During the eleven and half hour flight from Tokyo to Frankfurt, my body clock was like a digital alarm clock after a power cut: on but incorrect, flashing and begging to be re-set. To fill the time between meals, movies and naps, I took out a pen and started noting again. I noted all the things that had either struck me about Australia or that I had learned. Two pages later and I felt like I could have gone on forever.
To state the obvious, Australia is enormous. It is also wonderful. Driving across a small fraction, we covered more than 2480 km and barely scratched the surface. The scenery we drove through amounted to little more than parched fields, bush and vague excuses for hills. And therein lies the wonder. When over 2000 km of space is nondescript and yet everyday you see something beautiful, when three hours of driving are worth that joyous feeling of peeking over a hill and seeing the clear, blue ocean, you know you’ve found a something magical.
Secondly, in terms of bare information learned, there are many facts gained that do little other than prove how ignorant I was: Facts about the European discovery of Australia, long before Captain Cook set sail; Heartbreaking statistics about the Australian loss of life in World War 1 and since; Shocking stories about the treatment of Aboriginal people from the first British settlers to today.
I could go on, but there’s enough in that list to make me feel ashamed so I won’t go into detail. Perhaps you know all about those things, but I do wonder, generally speaking, if the world’s sixth largest country should get a bit more attention for its history and people rather than its weather and cricket (though both are admirable qualities.)
The thing is Sydney and Melbourne look and feel so much like modern European cities that it’s easy just to presume life there is exactly like it is here, only warmer and with more ocean. For obvious reasons it’s not unlike Britain, from the language to driving on the left. However, it is arrogant to presume you know a place because it is looks like home; it would also be arrogant to presume you know a place after a three week holiday, so I won’t claim I do. Essentially, I did what most people do when they visit Australia: I went to the beach, took pictures of the Harbour bridge, saw a cricket match at the MCG and marvelled at wallabies. However, I tried to take a little note or two of other things, those things I didn’t know and expect. The things that aren’t iconic Sydney and glorious Melbourne, however special these two places are.
Let’s talk then about Australia’s capital. The first things you notice about the hyper-planned city of Canberra is that you don’t notice you’re in it. It is, distinctively, a low-rise city that doesn’t so much as sit in the bush as exists in series of communities peppered around the bush, seemingly planted where there was space. Not so much a centre, but certainly a focal point is Lake Burley Griffin, a pretty place named for the city’s designers that is heaven sent for joggers who enjoy clean air and smooth pathways.
It gets a lot of flack and I can see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Canberra, for me, was incredibly interesting. Partly because it asks and answers a lot of questions. There is the modern Parliament building, numerous museums and the poignant Australian War Memorial, all of which inform and answer questions about Australian politics and history. In a more general sense, standing up on Mount Ainsley, looking down on the geometric shapes, the bush land and the peaceful landscape, you are forced to reevaluate what makes a city livable, what makes something urban and what makes a city in general. Your answers will depend on your opinion of Canberra, but if a place can make you think, it’s a place worth visiting in my book.
Not all questions raised by Canberra are easy to answer. Since 1972, The Aboriginal Tent Embassy has been pitched outside the Old Parliament Building. The place of Aboriginal people in Australia is a theme that came up again and again in our tourist wanderings. Be it in museums, on road signs, through place names, in guide books and on tours, Aboriginal people, it struck me, seem both wholly present and entirely absent from the parts of Australia I saw. I have neither enough knowledge or skill to write about this with any authority, so I hesitate to say too much, but I was struck by two things. One, I know so little about a People whose culture is thought to be the longest continuing in all of man kind and that is absolutely preposterous. Two, all references to Aboriginal people was “museum-ised.” I know that is not a word, but I can’t find another. Everything I learned about Aboriginal people came in neatly presented displays of stories with photos, objects and apology. It felt uncomfortable, but not just because of the shocking stories, but because it felt like the people were presented as a thing of the past and not the present.
Whatever the understandings or misunderstandings I uncovered in myself, a good portion on my in-flight notes en route to rainy Europe include a desire to find out more about the First Peoples of Australia.
The final thing to note for now is that Australia is a hell of a lot more than sites from a guide book. It is those things and more. It has a fascinating history and a complex relationship with its past.There is a huge amount to do and a huge amount to learn. It is so much more than the stereotype. Although even if you go just to take a picture of the Harbour bridge and Opera House, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.