When telling people I was heading to Canberra on a weekend roadtrip, some of them, puzzled, asked “why?” Others simply laughed.
And yet when I probed further, to uncover what could be so dismal about the Aussie capital, it soon became clear none of them had actually been
to the ACT.
Canberra, it seems, suffers from a severe image problem. What could be so bad, I thought, about a place famous amongst Aussies for its relaxed attitudes to fireworks, porn and drugs?
Unfortunately my mission was to find a good time without fireworks, porn and drugs – a tall order anywhere some might say.
So, heading out of Sydney on the swift three-hour drive to the Bush Capital, I get my trusty navigator doing some research (as apparently map reading and sorting out the radio are beyond her powers).
Canberra, she informs me, has only been the Aussie capital since 1927, being purpose-built to settle a dispute between old rivals Sydney and Melbourne.
Basically, when Australia became a proper country in 1901, the two biggest cities both wanted to be top dog. Sydney had enjoyed the limelight at first, but then Melbourne gained from the gold rush, making the Victorian capital a serious contender.
They came up with a compromise – a new capital would be built. It would be within New South Wales, as long at it was at least 100 miles from Sydney. Plus, Melbourne would be capital until it was finished. Not at all petty then.
The history lesson meant there was only one logical starting point for our Canberra mission – Parliament House. Not only is it the focal point of the city, but the reason for its very existence.
Driving along the wide boulevards, which help give the city its parkland feel, the strange structure which hosts the Aussie government soon looms into view.
Covered in grass, to symbolise the politicians being of the people, not above them, it looks unlike any other government building. Indeed, if your imagination is as warped as my travel buddy’s, Parliament House looks like Dr Evil’s lair, with a rocket launcher on top… a look I’m not sure they were going for.
But while the design of the building might be an acquired taste, it’s definitely worth popping in for a free tour. Strolling around some of the building’s corridors of power, which stretch for 22km, is surprisingly fascinating.
From Parliament House, it’s a quick walk to many of the other cultural sites.
Just down the road is the Old Parliament Building, in front of which stands the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a collection of signs and tents symbolising the ongoing struggle for Aboriginal rights.
Although there’s not a lot to see, the embassy is a stark and powerful reminder of the situation that remains in Australia.
Walking a little further on we reach the National Gallery of Australia, another free attraction. Home to one of the best art collections Down Under, don’t miss the room that houses 25 of the 27 Ned Kelly paintings by Sidney Nolan. Seeing them together feels a bit like prodding at the beating heart of Aussie identity itself.
With our fill of art, we jump back in the campervan for a quick drive out to the Australian Institute of Sport, the place responsible for making Australia such a formidable sporting nation.
Created after the Aussies failed to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games, Australian sport has since gone from strength to strength.
Given a tour by one of the centre’s athletes, we get to look around the complex. A real highlight is the Sportex, a room packed with sporting memorabilia, from Don Bradman’s cricket bat to Ian Thorpe’s swimsuit, as well as the chance to test our sporting prowess.
There are machines for measuring strength, flexibility, even how high you can jump, while simulators let us try everything from skiing to penalty shoot-outs. We even have a go at wheelchair basketball. We quickly accept we’re unlikely to make any Olympic Games team.
With our woeful sporting skills revealed, dusk is fast approaching. Fortunately, we hear the comforting voice of alcoholic refuge calling to us.
Despite its reputation for being, well, a bit lame, Canberra is secretly pretty wild, thanks mainly to being a big student town and boasting quite liberal licensing laws. We head to the central Civic area, where there are bars as far as the eye can see.
Fast forward 10 hours. Apparently, we had a very good night. All I know is the sun is barely up, I’m in a park and I’m staring bleary-eyed at an unimpressed hot air balloon pilot, while some hellish ghoul haphazardly strikes my head with a sledge hammer.
Unfortunately, I’d failed to honour my promise to myself not to get drunk.
Somehow though I’d made it to the balloon and was ready for the view to beat all views.
We stand around idly in the chilly dawn as our pilot casually blasts away with his flame-thrower. Soon enough, our balloon’s good to.
Before we even realise what is happening, we’re away, the basket floating effortlessly off the ground, the park gradually becoming more distant and a sleepy city edging closer.
Hangover forgotten, we cruise over the capital, unbelievably close to Parliament House. It’s a surreal and timeless experience. Except for the occasional blast from the flame-thrower it feels as if we’re travelling through Canberra’s dreams on a magic carpet.
When we finally, and gently, come to a rest in a field on the opposite side of the city, everybody struggles to suppress the grins on their faces. We can’t hang around, however, as we’ve got to hit the road. There’s time for one last stop, something no Aussie roadtrip should be without – a Big Thing.
Not far outside Canberra, Goulburn delivers with the Big Merino. This giant ram, standing proud like some highly blasphemous tribute to the wool god, is huge, truly weird, and er, definitely a he. At least we think it’s a ram. Suddenly we’re not so sure if we did avoid those famous Canberra drugs…
The details: Campervans from Spaceships (www.spaceships.tv); Dickson Backpackers (www.dicksonbackpackers.com.au); Hot air balloon flights with Balloon Aloft (www.canberraballoons.com.au); Australian Institute of Sport (www.ausport.gov.au/ais) 90-minute tour