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Canberra: from brunch to bush walking

by Laura Gelder | 16 February 2017

“What kind of a city is this?” I shout to my friend ahead, half-grinning, half-grimacing as I weave my way through silvery gum trees in the gloaming, stamping exaggeratedly to put off the lurking brown snakes.

It’s a question that’s never answered because we pop out into a clearing and there, its little paws poised uncertainly by its muscular chest, is a red wallaby. He/she stares at us. We stare back, holding our breaths and ever so slowly reaching for our cameras in a parody of a Wild West stand-off. The wallaby considers us curiously for a few heart-stopping seconds before lolloping calmly into a thicket of trees.

This is a city – Canberra – the much-derided capital of Australia. It’s a place that tourists largely avoid and non-resident Australians seem to loath whether they’ve been there or not. My friend doesn’t need to answer my question because she knows I’m joking. Firstly, she lives there and I, unlike many other people we’ve met, wouldn’t be so rude as to insult her home. Secondly, I am genuinely a convert to this surprisingly livable city.

We are ‘nipping’ up Mount Taylor. It’s a ten-minute drive from the suburb my friend lives in and a bit of after-work exercise for her. For us English visitors and in particular me, a wannabe David Attenborough, it’s two hours of magic.

First we come across a field of yellow and white cockatoos, strutting amongst the long grass with their polls up and flittering in the last night. Further up the goat track, as we scramble through the trees we spy the red flash of a lorikeet and hear the call of many more exotic birds. After traipsing through a meadow of sunshine-coloured wild flowers we reach the top and a reception party of serious-eyed grey kangaroos.

After having a silent but, I felt, meaningful exchange with one kangaroo who stood three metres from me, ears straight and alert but relaxed on his oversized hind legs, I went to look at the view.

Far below, the city lights start to flicker on around Lake Burley-Griffin and I can see just how spread out Canberra is. Selected as a compromise capital to silence warring Sydney and Melbourne, it’s an entirely planned urban space and built for mega growth which never quite came.

Playing a game of ‘spot the person’ is harder than it sounds and walking the wide streets at certain times you could be forgiven for thinking that you were the only one that didn’t get the end of the world memo.

Canberra is often accused of being too planned, modern and therefore soulless but, as a Brit, I didn’t come to Australia for the history. I’m in it for the weird and wonderful wildlife, the endless sunshine and the effortless, enviable outdoor lifestyle.

The biggest sticking point for many is that Canberra doesn’t have a beach. But who needs one of those, I think the next day, if you can swim in a natural stone pool at the top of a waterfall. Above Gibraltar Falls, my friends and I sit in the blistering Aussie sunshine, bums on the hot, smoothed-out ancient rock, feet dangling in icy water and looking out over green, forested hills with a breeze in our hair.

Later, we head to Pine Island for another swim in the Murrumbidgee River. It’s pure Crocodile Dundee (without the crocs though, so I’m told): fluffy clouds reflected in the water and a warm, yellow-sand beach to lie on, all surrounded by bush and a soundtrack of bird song.

On the last day we cycle the full circuit of Lake Burley-Griffin - 30km of smooth, undulating track which trundles through rolling hills, woods and wetlands, as well as passing the National Museum of Australia, Parliament and the National Library.

Finally, we wheel into the city for a reward brunch, feeling slightly sweaty amongst the suits at hipster café Mocan and Green Grout. But that's the beauty of Canberra: one minute you're cycling through the bush looking for wombats; the next minute you're sipping a flat white recommended by a terrifyingly informed barista brandishing a bean menu, tucking into a plate of smashed avo with ancient grains, and wondering what it's all about.

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