Wandering Thoughts

September 25, 2008

Canberra Reconsidered

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 4:17 pm
Tags: ,

My first visit to Canberra was very nearly my last. Some years back, me and my partner at the time took the train down from Sydney to see a Freida Kahlo exhibition at the National Gallery. The gallery was a wonder, but the city surrounding it appalled us. The pomp of the parliamentary architecture, the sterility that always accompanies pre-planned cities (unless they’re in Brazil)…and what’s worse we were there in a weekend, and so had to wander near-empty artificially-wide streets. To be frank the effect was eerie, like we were on the set of a zombie movie. I half expected to turn a corner and discover undead civil servants descending upon us, their wrecked throats groaning out ‘polliicccy’ instead of ‘braaains’.

Needless to say I didn’t race back. But earlier this year my wife and I vaulted the Tasman and found ourselves returned to Australia’s capital. And I found myself loving the place. We arrived to grumpy grey skies and a temperature low enough to have me purchasing the first scarf I saw. And yet, weighed down by that sky, the buildings seemed almost dignified, while the deciduous trees, that ought to have been out of place like colonial nostalgia always is, actually felt right, losing the last of their leaves in the wind gusts.

We collected our rental car and, desperate to do anything other than waste an afternoon sleeping off our 3.30am start, drove to the top of a nearby hill. From the viewing platform we watched the clouds scud east, sweeping over range after range of grey-brown hills.

Anyone who tells you that age and beauty are incompatible obviously hasn’t been to Australia; it’s the space too, of course, but that weathered land, going nowhere in a hurry, always astounds by just how stunning it is. Doing nothing much, yet doing it in a way that melds together just right.

The next morning we drove out to Tidbinbilla nature reserve (sorry if I’ve spelt that wrong). We sped out of the city limits – marked, as best as I can tell, by the line where the gum trees assumed dominance over the imports and the leaves returned – got briefly lost in the suburbs and then wove along empty roads under a sky freeing itself from the few remaining clouds until we found ourselves in fire country. Tidbinbilla had been devastated by bush fires in the recent past, but its regeneration was now in full flight. Outback vegetation evolved alongside periodic fires and its ability to survive and regenerate is almost as amazing as the survival of Tidbinbilla’s resident rock wallabies, some of whom avoided perishing in the flames by hiding deep in cracks in the rocks.

We wandered on a nature trail, along which a time line of the Earth’s history had been laid out. And this was a reminder of the other amazing aspect of age and Australia. The first of Australia’s indigenous people arrived there at least 45,000 years ago and possibly as long as 60,000 years ago. 60,000 years ago the Earth was essentially empty of human beings. 10,000 years before changes in climate had reduced our population to between 2,000 and 20,000 people, and while it was rebounding 60,000 years ago, it must have been an impossibly different world from today’s planet of billions. 60,000 years ago Neanderthals still thrived in Europe and Woolly Mammoths roamed Great Britain. Human history in Australia is roughly 60 times as long as it is in New Zealand.


At the end of the weekend I stopped pondering time and returned to Canberra for a conference, while my wife went and met people for her work. One evening we were startled in our evening stroll by a woman who stood up from the bus stop bench where she had been waiting and let out a half shout half wail before falling to the ground convulsing.

Being the sort of important person who goes to conferences in foreign capitals I took charge of the situation immediately.

“Jo. Jo! That woman’s having a fit!! Do something!!!” (well she is a trained nurse).

So Jo raced over and aided the woman as best she could during the fit and her following confusion and I called an ambulance from my cell phone. Or, more accurately, I tried to call one.

“Oh shit. What’s the number for an ambulance in Australia.”

“Hey!”, I yelled at a passing car, “what’s the number for 111 here?!?!”

Wisely, probably, they kept driving. But a cyclist did stop.

“Dial 000,” she advised.

And so I ended up explaining our predicament to a dispatch officer, who told me an ambulance would be there any second.

It seemed like a credible promise considering Canberra’s size, but the minutes lingered on, as Jo did her best to comfort the lady who was now post fit and very confused. She was an international student and English wasn’t here first language, which must have made it all the more baffling. That and the strange guy pacing round the bench muttering, “where on Earth is that ambulance”.

I turned again to the cyclist. “Do you know how far away the ambulance station is.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve only just moved here myself.” Her accent suggested that the move might have been from Sydney.

Eventually, an ambulance appeared, down the end of the long wide street. I started waving flapping my arms like tea-towels in a storm. The ambulance flashed it’s lights.

“They’ve seen me,” I told the Sydney-sider.

“They’ve seen us!” I shouted to Jo, who for some reason was giving me her part pained part patient look.

And so, now aware where we were, the ambulance began to trundle down the road in our direction.

“That’s a relief,” I looked at the woman from Sydney and smiled.

“Hang on”

I turned back to the ambulance.

“It’s stopped! It’s stopped at a red-light.” Years of action movies and police dramas had not prepared me for this.

The Sydney-sider had never quite shared my panic but this, it seemed, was too much even for her.

“I’ve heard Canberrans are laid back,” she marveled, “but this is ridiculous!”


To be fair to the ambulance driver and the people of Canberra, as Jo explained to me later, the fit wasn’t a real emergency and so there was no need to hurry, indeed not running the light was sensible and a safe thing to do. But I’ll never forget that feeling of shock, watching the first ambulance I’ve ever called waiting for a red light, stopped on an empty street.


  1. If I’d know you were over this way, I would have shown you round!

    I’ve heard the same thing from others – that their opinions were based on 10-15 or more years ago, and that the city has changed considerably for the better. Needless to say, it’s livable (although I never really wander out of the few kilometres in the inner north and round the lake)

    A hilarious tale though! I can tell you that ambulances regularly run reds around here, so you must have been lowest priority…

    Comment by georgedarroch — September 25, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

  2. hey there George,

    next time I’m there I’ll definitely look you up. (and hopefully, avoid anything to do with ambulances…)

    Comment by terence — September 25, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

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