In starts and finishes
Silence: Golden. A virtue. An absence. A loss.
A void to fill with thought and appreciation, vision and imagination. A deliberate pause employed by the struggling researcher to generate discomfort and provoke the human craving for something to break it. A ritual of collective solidarity to remember and thank. There are many forms of silence we fill in our lives.
It is hard to think of a more powerful silence than that around six in the morning on the 25th April, 2007. I have been cajoled by my two Australian flatmates to rise early and join tens of thousands of others streaming towards the Australian War Memorial. The grand temple-like structure, usually so bold and confident, sits in a subdued sepia light. People stride quickly to get in position, cosseting small plastic candles and flasks of special strong coffee. It is surreal in many ways, to be in a crowd before the light breaks. Solemn speeches are made by people you cannot make out. Hymns drift out into the melancholy air, chill as the autumn bedding down. A lone bugler laments. A silence falls. A silence not of emptiness but filled with heart.
It is a touching experience, amplified by the sounds that emerge from the silence. The collective breathing of thousands of people. The rustles and sniffles and shifting feet on gravel. The melody of a magpie greeting first light. And as the Reveille rises, the noisy cluster of Sulphur-crested cockatoos shrieking in unison, almost as if this was some ingenious piece of choreography. There is a defiance in those screams, an unashamed expression of life going on, of Australia.
In 2020 things are not the same, but the cockatoos are still shrieking. They are around today as I stand upon the steps outside the War Memorial. Before me, an empty Anzac Parade stretches down towards the lake and, across that, the triangle of Parliament House rises on its pedestal. They are mere landmarks along my route, and this marks the end point. Of the beginning.
How I made it here along a section of the Canberra Centenary Trail is outlined in the following words and pictures. It’s quite a lengthy narrative, but then it’s quite a lengthy walk. I digress, I get lost, I meander. I complete four separate legs, covering only around 21km of trail (and a further 21km non trail!), and I’ve broken these down into sections to aid digestion:
- Day 1: Isaacs Ridge
- Day 2: Mount Mugga Mugga and Red Hill
- Day 3: Red Hill and Forrest
- Day 4: The Parliamentary Triangle and Anzac Parade
Now, Day 5 and beyond await to transport me into the north, a further 124km to go. More walking, observing, reflecting and writing. Painting a canvas, shattering the silence.
Monday April 6: GLAMOROUS beginnings
Farrer Shops isn’t exactly the obvious starting point for a new adventure. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with them but neither is there anything remarkable. Situated in the heartlands of southern Canberra they are indistinguishable from pretty much every neighbourhood shopping precinct across the capital. A small independent grocer. A hairdresser. An Asian takeaway. A coffee shop. It was the latter that drew me here. Along with a certain, evolving logic.
According to the official guide, the Canberra Centenary Trail starts and finishes at Parliament House. That triangular beacon on the hill, with its bus-sized flag and precision-mown lawns. An iconic symbol of Canberra, of Australia. A refuge for an array of the nation’s best and brightest, visiting from schools across the country to witness mediocrity and petulance. And once in a while some decent work.
You can see why you would start and finish at Parliament House. Indeed, many a march for climate justice or a fomenting crusade to axe the tax eventually ends up on the lawns. People have undertaken far more worthy walks for far more altruistic causes that have reached a conclusion there; traipsing wearily through a ceremonial ribbon to shake hands with a nondescript backbencher and briefly hold up a sign advocating for the orange-bellied parrot or indigenous rights. Perhaps a small film crew from WIN News appears. I’m going to get…well…Farrer Shops.
Nonetheless, depending on if and when I finish this thing, I might reward myself with a ceremonial coffee and slice of cake from the Fox and Bow Café. Perhaps get someone to take a photo. There would be a pleasing circularity in that, given a coffee heralded the very start. It was much cherished after a morning working on some spreadsheets and enduring an instant brew at home. An experience that motivated me to abruptly go out and start my long walk at Farrer Shops, just a short drive away.
This was not, of course, the start of the walk on the actual Centenary Trail for that lay a couple of kilometres further east. In what I anticipate may become common sentiment I thought it would be a bit closer than that. Still, it was pleasant enough under sunny and warm skies through perfectly harmless, spacious suburbs. A tinge of autumn was appearing in a few of the trees, while the occasional leaf blower or diesel mower engaged in invariable achievement. A pair of Crimson Rosellas chirped away as I passed under a yellowing Elm tree, heading briefly into my first nature reserve – Farrer Ridge.
As Farrer Ridge goes it was the less attractive section of Farrer Ridge which happens to lie alongside the usually-busy-for-Canberra Yamba Drive. So busy it requires an underpass which briefly evokes feelings of lunchtime walks around Hanger Lane in West London. Oh the things you would do to have fun around Hanger Lane. When the highlight was a Friday hangover burger at The Fox and Goose that was usually served with plenty of antipathy and extra cholesterol. I swear once a colleague received the usual bun, chips, and wilting leaves and – keen to add some flavour with tomato sauce – lifted the bread to find it lacking an actual burger. I also recall the pub was regularly staffed by travelling antipodeans. Perhaps one of the kitchen staff took that burger to share with the seven other people residing in one dank room above Acton Town Tube. All to save a few pounds to then fritter away and chunder back up outside the Redback.
It seems strange to look back on that time and even envisage how I ended up walking through an underpass in the random suburbs of their much disdained capital city. It certainly wasn’t through being drawn to the Australian culture on display in pockets of West London. Yet, the miserable concrete and dour air of Hanger Lane clearly provided some motivation to flee.
Escaping back into the light I was greeted by a sweeping reveal of Isaacs Ridge, iridescent under one of those deep blue skies spiralling into infinity. Now sitting there in front of me I was itching to start, officially. I entered the Canberra Centenary Trail besides Long Gully Road, without fanfare, without any farewell committee cheering me on, without even a sign indicating this was the right trail. That would take a few more hundred metres to appear.
What I did have was a sudden jolt of vigour; the rather gentle meandering until now replaced with a hearty stride and sense of purpose. The afternoon was glowing warm and I had stripped down to a T-shirt, the sun penetrating the pine trees and landing softly upon a bed of needles. Pockets of native bluebell sat for attention, in love with the reinvigoration that comes with this spring-like autumn. A certain ecstasy begins to flow through the veins, a contentment with time and place that almost seems bizarre when you recall this is actually April 2020.
Before too long the first person I would encounter along the trail appeared, walking towards me from the panoramic cul-de-sacs of Isaacs. Inside I felt like screaming out loud “I AM WALKING THE CENTENARY TRAIL! YES, ALL THE WAY. WELL, THAT’S MY AIM. WHAT ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” But of course I didn’t do any of that. As we neared, we exchanged a slightly awkward smile and remembered to do that whole deliberative, almost excessively comical movement of creating distance. April 2020 style.
The walking was mostly flat and thus extremely pleasant. One of the things that surprised me a little was most of the route following a lower path in the fringe between forest and backyard, rather than the more robust fire / bike / horse trail further up that I had walked on before. This had its plus points however – namely avoiding the prospect of bikes scrambling round every corner and enabling a bit of a snoop into homes boasting splendid views toward the Brindabellas. Squint and there is a touch of Hollywood Hills about some of these dwellings, all decks and windows projecting out into the air.
To the left these homes spill down the hill, to the right pine trees scramble up the slope. Having commenced this walk in an inauspicious cluster of shops in suburbia I was now proceeding through a non-native landscape. For once, there are no convenient clichés of Australiana. With the scent of pine and the scramble of mountain bikes it felt more like North America. I wouldn’t have been so surprised if a bear had come across my path, lured by the scent of mini eggs on my breath.
The pines were planted here in 1955 and present a refreshing dose of escapism. Eventually they give way to more native surrounds, and the route rises up to join that more robust fire / bike / horse trail I mentioned earlier. With the altitude rising and the trees thinning, the views to the west prove marvellous on this spectacular day. Quiet streets hide in the trees, lapping around the prominent hulk of Mount Taylor. Beyond that the wilds of Namadgi National Park shine in the distance, the signs of devastation by fire dissipated from afar.
A little more north and west, the hills provide a backdrop for the medley of functional eighties architecture that is Woden Town Centre. More recent modern additions to the landscape rise up among solid bastions of grey and beige, with the occasional off-white tower block presenting a relative jauntiness. Two cranes on the skyline testify to the incessant quest to build more apartments than humans. Grand Central Towers. As if Woden is some throbbing, exhilarating metropolis. The metropolis looks quite close from here, which provides quite the relief as this is where I am heading. My plan today is to return home among that cluster of newer apartments, have a cup of tea, perhaps treat myself to a nap, and then cycle back up to Farrer Shops to retrieve my car. Only the ambassadorial circles of O’Malley to navigate, then across the main road, past the hospital and, before you know it, the kettle will be on.
This meant it was time to depart the Centenary Trail and once again clock up additional kilometres which may yet prove my undoing. Everything took longer than expected, not helped by taking a more circuitous route through the circuitous circuits of O’Malley. In a generous field of contenders this is perhaps one of Canberra’s oddest suburbs. Somewhat disconnected from everywhere else it appears to act as an island for international diplomats and charge d’affairs and special envoys and an entourage of hangers on. Possibly not for the more important countries – they are granted the privilege of closer proximity to Parliament – but the ones you’ve never really had a single thought about before. Occasional private security cars patrol the streets to portray elevated status, while grand porticos and levitating roofs hide behind perfectly pruned hedgerows. For all its weirdness, the homes here are generally very nice, the streets very tidy, the surroundings peaceful and backed by an archetypal Australian bush. And I expect if you were appointed the Kazakh Envoy to Australia and got to live here instead of – say – Kazakhstan you’d feel like you had won the lottery.
While a lottery win would be handy, I was happy enough with the prospect of a cup of tea. Once across into Garran and passing Canberra Hospital I felt on home turf, surely a matter of minutes away. I had clocked up ten kilometres, only a fraction of which proved to encompass the Centenary Trail. Merely another 141 to go. Plus all of those extras. Still, however small, I had started and had made a dent in something. The journey was underway. That achievement alone meant a couple of biscuits with my tea were deserved. And there was still a short bike ride, back to the now famous Farrer Shops, to endure.
sunday april 12: the new and the old
One of my hopes in being guided by the Canberra Centenary Trail is that it will provide new discoveries close to home. In my initial research and planning around the route it was clear that I would tread on paths that I had not set foot on before, especially along that vague, wiggly, empty-looking northern border section. I would very probably go a little astray at times and likely chance upon a new pond in a forest, a different view of Black Mountain Tower, a mind-blowing storm drain complex. Yet I never really expected to come across something new and enlightening on the second day of walking, so close to home.
Mount Mugga Mugga is essentially an extension of the elongated Red Hill Reserve, cast astray by a busy road. As well as dividing the genteel, accessible, and usually blissful Red Hill from Mount Mugga Mugga, Hindmarsh Drive acts as an expressway for tradies and trucks to Fyshwick, Queanbeyan and the tip. All highlights of the Canberra region that for some reason don’t make it onto the Centenary Trail. Boasting three generous lanes in each direction, many a ute and cement mixer can be found in the middle lane not overtaking anyone whatsoever. Keeping left sounds like something for latte-sipping elites after all.
Mount Mugga Mugga Reserve is also pretty close to where I live. Yet the road acts as a physical and psychological barrier, meaning that I – like so many – have always tended to favour the diverse and delightful sprawl of Red Hill instead. You also have to navigate the mysterious suburb of O’Malley (as previously encountered) to get there. Something on the agenda again for Day 2.
I felt better armed for what awaited on this leg and particularly the navigation of O’Malley. The first day of walking taught me to expect some necessary trawling through the suburbs, some of it a bit dull, in places a bit ugly, though more often a tad charming. Today, the plan was to knock most of this off early on a loop walk, starting at the Col de Red Hill or Red Hill Saddle or Red Hill Mysterious Embassy near the Golf Course, sweeping down into Garran, crossing over Hindmarsh Drive and climbing through O’Malley to rejoin the Centenary Trail where I left off. Then it was a case of following the trail signs to eventually get back to the start. Easy.
As I awaited by my car at the Col de Red Hill on Easter Sunday, a cyclist laboured up the final slope to rapturous applause from literally no-one, including me. I guess I probably should have been more generous as it was my friend, Alex, joining me for the afternoon. It was good to see another human in person and to interact for a few hours, keeping the requisite distance apart of course. Subjects for discussion naturally included the usual array of Coronavirus happenings, experiences and opinions, the awe at how green Canberra was, work stuff, my quest on the Canberra Centenary Trail, the pros and cons of getting a cat or dog, the mysterious ghost suburb near Hume, and what was for dinner. By the end of the day, my throat was a little sore.
Much of this chatter was easy going as the descent from the Col de Red Hill into Garran offered little resistance. Things were more laboured climbing up through O’Malley but at least I knew my way around this time. Alex was clearly as equally bemused and enthralled at the ambassadorial vibe through the streets, behind the fences, beyond the pillars. To me, it has the feel of a gated community; perhaps, I imagine, somewhere in South Africa where all the affluent people gather in nouveau riche homes to isolate from the riff raff. Probably a good job I didn’t park my twenty year old station wagon and start here then.
Eventually the homes give way and the Centenary Trail emerges, feeding slowly down into the new frontier of Mount Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve. I wasn’t really expecting a downward section, however gentle, but its consequence was to bring us to what felt like a hidden valley. A hidden gem. Host to endangered Box Gum woodland, an ecosystem of open grassland dotted with clusters of majestic eucalyptus. Looking every bit the Australia that Isaac Pines was not. Though perhaps a bit greener than is its natural state.
This greenery around Canberra is almost eye-popping and certainly deviates from the norm. There is obviously much to cherish about it, not least the chance it gives for landscapes to recover and thrive. While I equally enjoy the golden grasses, the earthy essence, the crackling twigs and leaf litter of summer, this newfound lushness adds an extra dimension to treasure. An invigoration and optimism that translates from grass, to tree, to animal, to human. An abundance and bounteousness of nature. A slight recollection of home.
For every year that I have been in Australia a part of me has – sometimes subconsciously – sought out reminders of my homeland. The pursuit of clotted cream is a case in point that I will not embellish again here. Finding a glimmer of Devon in Australia is a hard ask. Frequently the landscape is so alien, so exotic, so goddam parched that it is impossible. Other than among a few genteel neighbourhoods there are no giant hedgerows lining single track lanes. There are no constricted villages squeezed around a tinkling brook. The cottages are, at best, from the 1930s. The pubs often bland. The Devonshire Tea is usually an abomination. The only resemblance might be possible after rain. Occasional vistas, with a bit of imagination, could evoke a slight sensibility of Devon.
But Australia is not Devon and neither should we try and make it so. That would be very colonial and – frankly – unnecessary, for Australia is simply incredible as it is. As if to hammer this point home a pair of yellow-tailed black cockatoos sailed elegantly overhead, their stately calls propelling us up from the valley and worryingly close to Hindmarsh Drive. This seemed off-kilter with the published map, but the Centenary Trail symbols were clearly directing us this way. At its summit – the Col de Hindmarsh if you like – the trail practically bordered the road and the dreamlike legend of hidden valleys and lush greenery seemed just that.
It was noticeable how many bicycles had passed us on the trail, mostly coming from the other direction. This reminded me that the Centenary Trail is also listed as being suitable to complete by mountain bike, though some sections require a slight rerouting. I figured the abundance of bike riders was a result of a fine Easter Sunday afternoon and the explosion of outdoor exercise that has emerged as a positive aspect of Coronavirus. Either that, or they were fleeing from the secure mental health facility down towards Mugga Lane.
Having now dipped into the luxuriant Inner South from the Woden Valley it was time to exit Mount Mugga Mugga and return to a more familiar world. Crossing Hindmarsh Drive near the mental health facility / dogs home / bus depot / tip junction we entered the suburb of Red Hill. This was once a suburb listed on envelopes sent to my address. While my rental place here was probably one of the least glamorous, I still miss the ease of spontaneously ambling around its quiet streets, especially at this time of year. Autumn is a period when Red Hill explodes.
Today, the streets were as leafy as ever though yet to fully reach the apex of amber and crimson and bronze and gold. There would be better pockets of autumn colour to be found and I certainly knew where they would be. But the Centenary Trail – in a slightly disappointing turn of events – stuck to the arterial roads through Red Hill, rather than spilling into glowing circles and colourful cul-de-sac nooks. The only highlight of walking beside the busier roads was getting spotted by an acquaintance, who pulled over their car and stopped for one of those slightly awkward chatting at a distance moments. I wonder if we will become accustomed to such interactions and struggle when it comes to conversing normally again?
From the suburb of Red Hill, the hill of Red Hill rises gently up through the trees. Somewhere along its ridge is a small dip known to me as the Col de Red Hill. My car would be up there along with Alex’s bike. It seemed fitting that we should finish the day here together, walking on a part of the trail that we have shared a hundred times before. It has changed a bit over the years, from a rather narrow track through the bush to a wide, well-maintained fire trail. Today, the generosity of width eases the challenges of distancing, the hill proving popular like everywhere else. On such an afternoon, in such a setting why would you be anywhere else?
Familiarity is a consequence of repetition and walking up to the Col de Red Hill today was as soothing as ever. Perhaps more so, given another achievement, another clutch of kilometres could be ticked off. Yet in totality this route had been different to the usual, opening up some new horizons, some new inspiration, revealing hidden valleys and longing for home. There is comfort in the familiar, but adventure in the new and I have already been back to Mount Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve twice to get to know it better. Discovering still.
Trail section: Mt Mugga Mugga and Red Hill
Trail length walked: 6.2km
Total distance walked: 10.5km
Total steps: 13,500
Altitude gain: 250m
tuesday april 14: on track to melbourne
Today was going to be an easy day; it would be a disservice to call it a filler but it was going to be one of those stretches of trail that can be done as if it was just a regular walk taking place in a regular week during a regular year. The kind of amble that I would just go off and do naturally: close to home, covering old ground, camera in hand.
It was the first time on this Centenary Trail mission that I actually took my larger camera with me rather than rely on my phone. Which doesn’t really make sense given I was never going to tread upon any new ground or discover revealing highlights. The main reasoning was that today’s route would involve a lookout and lots of pretty trees; two things to which my lens is constantly drawn. Probably some of the more attractive aspects of Canberra were likely to be on the agenda, unsurprisingly correlating with an increase in property price.
A camera can be such a double-edged sword while exploring the great outdoors. On the one hand it offers something on which to focus, a means to be in the present and observe surroundings with a keener eye. To explore and uncover different perspectives or specific moments; the light, the clouds, the incremental change in season. Many a time it elevates a walk from something run-of-the-mill to a more engaging, participative activity. At other times it can feel a burden, cumbersome, somehow restrictive, always making you feel like a tourist or snoop. Especially when you are creeping through bushes in the wealthy suburb of Forrest.
Ah well, today I embraced the camera en route to Forrest. I doubt there will be a perceptible difference in the images I capture, such are the advancements of the phone. And, to start off with, the light was in all the wrong places. To lessen the burden I just popped on a fixed 25mm lens – nice and light but without any flexibility. Of course, having done this I felt bound to encounter some rare marsupial in the distance or a sighting of Prime Minister Scomo from afar failing to observe social distancing guidelines.
I commenced today’s amble from the famous Col de Red Hill once more, with the trail quickly steepening to reach the summit of Red Hill. This is where a two-storey rotunda offers an invariable mixture of weak coffee and fine dining. Over the years the café and restaurant here have changed multiple times. I once ate in the fine dining restaurant upstairs, offering splendid views across Canberra. One of the slightly notorious claims to fame was that you could eat kangaroo while looking out at the mobs of kangaroo lining the hillside. Happily grazing away, still wondering whatever happened to old mate Kevin when he went for a nosey around those bins.
The café was also the scene of my first ever hilltop conquest in Canberra. Having arrived a few days earlier, in the middle of August, I was still jetlagged and disorientated by a world of surprising frosts, Coles supermarkets and King Parrots. It was a mild and typically clear blue Sunday afternoon so instead of crashing into deep sleep I decided to walk through Kingston and Manuka and aim for the summit of Red Hill. This was achieved using one of those printed map book things that we used to have – remember them?! It was all naturally a delight and I was even more delighted to find the café at the top. Enjoying a cappuccino and caramel slice I wondered how I had stumbled across this little utopia on the edge of the world.
I never expected to be passing that café almost fourteen years later. Greyer, wearying, pleased that there was a flat stretch of road to walk upon before heading down. If I could time travel would I do anything differently fourteen years ago? I doubt it, though I could always pop into the local tardis to find out. You know, just your regular everyday tardis hanging out among some gum trees on the side of a hill. Located at the bottom of a steep flight of steps that were today providing an outdoor gym and making safe passing more complicated that it should have been. At least there would be a doctor on hand I guess.
The descent through the bush led to Forrest, representing an abrupt transition in the space-time-hedgerow continuum. I suspect this might be the richest suburb I would pass through and – almost unbelievably – I had lived here once too. Despite temporarily being a local it is still very possible for me to get lost in Forrest. It is the Canberra of Burley-Griffin dreams and the outsider’s disdain. Circles within circles intersected by crescents bisected by avenues. A labyrinthine mish-mash of prominent homes and manicured gardens, lovingly tended by a continuous network of tradies. It is, of course, a place to look highly suspect hanging out among the undergrowth with a camera.
Creeping down Melbourne Avenue and nearer to Parliament House, I added a further few footsteps on the Centenary Trail before plunging into the Forrest web. I was keen to see the advance of autumn through the tunnels of tree-lined avenues and nestled among the perfect gardens. The oaks and elms, the ash and maple. Different shades of russet and gold. For some the green lingering, waiting for further instructions to transform and fade.
It is, in truth, an entirely unaustralian landscape and in popular culture we are supposed to vehemently loathe anything that acquires the label of unaustralian. But I can’t say it resembles Japan or North America or England, especially the English autumn that I knew. In my part of England things just tended to go brown and then blow away to leave a wintry bleakness. Here, everything is more of a hybrid, a fusion of aesthetic and nature, reflected in the different styles of home, the varying gardens, the people who live there. So in that respect, it is very modern, post-invasion Australian. And the staggered, lingering nature of the autumn here – a genuine season lasting for months – means that bleakness is barely a feature.
I have come to love the Canberra autumn as my favourite time of the year, aided by almost perfect weather almost every day. It means you are quite happy to simply walk the streets, lurking with a camera. Indeed, for a couple of months these ambles become more appealing than hikes through the bush. So it is pleasing that I can combine the two. Moving out of Forrest and back onto Red Hill, returning to the Col to complete this leg. Easy, everyday, ordinary. And out of this world.
Trail section: Red Hill and Forrest
Trail length walked: 2.8km
Total distance walked: 6.3km
Total steps: 8,000
Altitude gain: 150m
tuesday april 21: clockwising
Today’s jaunt is essentially a tourist walk taking in the plethora of capital institutions including parliament houses, libraries, galleries, archives, and memorials. Passing lawns and lakes and flags and fountains. Alongside sturdy bastions of public service and their adjoining car parks. Today is the Canberra of unpopular imagination.
I often feel it must be tricky being a tourist in Canberra. There is no obvious centre to draw you in. The sights – as befit this spaciously planned city – are generously spread out. Public transportation can prove complex to get from one place to another. The potential to get lost and literally go around in circles is ever present, even for the locals. Coming here for the first time the city can seem distant, aloof, even a touch hollow. Dead quiet. Only really through immersion does the soul shine through and the life take hold.
As a first time traveller to Australia in 2000 I was one of the few Brits to venture out of Kings Cross and board a coach to Canberra. Remarkably I bumped into a friend of a friend also on the same coach and we ended up spending a couple of days exploring the city. This was early winter and with that in mind it is astonishing that I came back to live here. But the days were sunny and mild, the cold nights shunned by a well-heated hostel and a good dose of ale. There was a calm, satisfying ambience to Canberra that was a perfect antidote to Kings Cross. And plenty of cultural and natural attractions to take in – if you can find them.
One of the obvious goals was to visit Parliament House. Guided by my friend we hopped on a bus noting that the route passed quite close to the big triangle up on the hill fringed by two circles of light traffic. What we didn’t notice was that this was an express bus, the giant flag capping Parliament swiftly disappearing out of view as we whizzed around a circle. Next stop, a rather grungy concrete bus station that had seen better days. Only now, coming back to live here, did I realise that this was Woden Bus Interchange – nearly 10kms away. The bus station has barely altered.
Skipping forward twenty years the trip in reverse was a much more controlled affair and I parked my car close to Parliament to rejoin the Centenary Trail on Melbourne Avenue. This end of Melbourne Avenue is where the grand and gracious homes of Forrest dissipate into low rise apartments with ridiculously pretentious names. Just because you can see a giant flagpole and might walk over there to do some work sometimes. All the while using your wife’s name on the property’s deeds so that you can then claim your generous living away from home allowance when ‘visiting’ for eight weeks a year.
I digress. Back on the trail it took a surprising turn of events by meandering in a no-mans-land between the inner and outer circles of light traffic that form a double moat to Fortress Parliament. In places the gnarly clumps of trees close in and it is quite unlike the literal centre of any capital city in the world: a forest. Only the massive flagpole re-emerging at different angles reminds you of where you are.
Within the inner circle the landscape becomes more tamed though remaining unfailingly native. These are the more official gardens that have been lovingly nurtured and cared for to create a living, breathing essence of Australia. Containing a small network of trails they are a relatively hidden gem. One quirk in these gardens are the random parliamentary playthings that appear around a burgeoning acacia or colourful callistemon: tennis courts, netball, five-a-side AstroTurf, an indoor pool. There are also strategic security booths, always empty apart from an old school telephone perched next to the window. Grey Rodent is getting out of the pool. Roger. Baked Potato now whistling with his dog. Copy that.
I’ll come back to Parliament House because now there was a genuine coronaspanner in the works. My aim has been to – wherever possible – walk the Centenary Trail anticlockwise, and so far that had been the case. Yet ahead of me was a stretch fringing and crossing Lake Burley Griffin. Which had only very recently been assigned the snappy slogan ‘Clockwise is COVID-wise’. This in an attempt to control the flow of humans and their bodily secretions flocking to the lake. Should I – like quite a lot of people actually – rebel, a counter-clockwise counterculture, or should I be a good citizen? Dammit, I am such a goody two shoes.
So, for now, I left the Centenary Trail and worked my way down through rose gardens and car parks towards Commonwealth Bridge. Crossing the water in the correct manner another coronaspanner was steadily building. All of the institutions, all of the facilities were closed. Normally I would quite happily pop into the National Library or Gallery to use their toilets (note to toilet fans, the Portrait Gallery bogs are probably the most luxuriant of the lot). Yet today there was no such relief possible. A fact smugly grasped upon by the Captain Cook Memorial Jet which, dead on 11am, spurted to life.
My journey had temporarily reached the north side. In comparison to the legendary rivalry of great cities divided by water, the Canberra north-south divide is laughable. Though it is beyond doubt that northerners are a bit full of themselves with their quinoa and woodfired sweaters. Perhaps this journey may enlighten me and break down such prejudice. If I can make it through the tangle of city bikes bedecked with faux vintage shopping baskets and man bags.
Passing under the noisy flying foxes of Commonwealth Park, I was reminded how bats are currently as popular as 5G and the President of the USA. Only one out of three deserves a good disinfecting, and it was pleasing to see the bats around, having been affected by the massive Canberra hailstorm of January, back when we were living through a different crisis. It seems so last year that crisis earlier this year.
The walk was largely uneventful as I made my way past St. John’s Church in Reid – one of the older buildings in Canberra – and on to Anzac Parade. Through the clumps of trees and memorials I was espying any potential nature break enclosure, but to no avail. Thus I climbed the steps leading up to the Australian War Memorial without much will to linger, without much scope to reflect. Usually at this time of year the area around here would be a hive of activity as ANZAC Day nears. Temporary stands are constructed on the parade ground, a network of khaki cloth fencing woven to form a barrier between the powers and the people. Toilets are open. Now the memorial stood closed, a lone figure patrolling from the balcony as if on lookout duty in a hostile land. Lance Corporal W.C. Punishment. Among the mighty expanse of red gravel forming the parade ground below, three figures in emptiness.
At this point I had returned to the Centenary Trail and was now embarking back to where I had started, clockwise and COVID-wise. It was largely a brisk, whistle-stop march down Anzac Parade, inevitably pausing to revel in a burst of autumn colour lining a Campbell side street. Closer to the lake, an underutilised pocket of land appeared, boasting a few trees and bushes fringing the roundabout. Hmm, a bit of shelter and a chance of relief. I emerged successfully, though was not convinced it went without notice. Opposite, the headquarters of ASIO, Australia’s central security agency looked on.
The trail joined the lake near Blundell’s Cottage, a small homestead dating back to 1860 before there was a lake, before there was a Canberra. Back in the day it would have overlooked dusty paddocks leading down to the Molonglo River. The river was eventually dammed in 1963 to form Lake Burley Griffin, which had long been mooted as a centrepiece of the capital’s ground-breaking design. Without the lake, Canberra may have remained a dusty paddock.
The lake is much, much bigger than you think, with various inlets giving it a shoreline of around 40 kilometres. I know this because I have cycled it, like so many have before me. It is a mecca for walks and runs and rides and picnics and fireworks and occasional boating and – for the very brave – swimming. The water lacks the peril of pounding east coast surf but the frequent blooms of blue-green algae may come back to bite you. Today the expanse of the central basin is a little choppy, a solid north-westerly having picked up. For people naughtily cycling anticlockwise this is punishing them with a headwind on this northern side. Serves them right.
It is busy for a Tuesday lunchtime. Too busy. In fact, with the blustery breeze and frequent navigation of people required it’s not especially enjoyable. I am growing weary and hungry and concerned that my parking has exceeded the time available. Of all the jobs wound down I doubt if parking inspector is one of them. I march on with all the energy I can muster and immediately feel more at ease back on the south side, turning off from the lake.
My footsteps now weave quickly past the High Court, the Portrait and National Galleries, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Old Parliament House. This would be the focus of a tourist trail but I only have one landmark in my sight. That triangular beacon on the hill, with its bus-sized flag and precision-mown lawns. The COVID-wise clockwise reconfiguration rewards me with that iconic Parliament House finish after all. No ribbon to break, no welcoming party, no mediocre MP to shake my hand. Just me and two police officers looking bored out of their brains to the extent that they might decide I have been lingering too long. It is all I deserve because I haven’t even finished. In fact, I’m only just getting started.
124 kilometres to go.
Trail section: Parliamentary Triangle and Anzac Parade
Trail length walked: 8.3km
Total distance walked: 14.8km
Total steps: 16,500
Altitude gain: 110m