Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre

Last week I wrote my fifth “Let’s get physical” post, and chose Adelaide because visiting there was bookending our trip last week to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. You’ll understand, therefore, why I’ve chosen the subject I have for this week!

Lake Eyre was named for explorer Edward John Eyre, the first European to see it in 1840, but in 2012 its official name was changed to combine its English name with its indigenous one, Kati Thanda. This recognition of indigenous place names is happening around Australia and is so important – not only to help reconciliation, but because these names mean something to the land we live in. 

Lake Eyre aerial view

Lake Eyre Basin aerial view, 2016

Lake Eyre, for my non-Australian readers, is a large shallow lake in remote and very dry South Australia, approximately 700 km north of Adelaide. It contains Australia’s lowest natural point, around 15 m (49 ft) below sea level. When it fills, albeit this is a rare event, it is also Australia’s largest lake.

There are many stories associated with the lake – indigenous ones, of course, and settler ones. It was the subject of intense exploration in Australia’s early colonial days – by those looking for an inland sea – and was where major land speed record attempts were made in the mid 1960s. Importantly, native title over it was granted to the local Arabana people in 2012. There are some tensions, particularly regarding water activities, between the indigenous desire to respect its sacredness and its role as a tourist destination.

Early reports

The first person to write about the lake was Eyre. His writings, Journals of expeditions of discovery into Central Australia and overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound in the years 1840-1, were published in England in 1845. They can now be read at Project Gutenberg Australia. Here he is writing about the region – very dry one day and then rain the next:

Lake Eyre, aerial viewyre Ba

Lake Eyre Basin aerial view, after 2016 rains

In passing through the plains, which were yesterday so arid and dry, I found immense pools, nay almost large reaches of water lodged in the hollows, and in which boats might have floated. Such was the result of only an hour or two’s rain, whilst the ground itself, formerly so hard, was soft and boggy in the extreme, rendering progress much slower and more fatiguing to the horses than it otherwise would have been. (August 31, 1840)

Crossing many little stony ridges, and passing the channel of several watercourses, I discovered a new and still more disheartening feature in the country, the existence of brine springs. Hitherto we had found brackish and occasionally salt water in some of the watercourses, but by tracing them up among the hills, we had usually found the quality to improve as we advanced, but now the springs were out in the open plains, and the water poisoned at its very source.

Occasionally round the springs were a few coarse rushes, but the soil in other respects was quite bare, destitute of vegetation, and thickly coated over with salt, presenting the most miserable and melancholy aspect imaginable. (September 2, 1840)

Warburton River aerial view

Warburton River aerial view

This is desert, an area, that is, of very low and very erratic rainfall. The problem was that in the early days of settlement, explorers sometimes happened to visit areas like Lake Eyre at a rare wet time and drew conclusions that later, of course, proved false. In 1858 explorer Peter Egerton Warburton thought that “the abundant and sure supply of water” would make the region easy to occupy. The fact that the biggest towns here – Birdsville and Marree, for example – have permanent populations of 100 people or less rather puts paid to that forecast.

In 1887, a bore was sunk at the Coward Springs railway siding. A contemporary magazine, Pictorial Australian, reported that:

Acres of nearly level table-land were turned in a few hours to a swamp … it is only a matter of weeks before miles of country will be covered with water. (from an interpretive panel at Coward Springs)

Wetlands were created – and breeding grounds for birds and other wildlife ensued. Indeed Lake Eyre is  famous for its birdlife and its breeding grounds. Ornithologist Captain SA White undertook “an ornithological trip” to the area in 1914 to collect bird specimens. He wrote about the artesian bore at Coward Springs where the pipes had corroded, so that the water

now flows out at the surface and finds its way across the the plain, where for many acres it forms a swamp, mostly covered in green rushes trimmed down by the stock. Amidst this short vegetation many water-loving birds find a home and feeding ground. (from an interpretive panel at Coward Springs)

I don’t pretend to understand how water works here. We saw some water courses/ponds/springs that are permanent, and others that are caused by recent rains and will evaporate or otherwise dissipate very quickly. The critical point is that there is not enough – in quantity and quality – to support regular, intensive farming, though there are cattle stations in the area.

More recent writing

Lake Eyre South

Lake Eyre South (viewed from the ground)

Not surprisingly for such a fascinating place, many non-fiction books have been published over the years about it – by scientists, journalists, and travellers – but not much fiction. Given its remoteness you’d think it would provide excellent inspiration for novelists, but not so it seems. Arthur Upfield who, in the mid twentieth century, wrote crime fiction set in Central Australia did set one in the Lake Eyre region, Bony buys a woman, and another of his, Death of a lake, is about a fictitious lake that could be based on Lake Eyre.

As for non-fiction, I found a useful list of recommendations, including a trilogy by Roma Dalhunty who travelled in the region with her geologist husband. The books are The spell of Lake Eyre (1975), When the dead heart beats Lake Eyre lives (date?), and The rumbling silence of Lake Eyre (1986).

My own favourite work about the area is, however, a movie, the 1954 Shell-sponsored docudrama The back of beyond. It chronicles the trip made between Marree and Birdsville every fortnight, from 1936 to the late 1950s, by mailman Tom Kruse. Scripted mainly by its director John Heyer, the final narration was co-written by Australian poet Douglas Stewart. Marree is described as a “corrugated iron town shimmering in the corrugated air” and Birdsville as “seven iron houses burning in the sun between two deserts”. The drama of life in the region is described through lines like “Who passes or perishes, only the dingo knows”.

I’m sorry I don’t have anything more exciting for you, but at least you now know where I was last week!

Meanwhile if you know of any fiction set in Lake Eyre, please to tell.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – Adelaide

This will be the fifth in my occasional “Let’s get physical” series, and I’ve chosen Adelaide because this week I’m spending a few days in this city, the state capital of South Australia, bookending a trip to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

Adelaide, which was proclaimed as a British colony in 1836, is located in the country of the Kaurna Aboriginal nation. Unlike Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart, it was established as a place of free settlers. That didn’t mean, unfortunately, that indigenous people fared any better. Their culture and language was, apparently, destroyed within years of white settlement there, but it’s a particular story that I don’t know enough about to go into here.

St Peters Anglican Church, 1880s

St Peters Anglican Church, 1880s

Adelaide has many reputations, including being the city of churches, the home of one of Australia’s best-loved arts festivals, one of the world’s most liveable cities and, oh dear, the city of corpses. Stephen Orr, whose rural novel The hands I reviewed recently, has written a non-fiction book called The cruel city. He apparently reports that author Salman Rushdie once suggested Adelaide was “the perfect setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film”. Poor Adelaide. This is not based on the number of murders, but on the fact that for two or three decades in the mid to late twentieth century it had more than its share of “gruesome or distressing murders”, starting with the still unsolved disappearance of the Beaumont children in 1966. They have never been found and their story was used as a cautionary tale for all Australian children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Stephen Orr’s Time’s Long Ruin, which was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2011, was inspired by the case.

South Australian Museum roofs

Roofs, 1850s, in the old Police Barracks and Armoury courtyard

But, my main point of this series of posts is meant to be “the physical” – and I’ll start by saying that I like Adelaide, and the reasons are partly physical. It’s a small city, and I like small cities, and it has my favourite style of climate, a Mediterranean style featuring warm to hot dry summers and mild damp winters. It can get hot there, very hot occasionally, but that would be a small price to pay to my mind.

Jane Jose writes about Adelaide in her book, Places women make, which I recently reviewed. She describes the city as follows:

Adelaide, in settled south Australia, has its circle of green hills around the city, its expansive pale-blue desert skies and an inheritance of parklands and colonial architecture.

That was then

But now, let’s flash back to those early colonial days, to 1859, and the first novel by a woman to be published in South Australia, Marian by Maud Jeanne Franc (pen-name of Matilda Jane Evans). Early in the book, Marian’s future employer comes to Adelaide to interview her. Here he is arriving at the house:

He reached it, and a moment after was shown into a little parlour, half-dark it appeared to him, for the blinds were let down to exclude the sun, and everything appeared bleak as he entered.

It was typical of those days that people would draw curtains or blinds against the sun. Wise of course in high heat, but my understanding is that it was done against most sun. And the result? Bleakness!

Jumping to the mid-late twentieth century, we have Adelaide-born authors Barbara Hanrahan (b. 1939) and Murray Bail (b. 1941). Hanrahan, who wrote the gorgeous autobiographical novel The scent of eucalyptus (1973) (my review)worked hard to find her Australia. As a child, she writes in her novel, she struggled to find “the sunburned land” of her reading and history in the town where she lived, and only really found her “place” after she left:

l feel it’s of value to divide my life between England and Australia . . . Two places, so different that one illuminates the other. London so large that I may lose myself, which means find myself because I can be anonymous. Adelaide – smaller, strange, this place where I began from, the place of childhood, of legend. (personal papers, n.d. 1978?)

Murray Bail found it a provincial place – “overwhelmingly reactionary, Protestant, and fiercely defensive of time-honoured standards” – and he, too, escaped, first to India in 1968, and then to London in 1970. This, presumably primarily inspired by Adelaide, comes from his Notebooks 1970-2003:

When I think of ‘Australia’ I first see its shape. It is quickly followed by scenes of slow-moving dryness, muted colours, and some of the great white trees. Of people in general, it is often the young, flushed mothers in sleeveless cotton dresses yanking or carrying children on the hot city asphalt.

Homesickness: habits of a landscape acquired over time. (London June 1970 – November 1974)

His first novel, Homesickness, was published in 1980. It is on my TBR.

This is now

Born ten years after Bail, and in the tiny South Australian town of Minlaton, novelist-poet-librettist Peter Goldsworthy set his  2003 novel Three dog night partly in Adelaide and partly in central Australia. In it, Martin brings his English wife back to Adelaide. Here they are driving into the Adelaide hills:

The day has taken its name to heart: a Sunday from the glory box of Sundays, a luminous morning saturated with sun-light and parrots. Happiness rises in my throat, thick as cud; the world outside the car, wholly blue and gold seems almost too much for my senses, too tight a squeeze.

‘Paradise’, Lucy murmurs, smitten.

At last, the “real” Adelaide – blue sky, gold sun and birds! Of course, this is a novel, and “paradise” is not that easily attained. Indeed, the novel (which I read long before blogging) is really rather dark.

I will end here, but I must first defend Adelaide against those charges of provincialism, because in 1970, after Hanrahan and Bail had left, reformist politician Don Dunstan became Premier of South Australia, and things changed. Pretty soon Adelaide (and the state) became one of Australia’s most socially progressive places. Just goes to show what a visionary leader can do!

PS I haven’t read it, but JM Coetzee’s Slow man is set in Adelaide.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – The Red Centre

A couple of years ago I wrote three Let’s get physical posts in which I focused on physical descriptions of places in Australia. Since, I am currently in Central Australia (for my third time), I thought it would be good to write another post or two in this series. Central Australia – or the Alice Springs Region, or the Alice-MacDonnell Ranges area – comprises the southern part of the Northern Territory, and includes the famous sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

Alice Springs, itself, is the second major city in the Northern Territory, after the capital, Darwin. My introduction to the Alice was through Nevil Shute’s novel A town like Alice, but but in fact very little of the book is set in Alice Springs. Eleanor Hogan author of Alice Springs in New South’s Cities series said recently in a Wheeler centre interview:

I was particularly interested in the idea of Alice as a microcosm of national identity and history. It’s not a metaphor that you can take to literal extremes, but there are plenty of conundrums and paradoxes about life in Alice as the premier outback town at the heart of the country that intrigued me.

Central Australia is the quintessential outback. It’s geologically old – very flat with low mountain ranges which were formed 350-300 million years ago – and the earth is red. Population is sparse and distances great. It’s replete with heroes and “characters” like explorer-prospector Lasseter, missionary and Flying Doctor Service founder John Flynn, anthropoligist Ted Strehlow, and indigenous artist Albert Namatjira. It has been criss-crossed by many explorers, and it is where Robyn Davidson started her across-desert trek with camels, chronicled in her book (and the later film), Tracks. And it is, most importantly, home to large communities of indigenous people, who, according to Wikipedia, make up about 50% of the region’s population.

Since my focus here is the physical, though, I won’t go further into the history (or we’ll be here all day). The most famous (white) explorer of colonial Australia in this region was John McDouall Stuart, whose south-north expeditions resulted in the establishment of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line and of the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin (now known as the Stuart Highway). Stuart’s journals (covering 1858 to 1862) are available at Project Gutenberg Australia. I’ll share a couple of excerpts from the Journal of Mr Stuart’s fourth expedition – fixing the centre of the continent. From March to September, 1860. These entries describe the landscape a little south of the Alice:

At eight miles the red sand hills commence, covered with spinifex; and on the small flats mulga scrub, which continues to the base of the hill. Red loose sand; no water (Tuesday, 3 April)

Finke River

Finke River, Glen Helen Gorge, West MacDonnells

The creek is very large, with the finest gum-trees we have yet seen, all sizes and heights. This seems to be a favourite place for the natives to camp, as there are eleven worleys in one encampment. We saw here a number of new parrots, the black cockatoo, and numerous other birds. The creek runs over a space of about two miles, coming from the west; the bed sandy. After leaving it … we passed over a plain of as fine a country as any man would wish to see–a beautiful red soil covered with grass a foot high; after that it becomes a little sandy. At fifteen miles we got into some sand hills, but the feed was still most abundant. I have not passed through such splendid country since I have been in the colony. I only hope it may continue. The creek I have named the Finke, after William Finke, Esquire, of Adelaide, my sincere and tried friend … (Wednesday 4 April)

It was he who “named” the MacDonnell Ranges. His journals are beautiful in their description of the geology, plants and fauna of the region. He also notes the presence of local indigenous people (either by seeing them or their tracks or campsites).


Uluru – what more can you say. Ancient and sublime!

A little later came Ernest Giles, who “named” Mount Olga (now returned to the indigenous name of Kata Tjuta). The following comes from his Australia twice traversed:

Its appearance [Ayers Rock, now Uluru] and outline is most imposing, for it is simply a mammoth monolith that rises out of the sandy desert soil around, and stands with a perpendicular and totally inaccessible face at all points, except one slope near the north-west end, and that at least is but a precarious climbing ground to a height of more than 1100 feet. Down its furrowed and corrugated sides the trickling of water for untold ages has descended in times of rain, and for long periods after, until the drainage ceased, into sandy basins at its feet. The dimensions of this vast slab are over two miles long, over one mile through, and nearly a quarter of a mile high. The great difference between it and Mount Olga [now Kata Tjuta] is in the rock formation, for this is one solid granite stone, and is part and parcel of the original rock, which, having been formed after its state of fusion in the beginning, has there remained, while the aged Mount Olga has been thrown up subsequently from below. Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque; Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime. (July 1874)

And now, something written by an indigenous woman from a book titled Women of the centre (edited by Adele Pring, 1990). The story-teller is Ruth Mackenzie (b. 1919), an Aranda/Aluritja woman, born just south of the Northern Territory border. This particular description is of country a little further south again, but is still relevant. I’m including it because she’s describing traditional Aboriginal knowledge:

He [husband] told us stories … All this country was jungle. That’s a long way back and there used to be big snakes but the seasons changed. Drought and that came and buried everything up and what they call Yandama sandhills the other side of Lake Frome – all those sandhills – that’s all the trees that’s covered up. I think they’ve found animals there. Animals were bigger – wombat, kangaroo. Everything was a lot larger than what they are now. That’s what he said. Australia was different from what it is now, like it’s all barren country now. It was like Darwin I suppose.

For those of you inspired to read about the region, the following books may be of interest:

Many more books are listed on Wikipedia’s Australian outback literature of the 20th century page.

The majority of Australians live on the coast and are drawn to the sea. Not me. I am drawn to the deserts and the Outback. Maybe this post has explained why?

Note: An excellent discussion of “literary constructions” about the Centre can be found in Chapter 8 of The Cultural Values of the Central Ranges: a preliminary report (for the region’s inclusion as a World Heritage area) (2008).


Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – The High Country

From the top of Mt Kosciuszko

From the top of Mt Kosciuszko

This, my third Let’s Get Physical post, is once again about a region that’s not too far from me – the Australian High Country. When most people think of Australia, they think – at least I believe they do – of deserts and beaches, of red earth and golden sand. But, Australia does have a high country, albeit a fairly low one. Our highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, is only 2,228 metres (7,310 ft) high. It is so low that it doesn’t feature in any serious lists of “highest mountains” except highest in Australia! But this is beside the point. We do have (relatively) high country, we do have blues and greens, and we have life and literature associated with them.

This high country – the Australian Alps – is part of the Great Dividing Range which runs down pretty much the entire length of the east coast of Australia, some 3,500 kilometres (2,175 mi). It represented a significant barrier for the first white settlers who didn’t cross it until 25 years after they arrived … and this was north, near Sydney, where the highest point is half that of Kosciuszko!

Being (albeit low) high country, this is not a region of high permanent population – so not many writers call (or have called it) home. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feature in Australian literature. Probably the most famous literary work associated with the high country is Banjo Paterson‘s  famous poem “The Man from Snowy River”, a ballad that romanticises high country bravery and horse-riding skills. Clancy (from Paterson’s poem “Clancy of the Overflow”) describes the man from Snowy River:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s* side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.

The ride chronicled in the poem takes place north of the Snowy. Its aim is to retrieve a colt which has joined “the wild bush horses”, that is, the brumbies. And this brings me Elyne Mitchell who set her famous The silver brumby series of children’s books in the high country. Mitchell, who apparently won the Canadian downhill skiing championship in 1938, ran a property in the Mountains with her husband. She wrote many books, fiction and non-fiction, about the high country. “The Man from Snowy River” and The silver brumby have spawned multiple adaptations and merchandising galore.

Much of the literature associated with the high country though has been written by writers who live elsewhere. Australian environmental poet, Mark O’Connor, has written many poems about the region, including a collection devoted to it, Tilting at Snowgums: Australia’s High Country in Poetry and Photos. The collection includes his poem, “The New Ballad of The Man from Snowy River”, which “updates” Paterson’s original. Cleverly referencing this original, it takes a realistic, satiric look at “the romance” of the Snowy, addressing many issues including indigenous rights and environmental concerns. It is well worth a read.

The high country is a particularly popular setting for genre authors like Tony Parsons, Judy Nunn and Jennifer Scoullar.

Seaman's Hut

Seaman’s Hut, near Mt Kosciuszko

Besides the mountains, rivers and brumbies – not to mention the snow gums – the high country is noted for its huts. Klaus Hueneke, local historian and high country expert, has written several books about the region including Huts of the High Country and Huts of the Victorian Alps.  When touring the Victorian section of the High Country last year, I was rather entertained to read in the notes for The Huts Walk at Mt Hotham, that one of the huts you pass is the Silver Brumby Hut. This hut is, they say, the 2006-7 replica of the original. By original they mean the 1992 one built as a temporary prop for the film, The Silver Brumby. Ah well, I guess it’s part of history too!

For those interested in film, two unforgettable movies are set in the high country: Jindabyne, which was inspired, intriguingly, by a Raymond Carver short story, and Somersault.

* NOTE: When I went to school, we spelt the mountain “Kosciusko”, as Paterson spells it, but the “Kosciuszko” spelling was officially adopted in 1991 because that more accurately reflects the name’s origin.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – The Monaro

For my second Let’s Get Physical post, I thought I’d stay in my local region. The Monaro is a large region in southeastern New South Wales, extending from the southern and eastern boundaries of Canberra down to the Victorian border, and bounded on the east and west by mountain ranges. Much of it is treeless plain, but there are also rolling hills, rocky outcrops and jagged mountains. In summer it takes on a golden hue and I love it, I love the sense of clarity, openness and freedom I feel when we drive through it on our annual trip to the Snowy Mountains for some summer bushwalking.

Monaro Region, NSW

Not at its best, but you get the picture

As its main agricultural use is sheep and beef, I used to think, like many people, that its treelessness came from clearing for grazing and/or overgrazing, but in fact the first white people in the area found it in that state. The Austrian naturalist and artist, John Lhotsky described it in 1835:

The scene all around was composed of undulating downs, long projected hills among them, covered with very few trees.

Lhotsky, though, wasn’t the first white man to write about the region. In his book Discovering Monaro: A study of man’s impact on his environment, which is excerpted in Canberra’s centenary anthology, The invisible thread, historian Keith Hancock quotes English naval officer, Captain Mark John Currie. In 1823, Currie also saw, as Hancock describes it, “open, undulating, ‘downy’ country”. It was Currie who learnt the name of the region from the indigenous Australian inhabitants. He wrote:

Passed through a chain of clear downs to some very extensive ones, where we met a tribe of natives, who fled at our approach, never (as we learned afterwards) having seen Europeans before … by degrees we ultimately became good friends … From these natives we learned that the clear country before us was called Monaroo, which they described as very extensive …

Currie and his party, though, decided to call it Brisbane Downs after the Governor of the time. Hancock continues:

Mercifully, that new name did not stick. The white settlers, as they moved in, called the country Monaroo, Monera, Maneiro, Meneiro, Meneru, Miniera, Monera, and – in the fullness of time – Monaro.

What’s in a name, eh? One of the things I love about the region is, in fact, its names. The towns include Nimmitabel, Adaminaby, Bombala, Michelago; and the rivers include the Murrumbidgee and the Goodradigbee. I love how they roll off the tongue.

The Monaro is well represented in Australian literature. It is where  Miles Franklin was born and set some of her novels; the poet David Campbell was sometimes called “The man from the Monaro” and poet Judith Wright lived for many years in the region. Current authors associated with the region include Roger McDonald whose historical Miles Franklin Award winning novel, The ballad of Desmond Kale, is set in the region. When that book came out, he said

In my adult life I always wanted to live back in the country and I was able to do that from about 1980 onwards when I bought a farm in Braidwood [in the Monaro]. I’m never completely myself unless I’m in the Australian countryside. It’s my vocabulary of self somehow … I think it’s in all my books.

I rather know what he means. I live in a city, but its nickname is “the bush capital”. The countryside is never too far away – and I like it that way.

Back to Braidwood though. It seems to be a bit of a mecca for artists. This is where Judith Wright lived for many years, and it’s also where Julian Davies, author, potter and painter has lived for over three decades. He wrote about it Meanjin’s Canberra edition, which I reviewed earlier this year. In his piece, “Out of town”, he describes how he built his hut and established a semi-self-sufficient life there. “The irony” in this, he says, “is self-evident”:

the stubbon pursuit of a relatively isolated life has been an attempt to marry what might be irreconcilable: I moved to the forest because of exactly what it is, but tried to bring a level of comfort and civilisation with me.

If you’d like to know more about Braidwood, and its little corner of the Monaro, do read author Nigel Featherstone’s piece, “Naturally inspired”, in which he considers whether a place can be “creative”. Or read Irma Gold’s post on and interview with Roger McDonald for The invisible thread.

Finally, just in case I haven’t convinced you of the significance of the region, I should add that it has a car named after it, the rather dashing Holden Monaro!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – Canberra

Today’s post is the first in a little sub-series of occasional posts containing physical descriptions of places in Australia. This series is not going to be analytical or comprehensive but is intended simply to share descriptions that I like, that make me laugh, or that I think are interesting. My plan is to keep commentary to a minimum and let the descriptions speak for themselves.

I’m going to start with my home, Canberra. The first comes from Dymphna Cusack‘s A window in the dark, which I reviewed in July.

I arrived in Canberra at the beginning of spring, surely its loveliest season. It is the only city in Australia where you enjoy what is taken for granted in the northern hemisphere. Oh, the incredibly lovely decidiuous trees in their fine veil of green. The flowering cherries in their clouds of white and pink. The tulips! All in that magnificent rim of indigo hills, olive green under a variety of eucalypts and wattle. The city that Burley Griffin had designed then carried out much on the lines of his original plans, however much they were altered later, was beautiful.


Canberra was one of the loveliest places I have lived in and still is, its beauty enhanced by a picturesque lake. Today spreading suburbs have taken the place of the green undulating hills over which we wandered. One of my treasured memories is of sitting on the grass on a hillside looking right across the city to the smoky blue hills surrounding it.

The second comes from Bill Bryson‘s Down under (published in the US as A sunburnt country).

It’s a very strange city, in that it’s not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it. It’s all lawns and trees and hedges and a big ornamental lake – all very agreeable, just a little unexpected.

Isaacs Ridge, Canberra

Park anyone? There be suburbs among the trees.

Both Bryson and Cusack trot out some of the usual criticisms of Canberra: it’s boring, it’s artificial (Bryson) or it’s snobby (Cusack). In its defence – after all it’s my place – I should add that Canberra has changed a lot since both wrote their pieces, Cusack c. 1976 and Bryson in 2000. Like Cusack, though, Bryson concludes on a positive note. He writes of looking out over Canberra:

It was impossible to believe that 330,000 people were tucked into that view and it was this thought – startling when it hit me – that made me change my perception of Canberra completely. I had been scorning it for what was in fact its most admirable achievement. This was a place that had, without a twitch of evident stress, multiplied by a factor of ten since the late 1950s and yet was still a park.