Backpacker in Bondi

“Is Bondi Beach worth visiting?”

“Not if you’re not a surfer or a couple.”

So, yes.

I was in Sydney for work, and stayed in the central business district. Bondi was a good 50 minutes away by public transport. It was my last day in the city and I had a flight back home at 5 pm.

Piece of cake, you’d think. True. If you take an Uber, spend about an hour lounging in the beach, and take a cab back.

But what’s the fun in that?

The real fun lies in taking the train halfway, walking crazy distances, gaping at the ocean waves crash against the rocks, and resting on a cliff just for the thrill of it. The real fun is hunting for great food in hidden in the nooks of intersections, wolfing down a pie uncaring about appearing a barbarian—and buying more pie to go. The real fun in travelling, is cherishing every moment of it.

And that’s exactly what I did.

When I left my hotel at 9 am, it was foggy. It was about 15 degrees Celsius, but towering buildings were shrouded in a mist unlike any I’d seen in Canberra. Not at that hour, at least.

Bondi junction on a foggy morning

But the best thing about living in Canberra is that my body has adapted to cold. I was the only person walking around jacket less (or in a light jacket at times), and appearing like a complete jackass to the locals. I didn’t care, though.

When I exited the train at Bondi junction, I knew I had a long way still to go. Buses run from the junction all the way to the beach. I stood in the queue for about three minutes before realising I’d rather hike all the way. It was only a 30-minute walk, after all. I love when my mind makes spontaneous choices like that. Bonus—because I left the station, I got hot chocolate to go with my walk. Sweet.

And so I walked sipping my drink. What’s better than having smooth, extra dark hot chocolate for breakfast? The beach only made my day better.

Bondi Beach

When I arrived at last, the mist still hung around. So were enthusiastic surfers and beach goers. Everywhere I turned, eager tourists captured photographic memories while kids in shorts ran amok into the water. Volleyballers spiked at each other and laughter echoed with the waves.

My heart soared. The last time I was at a beach was during a brief, half-day, team trip with my colleagues, and I don’t even recall the time before that. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed watching the sea spray at my face. Then I turned around to the walkway along the coast—the next thirty-minutes featured sensational views, active runners, dog wakers, couples, sightseers, and me.

It’s amazing how much energy you have when you enjoy what you do. I walked about 15 kilometres that day and I although my feet killed me two days later, I didn’t feel a thing while I scaled the Bondi path. Excitement and expectation masked pain and hunger. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.

From the beach, I walked over to a famous pie shop. Funky Pies is renowned for making (and distributing across Australia!) delicious vegan pies for unreasonably reasonable prices. I had to stuff my face. And so I did.

Funky Pies

But not before I spent a good ten minutes deciding which pie to order. The variety is insane. When I did order, it arrived at my table steaming with peas and gravy on the side. I skipped the mash. Not long after I started eating, I knew I could’t stop with one. So I got one to go as well. It’s an understatement to say it was good.

When I finished, it was just past midday. Though the airport was a long way off, I ended up walking all the way back to the junction to get on the train from there.

Sydney has pretty good footpaths. Yes, it’s annoying to wait for the signals to turn green because they take much longer than they do in Canberra—thanks to the sheer amount of vehicles on the streets. Despite that though, walking was fun. It was nice to look around at the various little stores selling thousands of trinkets I’d never splurge on. Row after row were sign boards advertising cuisines from all over the world, broadcasting the incredible number of cultures that reside in Sydney.

You’ll never experience all of that on an Uber. Or a private vehicle. You’ll never enjoy a city’s true nature when you’re busy trotting along in groups, chatting away in mindless abandon. The only way to understand a city, a locality, to feel its pulse, is to take it by foot.

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Sydney scenes

When I exited the aircraft, I was so excited to be visiting Sydney for the first time. After a month there, my brother mentioned it was starting to grow on him.

We both hated the idea of living in Sydney. Even before we’d even seen the city. Now, though, he seemed to have second thoughts, and I was eager to find out how I felt.

Long story short—I still don’t like the idea of living in Sydney.

I did like Sydney, however. Contradictory, I know. But as soon as I reached my hotel on Harbour Street, in the heart of the city (CBD), I texted my colleague to see if we could catch up. After all, I wasn’t touring Sydney—I was there to attend a conference, to stay locked up inside the infamous International Convention Centre from 8 am to 5 pm on a Thursday and Friday. I met my team mates at around 5 pm, and after a not-so-great coffee, I left to explore.

Vivid Sydney display
Vivid Sydney display

Not one to linger these wintry days, the sun had set off at around 5. But Sydney city is the Down Under version of the city that never sleeps. Lights glared from every corner, and instead of listening to my colleagues ranting (reasonably, albeit boringly) about office politics, I preferred to wander the streets.

Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney
Sydney Harbour during Vivid Sydney

That’s when I realised the sheer volume of people who called Sydney home. I wasn’t far from Chinatown and Koreatown so I ran into thousands of all flavours of Asians. And I don’t mean ran into in a figurative sense either. So many people wandered just as I did, except they were looking at their phones letting their well-practised feet and conditioned subconsciousness guide them through navigating the street signs.

Almost everyone followed street signs. And that made me so happy. But it was also frustrating when a lot of couples clung to each other while walking down the footpath. Dawdling behind them, I had a hard time overtaking them without bumping into another arm-locked couple.

And I won’t even start about the low-burning cigarette butts every other person clung to. It wasn’t that cold. At least not for me—not after Canberra anyway.

But it was all great fun. I stopped by for a hot chocolate and walked over to the Opera House. May-June is a great time to visit this studded bay area because Vivid Sydney is on show. The whole locality lights up, laser shows beam about, special over-priced cruise tours dig gold, and along with the many significant buildings in the neighbourhood, the Opera House takes on a stunning veil of animated display.

The closer I got to the building, the faster I seemed to walk. It happens to me all the time. Excitement and eagerness make me trot without a regard for my knees or my not-good-for-walking Converse. But what the hell, I thought to myself. You don’t always get to see the Opera House for the first time. There’ll always be reasons no to do something—rain, cold, wind, stiff shoes, bad hair days, tired feet, or work night. But nothing beats the sense of accomplishment that comes with pushing through nevertheless. That keeps the spark alive for a traveller.

Nestling in that spark, I returned to my room, ready for work the following day.

Next day—

Work was average, and I wasn’t happy with my contribution. But the spark still triggered me to take a ferry unto Manly. And I saw the Opera House again from a whole different perspective. After all, what’s the point of life if you let work interfere with it?

A walk in the forest

During the one month that I’ve lived in Canberra, and for many before I moved, I’ve watched—with growing envy—the city’s locals share glorious pictures of the National Arboretum.

On photos it seemed such a vast area of green nothingness brimming with so much liveliness. Trees smothered brown and yellow during sunsets, mist hanging over unknown mountains, sneaky sunrises playing games of colour in the sky—every picture piqued my curiosity and intensified my urge to be there, live it, and relive it.

Except, I found out soon, the National Arboretum is unreachable by public transport. Although, somewhere in my subconsciousness, I knew I couldn’t just take the bus up there—the many jaw-drop moments I’d seen in photos revealed towering altitudes. Still, it came as a disappointment.

But rejection only makes us want something even more. And when we do get it, at last, we’ll savour it for the rest of our lives.

I will, the Arboretum.

View from the National Arboretum, Canberra
View from the National Arboretum, Canberra

Thanks to a bored brother and a good friend’s decent car, we cruised uphill with my eyes open bright and soul screaming wide. As we went higher and higher, I felt lighter. Trees have that impact on me.

When we stopped and stepped out, I grabbed my jacket to shield myself from the icy breeze. It was the first day of winter and though the sun shone bright, coldness pressed against my skin, tingling my t-shirt, and teasing my boldness to go thermal-less. It wasn’t nail biting, but just enough for me to appreciate the weather without developing a raging hatred towards winter. Nature knows how much to offer and when.

National Arboretum, Canberra
National Arboretum, Canberra

While the cold remained subtle, the views were more pronounced. As far as my eye could reach, I saw nothing but trees—steps upon steps of luscious greenery that refuse to die even in winter. From way above, I was looking down at massive branches appearing to be nothing more than bushes. Ah, Bush Capital indeed.

Amidst the sea of wood, I spotted, like deer in a jungle, benches and footpaths inviting humans to stray away from their handphones and into the amassing wilderness ahead. It wasn’t just a remedy for screen eyes, but rather an invitation to experience the vision of this great green city. With neat guidelines, pathways, and dedicated clearings to enjoy the view from, the Arboretum is the ideal environment for people to take a moment alone with nature without contaminating it with their innate humaneness.

Pine forest at the National Arboretum, Canberra
Pine forest at the National Arboretum, Canberra

As we walked down the path—a path—we came by a large row of pine trees extending to a forest behind them. While the sun prepared to step back for the day, a faint glow erupted from within and beyond the forest, emitting a clarion call for the crazy.

We heard it and heeded it. It’s enchanting to walk into a forest that’s both dense and airy at the same time. It was light enough to see through the trees, but also mysterious and unmoving. The deeper we went, the further we wanted to go. Pine trees always give each other enough space to grow and expand. Like the best of friends. And although they’re upright on a slope, they’re so well rooted that they don’t sway in threatening ways. We could walk quite far into the pine forest and still glimpse the last of the sunset through the branches.

Sunset over the National Arboretum, Canberra
Sunset over the National Arboretum, Canberra

Sitting idle at home two days later, I realised the Arboretum is more than a collection of trees in natural habitat. It’s a trove of magical views, mystic thoughts, and ground breaking moments—a much endearing, must visit.

The Bush Capital

“I […] picked up the notebook and pen and, after a minute’s thought, wrote, “Canberra awfully boring place. Beer cold, though.” Then I thought for a bit more and wrote, “Buy socks.”

[…]

Then I decided to come up with a new slogan for Canberra. First I wrote, “Canberra—There’s Nothing to It!” and then “Canberra—Why Wait for Death?” Then I thought some more and wrote, “Canberra—Gateway to Everywhere Else!,” which I believe I liked best of all.”

Excerpt from In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson.

I read that piece of prose about a month before I moved to Canberra. A good friend, American, suggested that I read Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country as a way of getting into the moving mood. Of course, my friend meant well—though he couldn’t recall Bryson’s exact feelings about Canberra, he did mention that Bryson covers the whole of Australia from an American comedian’s perspective. And that’s just what the book does.

I’d done some research on my own and everything I learnt hinted at a great place to live—a quiet small town with lots of greenery and large lakes, stunning autumnal sunsets, and frostbiting winters. And so it surprised me to read the author had suffered great boredom in Canberra. In the book, Bryson moves on to Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, narrating his observations along the way. And sure enough, in comparison to those metro cities, Canberra is rather subdued and humble.

Estimated population of Canberra in 2035
Estimated population of Canberra in 2035

But Canberra is far from a boring place. I’ve been exploring the area and town life every day since I moved here a month ago. And there’s not a single thing that didn’t amaze me. Aside from the old parliamentary building and the old law-making systems, the national war memorial that brings to life each war Australians suffered, and the museum of modern history that plays host to thousands of years’ history, the city by itself has a story to tell.

The National Capital Exhibition is a smaller building than the other tourist attractions. However, it hosts hundreds of interesting titbits about the city that’d make any Canberran swell with pride.

Canberra is a planned city. When the government decided that neither Sydney nor Melbourne can serve the purpose, they weighed various criteria to choose the capital city. With sufficient resources for agriculture and cultivation, natural scenery that’d attract visitors and locals alike, a secure landmass away from the coast and naval invasions, and an accessible location from all over the country, Canberra became the ideal capital. As I read through each point in favour of Canberra, I found myself nodding in agreement. This is a great place. And the best part—not many people have discovered it yet, giving it an excellent population balance.

Selection criteria for Australia's capital city
Selection criteria for Australia’s capital city

In the exhibition is a large 3D model of Canberra’s layout, lit up, and highlighting the geometrical marvel that the city is built upon. The parliament building is on top of a hill. Looking right across from the top is the national war memorial serving as a constant reminder of the consequences of any decision made inside the parliament. Branching away from the centre are the main roadways—the spines for the many suburbs woven around them. From above, Canberra looks like a spider’s web. It’s well spread out and yet interwoven to make sure you can drive from one corner of the city to another in 30 minutes or less.

And then there’re the lakes. Although artificial, Canberra’s primary lakes, Burley Griffin and Ginninderra, complement the many natural forests around the city. Footpaths go around the lakes and the bridges over. It’s as if no humans can ever disrupt the calmness of the lake or disturb the babbling ducks in it. Looking at the Lake Burley Griffin through a window, I wondered how much the city’s designers (Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion) would’ve appreciated and yearned for nature that they decided to plot such big lake right in the middle of the city.

  • What is Canberra to you?
  • What is Canberra to you?
  • What is Canberra to you?
  • What is Canberra to you?

Sure, Bryson was right in a few aspects—the shops close at 5 and the night scene is still quite bleak, but this is the bush capital. If you like yourself some greenery, Canberra won’t disappoint.

Parting thoughts: Never judge a place based on a few authors’ descriptions. Everything is subjective.

Parliament day

Australian politics and history have evaded us for a long time. I realised this as I walked past portrait after portrait of the Australian prime ministers. Most of Canberra’s suburbs have names of these Prime Ministers, but aside from that I hadn’t heard of even one of them before. What a shame. Though I grew up in Asia, I knew leaders of Britain, the US, and Canada from an early age—they were always in our history books or the ugly political discussions at awkward family dinners.

Wondering about the weirdness of it all, I wandered the old parliament house in Canberra.

Although it was built as a temporary parliament in the 1920s, the provisional parliament building ended up serving as the actual parliament for over fifty years. Today, though, it’s a storehouse of exhibitions and historical monuments.

Apart from the primary attractions like the House of Representatives Chamber, the Senate Chamber, the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet, and the Opposition Party Room, the parliament building is also home to plenty of smaller, yet significant exhibitions.

  • Prime Minister's staff offices
  • Prime Minister's office
  • Cabinet
  • Vintage computer - office of the parliament speaker

When I walked in, I had no idea what to expect. Equipped with a though floor plan of the entire building, I wandered through the corridors looking into each exhibition.

Finders keepers
My first stop, this exhibition showcases the different types of collectables famous Australian figures collected—like the telephone collection of a former telecommunications officer, the tie collection of a former minister, the t-shirts and badges owned by a social activist, and the porcelain collection of a parliamentarian. Each of these collections ties into the larger story that museums themselves are collectors.

Neil Baker's telephone collection
From Neil Baker’s telephone collection

OnetoEight
Moving along, I paused at a large room dedicated to remembering the Prime Ministers of Australia. Apart from photographs and descriptions of their work, you can also hear recorded versions of some speeches they delivered throughout their reign.

Wives of the Prime Ministers
Inspiring and eye-opening, though they were, more striking was the portrait exhibition of the wives of prime ministers. A surprise, it was—although every museum I’ve been to celebrates public leaders and their achievements, none of them mentions the families that supported the great menfolk of our time. This exhibition, albeit small, casts a vital spotlight on the womenfolk of the nation.

Whenever I visit historical sites, I don’t set time limits to myself. I don’t like rushing through exhibits to move on to the next attraction on my list. That’s such a touristy thing to do. Instead, I take my time to explore, read inscriptions, watch the videos, and linger. As a result, I spent $2 (entrance fee) and over 4 hours inside the parliament building.

I have no regrets, though. If I hadn’t stayed on, I would’ve missed the witty and thought-provoking political cartoons on display. Couriser and couriouser, huh?

I would’ve missed the #UDHRquilt project. UDHR stands for Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this project was the work of craftivists (craft+activist), Tal Fitzpatrick and Stephanie Dunlap. They made four quilts, embroidered with the articles mentioned in UDHR. I’m no activist. I have mixed feelings about how human rights are so subjective at times. But I still enjoy a good piece of art.

Oh, and I would’ve missed the crown jewels. Not the real ones, though, of course. When Queen Victoria visited Australia, they made a separate area in the parliament to accommodate the Queen and her party. And as I stepped into her living space, I couldn’t believe how simple everything was. The dining table was just a basic wooden structure, the bathrooms, the kitchens, the sitting area, though impeccable, were more functional than fancy. It reflected that the royalty and the highest members of the government were still so human, so vain.

Replica of the Crown Jewels
Replica of the Crown Jewels

Had I left any sooner, I’d have missed the most exciting exhibit of them all—the Press Gallery. It’s hard to fathom that the small, even stuffy, rooms above the house of representatives were the life of the government. Everything that the world knew and heard of about the rule makers came from the press—every printed phrase and every uttered word makes a world of difference. And as I stood where so many print and radio journalists had stood in the past, I felt proud to appreciate the power of the written word and its influence in the world.

Writing on the wall - Press Gallery
Writing on the wall – Press Gallery

Other highlights in the museum:

  • Prime Ministers’ office
  • Opposition party room
  • Opposition party whip’s room and the television that let him observe the proceedings at the house of representatives without being there
  • Dress Code of the Empire: A look at Edmund Barton’s (first prime minister of Australia) costume
  • Copies of the Australian Constitution, Declaration of Independence signed by the Queen, Australia Act, and its modifications
  • Various signs and slogans of Australian politicians – then and now
  • A brief history of democracy in Australia

In the end, it was like any other trip to the museum—so satisfying, so full of lessons, and so overwhelming. And still so worthwhile. By the time I left, I didn’t have time to go elsewhere because most of the museums and historical sites in Canberra close at 5 pm. Remember that when you visit—and do visit.