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Dispatches From The Road: One Cold Night In Canberra, Australia’s Capital

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It’s easy to give into your own prejudice and hate Canberra.

As soon as you step into this place, the blood in your veins turns to ice. Winters here are chilly, and if you fly in, chances are you will be left waiting outside in the cold night for a bus downtown.

You’ll have to wait an hour and it will still be late. This is your first introduction to Canberra. That and having airport security judge you for the gender-ambiguous, Chinese T-Rex they find in your luggage while confiscating your shaving cream.

Everything about Canberra feels artificial. It tastes like saccharine. You are immediately overwhelmed with the feeling that the whole place was built specifically to hide some kind of massive, nation-wide domestic surveillance program that intercepts every domestic and international phone call and allow bored intelligence analysts misuse the system to listen in on the one guy who still uses phone-sex hotlines.

It is from this city that the Australian aristocracy meets regularly to run the country.  It is the helm of the 113-year-old Australian Commonwealth, with a transient population of politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, cops and students concentrated into a small area of land halfway between Sydney and Melbourne.  The whole place is essentially one huge crack-den for politics junkies and anyone who takes Game of Thrones too seriously.

Federal Parliament and the smell of constant betrayal

Life here is generally expensive because of it. There are too few people around, so choice is limited, prices can be higher and bars tend to charge cover fees. Otherwise, Canberra has good food and coffee, but chances are, you probably can’t afford the restaurants. There is only one hostel, so unless you’re driving the East Coast in a camper van or couch surfing, you don’t have much choice in where you stay.

The thing to always keep in mind about Canberra is that it is a government town. That is its function, and if you’re following a guide book, you’ll find yourself walking around places like Old Parliament House, the art gallery, the war memorial and Mount Ainslie. These are places you probably should see in the same way that when you turn up in Washington D.C. you should probably go see things like the White House and the Lincoln Memorial.

But that is only if you take this place literally. For all its straight-lace, colour-within-the-lines, bureaucratic functionality, Canberra is much more surreal than all that. It’s a quality easy to miss if it isn’t pointed out to you. The strange architecture of foreign embassies dot the city and occasionally you’ll stumble across something like a whole bunch of forks welded to a storm drain.

Why? Because they can. That’s why.

Then there’s the city itself. Everything is always perfectly manicured. The whole place feels like it was pre-fabricated from concrete and glass yesterday, and airlifted in by helicopter. The grass is green and elegantly slopes. The streets are wide and clean and are never full of people, even on the busiest days. Even the traffic seems polite.

Part of it has something to do with the way Canberra has only been around for about 100 years. For a while you walk around thinking how the place hasn’t really got all that much history. And then you remember all the weird political and legal stuff that has gone down in that time like having the country’s Prime Minister take a swim and not come back, to White Australia finally starting to deal with the fact that Indigenous people live here too.

This is the problem. You know there’s been stuff that happened here, but walking around you don’t have a sense that each street corner has its own history, that there are layers of stories that have been built up like sediment on the sidewalk over the last, two, three or four hundred years. Those stories, are being written now and if you want to access them you need to meet people. If you stick to the guide book, you will spend your time doing something mind-numbing like ticking off a painful tourist must-see list. To have the real fun, you need to go off-script.

For this, you are going to need a student. No one else is as uniquely adapted to this environment. They are the kind of people who study particle physics with the Australian National University and who once worked as debt collectors back in Melbourne to pay bills. They are smart. Smarter than you and they have spent the last three-to-five years of their life moving between libraries, lecture halls and any nearby bar with a happy hour whilst wishing someone had the business sense to open up the carousel in the city’s central plaza at night for drunks.

No little Jenny, the carousel is for big kids

These people will be your Sherpa. You will find them in your hostel and with their help you’ll end up in a place like The Phoenix on a Monday night, watching some band rock out like they were flying with a budget airline and just found out beer and wine were complimentary. You’ll talk about everything from feminism to what life was like back in Melbourne. You will have fun and there will be little time for sleep.

The Phoenix

But when you wake up the next morning, Canberra will test you. Just as you’re starting to reconsider everything you once thought about the place, you will drag your corpse out of bed and into the bathroom to play Russian Roulette with the hostel showers. There is always some chance you will be greeted on this frosty morning with a blast of cold water. Choose wisely.

If you are unlucky, trust your student. They are likely to be broker than you, but will be kind and generous and allow you to use their bread to make toast. Then they will tell you how to get to the bus station and say goodbye.

An hour later you’ll be sitting on a Greyhound powering out of Canberra with nothing to do but watch the Australian landscape roll by as you think about how a city is made or unmade by the people who live there.

Australia: it’s mostly one giant flat space

Canberra is the third installment in a travel series about Australia.  If you want more, click to read about Melbourne and Adelaide.

Images by RoyceKurmelovs, Indigo Eli, Wiki, Jason Bennée, and AUDRC.

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Royce Kurmelovs - The Australia Desk

Royce Kurmelovs - The Australia Desk

Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and writer.