Monday, October 03, 2005

Why Canberra?

My apologies to those of you who prefer short, snappy posts. These ramblings tend to be hammered out in the small hours when I can't sleep, or in the heat of the afternoon when I've checked under the trees for spiders before retreating to the cool shade. Verbosity sets in when you've no worries about anything else, and these posts are the result.

If it's all too much, then come back in November. I'll be back to my terse little moans and rants by then. For now, read on...

We left Melbourne's outer rim after a couple of days welcome rest. On our last, Heather drove us around the Yarra valley to visit a number of wineries and taste their wares. At the first one, after Euan had covered the floor with his yo-yo biscuit (two heavy yellow cookie confections stuck together with sugary butter-cream, quite disastrous if your are either on a diet or not wanting to make a messy statement), we were helped out in our tastings by an alarmingly knowledgeable young man who didn't seem to be part of the normal organisation. By the time he had painstakingly taken us through every wine the place produced, and waxed lyrical about each, I felt honour bound to buy something from him. As he tried to ring up my bottles on the till, failing completely to master the complicated computer technology, It dawned on me that he wasn't part of the cellar door staff, but the head winemaker, helping out whilst they were busy. What I wouldn't give for his job.

Leaving this winery, Heather announced that she knew the perfect place for lunch, and drove off with the single-minded determination of one who knows exactly what they want to do. Unfortunately it was some three years since last she had been to this place, and in the intervening time they had stopped serving lunch. Undaunted, she headed off for another, famous, winery. Here, the restaurant was of the breath in sharply and try not to say 'how much?' variety. We made a hasty retreat to the cheaper bar, only to find that it had been fully booked for a function. And so it was that we were forced to go to Domain Chandon (of the Moet & fame), and there I was forced to eat a platter of fine smoked meats, accompanied by several glasses of sparkling wine, in several different styles (including the oddly appealing, blackcurrant dark sparkling Shiraz). Life's a bitch sometimes.

But all that was just a pleasant memory as we headed South for Gippsland and Wilson's Promontory. I half thought that we might be able to make it to the Southern tip of mainland Australia, but by the time we finally reached Tidal River the afternoon was marching on. According to the maps, it's an eight hour hike to the point from there (and the road runs out after only a mile or so). Not having any camping equipment, and having an appointment in Sydney in a couple of days time, we were forced to abandon that plan and set off once more on the road. Just a mile out, Barbara let out a shriek. 'Wombat! A wombat!' Turning, I just about caught the site of rapidly retreating overlarge furry backside - a wombat in the wild (and not one dead at the side of the road). This was a seminal moment. You might think that the Kangaroo or Koala are the image of wild Australia. Perhaps even the Emu (with or without Rod Hull). But the Wombat is the coolest of them all. The Tasmanian Devil is cooler still, but it only lives in Tazzy, so it doesn't count. The Wombat is king in our opinion, and until now we'd only ever seen them (alive) in zoos.

Australia being the size it is, the rest of the day was spent eating up kilometres (why not miles? They drive on the right, which is to say left, side of the road; they're only an accent away from being a British penal colony). Finally we admitted defeat and pulled into the tiny hamlet of Cann River. The Pop In Motel furnished us with a satisfactory room and free DVD for a paltry sum. The neighbouring Hotel (with no letting rooms - go figure) served up two enormous steaks and some fine beer for an embarrassingly small sum, and finally we retired to our room with a six pack of stubbies. The movie we'd chosen (out of a not terribly edifying list) was The Interpreter, figuring that we were in Australia and Nicole Kidman was Australian (even if she spends the whole movie trying to do a very unconvincing South African accent). If you've not seen The Interpreter, I can only recommend that you don't spend money on doing so. If you have seen it, you'll know what I'm talking about.

In the light of day, Cann River turned out to have about a dozen motels, all clustered around the junction between two main highways. One of these goes directly around the coast and up to Sydney, the other cuts inland to Canberra.

Canberra is the Capital of Australia, but it feels more like an English New Town to me. I'm thinking specifically of Harlow in Essex, where I spent a part of my childhood. It's very well set out, with long wide boulevards and an easy-to-understand grid pattern to the streets, but it has no soul. Like a thousand thousand tourists beforehand, we gravitated towards the new parliament building, with its roof of grass and vast flagpole, sporting an Australian flag the size of a double-decker bus. It struck me as an odd unit of measurement for a country with no double-decker busses in it. Even in London the double-decker bus is an increasingly endangered dimension these days, but in the underparts it must be virtually unknown. Maybe the tour guide leaflet was specifically aimed at the British. Who knows?

Canberra is quite small for a city, and from the centre it turns into endless apartment blocks and rows of houses very quickly. In the centre there are a few cafes and restaurants, a few upmarket shops and very little else. To be fair to the place, we didn't wander far as we searched for somewhere with wireless internet access, but what we saw didn't inspire confidence. Perhaps it was the lack of any skyscrapers, or the dreadful sixties concrete architecture, or the surprisingly large number of empty shop units; perhaps it was the cold wind blowing in from the Snowy Mountains; maybe it was the despairing look on the face of the computer shop salesman as he told us that there was no wireless internet access in Canberra; but whatever it was, my expectations were low.

As it turned out the man was lying. We found a Starbucks that let us log on, albeit for a prince's ransom. But that was in the morning - we still had the evening to overcome, and that meant finding something to eat.

King O'Malley's is, as you will no doubt guess, an Irish theme bar. This is slightly odd, because King O'Malley was born in America. He left in a hurry, following the collapse of the church he had founded (I forget the name, you can google it if you're interested). In Australia he took to politics, casting an eccentric figure in the first commonwealth parliament of 1901 and going on to various responsible government posts. When he died, at the ripe old age of 95, he left his wealth in trust to provide scholarships for young women who wished to study domestic science (that's housekeeping to you and me). With a name like O'Malley, he was obviously of Irish descent, but that's as far as it goes. But everyone loves an Irish theme bar.

At least they had the decency to serve beer in pints (and that's twenty fluid ounces, none of your poxy American sixteen ouncers).We partook of one each whilst pondering what style of food would serve us best. On offer was Italian, Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, French, Singaporean, Japanese and numerous other places, all full of suited politicians and civil servants. After our beers we wandered around them all, dithering. Options paralysis is a terrible thing. Finally a light, cold drizzle drove us back to O'Malley's and we decided that pub-grub would do as well as anything else.

As we ate, so the rain intensified. This was of great concern, partly because we didn't expect cold rain in the Australian Capital Territory. Wales, certainly, and lots of it. But not in the underparts. It also concerned us because we had no hats, umbrellas or anything else to keep us dry during the fifteen minute walk back to our hotel. Eventually I hit upon the ideal solution to our dilemma - drink more beer and wait for the rain to stop. Simple.

Except that it stopped almost as soon as I'd got the next round in, and by the time we'd finished that, it had started up again with renewed vigour. In the end, we resigned ourselves to getting cold and wet, making the most of the covered walkways that I had assumed were meant to shield shoppers from the sun.

Later, drying off in our tiny hotel room, we could scarcely hear the telly over the roar as the heavens opened with the kind of ferocity that made me feel quite at home.

The next morning it was cloudy and cold, but dry. We made good use of the Starbucks then headed across town to CSIRO Discovery, which Barbara had thought might be fun to see. CSIRO, for those who don't know, is the Australian science and technology research organisation and it does some wonderful things with sheep. However, CSIRO Discovery turned out to be more of a kids playground. It's the school holidays here at the moment, so the place was packed with screaming children. We bid a hasty retreat and went to the National Museum instead.

The museum is a great big modernist pile of a building stuck down by the lakeside. From above it probably looks like a huge dog-turd, painfully coiled down by some gargantuan Kelpie. Inside it is bright and airy (if full of screaming children), and has exhibits all about the history of Australia, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islands. The problem I found was that the whole thing seemed mixed together almost at random. Next to a reconstructed skeleton of some long-extinct mega-mammal was a nineteen seventies Toyota four wheel drive with a cunning attachment for catching buffalo. Perhaps if I hadn't been distracted by the endless milling stream of youngsters I might have been able to work out the pattern that linked it all together. As it was, we just wandered around bemused.

And then there was the Aborigines. Now I've no doubt that us white westerners fucked the Aborigines over big style. I've no doubt that we continue to do so in many ways. But I'm not sure that I can really accept the hand-wringing sincerity of the apologists. And I just can't get into the way the whole situation is dealt with. Historically and anthropologically, I'm fascinated by ancient cultures and enjoy exhibits that explain them. But for some reason - perhaps because like Canberra I have no soul - I go cold when modern day Aborigines talk about their culture and the importance of preserving the knowledge and old ways. To my untutored and uncultured way of seeing things, it's a bit like saying the descendents of the Scots who were cleared from the highlands should be returned to their ancestral lands, but only to live in crude stone huts with turf roofs and no running water or electricity. That they should be forced to raise hairy cattle, grow oats and live on cold porridge. That they should work the bulk of their time in the service of their clan chiefs. In short, that they should cling to the past with the tenacity of whelks.

I'm risking a lot of flack saying this, but I've typed it now and I'm way too lazy to delete stuff. And anyway, I'd always rather look forward than back.

Time pressing on, we left the museum and Canberra, heading North for Sydney. On the way out, we stopped at the Kamberra winery, intent on a quick tasting and some food. The restaurant prices made the Yarra Valley seem cheap, and there's something not quite right about a winery with no vineyard attached, so we left, contenting ourselves with some crisps and mars bars from a nearby filling station instead. I'm told by other people, some of them even Australian born and bred, that Canberra is dull, but in the end I was glad I'd found out for myself.

Next time: Sydney

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