Chapter 1, in which a plane is caught and a dog encountered
I do not usually panic. This is less to do with my personality or disposition than it is with my mundane and uneventful life, which usually presents me with very little to panic about. However, one day in July, as I tore frantically around my flat desperately flinging my clothes from an overloaded suitcase into an old backpack, panic was most definitely the emotion du jour. I had four hours before my plane departed, and my blasť attitude towards packing was quickly proving to be ill-conceived. My cheap Argos suitcase had objected to being crammed with 6 month's worth of my belongings in the strongest possible terms: by splitting open as soon as it was lifted up. Having decanted half the contents of the stricken suitcase into the backpack, I hoisted it around my shoulders, spastically lurching backwards as I did so. At this rate, I'd be lucky to get to the Tube station, let alone Australia.
My panic had been transferred to my housemate, probably in the same way as it is transferred between zebra in the presence of a lion. He accompanied me to the front of the flat in order to help me through the doors. That I was unable to do this of my own accord should have been a warning sign. As we stood outside saying goodbye, the front door unceremoniously slammed shut. We had both left our keys inside. Luckily, we had already entrusted the spares to a sub-letter, whom I called and apprised of the situation. This delay was not what I needed. In my mind I was now very late.
It was a hot, breezeless July day. As I got to the bottom of the driveway, stubbornly dragging my suitcase over the gravel, it dawned on me that I was severely overburdened. My arms ached and beads of sweat were already dripping down my face and soaking my shirt. By the time I'd negotiated the stairs at the station and fallen into the nearest seat on the Tube train, I was already exhausted, and still petrified that I was running dangerously late. The Tube was, as expected, even hotter than the surface. My sweat continued to pour. A dog on the train started licking my hand. This did not help lift my spirits - to be covered in one's own sweat was one thing; rancid dog saliva was quite another.
It was rush hour on the Tube and the presence of a panicked, sweaty man carrying a caravan-load of suitcases was not welcomed by the other passengers. One station was littered with staircases, each of which I approached with dread. A kind man helped me with my suitcase on one of them, as if I were an invalid mother with a pushchair full of triplets. By this point, I was too zoned out to care about any consequences this behaviour was having on my remaining dignity. By some miracle I made it to the airport, whereupon I granted my arms immediate reprieve by grabbing the first baggage trolley I could lay my hands on. I glanced at my watch and deduced that I had just about enough time to check my bags in and board the plane.
I entered the terminal building and was immediately confronted with the longest ever queue since Simon Cowell announced he was letting people punch him in the face for charity. The full length was not immediately apparent because it was split at several points to avoid blocking thoroughfares. However, as I traipsed further and further from the check-in desk at the behest of unsympathetic airport staff, my heart sank. I stood helplessly in the queue running various disaster scenarios through my head. A recurring one involved my suitcase suffering a relapse, splitting open and spilling its contents over the tarmac, as baggage handlers laughed at my hopeless fashion sense and stole my laptop.
My panicked state of mind had clearly played havoc with my sense of time, because I arrived at the gate with about thirty minutes to spare. Physically and mentally exhausted and caked in my own sweat and dog slobber, the prospect of a 27-hour stint in an aluminium tube seemed positively welcoming in light of the last 3 hours of hell. As I reached the front of the queue I presented my boarding pass to the assistant. As she scanned it, a perplexed look darted across her face. The words "NOT CHECKED IN" flashed ominously on the screen. I assured her that I was in fact checked in, although I was scarcely convinced I was, despite having the boarding pass to prove it. I wasn't even sure I was in an airport any more. I was in some crazed Kafka-esque dream state; the unwitting subject of a humourless satirisation of mindless consumerism and personal vanity. "Oh, you've been upgraded to business class, Mr Nattress," she revealed with a smile. I smiled back, meekly. Of course. Business class. This is definitely a dream now, I thought. Down the rabbit hole I go.
Chapter 2, in which Canberra is arrived in and slandered relentlessly
It was a cold, drizzly morning in Sydney as I emerged into the fresh air for the first time in 24 hours. The mist which had caused my plane to circle impotently for an hour before it could land still clung to the ground in patches. The sky was grey and unwelcoming. I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed by such a disappointing meteorological fanfare. I wondered, in a sleep deprived trance, if the entirety of Australia was afflicted with such depressing weather, and if all evidence to the contrary was just part of an elaborate scam to fool tourists.
The moisture in the air easily compensated for the cold. My skin quickly rehydrated like an ancient parched sponge being dropped in a bath. The reprieve was temporary, however, as I was merely passing between terminals, checking in at Qantas Domestic for the final hop to Canberra. The Qantas lady greeted me in the sincerely friendly way that we've come to expect of Australians, presumably from prolonged exposure to Neighbours. Maybe it's not all a scam, I decided magnanimously. At that moment it dawned on me that I had been 36 hours without a shower or even as much as a well-aimed blast of deodorant. At my best estimate, my current state of personal hygiene was somewhere on the scale between repugnant tramp and rotting dog carcass. However, there was not much I could do about it.
"Oh dear," she said in a cheery but slightly pitiful tone after examining my ticket, "you're not going straight to Canberra are you?"
I replied in the affirmative. "Is it that bad?"
She paused for a second. "Well, not really... it's just... well you simply have to see Sydney. And Melbourne. Canberra might not give you the best impression of Australia. I mean, it's fine. My boyfriend lives there so I'm there a lot. Just promise me you'll come back to Sydney."
Slightly alarmed, I assured her that I certainly would. In an act of charity, either based on my woeful destination or roadkill-like odour, she waived the excess baggage charge and bundled me onto a bus to the terminal building.
It turned out the nice Qantas lady had also generously seated me in the emergency exit window seat. The only drawback to being in this seat was that, as I stowed my hand luggage, I had to essentially rub my pungent crotch in the nose of the attractive girl who was in the adjacent aisle seat. This was certainly an unpleasant experience for both parties, and all I can do is apologise to the girl now, fruitlessly, and hope it didn't inflict any lasting trauma.
Once seated, I was asked if I was physically capable of pulling the emergency door open and chucking it clear of the burning fuselage. For a second I stared blankly at the steward, contemplating the real answer ("no") before settling on a convenient lie ("yes"). He did his safety spiel to the plane, which culminated with the phrase "and I suggest you run like hell!" This was greeted with appropriate levity from the passengers. My first slice of the Aussie sense of humour, I thought to myself excitedly. I turned my attention to the wing of the plane, suspended at least fifteen meters above the ground. All jokes aside, you wouldn't be doing much running after dropping that distance onto concrete.
Sydney was bright and sunny by the time the plane took off. I gazed down to see the harbour bridge, and fancied that I could just make out the roof of the Opera House, peeking out of the remaining mist like Janet Jackson's nipple during a wardrobe malfunction. The plane headed south to Canberra, affording me a proper look at the Australian outback. It was a sea of brown, interspersed with some brown hills for a bit of variety. The plane started its descent, plunging us into a thicket of grey clouds. It was raining in Canberra.
Looking back at my Twitter feed from the time, my first reaction to Canberra was thus: "Imagine Woking. Now imagine it's twice the size and in the southern hemisphere. Congratulations, you just imagined Canberra." This tweet was sent as I ambled around the town centre, showered but still sleep-deprived, in search of an eatery. At that point I'd have settled for a sign of civilisation. It was a Saturday afternoon and the place was practically deserted. As I sent my 140 character missive, I acknowledged that I was probably being highly unfair. After all, I'd only just arrived. Now, with the clarity of hindsight, I do regret sending that tweet. It was incredibly unfair to Woking.
Now, I wasn't completely unprepared for Canberra being such a gaping void of nothing. I'd looked at its Wikipedia entry, which didn't exactly say "Canberra is shit," but I could read between the lines. Back in the UK, I'd also mentioned my pending visit to an Aussie expat and a Kiwi who'd lived in Australia. They both reacted exactly like the Qantas lady at the check-in desk. I think they must have held back a bit to avoid putting me off. Even my boss, an eternal optimist, hadn't exactly sung its praises. "It's two hours from the beach and two hours from the ski slopes," he'd enthused. This sentiment was repeated verbatim by most Canberrans I spoke to on arrival. The consensus seemed to be that Canberra was acceptable because it was very easy to leave.
Walking around the town (and it really is a town, so if anyone asks you what Australia's capital city is, you can tell them it doesn't have one), one might rightly wonder what possessed the newly federated Australia, a country practically overrunning with golden, sandy beaches, to place its capital 100 miles inland in the middle of some desolate bush. I believe there is some historical reason around an ongoing feud between Melbourne and Sydney, who childishly failed to choose between themselves, so Canberra was conceived as a compromise. And it feels exactly like that: a compromise. Without the harbourside splendour of Sydney or the cultural richness of Melbourne, it sits awkwardly between the two, existing purely as a destination for the country's politicians to come and belittle each other every so often.
Canberra is, by virtue of its origins, a planned city. I find this amusing. Planning a city like Canberra is like planning where you're going to take a dump when you're out walking in the countryside. Designed for cars, which amazingly Australia had heard about in the fifties, it does not accommodate seasoned pedestrians who might be used to more urban environments. The alternative for the carless tourist is a meagre bus system, which I believe to be staffed almost exclusively by sex offenders. Seriously, an alarming amount of them have big bushy paedo-beards and they all wear shorts, even in winter.
Ah yes. Winter. In addition to its geographical shortcomings, Canberra experiences some of the coldest weather of any sizeable Australian settlement. At the time of my arrival winter was coming to a close, and four months later, it still is. The temperature varies wildly, barely above freezing one day and twenty degrees the next. As I staggered back to my hotel wiping the residue of a footlong Subway off my face, it was the former. I'd seen enough for one day. I clambered wearily into my bed at 3pm, planning on having a quick snooze. Fifteen hours later, I woke up to see the same dull, grey sky staring back at me. I was not enamoured with Canberra.
But fear not, dear reader, for Australia is a big place. In part 2 of my epic hypertext scrawling, I visit a city which has people in it (Sydney), talk to some of the natives, and even see a kangaroo. Oh yes, there's plenty of excitement still to come, so tune in next time for more of my Antipodean dispatches. They'll be up whenever I'm bored enough to write them which, knowing Canberra, should be very soon indeed.
© The Natflap 2005 - 2013.