Seeing the world, one country at the time

Leaving Sydney for the ANZAC Dawn Service in Canberra


We don’t make it out of Sydney until ten at night, which is such a mistake. Fatigue has kicked in and Lars isn’t used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road or having to change gears with his left hand. I tell him “do whatever feels wrong and you will be right”. He struggles for an hour and we rest, then continue for another hour and rest and so on. We have a deadline to be in Canberra, Australia’s capital, before dawn, for the ANZAC dawn service. All we know is that it takes place by the war memorial and that it’s easy to get lost in Canberra, because the city is a maze of roundabouts.

As we drive, we enter a sign stating “Welcome to Waverly Shire” and I remind Lars that shires are not only in The Lord of the Rings. Still, the word evokes rolling green hills and hobbits. We pass Goulburn, “the First Inland city” and sign upon sign reminding us to “stop, revive, survive”. Getting sleepy people off of the roads is an obsession with the Aussies, and with good reason. The distances are far too long, the towns few and far between. and the road-crossing wallabies and bandicoots far too numerous. It’s a recipe for disaster. Wombat and kangaroo warning signs appear regularly and I secretly fantasize about swiping one to hang in my house. But then some poor unsuspecting sap wouldn’t know that he was about to enter kangaroo country and surprise one with his SUV. So for the sake of the kangaroo’s survival, I leave the signs where they are.
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The names in Australia are colorful and entertaining. I amuse myself by trying to pronounce them, or by wondering what their source was: Abattoir, and Collector, pop. 150, with its own B&B and gas station. Then there are the countless aboriginal names, to honor their culture: Currawong, Wagga Wagga, Wollongong, Jerrabomberra, Tuggeranong, Jindabyne. A mileage sign reads “Bemboka, Bombola and Bega”. Bega, on the coast, is known for its cheese. Bemboka, unbeknownst to us at this time, will become our favorite city. We vote Bemboka Australia’s friendliest town. This is a big deal in Australia, it seems .We keep passing signs recording the year a town was voted friendliest, or tidiest. There must be a whole committee for these competitions.

We arrive in Canberra in the dark by following the flow of traffic and are suddenly met by lines of parked cars among trees and along roads and a massive movement of people, their breath white on the black air, walking leadenly like zombies who are coming out of the mist and walking toward the light. We join their ranks and are suddenly upon the large gray mausoleum-like War Memorial. People standing at booths offer red poppies, programs and lighted candles. The candles have a warm glow so I take one of everything and follow the flames to the main stairs, where the participants are milling about preparing. In the US everything would be cordoned off. You could never get that close to military personnel on such an auspicious occasion. Thousands of candles flicker in the pre-dawn sky and cockatoos fly overhead creating a cacophonous racket. The candle offers a bit of comfort on this bitterly cold morning. Lars and I are only barely dressed for the cold, but thanks to Felicity’s insistence that the south is colder we had taken her up on her offer of warm clothes.

During the ceremony, the bugle player plays twice, a haunting melody and reveille. The men’s choir sings with the military orchestra and several men give speeches or lay wreaths at the altar. We all sing
“Can you hear Australia's heroes marching?
Can you hear them as they march into eternity?
There will never be a greater love
There just couldn't be a greater sacrifice
There just couldn't be
Can you hear Australia's heroes marching?
The ones who fought and gave their all
Can you hear Australia's heroes marching?
They're marching once again
Across our great land”

We stand next to very friendly people (before realizing that most Australians are) and we are approached by Sally, who has so many ideas for what we can do and where we can go. She should know, as she’s been everywhere. We tell her about our trip which she thinks is great, though as for herself, she thought she should see Australia before she went abroad. With that attitude she is rare among her countrymen. It’s a great one though, because too often Australians spend a year or two abroad and never take the time to discover the riches of their own island nation. What does the song say?

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We've golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in Nature's gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history's page, let every stage
Advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing,
"Advance Australia fair!"

We follow the crowds after the ceremony to the War Memorial, filing silently through in throngs to pay homage to the fallen. There is a somber air. The atmosphere is only lit up by candles and the bright red poppies being left behind by passersby. The red is at once the blood of the fallen, their passion in fighting for their country or crown and life. The dark walls are covered in the names of the soldiers who didn’t make it home. Parents are proudly pointing out ancestors to their children. A bugle sounds, then drums. Soldiers file in, walking to the main mausoleum. We follow them and find there the tomb of the unknown soldiers guarded by a member of each of the four branches of the armed forces standing at attention. It is good to be a part of this and to see such support of the armed forces, not because of what they are, but because of who they are.
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We drive to the neighborhood of Kingston for breakfast before doing a tour of the old and new parliament buildings, from the outside. The old one houses a portrait gallery, but aesthetically, I hope its inside is better than its outside. Canberra isn’t architecturally beautiful or impressive, in general. Here is a city that was planned and built in the last 50 years and it lacks any historical charm. The city is all parks, roundabouts and very simple, modern buildings. The setting is lovely, among parks and lakes, but that’s it. The new parliament building looks like a radio tower. Autumn has arrived here and the leaves are turning. We missed fall in the US before leaving, so it feels comforting to see the golds and reds and somehow that makes the cold all that more acceptable.

We have heard that when you go to Canberra you literally drive around in circles, because half the roads are attached to a roundabout. We don’t want to miss out on the experience, so we make sure we got lost on the way from the parliament buildings to the freeway that will take us out. This ensures that we see the parliament buildings at least twice as we circle around, cross and re-cross Lake George. The landscape outside of Canberra is dry like northern California or like eastern Washington. Next to a cattle auction, we pass a herd of grazing cows on a hillside and I wonder why they are standing so still in symmetric formation. They are fakes, wooden boards. Now I wonder, does the rancher want to look more prosperous than he is?