"A Capital City in the Middle of Nowhere" Canberra by Kakapo2

Canberra Travel Guide: 977 reviews and 2,729 photos

Travelling on the Traces of Bill Bryson LOL

Discussions about Canberra are highly controversial. When you have been there you know why. It is boring and exciting at a time. It is a perfectly-planned capital in the middle of nowhere. Its museums are highly interesting and of national significance. And you still find the place boring, even ugly in places. You can ride on horseback through the city and lead a super-relaxed life. But I would not want to live there, God beware! I did not find Canberra has a soul. In November 2006 I spent a week in Canberra, work-related but with enough time to explore Australia's capital and its surroundings, and although I found it ugly and without atmosphere I had a fun time and laughed a lot. Here is my report.

If you have read Bill Bryson's incredibly funny comments about Canberra in "In a Sunburned Country" you do not expect a lot of Australia's capital city. Nothing but lots of endlessly identical suburbs, as many identically looking roundabouts in which even locals get lost to a point they do not find their houses anymore, sleepy boredom, unbelievable vastness, closed restaurants, a nice artificial lake in the middle, some museums, the parliament zone and the Hotel Rex.

You will not be disappointed if you arrive and leave by airplane - which is recommended because the railway line Sydney - Melbourne passes far away from the capital, as does the main road. Every time you pass at the information kiosk at the airport it is deserted. No-one around at all. There are only some brochures on a stand, in which they advertise hotair ballooning, ship cruises and the Telstra lookout tower. On a six-page flyer you can read what "Your National Capital" has to offer.

In the bookshop beside the unattended Info Desk the employee looks totally irritated when asked for a travel guide of Canberra. "A travel guide?", he asks dumbfoundedly. - "Yes, one of those little books in which you can read about all the attractions you have here..." - "We do not have such a thing", he regrets. - "Isn't there anything interesting to see here?" - "Yes, I am afraid so..." But it's a lucky day - he has a Canberra map - with a lot of green and even more roundabouts.

Some steps further. The vivacity of the capital city becomes obvious. The shuttle bus to the city centre does not operate on weekends and holidays, is noted on a sign. But as said, it's a lucky day, it's a Monday, and at some point the bus should arrive. It is rather clear that it will be faster than to travel by taxi because at the taxi stand a long queue of potential passengers has built up. Never more than two taxis arrive at the same time. Ah, and the taxis...

Arrival in the city centre. They have a very helpful information office for people who want to reach their hotels or motels by regular bus service. The name "Action & Information“ sounds promising. But you do not get aware of any action. But at least there is information - namely, the handwritten note at the counter that "this counter is unattended for a short time". After fifteen minutes still nobody has arrived. If, however, you find the correct line and bus stop, you still have not reached your destination - because the last bus does not arrive. The last bus at 6.20pm... Another line to the same direction operates every one and half hours until 10.35pm. Ok, let's go to the next taxi stand.

After twelve minutes a car is approaching. "Have you been waiting a long time, Madam?", the driver wants to know. - "Twelve minutes..." - "Oh, I am sorry, Madam", he says, "but Madam... Qantas has played an ugly trick on us today. One flight arrived early and another one late. By that our whole schedule got totally mixed up. And apart from that we have big stress today because the last session of Parliament before the summer break has started. We have an incredible lot to do, Madam..."

Yes, they are very, very busy in Canberra. Two days later, when in Parliament the last politician has finally fallen asleep, it is impossible to get a taxi for 8.30am by calling at 7.30am. "We cannot send you a car before 9am", is the information.

The Aborigines once Followed the Bogong Moths

The well-known car rental companies are totally stressed out as well. Probably every visitor wants to rent a car because neither a bus nor a taxi ever arrives. "No, it is impossible to deliver the car; we have to deliver so many cars tomorrow, impossible", moans the man on the phone. When picking up the car it becomes clear why he is so busy: He is the one and only guy for everything at a tiny desk in the most distant corner of a big hotel.

If you ever make it to the seat behind the wheel, you understand why Bill Bryson warns of Canberra's roundabouts. You commit a big error if you think you could just take the exit next to a building you want to go to. Some of those roundabouts in the map are no roundabouts but only ribbons of asphalt which lead around a round bed of grass and mutate into four- or even six-lane highways without warning. And you are completely wrong if you believe you could use the next exit for a U-turn. The underpass of the road could lead you directly to the carpark of the National Museum...

If you land there on purpose or by mistake does not matter. The visit of this strikingly colourful museum with its futuristic flair is fabulous. To line out the outstanding significance of the capital city they have brought in exhibits from other much more significant big cities. Interactive zones in this building, opened in March 2001, show the history of the country, the stories of its people, their lifestyle, the nature and culture in an entertaining and attractive way. And apart from that it is child-friendly.

Not far way is the „National Capital Exhibition“. There you can learn about Canberra's history in a very comprehensive way, from pictures and models. It starts with the indigenous people, the Aborigines of the Ngunnawal tribe, who settled more than 20,000 years ago, just for the purpose of surprising the Bogong moths in their "summer sleeping period" (something like hibernating but in summer) and make protein-rich food - a kind of moth-porridge - of them. Then comes the settlement by Europeans in 1823, and finally the planning of the capital you see today from scratch after Canberra had been chosen as the capital of Australia in 1908 because Melbourne and Sydney could not agree on which city should be the capital... In 1901 the Australian colonies had united to form one nation.

Until then the limestone plateau and the surrounding hills had been nearly bare due to intensive farming. From 1913 until 1926 the landscape was regenerated. The gardeners Charles Weston and his team planted about two million trees and shrubs. The American architect Walter Burley Griffin embedded the city into this vast green landscape around a softly wave-shaped lake along the bed of the Molonglo River. Note: The nice-looking lake only became apparent in 1964 when the river was dammed.

Don't Forget Your Compass in the Roundabouts

Although the city with its three centres ("The National Triangle“) around Parliament House was originally planned for only 25,000 people, still today and with a population of 325,000 it is incredibly spacious and uniform. This enticed Bill Bryson who is famous for exploring the world on foot, to give out the warning never to leave the hotel without a neat map of the city, a compass, provisions for several days and a mobile phone with the number of an emergency service LOL

On the other hand, exactly this is the terrific thing about Canberra. As the city looks like sprinkled incoherently into the forest despite its exact planning, joggers can run through grassy park-like suburbs for hours. Pretty houses are sitting like hidden huts in the shrubbery. Parrots fly around everywhere, galahs and yellow-crested cockatoos, striking-coloured rainbow lorikeets, Eastern rosellas, and the black and white peewees, squawking from power lines and trees. People who prefer to get around high on a steed can do this without trouble. The silence is unique. On the lake noisy motor boats - with the cruise ships as the only exception - are not allowed.

But the architecture is utterly atrocious - with just a handful of exceptions, like Old Parliament House which was used from 1927 to 1988, the modern National Museum and some few historic buildings in the city centre. The restaurants which are lined around a square in the city centre and others hidden in commercial centres, do not look inviting either. But they are very good and - contrary to Bill Bryson's experience - even open.

The buildings look like a mixture of precast concrete slabs and multi-storey carparks. The huge alleys amplify the impression of lifeless concrete-charm of the imprint of the once real-existing socialism. The extremely wide ANZAC Parade (ANZAC = Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) reminds of the alleys which were built for military parades and deployment of the Hitler and Stalin eras. It follows a straight line between Old and New Parliament House (which at least has a very beautiful interior), and the Australian War Memorial. The latter is well worth a visit.

If you leave those aisles behind, you are in the countryside within minutes. On the drive to the hinterland every now and then surbubs appear from the brush, until you really are in the middle of the wilderness.

In the south-west the wounds of the devastating bush fires from January 2003 were still visible when I visited at the end of 2005 but nature was recovering. In the wildlife reserve Tidbinbilla kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emus, wombats, parrots and ibisses were gambling around again.

The north-east is abundant of vineyards and wine-growing estates. Lonesome swimming lakes, mountainbike tracks, hiking tracks and nearly no traffic on the roads make this charming hilly landscape an ideal recreation area.

But only if you plan such activities and want to explore the museums to the last detail you need more than two days for a visit to Canberra. If you ever reach the city centre by bus or taxi... ;-)

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:A lot of green space, silence and fantastic museums
  • Cons:Ugly buildings, no flair, boring despite the many things to do
  • In a nutshell:Many reasons to love and hate it
  • Last visit to Canberra: Nov 2005
  • Intro Updated Oct 6, 2011
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Comments (4)

  • BruceDunning's Profile Photo
    Nov 21, 2009 at 11:35 AM

    I liked the old Parliament style more-but looks like the area is all contemporary now. Great job of pictures and comments. My last trip to Utah/Arizona parks. It was fun but scary some times in remote areas like Natural Bridges and Grand Staircase

  • tiabunna's Profile Photo
    Mar 19, 2008 at 7:32 PM

    An interesting and thought provoking read on Canberra. Some comments I'd disagree with, but I do agree about some awful architecture - unfortunately reflective of the fashion when built. It needs Baroque! Lived there 30+ years and would happily return.

  • Dinninit's Profile Photo
    Dec 30, 2007 at 12:49 PM

    Thankyou for that read Sissi! I believe you summerised Canberra very well with your review. I lived in Canberra for about 18 months and I hate the place! :-P

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Jul 9, 2007 at 12:49 PM

    Wooo... I still have tears in my eyes from reading your intro - BRILLANT !! Haha, you definitely qualify as Billine Bryson :-) I don't know if I would like Canberra, this is all too modern for me. But I must start reading the book now :-)


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