Canberra, Australia's Capital City

It has been written and said that Australia lacks the kind of history that other countries and continents do. This, of course, is simply not true. It has as much history to call on as anywhere else on earth and it is all around wherever you are and is being made all the time.  Also, a popular quiz question is often “where the capital of Australia is?” because it is one that many will trip up on.  The answer is, as we know Canberra which was chosen purposely for the task (as it is roughly halfway between the two great rival cities of Melbourne and Sydney) and is still a very young and growing capital city, but it too has its own history that is entwined with that of Kirsty’s own family and she had her own bit of history fact finding what was a long overdue visit.

In the early part of the 19th century, it was still the time of exploration with free settlers coming to the new colonies of what we now know as Australia seeking a new life, many of those looking to farm and work the land.  Many arrived in Sydney and headed south and west with Homestead’s being built all around.  One of these was to become what was known as “Canberry” owned by Joshua John Moore and then a few years later “Duntroon” owned by John Campbell and his family, named after their home area in Scotland after he received the land in a compensation deal from the New South Wales government.  Many land owners used ‘convict’ labour that was available at the time, Campbell was no exception but for the more important roles he preferred to use free settlers.  William Ginn was Kirsty’s great-great grandfather’s brother, and he and his wife Mary along with their two sons Walter and Henry applied to migrate from their home in Hertfordshire in England to start their new life in New South Wales and William be employed as head ploughman on Campbell’s Duntroon Estate, which is on the land that Canberra as we know today sits.  On his arrival in 1858, Campbell provided William, Mary and their two sons a purpose-built house, this was common then as part of an overall payment package, not too dissimilar to Britain.  This stone house, later became known as Blundell’s Cottage after the second family that lived there right until the mid-1930’s and today it remains the oldest surviving stone-built house in the Canberra area and is open as a museum staffed by enthusiastic volunteers each Saturday between 10am and 2pm.

Kirsty had known about her distant and extended family ties in Canberra, but it was only relatively recently that the significance of William Ginn, his family and the area became known to us.  Therefore, it was an extra fascinating visit to look around the old cottage, which features a lot of period furniture and even an inoculation card for William’s son Walter, thus another distant relative, brought with them on their voyage from their time in based in Sussex in the early 1850’s. William Ginn always planned to move on to and own his own farm, or property on his move to New South Wales and after his time working for Campbell at Duntroon he did just that, and farmed land at what is now known as “Ginn’s Gap” to the north-east of the city.  As for the cottage itself, the Blundell’s extended to accommodate their growing family and looking around the building, it is very easy to get a feel of what life was like for the early settlers and that life was far from easy for them.  Nearby is the oldest church in Canberra, the St John The Baptist, originally funded by the Campbell estate and this is where the Ginn family, and many other of the Canberra area’s founding fathers are interned. 

Canberra is missed off the itinerary of many travellers who visit Australia. It is also a fact that the vast majority of Australian’s have not been to their own capital city.  This will surely change in time though, as it is fast growing with plenty of events going on and many planned for the future.  This has largely come about because of the Australian Capital Territory becoming self sufficient in 1988 and needs to fund itself rather than from the States within the Commonwealth of Australia with the old adage of populate or perish coming to mind.  It is certainly a very sprawling city, planned out to include a collection of ‘towns’ rather than outer suburbs, each with their own character, community and associated attractions. Coming in from Adelaide, which is much more compact, and it took a little bit of getting used to.  It is not a city that can be explored on foot, a car is necessary at this stage, but with wide roads that were all planned by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin, it is also very easy and even pleasurable to negotiate.  A far, far cry from a European capital city!  Or even Sydney…

There are four main focal points of Canberra.  The two mountains that sit within the city, Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain, the latter of which has the Telstra Tower at the top.  You cannot miss either of these and act as good guiding points from wherever you are in Canberra and both also offer fine views of the city.  The Telstra Tower in particular, where entry is $7 for a spectacular panoramic look and to the hills and mountains that make up the ACT and bordering New South Wales beyond.  The impressive “new” Parliament Building, opened in 1988 sits on Capitol Hill in the centre of the city, with the original Parliament House in the foreground which was originally opened in 1927. It is possible to look around the latter, which has been left as it was when it was moved in 1988 but also as the most famous public building of all, it is also possible to visit and look around the current Parliament House and even sit in the public galleries of either the House of Representatives or the Senate.  Once again, witness history in the making. 

On the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, which was formed out of the deliberately flooded Molonglo River and at the end of Anzac Parade is the Australian War Memorial.  Opened in 1941, it is the national memorial to Australians who have died or participated in wars involving the Commonwealth of Australia.  It also features extensive features of all the wars from the beginning up to the present day with large interactive displays from the First and Second World Wars.  The displays are huge, and it would be easy to spend an entire day looking around – no exaggeration.  Since 2013, at 5pm each day there has been a Last Post Ceremony which involves a current service person reading the story of one of the 102,815 names who feature on the roll of honour of the monument.  A very moving and significant part of any visit to Canberra and certainly brings everything into perspective, and certainly did for us on our visit on a warm Sunday afternoon.  An absolute must do on any visit to Australia’s capital city, and it will take extra added prominence this year when the focus will be on the memorial on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

Not that Canberra is hustle and bustle, it isn’t, but if you do want to get away to see some of the scenery that surrounds the city then 45 minutes to the south-west are Gibraltar Falls.  Not only are the Falls spectacular themselves, but from the top there is a view back towards the city and Black Mountain standing tall in the distance.  There are walking tracks and picnic areas on the site, popular with those who live and work in the city.  Many Australians may also try to tell you that Canberra is quiet and has no life.  This is not true either as there are two busy areas especially close to all the sights of the city, Manuka and Braddon where the countries’ famous café culture is very prevalent and many fine restaurants that we have all now come to associate with Australia.   If you want further peace, the National Botanic Gardens on the bottom slopes of Black Mountain offer a fantastic range of the vast array of flora and fauna that Australia as a whole has to offer, from the rainforests of Queensland, to the wilderness of Tasmania, the forests of New South Wales and Victoria to a large area dedicated to the unique Outback wildlife.  Even if Botanic Gardens are not usually something you would take a look at, these are well worth a visit.  Just as with many attractions throughout Australia, entry is free. 

With festivals, events, more sporting events coming to Canberra than ever before, other museums and plenty to see and do and extra international direct flights being added to the airport it is little wonder that the Lonely Planet Guide have included it in their top ten must visit cities for 2018.  A few days or a long weekend in Canberra comes highly recommended. 

For us, Kirsty especially, it had that added significance that a great-uncle was one of those who was there right at the very start of it all.

Never let it be said that Australia does not offer history!