Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Skippy and Friends

I’ve been in Canberra a few days now, staying at the Australian Institute of Sport, and carrying out most of my training in the eucalyptus forests that adjoin the institute. So far all the wildlife that I’ve spotted was two common rabbits (yes they have them here too*), and a few colourful birds. At least that was until this morning.

I was about 25 minutes into my run around the mountain bike trails through the forest. Given the unevenness of the trail, my reputation for falling over, and the possible risk of stepping on a snake, I was paying close attention to the trail ahead, when suddenly something leapt up beside me, in much the same way a sheep would do if she noticed you only when you were right up close to her… and then bounced away. Yes, it was a kangaroo!

I’ve never seen a kangaroo outside of the zoo before, so it was pretty exciting to be this close to one. I paused a moment as it bounce off out of sight, and then continued with my run. I saw another one about two minutes later, standing about 20 metres away, observing its surroundings. I went back to the accommodation with a huge smile on my face, excited to tell everyone else what I’d seen. It transpired that this wasn’t such a rare sighting, and Marie, the only other non-Aussie in the group had spotted four of them when she was doing her session on the edge of the forest.

Later today when I was out for my afternoon run, I spotted a whole field of kangaroos and their joeys in a field basking in the sun. There must have been 20 or 30 of them. I quickly ran back to my room and picked up the camera. Alas when I returned they had all disappeared without a track. Oh well, if they’re that common, no doubt I’ll see plenty more of them!

Getting here wasn’t without its minor difficulty. After finally reaching Melbourne and making my way to the hotel in which I would hopefully set about overcoming jetlag, I learned that Qantas had grounded all flights for the foreseeable future. Great! I had a the last minute chosen Qantas over Virgin for the internal leg of my journey to Canberra. Luckily, rivalry between the two companies meant that Virgin had put on extra flights to cover the strikes and I would only be delayed by about an hour. I didn’t know that at the time, however, and there was a small bit of panic before I finally got to sleep. But then it would be a real adventure without a little bit of a hiccup here and there.

Canberra itself is a strange city. Specifically designed and built as the new seat of the federal parliament to end rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney shortly after the union of the six colonies, the majority of the central area is taken up by government buildings, museums, and a huge artificial lake named after the city designer Walter Burley Griffin. Griffin won an international competition to design the city, and with the help of his wife Marion, an architectural artist, designed a city for 75,000 in the early 1900s.

Approximately 900 square miles of land which surrounded the former farming community was ceded by New South Wales to form the Australian Capital Territory, a federal area similar to the USA’s District of Columbia. Today the city is home to just 400,000 people, definitely on of the least crowded cities I ever been to. Its airport is small, its only railway connection runs to Sydney, and it lies more than 40 miles from the main Sydney to Melbourne highway. Travel writer Bill Bryson (I’m reading his humorous and informative Down Under at the moment) describes Canberra as ‘not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it.’

The simple and beautiful design for the city was formulated by Griffiths and his wife purely from topographical maps of the area (the Griffiths had never been to Australia), and when they travelled there in 1913 to put the plan into action, they were met with difficulties surrounding the First World War, and a lack of enthusiasm and funds. Griffiths died in 1937, and never saw the completion of his greatest plans, though the remainder of Canberra was built on his ‘floor plan’ of avenues, roundabouts and imposing lake.

Today, staying at the Institute of Sport just ten minutes drive from Canberra’s centre, it’s difficult to believe that I’m on the edge of the capital city of one of the largest countries in the world. It’s a very long way from the overcrowded, sprawling mass that is London.

1 comment:

  1. *I later learned in Bryson’s brilliant Down Under that rabbits are not actually native to Australia. They were introduced from Europe as a sort of a joke in the 19th centry, and due to their infamous reproductive rates, quickly multiplied in numbers. Because they have no natural predators in Australia, numbers are difficult to contain. By 1827 they were reported to be running around large estates in Tasmania in their thousands, and the release of 12 rabbits (a cross bread between wild and domestic varieties) by Thomas Austin for hunting purposes in October 1859 is believed to be the start of a similar explosion on mainland Australia. They have since become a serious mammalian pest, cause millions of dollars of damage to crops annually, and are suspected to be the most significant known factor for plant species loss on the continent. No wonder the Australians have become so strict about the importation of plant and animal matter into the country.