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.