It was (would you believe) my birthday present to myself. What on earth was I thinking?
Emmy and I would walk from our home near Lake Tuggeranong in the southern suburbs of Canberra, to Lake Burley Griffin in the centre of the city. The route I had figured out meandered through nature reserves and suburban streets, side-swiping Parliament House before crossing Lake Burley Griffin along Commonwealth Avenue. We would be walking over a variety of surfaces, from streetside footpaths, to bicycle paths, to muddy tracks, to gravel access roads in reserves and parks. It was mostly fairly flat, but Waniassa Hills would set our jugulars pulsing. There were just two clusters of shops along the route, Erindale and Red Hill, so we decided to carry all our water and food with us.
When I worked out the route I didn’t think too much about the distance. Big mistake. As the crow flies it is about sixteen kilometers from our home to the centre of Canberra, a manageable distance for two less-than-fully-fit elderly walkers. But my meandering route actually totalled 26.4 kilometers. I only found this out when I checked my GPS thingy as we dragged ourselves aching and grimacing into our terminus at the city centre bus station.
Six hours previously, at 7.50 am, we had stepped into Canberra’s morning chill full of naïve energy. The temperature was around one degree. The sky was ivory white with a faint touch of blue and completely clear. There was no wind. Perfect conditions for walking really. But the sun came at us like a trumpet blast, dazzlingly bright and right in our eyes. It left a zebra-like stamp on the streets and parkland of the southern suburbs: stripes of white frost alternating with spindly black shadows from leafless trees.
Our first stop was the Erindale Shopping Centre where we sat down for a few minutes in the arcade to warm up. I have mixed feelings about the Erindale Centre. On the one hand it is so tacky and bland that my heart sinks whenever I walk into it (we often do our shopping there). On the other hand it is not ashamed of its commercially-driven ugliness. The people there rise so effortlessly above it that you forget the surrounds. There’s the Chinese gentleman who patrols the tubs of deep-fry fat in the Erindale Takeaway. He never fails to talk Tai Chi with me, and gives me a 20 cent discount on my weekly rehydration medication (a bottle of Diet Coke). His associate, a diminutive grey-haired lady, is addicted to ocean cruises. She talks modestly of her adventures. Travelling on her own she has seen far more of the world than I have: Alaska, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Germany, Fiji and New Caledonia. And after cruising the fjords of Alaska she returned to her regular job shovelling glistening potato chips into paper bags with a bright smile and no hint of regret.
We left the Erindale Centre and walked along cycle paths through Gowrie, turning left and uphill into Fadden. Among the grey gum trees an army of cockatoos was at war. It was a serious civil war with dive-bombing and ambushes and hand-to-hand screeching. Every morning around dawn, and again at dusk, the same war breaks out. A bit like Australia’s election cycle. The middle of the day is truce time.
About one and a half hours into the walk – seven kilometers – we found a roadside bench high up in Fadden Heights and stripped off our outer layer of clothing. The temperature was still no more than five degrees but four layers were now too many. A quick bite of Danish pastry and a swig of water and we headed up the steep slope into Waniassa Hills. We were completely alone, only a few kangaroos stared at us in shock as we laboured upwards puffing steam from our mouths.
Then, like passengers locked in a roller-coaster, we swooped down across Long Gully Road into the pine forest of Isaacs. Isaacs Ridge cast a cold morning shadow over its western slopes and amid the thick stands of trees the temperature dropped. But the gravel path was flat and wide and we walked with new enthusiasm. A couple of kookaburras laughed at us as we passed, but we were not discouraged. We laughed back. At the northern end of the forest we paused to take in the vista over Woden town centre and beyond, through thirty or forty kilometres of crystal-bright winter air, to the snow-flecked Brindabella ranges.
The path took us past the back fences of O’Malley’s well-heeled diplomatic residences before it swerved right and headed into the native bushland of Mount Mugga Mugga Nature Reserve. For two or three kilometres the path became a narrow track. We laboured around rocks and over mini-swamps through straggly stands of native bush before dropping down to the edge of Mugga Lane, the twisting road that connects Hindmarsh Drive with the Mugga Lane rubbish dump and the Monaro Highway.
Here, at twelve noon, four hours and exactly sixteen kilometers into the walk, we stopped for lunch. Emmy bit delicately into a wholemeal roll sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and filled with an austere mixture of tuna and salad. I wolfed down a huge refined-flour cheese roll stuffed with oily fish and bacon. My God it was delicious!
We crossed Hindmarsh Drive and walked into the suburb of Red Hill. At the Red Hill shops I stopped briefly before the bronze statue of La Perouse, or to allow him his full name, Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. He led a French expedition of discovery to the south Pacific, arriving at Botany Bay almost simultaneously with Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet of English settlers in 1788. La Perouse visited many islands of the south Pacific before disappearing at sea some time in 1788. He is commemorated in the name of the street on which his statue stands: La Perouse Street.
La Perouse Street took us to the Red Hill Nature Reserve and two kilometres of easy walking along a dirt path. As we turned into broad, tree-filled Melbourne Avenue we could see the flagpole of Parliament House ahead of us. We were now in the home straight, or so we thought, but maybe it was wishful thinking. Aches and pains were starting to taunt us – a little niggle in the left thigh joint, a few tentative distress signals from the ball of the right foot, discomfort in the shoulder where the strap of my backpack was digging in. There was an ominous throb in Emmy’s right knee. We wanted the walk to end, but… when you walk there’s no turning back, no wimping out. We still had five kilometers to go.
We skirted Parliament House but didn’t spend too much time admiring it. Every time we paused to look we were almost skittled by Parliament House functionaries, escapees from inside the building out for their lunchtime jog. Some of them – women as well as men – were running quite fast, looks of desperation carved into their faces.
It was downhill to Commonwealth Avenue where a bizarre scene greeted us. Just below Australia’s Parliament house, next to the “heritage” 1930s Canberra Hotel, people were playing the genteel game of croquet on a carpet-flat grass square. A croquet mallet has a straight, long, handle like the handle of a golf iron, but at the bottom it plugs into a heavy block of wood. You stand with the mallet hanging in front of you, swing it back between your legs, and whack a heavy ceramic ball about the size of a grapefruit. The ball has to pass through a small narrow hurdle. It looks bizarre, but I guess it’s no more bizarre than any other sport. At the very least it is slow, and that gives it huge rarity value. But slowness is under existential threat, even in Canberra, so how can we ensure the croquet green doesn’t fall victim to the hyper-active victims of “development first” syndrome? Canberrans love their museums… so maybe it can become a central exhibit in a Museum of Slowness. What do you think?
And now we were crossing the Commonwealth Avenue bridge over the glittering expanse of Lake Burley Griffin. A cold afternoon wind was blowing off the lake pushing foam into the reeds at its edge. Then into the city centre and, with sudden eagerness, we leaped straight onto an express bus heading south to Tuggeranong and home.
After a day of walking I slept non-stop for almost eight hours (unusual for an old person). And the following morning, the payoff. All the aches and niggles had ebbed away revealing the mild “high” that comes from extended physical exertion. We both felt good.
“Let’s do it again,” said Emmy. “Today!”
But after 35,000 steps the previous day (according to my Garmin Vivofit wristband) for me that was a step too far.