2 January 2002 to April 2002

29 January 2002 to 2 February 2002

A number of people had said that Canberra was a waste of time so we went more out of a feeling of ‘should’ than with any anticipation. We went for two days and stayed for four. The city is nothing much, but the national museums were of first class standard and all were well worthwhile. Except for special exhibits, they were also free,

We were fortunate that we stayed at a caravan park, Canberra Motor Lodge, that was within walking distance to a bus service that went into town and also stopped at all the museums we needed. Canberra, between arch rivals Sydney and Melbourne is totally planned, including an artificial lake, Lake Burley Griffin, with its landmark fountain, in the heart of the city. Most of the national buildings are either on the lake or face it.

Our favorite lunch is fish and chips. This time it was a little unusual as we had the popular flake fish – shark. Well fortified, we could explore the national treasures. The most exciting exhibition was 'Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries' at the National Library.  It was exceptional, not that you can’t find these exhibits scattered around libraries all over the world, but rather being able to view them, all together at the same time. They were all original documents, central to the history of civilization. For me the most moving exhibit was a Gutenberg Bible, in Latin, containing 1,282 pages in two volumes. It is a huge book, one of the twenty original copies that is complete. It was the first book printed, using movable typeface. Illuminations were added by hand. They say that its impact (ten million books printed within 50 years) was far greater than the impact of websites. On view was the first book in English printed about 25 years later by Caxton (The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye), and also Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. We saw a manuscript of Shelley’s Ozymandias, manuscripts of Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem, Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Paterson, a letter by Florence Nightingale to a bereaved mother wanting details about her son, and a Mameluke Quran, to mention just a few.  There is a letter by Charles Darwin, recently returned from Galapagos questioning the immutability of the species and folios of his manuscript – he and his daughter had a habit of giving odd leaves to family and friends and their children used the reverse sides as drawing paper. Other jewels were a draft of Martin Luther’s last speech, Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, a list of mutineers written aboard the HMS Bounty by William Bligh himself and James Cook’s journal of the HMS Endeavour. Of course there was a Dead Sea Scroll (Deuteronomy) and a manuscript, E=mc2: the Most Urgent Problem of Our Time by Einstein, written for Science Illustrated in 1946 and lent by our Hebrew University. There were more than 150 exhibits and you can read about them and see the wonderful online exhibition at

The Museum of Australia, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, is a new museum grappling with the issues of who and what is Australia through aspects of land, nation and people. The building itself is innovative and reflects an Aboriginal-dreaming map.
With the great Sydney fire fresh in our minds, it was interesting to read about the use of controlled fire by aborigines to burn the undergrowth in order to flush out animals for food and also to limit big fires. The British, who cut down and then burnt the forests for grazing, were against the aborigine way. This resulted in a number of horrific great fires.
It seems that no country is free from inequality and prejudice. The museum deals courageously with injustices committed against the aborigines. Segregation, night curfews, and removal of children from their parents are just a few things to which they were subjected. They were given equal rights only in 1967 and only later were their rights to land recognized.
When the British first arrived, Australia was declared terra nullius, uninhabited; because they had no permanent structures the aborigines were considered a new arrival (and not the 60,000 years as we know today). This was very convenient - so that the land didn’t belong to them and was free for the taking. This was rectified only ten years ago when land ownership by aborigines prior to European settlement was established.

At the National Gallery a guided tour of Aboriginal Art was most illuminating. Aboriginal art is very regional – so different areas, sea, estuary, river, or desert use different materials and decorations. It’s like a map: when you first look it is very colorful but only when you look at the details – and know the key- can you begin to understand the representations. In addition there is a group of urban artists who paint in western tradition. Their art is a protest against injustices to their people and although beautiful the messages are disturbing.  Part of one painting depicted a segregated movie theatre. An elderly man on the tour who came from the north said he remembered barbed wire separating seats between whites and aborigines. When I expressed amazement and told of my South African connection he said that SA had initially learnt from the Australians about segregation laws. Apartheid was universally condemned and without trying to justify it in the slightest way I wonder what would have happened if the land had been smaller and the number of aborigines larger – SA? Israel?

We learnt about Sport and Social Clubs in Canberra. On one day we were given honorary membership to two clubs – Tradesmen’s Union Club and the Ainslee Football Club. The first was to see an exhibition of bicycles and the second to have dinner. At both clubs we were signed in as overseas visitors, following which entrance was free. They both had coffee shops, restaurants and bars, raffles of meat and other things announced for members and, most important of all, poker slot machines. The Clubs are a means of  circumventing liquor and gambling laws. We later learnt that in New South Wales 25% of the state’s income is from poker slot machines.
As befits a visit to a bicycle museum, we went there on our bicycles. After having a photo taken on a pennyfarthing we continued on our bicycles to Lake Burley Griffin and rode the 35 kilometers around its perimeter.

We stopped at the carillon tower, to hear the daily concert. By chance we joined a tour and first viewed the open platform to look at the 53 bronze bells – from 2 kilos to a few tons – where we met Suzanne Magassy, the carillonist. She is one of six who take turns to play. The bells are joined by wires to a clavier, a piano-like instrument, with 53 rounded levers corresponding to the white and black keys. The lower notes are duplicated with pedals because the clappers are so large (they move and not the bells) and are extremely heavy to move. Unlike a piano, you can play the bells with either your hands or feet or (usually) both. Bells don’t become out of tune although pollution can cause the metal to degrade and that affects the sound. On each bell there is only a very small surface that gives the true sound. The carillonist strikes the rounded wooden handles with her clenched fist, varying the loudness of each note by either striking down forcibly or slowly pushing it down and then striking.  Because the carillon was out on the lake and not part of a church we heard Bach, Memories, Mozart and Beatles Yesterday. At my request she even played Rock Around the Clock that had us dancing. We wonder what the people outside thought of that one! It was great fun and terrifically interesting. And quite by chance; they certainly don’t advertise well enough.

After riding around the lake I continued to the Botanical Gardens. Although I had wanted to see 700 types of eucalyptus trees, I only saw about 20 different types, including one, bloodwood that has sap that looks exactly like blood. We first met banksias in New Zealand and called them people trees because of their funny seeds. Obviously we weren’t the only people to think so, because when I happened to look up at one tree I burst out laughing – a banksia with big eyes. It took me many minutes to decide whether this was how the seeds split or a prank. There were also many different kinds of acacias, some low growing and spreading. ( )

We left Canberra and made our way back to the coast, on our way to Sydney.

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