Forget about culture and sophistication: I'll settle for gum trees, wombats and cockatoos

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The Independent Travel
If a scattering of buildings in a leafy valley can qualify as a city, then Canberra probably qualifies. Otherwise the capital of Australia may simply have to rank as a rather beautiful park instead.

I am amazed by this place. How can a 1913 vision of the future have turned out to be right? How did the city designer back then, Walter Burley Griffin, avoid sowing the seeds for some awful concrete jungle of the 21st century?

You can scoff at the very notion of a planned city, but instead of traffic jams, road rage or squalid lines of shops, the Canberrans make do with shady lawns and avenues of gum trees and flowering shrubs.

Driving here over the mountains from the coast, I was not aware that I had entered a city at all until I saw a sign telling me that I had reached the centre. I pushed foliage aside in search of tarmac and concrete, and saw exotic birds swooping about in pine trees. Where were the traffic jams? Where were the men in suits? (People in shorts and sandals didn't count.) Such highways as there were appeared to be for decoration only, to maintain the pretence that this was some sort of metropolis. I kept expecting to discover the skeleton in Canberra's cupboard - some hideous shopping mall or commercial development - but instead I kept seeing cool lakes and rings of blue mountains through the heat haze.

It is hard not to be shaken by a fear that the people of Canberra know something important about life that we don't. Deep in the undergrowth one encounters small clusters of Australians in sunglasses, sitting at outdoor tables drinking chardonnay. The background noise is not of cars but of crickets and hot winds swooshing in the leaves. Flaking bark crackles underfoot. The scent of gum resin and dry herbs fills the air. Ants with their sandy mounds have had more impact on this environment than human beings with their none-too-much concrete and steel.

Traditionally people have laughed at Canberra for lacking culture or vibrancy. It is a dull city of bureaucrats and administrators, they say, not a living city of artists or creative people. And I admit that I do not recall hearing of many tourists going out of their way to travel here from more sophisticated cities such as Sydney or Melbourne. Why would they? Why drive for several hours to a mere park in search of, say, arts or popular entertainment?

Perhaps the answer is that people do not need arts and popular entertainment when they have grasshoppers with yellow wings skimming their lawns, or sulphur-crested cockatoos on their verandas, or wombats snuffling outside their back doors, or peach trees shedding fruit in their swimming-pools. In fact I suspect that Canberra needs arts and entertainment about as much as it needs traffic jams and road rage.

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