Canberra Calls

The Aussie capital is full of surprises

By: Michele Kayal

For most clients Canberra is probably not first on the list of places they have to see before they die. But maybe they’ve been hasty.

Expecting Australia’s capital to live up to its reputation as a place that’s a bit, ah, dull, I initially dubbed it “Can’t-bear-it.” But it turns out the city held some surprises.

No traveler worth his salt would visit Washington and not go see the Capitol, right? So, when in Canberra, go see the Parliament. Australia’s Parliament building, completed only 16 years ago, is a sleek tribute to its lively democracy, itself only a century old. The building’s defining feature is a four-legged flag mast that stretches 266 feet into the sky and can be seen from all over the city. The interior reflects a symbolic journey through the country’s history beginning with the Aboriginal people.

In the House and Senate chambers, I watched lawmakers lay into one another and even take apart the prime minister during gloves-off question-and-answer sessions complete with the booing and hissing usually heard in the British parliament, after which Australia is modeled. It made U.S. politics look like a garden party.

My visit to the National Museum seemed more a duty than a desire, but before long, I was completely sucked in. Along with the preserved animals (platypus, echidna) and funky frontier equipment like the buffalo catcher (a Jeep-like vehicle with a long metal arm) there are interactive displays and a rotating theater that illuminate the country’s anthropological, natural and socio-political history.

The museum’s presentation of Australia’s land, nationhood and people the museum’s three themes make it worth a whole afternoon, and I found myself wishing I had more time to return.

Likewise, much to my surprise, I found the Australian War Memorial to be much more than a mere monument. The memorial is really a gigantic museum and research center with swarms of well-informed personnel offering such interesting tidbits about the displays that I lingered much longer than I’d planned.

Plus, there’s a Japanese midget submarine on display here, along with all the enormous aircraft crammed into Aircraft Hall, each one bigger than the next. I’m not a big fan of wartime artifacts, but gigantic salvaged airplanes are pretty cool.

After the war memorial, the National Gallery of Australia seemed small and tame. The museum does have an excellent collection of art by Australians, however, starting with 200 painted hollow log coffins called dupun formed into a memorial for the Aboriginal people who died fighting white settlers. Lizards, fish, dots and patterns (some similar to Hawaiian tapa) are painted on the coffins in earth tones of red-brown, dark tan and white.

Turns out, there was so much to do in Canberra I didn’t even get to the Old Parliament House, the Telstra communications tower or gasp! the Canberra Bicycle Museum (“over 60 old and unusual bicycles on display”). I guess I’ll have to leave those for next time.


Murray Coaches

Canberra Day Tours

Both companies offer full- and half-day tours to the major sites. Each pays 10 to 15 percent commission.