Canberra International Walking Weekend, Day One

Saturday March 31st 2012 brightened slowly in Canberra under an eggshell blue sky fading to a peach haze that edged the hills to the south. Ragged flights of cockatoos charged screeching through the still air. Dew lay like frost on the warm grass. The first gold of autumn was burnishing the city’s trees. As you can see, my literary rhetoric engine was turbo-charged and I was looking forward to two perfect days of walking.

Across the street from the Walk control centre autumn is already painting its colours on this tree.

For some mysterious but very apt reason, the control centre and beginning point for the walk was located in a branch building of Charles Sturt University’s Faculty of Theology, about one kilometre from Parliament House near the centre of Canberra (see Google Earth location at: 35°18’14.02″S, 149° 8’12.83″E). At 8.30 a.m. Emmy and I had registered at the check-in desk, and were lolling on plastic chairs among other walkers in the flag festooned centre, enjoying the quiet, unhurried, well-organised prelude to the day’s challenge. There were four categories of walk, each starting at a different time. The real fanatics left early in the morning on a marathon-length walk. They were followed by the 20-kilometre walkers, then the 10 kilometre walkers and finally, late in the morning, by a small cohort of courageous elderly walkers tottering over a five kilometre route.

A breakfast barbecue provides a hit of calories to carry walkers through the day.

About 100 walkers, including Emmy and me, left the control centre at 9.00 am on the 20 kilometre walk. The route would take us north across the main bridge over Lake Burley Griffin that leads to the centre of the city, then west along part of the north shore of the lake and into the campus of the Australian National University. The route then veered into Australia’s National Botanic Gardens (see Google Earth location at: 35°16’32.37″S, 149° 6’31.43″E) at the foot of the city’s main natural landmark, Black Mountain.

Walking through a stand of rain forest in the National Botanic Gardens.

The track dipped into the gloomy environs of a small rain forest. A boardwalk snaked among tall ferns and tropical trees. Then, skirting lawns and dry-country eucalypts, it bent upwards and curved around the slopes of the mountain. We emerged into the inner suburbs of north Canberra. These are among the “old” parts of Canberra, but they were mostly built as recently as the 1950s and 1960s. At the O’Connor shopping centre we had our walker’s cards punched by walk monitors and – under Emmy’s disapproving frown – I popped into a supermarket for a bottle of Coke.

Through the quiet streets of suburban Canberra...

... and across Northbourne Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare.

Circling through the suburb of Lyneham we passed pavement coffee shops with drowsy customers drooping over coffee, croissants and newspapers in the warm Saturday sun. It was too much for some walkers. They drew up chairs and ordered a caffeine fix.

Around midday we lunch under trees in a suburban park...

... shaded from the sun under a latticework of leaves.

But Emmy and I pressed on. We crossed the traffic-crowded main artery of Canberra – Northbourne Avenue – and headed towards the city’s highest peak, Mount Ainslie (843 metres). Luckily we didn’t have to climb it. Our route took us around the base of the hill to the National War Memorial. This stands at one end of Anzac Parade, a broad avenue that leads south-west down to Lake Burley Griffin, carrying the gaze over the lake, past old Paliament House, and up to the new Parliament House (opened 1988).

At the foot of Mount Ainslie we walk over Australia's characteristically ochre-coloured earth...

... and through grey-green gum trees we glimpse the centre of the city.

Anzac Avenue is lined with war memorial monuments. For me the most poignant of these is the very first, at the north end of the avenue. Here the flags of Turkey and Australia fly side-by-side over a simple arrangement of four columns flanking a semi-circular wall. (see Google Earth image at: 35°16’58.40″S, 149° 8’52.55″E). In April 1915, Australian troops – together with New Zealand, British, French and Canadian forces – attempted an invasion of Turkey along the Dardanelles Peninsula. After eight months of fierce Turkish resistance the allied armies were thrown back. More than 80,000 Turkish soldiers died. Allied casualties numbered around 44,000, including over 8,500 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders, about a quarter of those who had landed on the peninsula.

Australia's National War Memorial in profile.

The savagery of the fighting has not been forgotten, but today it forms the basis for an edifice of myth-making that romanticises the relationship between the ANZAC forces and their Muslim adversaries in Turkey. The ruthless shredding of men, the squalid deaths from dysentery, the bottomless stupidity of politicians and generals, all have been transformed into warm acknowledgement of common Aussie-Turkish humanity in which religious differences play no part. And yet no lessons have been learned. Anti-Islamic paranoia is widespread in Australia and the institution of war continues to thrive. The governments of Australia and New Zealand still send their young men and women to be shredded in stupid wars not too far from Turkey. Who knows, maybe one day in the future our current “enemies” – Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Shia militias – will also be lionised as noble companions in common suffering, their courage acknowledged in new monuments along ANZAC Parade. Meanwhile, a site on the avenue earmarked for a peacekeepers’ memorial remains vacant.

Turkish and Australian flags fly side-by-side over a joint memorial recalling the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

A bi-lingual plaque on the memorial commemorates the courageous Turkish defence of their homeland against an invasion force that included Australian and New Zealand troops (the ANZAC force).

Will this memorial ever be built?

With these thoughts troubling my mind we reached the north bank of Lake Burley Griffin, turned east, passed under the gently chiming bells of the National Carillon, and returned to the control centre almost exactly five hours after we had set out. My GPS thingy told me we had covered 21.35 kilometres.

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Walking with the birds

When you walk the bush paths of Canberra you are never alone. Even in the quietest spot you will see a slight movement from the corner of your eye, something flitting just beyond the edge of your vision. A leaf will stir, there will be a scurry in the trees, a muted rattle or a rapid whispered clucking. Sometimes you get the feathered equivalent of a stampede, a sudden rush of squawks, and beating wings and wild shrieks. Sometimes you may hear the solitary, mad cackle of a kookaburra, taken up by the mocking echo of half a dozen others.

Here are just a few of the show-offs, eccentrics and recluses you are pretty sure to meet when you’re out walking.

Galahs grazing

Galahs. These are probably the most common parrot you will see along the walking paths of Canberra. Galahs are notable for their unique and beautiful pastel-coloured plumage. They have pink breasts, necks and faces, but light grey wings and tails. They wear a white cap on their heads. They are the clowns of Canberra back yards. Sometimes they will show off, hanging upside down from a power line or a clothes line. Occasionally… just to impress you more, they will release one foot and nonchalantly hang clasping the line with the other claw. They like to have rowdy arguments about nothing, like two drunks standing side-by-side, pumping and puffing and squawking at each other. Like cockatoos, galahs also like to graze. Sometimes you see large flocks of them combing the grass beside the major thoroughfares of Canberra, unconcerned by passing traffic (but with the odd careless one squashed and smashed on the asphalt of the road).

Magpies. These are meat-eaters who will gather over road-kill like mini vultures, jabbing and plucking and scattering when cars pass. They speak to one another in a beautiful, mysterious language. They throw back their heads and warble, quite loud and very musically, in three- or four-second bursts, like sentences.

Wild magpies demanding a handout

They are beady-eyed intellectuals, inquisitive, and largely unafraid of humans. They stride over lawns, stopping from time to time with tilted heads as if listening. Apparently they can hear insects – even worms – moving in the earth beneath them. Their plumage is basically black with a saddle of white on the backs of their necks and streaks of white in their wings and tail. They have good memories. If you give them a handout of raw mince they will never forget your generosity. Whenever they see you they will come gliding and running, demanding another handout, even if months have passed since the first.

Always in pairs: the common rosella

Rosellas. These are smallish parrots with plumage of brightly contrasting red and blue. Young rosellas also have green plumage. Rosellas are very timid but endearing, because they always appear in faithful pairs, presumably male and female. They look after each other.

Sometimes one will stand guard high in a tree while the other drinks. Then they will reverse roles before racing off. They have a unique call, a thin tweet that starts high, jumps down one octave, then back up an octave and quickly down one octave again: deedadeeda.

An army marches on its stomach: cockatoos bulking up in a Canberra park

Sulphur-crested cockatoos. These are the vandals and loud-mouth angry-boys of the bush. They are gregarious birds with a hoarse, raucous, grating call. They get very excited at dawn and sundown, swooping and squabbling in tribe-like clusters. If the spirit takes them, they will settle in certain trees and tear them to pieces, littering the ground with twigs and shredded leaves. They like to graze like cows, but when they find a tasty seed they lift it to their beaks in claws that operate like a robotic hand. They disguise their violent impulses beneath a habit of spotless white plumage. The yellow plume on their heads can stand up like an open fan and they look around like indignant, offended teenagers with yellow mohawk haircuts.

Black Swans. These proud, beautiful birds revel in their status as exceptions to the orthodoxy that “swans are white”. But they also have bright red beaks and usually a flash of white at the base of the tail. They are family birds. They dote on their children and cruise the lake shores showing them off.

Watching the walkers: black swans in Canberra’s Lake Burley-Griffin

The cygnets grow up with grey plumage and only gradually change to black when they are quite big. Swans are curious about humans but are easily irritated by them. Sometimes they will heave themselves out of the water and approach you with a menacing cobra-like sway of the head. If that happens it’s usually advisable to retreat.