Australia

Canberra

 

 

David Whitley defies local advice and heads to Australia’s national capital to find out why everyone hates it so much.

 

 

If Australia has one over-arching national sport, it is slagging off Canberra. Tell just about any Australian that you’re going to the national capital and they’ll probably come out with a considerably more sweary version of “what on earth would you want to go there for?” Canberra, it is fair to say, doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. It is seen as a plastic, artificial city which has only one redeeming feature: acting as a holding pen for politicians.

 

I may be one of the few people in the world who actually rather likes Canberra. But then again, I’m a bit of a geek. I like going round good museums, of which Canberra has more than its fair share. The Australian War Memorial is, on its own, absolutely worth visiting the city for. The displays on World War II and, in particular, the First World War bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. It’s the best, most moving museum in Australia by a country mile, and I could happily spend a day there.

 

There’s much more on offer too. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla goes into Canberra’s unexpectedly key role in NASA operations, while the National Gallery of Australia has a great collection of work by the very best Australian artists (most of whom are sadly unknown in the UK) as well as a good range by international stalwarts such as Picasso, Gris and Braques.

 

Then there’s Questacon – an absolute joy for anyone who loves button-pushing, interactive exhibits, giant gravity-defying slides and learning about science by chucking balls at clowns. It’s wasted on children, it truly is...

 

But despite this, you can understand where the Australian antipathy towards Canberra comes from. It’s a weird, weird place with a Truman Show vibe. It was chosen as the site for the national capital purely because Sydney and Melbourne were bickering so much about which city would get that status, and the only way to solve the argument was to build one from scratch in the middle of the two.

 

It was built to a plan drawn up by American architect Walter Burley-Griffin, who envisioned a big lake in the middle, created by damming the river. He also came up with grand buildings built around sightlines of each other (in a blatant rip-off of what Washington DC does), plenty of open space and far, far too many roundabouts.

 

It is a city designed for motorists. Motorists who know exactly where they’re going and have no intention of pulling over to check a map or, god forbid, park. Yet seeing a traffic jam in Canberra is something of a rare privilege. This is partly because the design is successful – traffic flow is king here – and partly because of Canberra’s main problem. And that problem is that there’s just too much space.

 

The city has more suburb names than houses (or so it seems). There’s nothing high rise, and it all just sprawls merrily into seemingly infinite space. Living must be incredibly pleasant – no congestion, no overcrowding, parks and nature reserves at every corner – but it doesn’t half make the city a chore for the visitor.

 

Canberra’s roads are eerily quiet. The huge pavements never have anyone walking on them. Only the car parks are full. It’s like someone has designed the perfect big city and forgotten to fill it with people. As such, it feels as ridiculous, as lost, as forlorn and hollow as a tiny child clad in clothes that it’ll “grow into”. It’s like someone hiring a huge marquee for a big birthday party and only six people turning up, leaving a vast empty chasm that any atmosphere is sucked out of. It’s a flabby, self-indulgent, twelve minute prog-rock opus that needed a producer on the shoulder, saying: “You need to cut this to four minutes if you want to get on the radio.” 

 

To create a fire, you need to rub sticks together. If those sticks are miles apart, it doesn’t work. A city needs a certain element of claustrophobia, it needs frictions, it needs people having to fight to create their own space. Maybe, when they finally fill it, Canberra will have that.

 

Tasmania


It is one of the fundamental rules of abseiling that your harness should be a good snug fit. I wrenched the blue nylon cords as tight as possible. And then gave them another determined tug. It's not the done thing in the macho world of extreme abseiling to ask for a hug before you 'go over the edge'...but that's exactly what I needed. Tasmania's Gordon Dam is the site of the world's highest commercial abseil. To put it in perspective, stepping over the safety barrier on top of this 140 metre-high concrete wall is like climbing out of a window in the middle floor of the Empire State Building.


 

David Whitley faces the ghosts of the convict – and tragically more recent – past at Port Arthur in Tasmania.

 

 

At a certain point in time, the name ‘Port Arthur’ would be enough to strike fear into many a heart. If Tasmania was a convict settlement, then Port Arthur was the spot where those who the system hadn’t worked for got sent. In other words, it was the place where the bad boys who continued to be bad boys were kept. Nowadays, this isolated Tasmanian outpost is the perfect spot to get a chilling insight into the whole transportation system and Australia’s European-era history.


 


 

David Whitley swings from the treetops near Launceston.

 

The tree is shaking almost as much as I am. The towering eucalypt can blame the wind – every gust sends it lurching from side to side. For me, it’s just cowardly nerves. I’m stood on a ‘cloud station’, 23m above the ground. It’s essentially a circular metal brace around the tree, complete with a trampoline-like platform for the trussed-up victims to wobble about on as they prepare for the death swoop.

 


 


 

 

David Whitley raises a glass to the unwilling pioneers who first settled in Australia back in 1788.

 

Captain Cook wasn’t, as many people believe, the first person to discover Australia. The Aboriginal people who’d been on the continent for 50,000 years might have something to say about that, but Dutch and Portuguese explorers had been here way before Cook arrived in 1770.


 


 

 

David Whitley raises a glass to the unwilling pioneers who first settled in Australia back in 1788.

 

Captain Cook wasn’t, as many people believe, the first person to discover Australia. The Aboriginal people who’d been on the continent for 50,000 years might have something to say about that, but Dutch and Portuguese explorers had been here way before Cook arrived in 1770.