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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.

Canberra sunset

Shine

Rises every morn

spreading brightness in all lives

unbiased, the sun

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.

Making friends

I’ve always had trouble making friends. Possibly because I don’t enjoy large crowds or loud conversations, but probably because I have trouble making friends.

For years in I had only one or two friends with whom I shared a lot and whose lives I was a permanent mark. It took me over ten years to two others who were as bespectacled and as touched in the head I.

Before I got used to it I changed schools. And the friend-making process started again.

It took me a year and a half to find the one person who was around for a while. But alas, it was only a two year course.

Life happened. She went to college (or university) while interned intending to study from home. In the five years since, I found two co-workers I call friends.

And now I’ve moved again. This time, it’s across the seas. Down Under is my new found land.

But as is always the case with moving, I still had to make friends.

The older you get, though, the harder it becomes. You’re conscious of wet hair flying about, dry skin cracking in the wintery breeze, and the damned jet lag leaving you like a zombie every morning. Approaching people is daunting, your low voice could reveal your fear, and you never know if the old man returning your smile is being polite or responding to a whole different social cue.

So it was for me. I encountered folks walking in tank tops and shorts, running in speedos with dogs on their tail, and striding in suits and pointed shoes with a McDonald’s bag in their hands. Should I smile? Nod? Purse my lips and raise my eyebrows, ‘Sup?

I’d no idea. Oh, and sunglasses. I couldn’t guess if people were making eye contact or staring at the patch of autumnal trees over my head. Most times, they didn’t even see me. Being short doesn’t help.

What did help, though, was volunteering. I found a co-operative shop and cafe in town. A small non-profit organisation with a massive potential and an ambition to match. It’s a great place to work too. I dropped by one day to check it out. And a few days later, I was in the kitchen peeling onions.

It was the least I could do to help with the onion marmalade. I peeled about fifty onions—red, brown, and white. And all the while, I was making friends out of people I’d never met before. Like those onions, we all came from various places, too. It wasn’t much, but it sure seemed like the beginning another friendship.

Here we go again.