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Canberra
15 Dec – 29 Jan 2015
In 1962 when I was eleven my family moved from Melbourne to Canberra. In those days there was no lake in Canberra, just the Molonglo River moseying through the centre of the town and a rickety old wooden bridge crossing the river at Commonwealth Avenue. There were hockey fields on the grassy banks of the river. I don’t remember what else. I do remember when they dammed the river to make a lake, and built a smart new bridge, and another bridge at Kings Avenue. The hockey fields were drowned and I supposed replaced elsewhere. I remember the lake slowly filling, and having to wait two years for it to be safe to swim in, and I remember the development of the paved and formal foreshores in the centre of town. It was named Lake Burley Griffin after the American architect Walter Burley Griffin who won a competition for the design of Canberra in 1912.

Where the lake spread out east and west into the suburban areas beaches were formed, and big parks, areas of natural bush, a yacht club, walking and cycling tracks, and at the eastern end a natural wetland area was left untouched for birds. From the beginning no motorized boats were allowed. It was stocked with fish. There are islands, and I remember one day as a teenager renting canoes with my two besties and paddling around the wilder end of the lake where we lived and making up names for the islands, and bays and hidden secret coves. From my teenage years the lake became a major focal point of the city and still is today. Much happens around it and on it: regattas, swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, picnics and barbeques on the shore. There is a bike path the whole way around it, most of which Don and I have ridden on our various visits to the city. It has become home to countless birds ranging from pelicans to black swans to marsh hens, and there are beautiful formal gardens in the central part, one of which is the venue for Floriade, an annual spring festival of flowers.

It was therefore inevitable that there would be a couple of family outings that involved the lake. On the same day that Don and Julie and I went stalking kangaroos we found pelicans by the shore.

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And on another day, a barbecue with fishing and kayaking:

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My oldest best friend from high school, one of the girls I went canoeing with as a teenager, still lives in Canberra with her husband in a beautiful house in one of the suburbs that borders on rural land, part bush, part grazing land. People are free to roam there as long as they remember to close the gates behind them.

Twelve years ago lightening strikes started four small bush fires near Canberra. Partly because they were not initially properly contained, partly because of extremely hot dry weather, and partly because of 60 km per hour winds, over a period of days the fires grew and became one large uncontainable inferno that reached the city and spread into these outlying suburbs. The fire was so large and intense it created its own fire tornado 500 metres wide with winds of over 150 km per hour.

There are twenty-four houses in the street where our friends live. Only ten were left standing, including theirs. It is uncanny the way an inferno will jump over things, or send out huge fireballs that land randomly. Some houses survived for whatever mysterious reason, most didn’t. Almost everyone was evacuated in time. Four people lost their life, over 490 were injured, and over 500 houses were destroyed. Friends roused friends who were indoors watching television and had no idea of the approaching danger. The entire city gathered to house the suddenly homeless.

Today the area is serene and lush. New homes have been built, gardens have grown and except for the architectural choices of the new homes you would hardly know it had been all but destroyed a few years ago. People lost everything. But not their plot of land, and not their lives.

As for the grazing and bush land abutting the suburb, it has also grown back and became our favourite place to walk every day while we lived in that same house that survived the fires, taking care of our friends’ two dogs for nearly three weeks when we first arrived in Canberra. We didn’t take the dogs up there. In the winter they are used to being able to run free, but in the summer there are too many poisonous brown snakes, so we walked them around the suburban area, and hiked without them up in the bush, sticking to the tracks where we’d see a snake in plenty of time. Walking there almost every day we didn’t see any but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. What we did see was some glorious views of Canberra,

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and the surrounding Brindabella Ranges,

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multi-coloured gum leaves,

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many gum trees,

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and this – an insect that looks so exactly like the wild grass that it is almost impossible to see it. We would never have noticed it if it hadn’t flown in front of us and landed on the grass. I am constantly astonished by the natural world.

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Wildlife abounds in this environment. Most days I saw kangaroos, and every day a great variety of parrots including galahs, cockatoos, crimson rosellas and eastern rosellas. I photographed many of them, but most of the time they were too fast or too far away. Then one day I suddenly came across this:

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Two eastern rosellas, right by the track, and so busy eating grass seeds that for several minutes they didn’t even notice me.

On another day, in another part of town, a crimson rosella:

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We made a short visit to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, about one hour from Canberra. Tidbinbilla covers vast acreage and many native Australian animals and birds can be seen there in their natural environment. The development of the reserve had been ongoing for many years and large numbers of animals had made their homes there. It was not a zoo, though there were some animals in enclosures including koalas, but rather a refuge where animals were not threatened by logging or other encroachment onto their territory. All was lost in that same fire of January 2003.

Now, twelve years later koalas, kangaroos and emus have returned, as well as water birds, platypus, and the ubiquitous Australian lizards.

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We saw ibis, and marsh hens,

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and best of all a pair of rare Australian cranes called brolgas.

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The Australian National Botanic Gardens, at the foot of Black Mountain is one of our favourite places to visit. I think with various members of the family we went there three of four times during the course of our stay in Canberra. It’s fun stalking the water dragons.

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There are several rock pools in the gardens and the dragons hang around them, lazing in the sun or swimming in the pools. The biggest we saw are about two feet long.

Apart from a wide and comprehensive range of Australian native plants the gardens are home to many species of birds. Entering into the gardens one day the first thing we came across was a crowd of wood ducks on the lawn, two adult couples and several chicks.

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We saw an echidna one day! There it was waddling across a lawn and into a bushy area. So rare to see them out in the open like that. As kids we called them hedgehogs, or spiny anteaters, but were soon taught the correct name.

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And of course the gardens are full of flowers. Whatever time of year there’s always something blooming.

Daisies

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Everlastings

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Red kangaroo paw with sweet nectar for a honeyeater.

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Green kangaroo paw,

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and yellow

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We went out for dinner a few times, and coffee many times, with family, with friends. We went to the movies a couple of times – the one about Stephen Hawking (fabulous) and The Imitation Game about Alan Turing, the mathematician who created what would become the modern computer that broke Germany’s enigma code during WWII (also fabulous). We went to an amazing light show at the National Art Gallery. And some other stuff that I can’t remember. But in the end, as I said in the previous post, Canberra for me is about family, and nature. It was all good.

Final photo: an orange canna lily. Just because.

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After nearly two months Don’s back was healed enough for us to get on the move again so we set out on a little road trip to see the famed Great Ocean Road. Next post: Australia’s wild southern shore. And koalas!

*The title of this post comes with apologies to Gerald Durrell






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.