You aren’t allowed to bring political material into Parliament House,” the security officer announces as our bags are screened. It’s high alert in the nation’s capital of Canberra. As a joke we are wearing badges that say ‘Stop Taxing Tourism’. We thought it would make a great Instagram shot on top of Parliament House. The security officer, however, doesn’t share our sense of humour.
“We’re from TNT,” we smile. “TNT, like the explosive?” she asks, genuinely alarmed. “This is getting interesting,” she mumbles. It doesn’t help that my colleague has a thick yanky accent and a backpack strapped to his body. We have only been in Canberra a few hours and we’re already in danger of being locked up, or if you’re my colleague – deported.
We explain that TNT is a magazine, and not a bomb threat, and after exchanging a few smiles and business cards we are eventually permitted to enter. As long as we don’t wear the badge. Politics must be left at the door when visiting the meeting place of our nation’s leaders.
We make it through just in time to catch a tour of the Senate (dusty red in colour) and the House of Representatives (an off-green colour) to learn a brief history of the building which replaced the old parliament house in 1988. The beautiful marble staircase which leads to the Great Hall is opulent, yet still very distinct to Australia, with portraits of retired and fallen prime ministers adorning the walls.
Inside the Hall, we see a large tapestry (measuring 20 x 9 metres) of a dense forest of eucalypts which is based on an Arthur Boyd painting. For all of the ugliness that goes on inside, parliament is full of stunning art, impressive architecture, and because it’s a weekend, no pollies in sight. It feels very calm and museum like.
Making new memories
Anyone who grew up on the east side of Australia can’t help but associate Canberra with the boring school excursion. At around 10-12 years of age you are shuffled onto a bus and subjected to a few days of learning about political history, architecture and science. If you’re really lucky you’ll get to go to McDonalds on the way home, that’s pretty much the pinnacle of the trip. Oh and it’s always in winter – so you freeze.
As a result I became scarred by Canberra, thinking of it as the holiday equivalent of watching paint dry (on a bitterly cold day). Now, more than 15 years later, I am returning, but I promise myself to do so with an open mind. I am determined to make new memories and put to bed some of those myths about Canberra being boring.
Wheels in motion
What better way to see the flat, man-made city of Canberra than on a Segway? Being my second turn on the two-wheeled electric vehicle, I am much more confident to climb aboard. With a local guide, we whizz around the city taking in the National Gallery, Old Parliament House with its tent embassy set up outside, Questacon – the hands-on science museum we get to visit later, and race around on a massive grass lawn. Our home-grown guide tells us about the ‘three P’s’ that Canberra is famous for. “Pornography, pyrotechnics and politicians,” he says.
“Except you can’t get fireworks anymore, so it’s just porn and pollies, really.” Considering porn is readily available for anyone with an internet connection, I tell him it’s Kevin and Tony who are promoting the city – which is a little unsettling.
He looks like I’ve just put a stick in his wheel, so I laugh and tell him how much I already love Canberra. For starters, it’s winter but the sun is shining, the air is clean and I’ve had an amazing coffee and bacon and egg roll in Braddon this morning. We stumbled upon Braddon almost accidentally, discovering a street filled with vintage boutiques, pop-up stores, clever street art and cute cafes. So far, I am digging Canberra, and we haven’t even been to Questacon yet.
Lest we forget
From a battle of the Segways to the battle of the Somme, we make our way to the War Memorial, which we can see glistening in the sun from Parliament House. The building symbolises the involvement of ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) who fought in the great wars and the memorial commemorates the service and the sacrifice that these men and women made during wartime.
It is an incredibly humbling experience as we peruse the 102,000 names engraved in bronze plaques marking the servicemen and women killed in conflict, many of these are celebrated with red poppies. The roll shows names, not rank or other awards as a nod to the maxim, “all men are equal in death”.
Our guide is a man who appears to be in his late sixties, and as he relays the stories of those who served, he has a tear in his eye that moves me to tears myself. Especially when he shows us the tomb of the unnamed soldier, symbolising all of the soldiers who have died in wars without their remains being identified.
We also learn about the ANZAC legend of Simpson and his Donkey, a soldier who fought in Gallipoli and, with the help of his donkey, carried wounded soldiers from the frontline to the beach where they were evacuated to safety. He did this tirelessly for three weeks, often ducking from gunfire, until he was eventually killed.
While I believe in the futility of war, it’s stories like these that make me believe in humanity. Of course, that is short lived, for we’re about to dive into the nightlife of Canberra, pungent enough to change anyone’s positive spirit.
Uncivilised in Civic
You can’t go out drinking in Canberra without going to the infamous Mooseheads. Try as you might, sooner or later (hopefully later) you’ll be lured in by the throngs of bright young things on hen’s nights of 21st birthday parties cueing up for $4 Smirnoffs. If you go in with an open mind you’ll have a good time, but be careful of the constantly mopped floors, they’re hazardous – as are the drunk meatheads, but that’s to be expected, really.
We actually came across a couple of decent bars in the hit-and-miss Civic Mall area, Shorty’s is a new addition to the scene and the place to go for cocktails, old school RnB rather than the unironic new school RnB pumping out at Mooseheads, and overall a more chilled vibe. Likewise with Honkytonks, this place has some great Mexican food (cheap too) and the Sydney beer taking hipsters by storm, Young Henry’s. There’s also a local art initiative happening on the walls, so it’s pretty much the antithesis to Mooseheads.
If you’re really struggling with humanity, make a night of it here. And when you think about it, it’s the drunk young students of Canberra that are breathing life into the ghostland of Civic Mall.
Surly around Burley
Waking up the next day with a Mooseheads-size hangover and the remnants of 2am pizza (those street vendors get me overtime) can only be conquered by one thing – and it’s not hair of the dog. It’s hairpin turns on a bicycle, hooray!
You may groan but Canberra is perfect for biking, the openness, the fresh air, the flat roads and the friendly motorists all mean one thing: Canberra is the Amsterdam of Australia for bike lovers (their relaxed laws on cannibas just further my point).
We head to Mr Spokes who rent bikes to enthusiasts by the hour/day, from your typical mountain bike to the old nostalgic pedal cars. We set off around Lake Burley Griffith on an eight kilometre flat circuit heading from West Basin to Commonwealth Park.
We take in the tranquil waterlillies in the ponds and head over Kings Avenue Bridge where we cruise around the National Gallery’s sculpture garden taking in the eclectic sculptures on show.
Lake Burley Griffith is actually a man-made lake, which is hard to believe given its size. It was actually made by an American architect who won the competition to design the city of Canberra. The whole city was created in 1908 to become the nation’s capital as a compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne (see, these two cities have been in competition for years.)
Cider and sliders
We finish our hipster morning with a trip to Kingston. The Kingston Bus Depot Markets are known around town for their handcrafted goods and fresh produce, not to mention the best (unalcoholic) apple cider I’ve ever put my lips around. We check our watches and realise we have time for one more stop on our weekend trip. Although I am gunning for the National Archives, we are told to check out Questacon by pretty much everyone we meet in Canberra. It is the National Science and Technology Centre and although it may be aimed at kids, don’t let this (or them) get in the way of a good time.
Questacon is made up of more than 200 interactive exhibits on seven levels that have us racing up and down the spiral ramp. You’re never too old to experience a simulated earthquake, free fall on a six metre vertical slide or walk through a spinning LED tunnel. It has us giddy with excitement and pretty much sums up our Canberra experience. For a town built from nothing, there is creativity and innovation on every corner.
Canberra may get a hard time but (once you get past security), you’re welcomed with open arms into a place of endless beauty with a wealth of things to see and do. It’s not just a place famous for three P’s (which recently lost an arm).
As we visited on a weekend we never did get to see any politicians, although we probably did mix with some plain clothed public servants. The only fireworks we saw were on the dancefloor of Mooseheads, and as for porn, well let’s just say that all men might be equal in death, but in Canberra they’re very much alive – and who am I to judge?
Damage and details: Parliament House and the War Memorial both have free entry; visitcanberra.com.au; bike hire from Mr Spokes costs $20/hour ; entry to Questacon costs $23; guided Segway tours cost from $25 segglideride.com.au; The writer and photographer stayed at the Adina Apartment Hotel
Photos: Justin Steinlauf