Wednesday, May 9

In appreciation of Walter Burley Griffith

For the record; I love Canberra.  I don’t care what its detractors say.  I think it’s a beautiful city with plenty of exciting potential.  I recently rekindled my love affair after taking my brother, Matt, and sister-in-law, Shelley, for a weekend excursion; or as Shelley described it, “a mini-vacation within my vacation”. 

Matt and Shelley dropped into Sydney for five days in April.  They took advantage of the ANZAC public holiday and extended their visit into the following weekend.  Garry and I took our guests on several road trips in between some passionate bouts of shopping.

Garry and I filled their first day in town with a road trip along the south coast.  We stopped first at Stanwell Park to admire dramatic sweeping coastal views along the Illawarra Escarpment.  The headland is also a popular launching site for local hang-gliding enthusiasts.  Unfortunately, when we arrived, there were no hang gliders to be seen.  Instead, visitors were pummeled by a harsh, bitterly cold wind. 

From here we took our guests along the coast via Lawrence Hargrave Drive and the stunning Sea Cliff bridge.  The bridge was opened in 2005, replacing a section of Lawrence Hargrave Drive that was prone to regular rock falls.  It winds its way for almost 500 metres along a narrow coastal rock shelf, offering some stunning ocean views.   We later stopped for a seafood lunch on the shore of Wollongong’s main harbour.  The day trip finished with a leisurely walk to each of the harbour’s two prominent lighthouses. 

On Saturday morning we rose early and headed south again; this time for Canberra.  We’d made plans to base ourselves there for the entire weekend.  Month’s earlier I’d booked us into the Canberra Novotel as 40th birthday present for Matt.  However, our itinerary was somewhat curtailed when shifting airline schedules moved Matt and Shelley’s return flight from Monday morning to Sunday evening.   Naturally we had to stop briefly in Golburn to visit the Big Merino, a 15-metre high Merino ram built from concrete.

My first few months living in Australia, back in 1990, were based in Goulburn.  As a result, the city and its tourist gimmick hold some special memories.   At the time, the main highway between Melbourne and Sydney was routed through the city centre, making the Big Merino a popular rest break for thousands of weary travelers.  In 1992, a freeway by-pass was opened east of the city, leaving the concrete ram isolated on the edge of town.  In 2007, in a feat of engineering genius, enterprising locals lifted the beast off its foundations and moved it to its current location by the local freeway interchange.  Sadly the view from its eye no longer looks out over farm land; instead you’re greeted by a panorama of warehouse roofs and power lines.

The weather in Canberra was stunning.  Our entire weekend was filled with blue sky and warm sunshine.   We made Mount Ainslie our first stop.  I love this place.  From its summit you gain a real sense of the city’s planned layout; a series of radiating axes carefully aligned with significant topographical landmarks around the Australian Capital Territory.  Its design is the result of a design competition that attracted architects from around the world.  The winning submission was made by two Chicago architects, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Griffin.

Once we’d gained our bearing we drove down to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.  We stopped to learn more about the city’s history at the National Capital Exhibition centre.  Here you can marvel at a 3-D scale model of the inner city, most notably the Parliamentary Triangle around which the city’s layout is centered.  Our next stop was Parliament Hill where we spent several hours wandering its vast hallways, visiting the legislative chambers and admiring the view from its grass-clad roof. 

The building’s 81-metre tall stainless steel flagpole never fails to impress.  I recently learnt that the flag it flies is 12.8 metres by 6.4 metres, about the size of half a tennis court.  I was also surprised to discover a copy of the Magna Carta from 1297AD on display in the central Member’s Hall.  The Australian Government purchased it in 1957 for £12,500.  It’s now valued at more than £10 million.

Our last sight for the day was the National War Memorial Museum.  We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit.  Thanks to ANZAC Day ceremonies days earlier the museum and its surrounding memorials was festooned with fresh wreathes and thousands of red poppies.  It made for a moving display of remembrance.  I was also pleased to see my favourite exhibit was still on display; a badly damaged Japanese midget submarine salvaged from the bottom of Sydney harbour.

The submarine is actually the remains of two separate vessels.  They were part of a trio that entered Sydney Harbour on May 31, 1942 in an attempt to sink Allied warships during World War II.  The raid failed and all three subs and their crew perished.  The remains of two subs were recovered, reassembled as one vessel, and then taken on a tour of Australian cities to stoke local animosity towards the Japanese.  How times have changed.  It was somewhat ironic that we’d seen at least one busload of Japanese tourists visiting Parliament earlier in the day.

Our evening was spent hanging out at a local bar where we gently toasted ourselves under an outdoor gas heater.  Despite dire comments about Canberra’s nightlife I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of bars, cafes and restaurants within walking distance of our hotel. 

The following morning dawned clear and still.  Shelley went for a jog along the lake shore and was greeted by the sight of hot air balloons floating overhead.  As I explained to her later, she’d been privy to the city’s ultimate postcard experience.  After a hearty breakfast we stopped to visit the National Museum.  This venue was built on the site of Canberra’s original hospital.  The site was cleared using a controlled explosion.  However, the blast went horribly wrong and large pieces of debris were hurled 500 metres across the lake into a crowd of spectators.  A young girl lost her life and nine others were injured.

Before making our way back to Sydney we stopped briefly to see the corragated iron cows adorning the New Zealand High Commission's front lawn.  We made Bowral our lunch stop; eating at the oraganic Wild Food CafĂ©.  However, in hindsight we should have stopped at Berrima, rather than Bowral.  Berrima is a quaint village of colonial homes a few miles south.  It sits in a pretty wooded area unlike the rather souless, drab concrete streets of Bowral.