Dark predictions of rain – even thunderstorms – kept us glancing upwards as Sunday March 18th dawned. But again the sky was eggshell blue without a hint of cloud. The day’s walk would take us along the southern banks of Lake Burley Griffin – the biggish sausage-like lake in the heart of the city – through small stands of eucalyptus and pine trees, into the southern dormitory suburbs of the city and ultimately past Australia’s federal parliament rising above foothills of shiny government buildings.
The walk produced the usual cast of stand-out eccentrics: a Dutch gentleman walking in sandals and a blue cotton kaftan with a Pashtun cap on his head and smoking roll-your-own cigarettes; a small group of Japanese women all wearing white cotton gloves; an energetic group of Dutch-Australians talking exuberantly in Dutch and sporting patriotic bright orange tee-shirts stamped with the cryptic message “Peaky Striders”. But unlike in Rotorua, this time no-one was playing the ocarina.
The first stage of the walk took us along a picturesque lakeside promenade and past lakeside parks where, later in the day, the aroma of roasting meat would drift up from barbecues and children would criss-cross the grass in pursuit of soccer balls. Already people were sitting on park benches, stretching their bare white legs in the sun and wriggling their toes. Across the lake a hot-air balloon slowly puffed itself up ready to lift into the lazy air.
At midday we stopped in the courtyard of a small suburban shopping centre (see Google Earth: 35°19’31.22″S, 149° 4’57.09″E) and, sitting under a big tree, ate a bread roll from our back packs. Shoppers strolled in and out of a barely busy supermarket. The proprietor of a secondhand bookshop taped a hand-written message to his shop window then stood looking at it for long minutes, his chin cupped in his hand. A cyclist squatted repairing a puncture in his small son’s bicycle. Patiently he performed each stage of the repair, then leaned back on his haunches as his son repeated the operation. Two elderly ladies shared a walking frame, stopping every few steps to draw breath, rummage through their purchases and compare their shopping dockets. Everything seemed to be in slow motion and getting slower. Sunday afternoon lethargy was nodding over the city.
Around one o’clock, as we walked among the prosperous houses of Canberra’s inner south, clouds suddenly swarmed across the sky from the west. Drops of rain began to flick our faces and a small, cool breeze sprang up. Emmy and I had reached Parliament House, and at the northeast corner of its perimeter road (see Google Earth: 35°18’27.60″S 149° 7’38.37″E) we leaned against a granite wall and quickly put on our rain jackets. But it was a Sunday afternoon shower… it really couldn’t be bothered. After a few minutes it ambled off and left us sweating inside our water-proof jackets.
We were now within sight of the end-point. At two o’clock, exactly five hours after departure, we were back where we had started. We had covered 20.72 kilometres. So over two days we had walked 42 kilometres. I savoured the figures in my mind’s eye. I liked the sound of them. Forty-two. According to Douglas Adams in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. At that moment I reckoned he was right.