, the south-east corner of my square. I pass a young guy sitting eating a rice dish out of a plastic container with chopsticks, wearing a baseball cap, next to a sign advertising a free solarium visit and massages.
I stick my head into the massage business. A guy with an eyebrow piercing comes out to serve me, and I get the chance to have a closer look at the dome over the pool. I’m surprised to realise it’s not a solid structure, but a huge inflated cover. It gives the impression of a huge marshmallow.
North: I pass the Casino Canberra. This part of town feels more businesslike. The buildings have colonnades, but otherwise they’re modern and featureless. There’s also a slick café with suited business folk, and a hairdressing salon called Shine (no relation to the concrete dome).
I should pass through buildings here, but I don’t fancy wandering through federal government offices in the current state of security paranoia. So I try heading up external stairs to the second level of the building. Here I discover surprise number four: a strange courtyard featuring faded and cracked hexagonal concrete shapes, and a cool bar called Toast. It’s salsa night tonight! I’m sensing that the fun parts of Canberra are often hidden away from the streets.
Then it’s past discounted Harry Potter books in Myer within the sprawling Canberra Centre shopping mall, and through the food court. It strikes me how young the passers-by are, and how that’s the case across Canberra. There’s something youthful and innocent about the city, and it’s quite appealing.
I leave the Canberra Centre for the City Markets. I don’t know if it’s ever been open-air in its past, as it looks fairly modern now. But you can push around a cart, visit different stalls and buy fresh meat, seafood, poultry, and so on. There’s lots of interesting stuff: fusili, polpettini, free-range duck eggs.
West: On my last leg I have to find another path between buildings. A small shopping arcade helps me out, and I pick up a local free paper on the way. Inside it, I read about a celebration being held by the Uruguayan Embassy and the Uruguay-Australia Association. It’s a reminder of how international this city is, no matter how much it feels like a big country town sometimes.
At last, I reach Garema Place. This is a cool pedestrian area, with cafes and restaurants, and finally there are people around. It feels a little shabbier, more unplanned than the neighbouring parts of the city centre. There are Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants, a number of cafes and a surprisingly cool upstairs bar called Hippo.
I like the atmosphere here, with people clustered together in the eateries’ lively outdoor areas; and I’m even pleased to see skateboarders. This is great: more noisy and more animated. Finally I’ve found a place which feels like it’s part of a thriving people-sized city.
It’s only a hop, skip and jump to my starting point from here, so I sink gratefully into an outdoor seat and order a macchiato. Looks like Canberra saved the best for last. And surprised me after all.
The Unpublished is a random series of my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.