From Melbourne we took the short (by Australian standards) trip to the capital of Australia, Canberra where we had arranged to stay with some friends Pip and Yvonne. It was striking that the journeys between the more populous towns and cities in the South and East were not really very much busier than those between the outback towns in the West and centre. This is of course because there are only a third as many people living in Australia than there are in Britain and yet it is vastly bigger than the British Isles. Its bound to be quiet there!
It doesn’t take long before the sprawling conurbation that is Melbourne gives way to scrub and bush again as you head towards Canberra and soon we were back on the familiar two lane highway, either side of us the red sandy earth, pock marked by spinifex and gum trees. The rich, clear smell of the eucalypts is something I still haven’t forgotten, like the hot pine panels of a Swedish sauna it pervades your lungs. It is an aroma that you do not become accustomed to like most others and so in the hot, dry eucalyptus forests it is always in the background, always behind everything else that you see, hear, touch and smell, like a sandy coloured wash on an artists canvas.
Canberra, like most of Australia’s larger cities is a planned conurbation laid out in the grid formation that would be familiar to most Americans although to an Englishman this layout takes a little bit of getting used to. It is situated within its own tiny state, the Australian Capital Territory (A.C.T.) which is in reality surrounded by the much larger state of New South Wales. New South Wales itself could not really be any less reminiscent of South Wales and so just why Captain Cook chose to name it this is a mystery. Canberra was built as a political centre and encompasses the parliament building, all of the foreign embassies and the large majority of its residents are civil servants or at least employed by the government in some way. As a result Canberra has a reputation as a boring town all across Australia. It is true to say that Canberra is quiet and there is little in the way of night life, but equally property is worth more there, the average wage is much higher in Canberra than across the rest of the country and the people there are generally more affluent.
Night fell quickly over the expansive bush, which seemed to have an even heavier population of kangaroos and wallabies than the rest of Australia and the seemingly endless scrub land gave way to the tidy avenues of Canberra. By now the arrogant van was coughing and backfiring and refusing to idle. If we stopped at a light then the engine would cut out entirely and refuse to start again without a push, which meant that whoever was pushing had to jump into the van as it was moving because if it stopped then the engine would cough, splutter then die again and we would be back to square one. It was as though it knew when we were arriving at our destination and would start to shut itself down ready for a rest at the end of the journey.
As I mentioned earlier, we had problems with the fuel turning to vapour during the hottest part of the day and we would have to stop and let the van cool down before we could go on. That was when we realised that the van had a personality all of its own. A stubborn, self important but vaguely thoughtful personality whereby if it wanted to stop for a rest then it was going to, like it or not, but every time the engine cut out we would still have just enough momentum to carry us into a rest stop.
The rest stops were not like the rest stops we are used to in the UK and instead tended to comprise of a tree to sit under and a lay by in which to park. If you were really lucky they would have a bowser of dubiously drinkable water and a picnic bench, but such luxuries were few and far between.
Faye had rung ahead to let our hosts know that we would soon be arriving and before long we saw the shadowy silhouette of a woman, waving cheerily to us and so we pulled over and Yvonne pointed out the way to her house.
“We’ll meet you there in a few minutes.” I chuckled. “We’re gonna have to give the van a shove to get her started again.”
Yvonne laughed until she realised that I wasn’t joking. Then I would imagine that she laughed some more until we knocked on the front door about ten minutes later.
We spent another relaxing fortnight with Pip and Yvonne, commandeering their living room and sharing a bed with little Max, their diminutive white dog. If I knew more about dogs I would tell you what breed he was. But I don’t.
We made ourselves at home, and so did Max
Canberra itself, although not the liveliest town in the world, was a great place to visit as a tourist. It has huge swathes of public park land, with lakes and fountains dotted around. Although there are nearly half a million people in Canberra, it never seems crowded. The roads are big enough to prevent traffic and there is enough space for everybody to exist happily without feeling as though they are living in one another’s pockets.
The frequency of roundabouts in Canberra actually did us a favour as by this point the van was being so uncooperative that we had to plan our routes to avoid traffic lights at all costs and to negotiate roundabouts by timing our approach in such a way that we could get around them without stopping. At one point Faye directed us on a traffic light-free route which took us through the university campus, into a pharmaceutical plant and along an unfinished section of road which was more like off roading than city driving.
One of the most interesting and moving places to visit is the Australian war memorial which exists to commemorate all fallen Australian soldiers from all wars. The memorial is similar in tone although not in appearance, to the sprawling wartime graveyards in France, it’s sheer size and the huge number of names listed upon it lending a frightening sense of perspective on the horrific casualties of war. It is particularly pertinent to think that as a very isolated island nation, Australia has had little to worry about in terms of actual invasion aside from the Japanese bombings of Darwin in the far North. These names list those brave enough to sacrifice themselves fighting not for the immediate safety of their homeland, but instead fighting on fronts thousands of miles from home for what they believed to be right.
There is no better example of this than Gallipoli, where no fewer than nine Victoria Crosses were awarded to the brave Australian soldiers who fought there, all of which now reside in the Canberra War Memorial.
Australia joined the First World War in 1915 when soldiers from Australia and New Zealand joined the Allies and set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, in order to open the Black Sea shipping lane for the navy. They landed at Gallipoli and were immediately met by Mustafa Kemal (more famously known as Atatürk). The planned surprise attack was met with fierce resistance and soon stagnated taking eight months to reach its bloody conclusion. Following the evacuation of the allied forces the casualties were astounding numbering an estimated 44,000. These included 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from British India on top of those suffered by the British and French.
The other point of interest is the National Museum of Australia. This is a comprehensive and well presented history of Australia, split into rooms with themes as disparate as Aboriginal history, art and motor sport. One could easily lose a day in there, and we did.
Before we said goodbye to Pip and Yvonne, I had to do something about the van, so I bought a new fuel pump from a motor factors and proceeded to fit it underneath the van. The original mechanical fuel pump was shot and had been replaced by an electric one at some point but this had been mounted too far from the fuel tank and so was not operating as well as it might have. I reasoned that if I could improve the flow of fuel to the carburetor by replacing the pump and mounting it closer to the fuel tank then the fuel might burn more cleanly and the stupid van would stop coughing, backfiring and generally misbehaving. I had dismantled and cleaned the carburetor the night before, so I changed the fuel pump and started her up. The bloody thing started first time and I was very pleased until the loom caught fire. I ran into the shed where I was sure I had seen a fire extinguisher and covered the engine in white powder, luckily stopping the fire before it did any real damage. I had missed one of the bolts that sealed the carburetor and so it was spraying flaming petrol over the engine bay. I fixed the missing bolt in place and the van was finally running as sweet as a nut.
Sometimes though, it’s best just to get a mechanic.
Going Somewhere – An Australian Adventure