Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Adventures in the Bush Capital

Today I had a lucky break when a meeting was canceled at the last minute while I was in the vicinity of new Parliament House in Canberra. My exploring plans had been stymied by rain for the past few days, but today was beautiful and sunny. They let me take my backpack full of stuff inside without a single question, and I was free to wander unsupervised around most of the complex, including the rooftop overlook and the House and Senate chambers. The chamber colors are the traditional green (lower house) and red (upper house) borrowed from England, but they've been given an Australian twist. The House chamber is tastefully done up in the same nice shades of blue-green that you would find in a eucalyptyus forest, while the Senate chamber colors are softer versions of the red soils of the outback-- dark rose, mulberry, and mauve.

From the rooftop I got a good sense of Canberra's very strange design. Hardly another building was in sight. It was just trees and hills, and beyond them mountains, as far as the eye could see. The city is spread out in a way that almost makes it seem like it doesn't exist. One minute you'll be standing in a town square and the next you're hiking through the bush. After my jaunt through Parliament House, I needed to get to a meeting on a street that, according to the map, seemed nearby. A policeman pointed me to a path that led down one side of Capitol Hill. I was immediately engulfed by eucalyptus trees and proceeded to make my way down into a legit forest as if I was in the middle of nowhere. The rain had really brought out the eucalyptus smell, so everything was fresh and minty. It's similar to the smell of a pine forest in hot sun, only better. Fifteen minutes of hiking later, I popped out on a roadside and was presented with a menu of different government buildings. I turned around in amusement to look where I had come from and saw nothing but a thick mass of trees with the giant flagpole on top of Parliament House in the background. I had to laugh. And take a picture. Yes, my experience in Canberra certainly lives up to it's "Bush Capital" nickname!

Instead of high-density development, Canberra is decentralized around several town centers that are surrounded by suburbs and bush. They don't typically allow tall buildings or development on any of the hills, so you get amazingly clear and uninterrupted views of the landscape.

The extraordinary amount of breathing room takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. For example, we saw kangaroos grazing on the Governor-General's estate! And a giant herd of sulfur crested cockatoos:

Also, there are bike trails everywhere-- around lakes, amongst the forested hills, and through each town center. It's a bicycle paradise, really. The mountains in the distance are all part of a national park that seems to be well utilized by the sporty residents of the Australian Capital Territory. I could literally leave my house, be in the wilderness within minutes, and stay there for weeks. A little further south and you enter the Snowy Mountains, where you can hike around to tiny huts and shelters, some of which are old drover's shacks and settler's homesteads.

I got an informal drive-by tour of the different embassies in Canberra and saw a few things of note. Most of the embassies are fairly modest, small buildings. Then you drive past the American embassy. And drive. And drive. We've got a HUGE compound surrounded by a tall, white, wrought iron gate. The compound is filled with massive colonial-style buildings of red brick. Way to be ostentatious, 'murrica. Then you round a corner and there's a fenced off section of forest backing up to the American embassy. A sign states that this is supposed to be the site of the Iranian embassy. Maybe it's an incentive for them to get their act together: look at this lovely slice of bush we've reserved for you!

When we passed the Chinese embassy, my lovely tour guide told me that when the Chinese remodeled their Canberra embassy a few years ago, they found a number of spy devices the Australians had planted in the walls. Apparently that didn't go over too well :)

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