The Royal Australian Mint

Canberra is not just the seat of Australia’s Federal Government and the repository for its national treasures, it’s also the source of the stuff that makes the world (here in Australia anyway) go round – money!

Titan the Robot at work in the Royal Australian Mint
Titan the Robot at work in the Royal Australian Mint

The Royal Australian Mint, in the quiet Canberra suburb of Deakin has been turning out Aussie dollars and cents, along with medals, medallions, tokens and seals since 1965.

I must confess, I was expecting case after glass case of coin collections, endless conveyor belts charged with little pieces of metal and lengthy, technical explanations of the minting process. But, although does have coin collections, conveyor belts and lectures, the Royal Mint is a truly fascinating place to visit.

The history of Australia’s currency is told through a DVD in the theatrette. There displays of coins both ordinary and rare, including the famous 1930 penny in the mint’s display room along with fascinating little anecdotes of fraud and forgery and equally fascinating examples of counterfeit money.

From elevated walkways with glass walls, you can watch the whole coin production process,  from the engraving room to the final workshop where a tireless robot, called Titan, tips all the finished coins into bins ready for distribution.

The Royal Australian Mint is packed with entertaining and interesting surprises. Adults and kids alike love it!

The National Museum of Australia

The big, bold, bright and angular National Museum of Australia sits on the edge of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. It breaks the balance of Walter Burley Griffin’s art deco city, the decorous white of the New Parliament building and the muted green of the landscape with its unruly lines. From a distance it’s an attention-grabbing architectural interloper. Up close, from outside it’s overwhelming. Inside it’s magical.

In the Garden of Australian Dreams
In the Garden of Australian Dreams

You can dip into the past and find fascinating (and minute) details like the origin of the “furphy”.  You can dance through the present (literally) following the moves of young aboriginal dancers. You can design your own space-craft, don three-d glasses and watch it negotiate the 22nd century freeways in K Space’s theatrette.

But the best and most beautiful space at the National Museum is the garden Of Australian Dreams. The gallery brochure describes it as a “rich landscape of symbols and meanings drawn from Australian life”

A giant map spreads across the surface of the garden and under the Museum building, bringing together the conventional map of Australia as well maps of aboriginal boundaries, vegetation,  geology, roads and electorates.  The broad yellow line which intersects the area, represents the line devised by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 to divide the globe into Portuguese and Spanish territories.  Red and white poles represent the way that the early surveyors read the Australian landscape. A walk-in camera obsura helps you to interpret the garden. The bush is represented by a stand of gums. The rudimentary white “Dream House” represents the built environment of Australia. The gnome perched on a ledge on the “Dream House” represents the “Antipodean” that Europeans of the Middle Ages imagined lived in the mythical land down under.

Always available to guide you and answer any questions on the National Museum of Australia, is a large, well informed, endlessly gracious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual retinue of guides.

The High Court of Australia

The High Court of Australia is a building where the form truly reflects the function. It is 40 metres tall with a façade of gleaming white concrete and great inscrutable glass panels. It is a building which speaks of power and authority. And well it might. This is the place where, legally speaking, the buck stops.

Inside the High Court of Australia
Inside the High Court of Australia

The High Court of Australia is the highest court in the Australian judicial system. Here, the law of Australia is interpreted and applied; cases of special federal significance, including challenges to the constitutional validity of laws, are decided; and appeals, by special leave, from federal, state and territory courts are heard.

Seven Justices, including, and headed by a Chief Justice, preside over its three courtrooms. Each courtroom is quite different, both in style and purpose.

Courtroom One is large and lavish; it is furnished and panelled in native timbers, with symbolically adorned doors. Past justices gaze stonily down from portraits on the walls. The most striking piece in this courtroom, and possibly in all three, is the magnificent tapestry banner, showing the badges of the states and the crest of the Commonwealth. Courtroom One is used on ceremonial occasions and when the full bench of seven justices are required to sit.

Courtroom Two is generally used when a bench of five justices is sitting. Applications for leave to appeal by video-link are also heard in this plain unassuming room.

Courtroom Three is furnished with coachwood timber and flooded with light from a glass ceiling.  Matters here are generally heard by a single justice. It was in Courtroom Three that the Mabo case was heard and a portrait on the wall shows the presiding Justice holding the Mabo settlement document in his hand.

In addition to the three courtrooms, the High Court of Australia has an administrative wing, an area for the Justices and a large, stunning public hall.

Canberra’s old Parliament House

Before the New Parliament House there was the Old Parliament House.

Old Parliament House, Canberra, Travelstripe
Old Parliament House, Canberra, Travelstripe

Designed by John Smith Murdoch, the Old Parliament House is an example of the “stripped” Classical style of architecture  – symmetrical and balanced but without flourishes like pillars and pediments – which was commonly used for government buildings in Canberra during the 1920s and 1930s. It began operation on 9 May 1927, as a temporary base for the Commonwealth Parliament after its relocation from Melbourne to the new capital. It served for sixty one years, until finally, in 1988, the New Parliament House was opened.

These days Old Parliament House is home to the Museum of Australian Democracy – one of the country’s most fascinating museums.

The building itself is a monument to its era, with frosted glass panes in doors, wooden signs with gold lettering ghosted in green and pointing gloved hands, of dark, narrow wood-panelled corridors and the faint, but unmistakable, scent of a time when smoking indoors was  perfectly fine. Clichés like “if only these walls could talk” spring readily to mind.

Our group was greeted at the front door by a guide and taken to a spacious ground floor room, once probably some kind of common room or café but now a bright, light-filled classroom. The thirty students were divided into groups and each was given a coloured box. Inside each box were descriptions of the roles they were to play in an enactment of the landmark debate on the Franklin Dam issue. There were rudimentary costumes, scripts and artefacts like letters, newspaper articles and banners.

Once hydro workers, protesters, representatives from the tourist industry, police and politicians were “in character” it was off to the House of Representatives to debate the issue. The rest as they say is history!

Canberra’s new parliament house

Undoubtedly, the centre point of Canberra is the new Parliament House. All roads, paths, parks and even the lake seem to lead to it, point to it, highlight it or underscore it. There is truly, no missing it.  It’s a striking building, by anyone’s standards – a sprawling white stone mass, semi-submerged in a rolling green lawn with great, gleaming metal flagpole at its apex.

New Parliament House
New Parliament House

Parliament was not in session at the time of our tour, so the place was ours to explore and enjoy.  Our wonderful Education Officer/ Guide made certain that we didn’t miss anything and that we felt truly at home there, stressing that the New Parliament Building and indeed, the whole of Canberra, belongs to all Australians.

We began our inspection of our new Parliament House in the Great Hall, where we stood in silent admiration of the beautiful and enormous tapestry that fills the far wall. Then followed a long, long walk through narrow corridors running north, south, east and west, past closed doors and past portraits of familiar political faces past and present. Occasional banks of windows gave glimpses of quiet green courtyards below. We crammed into a lift and burst out onto the roof under the flagpole. It rose above us like a giant tripod, its pointed end lost in wisps of cloud. From here the roof-top lawn seems made for roly-poly but better games await us in the chambers below.

In the House of Representatives, my 30 twelve-year-old travelling companions dress up and enact a parliamentary debate “Should ads be shown during kids TV programmes?” They follow the protocols of parliament really well and they read their scripted lines with conviction. They put an end to advertising during kids TV shows. But the truth is they’re far too polite, well-behaved and downright decent to be convincing as Australian Members of Parliament!


The Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial is a mighty stone edifice which stands on the upper slope of the hill at the outer edge of the “civilisation” or town side of Canberra.  It looks down a broad avenue, lined with monuments, across the lake to the new Parliament building.

The statue of Weary Dunlop at the Australian War Memorial
The statue of Weary Dunlop at the Australian War Memorial

There is a suggestion of the Parisian Champs de Mars in the avenue and a hint of Les Invalides in the memorial itself but it has a different and uniquely Australian translation. A statue of Australia’s own World War Two hero Weary Dunlop stands, not as uniformed young digger, nor as a decorated ex-serviceman, but as an old man in crumpled suit with a red cloth poppy tucked into his stone buttonhole.

Inside, the Memorial the stories of Australia’s Wars,  from the clash with the Boers in South Africa to the Vietnam involvement, are told in a variety of ways that make the hardship, the horror and the tragedy that is common to them all, impossible to forget.

There are galleries of dioramas, storyboards, photographs, weapons, uniforms and memorabilia.  The Discovery Zone offers a Hands-on, see it touch it smell it, play on it experience. In a great sensurround hangar you are literally immersed in battle – stand on a platform and watch an air raid on a city below, or sit on the ground and watch a dog-fight in the air above.

The Hall of Valour honours the heroes of war. The Walk of Remembrance, lined on both sides with endless ranks of names, honours those who sacrificed their lives.

The Australian War Memorial is more than a war museum, it’s admonishment to peace.


The story of Canberra uncovered at the National Capital Exhibition Centre

Atop Canberra’s Regatta Point, overlooking Lake Burley-Griffin, sits the National Capital Exhibition Centre, which tells, through a series of brilliant interactive displays, the story of the people, events, history and the design which contributed to the development of Australia’s capital city. Most importantly, it highlights Canberra’s vital role as a symbol of Federation.

A view of Canberra
A view of Canberra

Archaeological evidence, including rock shelters, rock paintings and engravings, burial places, camp and quarry sites, as well as stone tools, suggests that the region was inhabited by humans for at least 21,000 years – which makes Tokyo, London, Paris, Rome and even Athens look like youngsters! The original people went by a number of names including Kgamberry and Kamberra.

White settlement in the area began in 1824, when Joshua Moore established a homestead and station which he named Canberra. The Campbell clan, led by patriarch Robert Campbell settled soon after and built a mansion which they named Duntroon. Today the Royal Military College is located on the old Campbell station and the original Duntroon mansion is home to the Officers’ Mess.

Canberra, as the world knows it, was born in 1908, when it was chosen as the site for the capital of the new Federation of Australia. In 1910, the Australian Capital Territory was established and in 1911 a competition was held to select a design for the new capital city. The winning plan was devised by John Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin, although poor Marion received no recognition, at the time, for her work which included all the absolutely exquisite drawings.

The Griffins proposed a city divided into two halves, separated by a lake. On one side of the lake would lie the civilisation section – the town, shops, schools and houses. On the other would lie the government section – the Parliament buildings, courts and administrative buildings.

With the construction of the new capital city underway, it remained only to find a suitable name. There were some strange suggestions, including Olympus, Paradise, Captain Cook, Shakespeare, Kangaremu, Sydmeladperho, Eucalypta and Myola. The name Canberra, which means, in the language of the original people, “meeting place” was eventually chosen.

At midday on 12 March 1913, the name was officially conferred by Lady Gertrude Denman, wife of the then Governor-General, Lord Denman, at a ceremony on Kurrajong Hill (now known as Capitol Hill. The event has been commemorated every year, ever since, as Canberra Day, on the second Monday of March.

The National Exhibition Centre gives a wonderful introduction to this place called Canberra. You can uncover the story of the original people of the land and learn the importance and significance of the local Bogong moth to their way of life. You can browse among photos of the first white settlers, and explore models of their homes and displays of their chattels. You follow the story of federation and the quest for the new national capital. You can study the Griffins’ prize-winning designs. You can enjoy the sound and light show at the scale model of central Canberra.  But best of all, from the huge front window you can enjoy a dress-circle view across the lake, taking in the spectacular dance of the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, to the Government section of this unique modern, fully planned city.

Canberra – London? Paris? Rome? Athens? Tokyo?

London! Paris! Rome! Athens! Tokyo! … Canberra?

Canberra  doesn’t quite fit with that line up of big names does it? Yet, it has more in common with these cities than meets the eye – apart from the obvious fact that they are all, of course, capitals of their countries.

The Tower on Parliament House
The Tower on Parliament House

I was fare welled with a few raised eyebrows and more than a few expressions of heartfelt sympathy when I set off last March, with thirty twelve-year-olds, to learn all about the engine room of the Australian nation and to discover what makes Canberra one of the world’s great cities.

We began our tour with a drive through Yarralumia, the embassy precinct. It was a good place to start because, in the matter of embassies, Canberra has quite outshone its sister capitals. Generally, in any country, embassies are grand establishments, but generally, they’re only distinguishable by a fluttering foreign flag or a coat of arms. In Canberra, however, each embassy building reflects the unique architectural style of its country; there’s the Chinese Embassy’s grand pagoda, the long house of Papua New Guinea, the rambling Georgian mansion of the USA, the Cape Dutch style of the South African High Commission and the strikingly beautiful edifice where the representatives of Thailand reside. Disappointingly, Aotearoa New Zealand seems to have drawn its inspiration from a drab 1970s office block in downtown Dunedin! Shame! Still, it doesn’t detract from the whole world of architecture and the line-up of glittering internationals in the winding, leafy streets of Yarralumia.

Canberra! London? Paris? Rome? Athens? Tokyo?

Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges

Strathbogie Ranges
Strathbogie Ranges

I must confess I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Strathbogie Ranges, in Victoria, Australia, if I hadn’t been a conscript to a school camp – a late conscript.

Once I’d adjusted to the idea of five days in the wilderness with forty something Year 8 girls, I began to consider the possibilities – hiking, camping, abseiling and mountain biking in the outback, kayaking on a peaceful lake. It sounded better and better.

A week later, tramping along a rough bush track, breathing in the heady scent of eucalypts, with the cackle of a kookaburra ringing through the trees, swinging from a rope down the face of a giant boulder, paddling in a kayak through an avenue of semi-submerged ghost gums on a mirror-smooth lake and finally falling asleep under a star-studded night sky, I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t missed it.


Untamed Australia in Melbourne’s Studley Park

Trapped in Melbourne, longing for the wilderness? Stuck in the burbs, dreaming of billabongs? Confined to your office, pining for the bush?  Shackled to your laptop, grappling with your inner Clancy? Don’t despair; the outback is closer than you think.

The Yarra River, Studley Park, Melbourne
The Yarra River, Studley Park, Melbourne

Just ten kilometres from the CBD, lies Melbourne’s own slice of untamed Australia – Studley Park. It rambles through stands of ancient gums and scrubby bush, over hills of unruly grass, along steep, rocky bluffs, all the way down from Kew to Collingwood and across from Abbotsford to the Eastern Freeway. The Yarra River winds through it, slow and lazy for the most part, but breaking into rapids, tumbling down Dights Falls and spreading into a billabong. From the flat, grassy banks, there is no trace of the modern world. The view is from ancient times, when the Wurrundgeri people fished from the banks while their children swam in the shallows. The only sign of the nearby city is the hum of traffic on the freeway. It is punctuated by the calls of the native birds which refuge in the bush. Here, and in many other parts of the park, you are alone, in the remote and timeless bush.

But Studley Park isn’t just a wilderness – a retreat for the solitary refugee from the big smoke. For the sportsperson, a picturesque, if somewhat rugged golf course spills across the hills through the trees; there’s a cricket ground; bike and walking tracks snake along beside the river where kayakers and canoeists ride the currents. For the gourmet, the extremely popular Studley Park Boathouse restaurant and café offers fabulous food with wide-angled views of the river and the bush. At the historic Abbotsford Convent, a grand gothic building set in tranquil gardens, the Bakery Café, Lentil as Anything restaurant and the Boiler Room bar, please a range of palates and pockets. There are barbeques and picnic spots for those who like to do it themselves. For those with a bucolic bent and most particularly for the kids, there’s the Collingwood Children’s Farm, where you can fill your nostrils with the pungent smell of manure, watch pigs, chooks and peacocks potter and strut, feed the goats, see the cow being milked, cuddle some very accommodating cats, wander among the vege patches and fruit trees and even ride a pony.  There is something here, in this beautiful bush setting, for everyone.