As a European, I am quite well acquainted with city trips to capitals. After all, we have a few dozen of them and none are all that far away in the great scheme of things. And these aren’t just any boring old cities either: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Rome and so on and so forth. No, these are cities with a rich history, heaps of culture to explore and an interesting nightlife. Sights that are known all over the world can be spotted in real life in these capitals. You can check the time at the tower holding Big Ben (Nope. I am not going to be caught making that particular cultural mistake in this blog. Big Ben is the bell inside the Elizabeth tower, not the building itself). You can check out the world’s most famous smile at the Louvre. Take a moment to remember one of the most important times in recent history at the remains of the Berlin wall. And, well, do and see some other things in Amsterdam too. I’ll keep it classy and leave the curtains closed on what happens behind the windows of Amsterdam’s well-known sights (hah, see what I did there?).
This continent obviously only has one capital and a few friends and I excitedly and expectantly roadtripped over there. “Don’t you already live in Sydney, Stef?” your logical brains would now wonder. Why yes I do, but Sydney isn’t actually the capital. Ah right, so you went to Melbourne then? Wrong again. No. The capital of Australia is Canberra. A city well known for its… ehm… well, its…
And this is the moment most people would draw a huge blank. Because Canberra isn’t actually known for anything. And why is that unknown, unimpressive and uninteresting city the capital of this mighty continent?
History lesson time
At the end of the nineteenth century Australia wanted to become a federation instead of a bunch of separate colonies. And this federation needed a capital city. Melbourne was the biggest and richest city of Australia at that time, as well as the city where most commerce took place. However, Sydney is the first European settlement in Australia and therefore had most historical value. It also had more powerful “old money” families. Both cities wanted to become the capital of the federation and both cities would not accept the other one as the winner. That rivalry has condemned the poor sods intent on visiting the capital of Australia to visiting Canberra, because in 1908 it was decided that a new capital city would be created and built in between these two bickering cities. The design for this city was picked out of the entries into an international design competition – and a few years and geometrical shapes held together by roads later, Canberra was born.
Roadtripping to the capital
So there we were. We arrived after about a three-and-a-half hour drive over a road as straight as an uncurved banana. There were kangaroos (both living and dead) to be spotted on either side of the road. There were signs promising the possibility of wombat sightings. We had been blasting 90s R&B and classic rock all the way over. We had stopped at and entered a giant hollow sheep called Big Merino on our way over so we could check “hilariously boring monument” of our roadtrip checklist. Long story short: the journey was awesome and we were in great spirits.
Enter Canberra. It was grey, it was wet, it was deserted. We parked the car and walked to the hostel – crickets chirping ominously and a giant tumbleweed slowly blowing past in the background. Surely, there will be life and laughter in the hostel. If there is one place you can always count on a good time it is a hostel. And yet….
The guy at the YHA reception didn’t seem to understand why we were in Canberra if we weren’t on route towards Sydney or Melbourne. When I asked him what he thought we should do with the rest of our day he could not come up with an answer. His answer to my incredulous question “So you are telling me there is nothing to do here?” was a dry “Well, I’m not going to lie. No”. And instead of young people hanging out, drinking and having a great ol’ hostel time, there were some lonely youngsters mixed with some lonely older, scruffy looking people who were paying by the night. This last group could only stay another night if they turned out to make enough money during the day. The hostel was very nice, don’t get me wrong, but I am just not used to sharing a sleeping space with so many homeless people.
Not a great start, but we had a sunny disposition! We could totally make something of Canberra. So we walked to the National Museum of Australia to get our culture on. And it was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the world’s least colourful rainbow. The building itself was impressive and vibrant both inside and out. Their slogan “where our stories live” is very aptly chosen; this is a place where you can easily spend a few hours to get yourself acquainted with big and small parts of Australian history. I loved learning more about the Australia’s troubles with (bush) fire, about the influences that European immigration had on the fauna of the continent and about the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from the beginning up to now. This last one was without a doubt my favourite. Australia’s native people have the oldest continuous culture in the world and had been living here for thousands of years before the British arrived. And yet their role in contemporary society is small and aboriginal people were treated and are sometimes still treated as second-rate citizens. It is a complicated situation and I will for once not try to pretend like I know all about it.
If you ask me, the NMA is well worth a visit. And if all of these Australian stories can’t float your boat, tickle your pickle or even lather your llama: the museum is free and there are some really comfortable couches where naps can indeed be taken. Two of my friends went through great lengths to prove it.
Apart from the NMA, the old and new parliament buildings are the other classics to visit in Canberra. So, being the good little soldiers we are, we hired some bikes and went over there to check them out. The old parliament is a beautiful building that has been turned into a museum about all things parliament and politics. Now let me tell you that I couldn’t give a muskrat’s left nut about politics unless big changes come into play (like the Brexit right now. Lot’s of nuts are given.). Or unless it is time to vote and I need to quickly find out what I actually believe in. But this museum was legitimately interesting. They kept lots of offices and rooms in the state they were in when the parliament was moved, discussed all the prime-ministers of Australia, went into issues like apartheid, and last but not least: there was a little dress-up section where they had outfits in adult sizes (booyah).
Outside of this big beautiful building there was another link to the struggles of modern-day Aboriginals. For years there has been a tent camp with a little shack called the “Aboriginal Embassy” outside of the old parliament building. This camp is inhabited by Aboriginal people trying to get fair treatment for their people. Trying and succeeding, even though it may only be in baby steps.
Despite these two worthy tourist attractions, we were more than ready to head back to Sydney after only one night in the not so capital city of Canberra. Yes, sweet sweet Sydney: a city that actually has people walking its streets, filling its museums and warming its barstools. But before we got back into the car and started pumping Destiny’s Child like there was no tomorrow we got a little gift from the YHA hostel. ‘I love Canberra’ sweets in a little bag that tried so hard to convince you that these sweets were right by boldly stating “Canberra doesn’t suck”. And that little bag really just says it all.