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Captain Cook Memorial Fountain, blown by the wind and caught by the sun

Canberra’s a unique and somewhat strange city. Sydney’s big and brash and cosmopolitan and everyone who’s not Australian thinks it’s the capital. Melbourne’s big and cultured and elegant and cosmopolitan. Adelaide apparently still has a wonderful old-world charm, and a world-renowned arts festival, and all those wineries close by. Brisbane is summer-fun tropical and near all those beaches – miles and miles of beautiful white sand beaches. All these cities have beaches right there in the city, or near enough – Bondi and Manly and Surfers Paradise and Somers and Sorrento, and heck even seriously isolated Perth has great beaches. Eighty something percent of Australia’s population lives on or near the coast. There’s a huge out-door-fun-in-the-sun beach culture here.

And then there’s Canberra, one hundred miles inland. The nation’s capital. Most people who visit say it’s boring. It’s a city of about 360,000 people, mostly politicians, diplomats, and government workers, and the people who work in all the service industries needed to support them. Apart from the parliament buildings, it has the National Library, the National Science and Technology Centre, the National Archives, the National University, the National Convention Centre, the National Rose Garden, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, the National Zoo and Aquarium, the National Botanical Gardens, the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, the National Museum, the National ad nauseum. It’s a garden city, with parks and gardens everywhere, tree-lined streets, and a beautiful man-made lake through the middle. It’s a city planned down to the last detail. Nothing gets built without first getting past the National Capital Authority. There are no high-rises so as not to block out the views of the surrounding hills. And it’s beautiful.

I lived in Canberra from the age of 11 when my father (yes, a government employee), was transferred from Melbourne, until the age of 23 when I started travelling, and then on and off until I was 33 when I moved to Canada. I love this city. And so does Don. It’s harder to get to know maybe than the bigger cities, and it’s like LA in that you’re hooped without a car. The city spreads and spreads and spreads since there’s no shortage of land here, but there’s no lack of things to do and see either, if you know where to go.

Every spring Canberra has a big flower show called Floriade. Last time I went to it was 14 years ago when it was just beds of spring flowers. Well Floriade has grown up a bit since then. Now there’s beds of spring flowers, and craft stalls, and cafes, and face-painting, and live performances, and a garden-gnome-painting-and-decorating competition, and a reptile exhibition, and a big ferris wheel, and clown-faces-to-feed-balls-into, and ice-cream and hot dog stands, and stilt walkers. We went three times. 

We’re dog sitting. Every day we walk the dogs in ‘the bush’ near the house. Apart from the outback, which refers to the central desert and semi-desert that covers most of the country, Australians call anything that’s not urban, or a beach, ‘the bush’. Sometimes, though more and more rarely these days, it really is the original natural landscape. Often it’s land that has once been farmed but has been allowed to return to its (somewhat) natural state. Cows are grazed on the land near where we are staying as a way to keep the grass down to help prevent the spread of bushfires into the city. Ten years ago bushfires raged out of control, four people lost their lives, and 500 homes were destroyed, 200 of them in the suburb where we are now staying. The house we are living in is one of very few on the street that miraculously survived those fires.

Apart from the cows, every day we see kangaroos, and cockatoos, and kookaburras, and many other native birds. I’ve seen kangaroos in the bush many times, but it never gets old. In Don’s words:
“I love the flora and fauna of Australia: to go for a walk in the bush just a few hundred metres from where we’re staying and seeing a mob of kangaroos bounding across the field in front of us is heart stirring. And then there are the birds – crested cockatoos that screech like something demented, pink and grey galahs, multicoloured parrots, and the manic laughing kookaburra”.

Kookaburra in its nest in an old gum tree


Eastern Rosella

And through the living room window – a crimson rosella

All over the world people walk their dogs.
In Canberra they walk their llamas.

Our next adventure is a return to India. We leave for Delhi October 29th.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.