Out in the open
Canberra, a city considered boring by many Australians, has many things to see and do
In 1998, I got a notice from the Australian National University that I had been awarded a PhD scholarship. I immediately called the Murrays bus service and booked a return bus trip to Canberra from Wollongong. The bus started early in the morning and continued climbing up the meandering roads of Illawarra escarpment. The hairpin turns of the road reminded me of the roads between Murree and Nathiagali but the experience of the public bus ride and the attitude of the driver were totally different. The driver was very professional and, wherever the road was single, he was constantly using his two-way radio system to announce his arrival and was asking if there was a heavy vehicle nearby whenever the other side of the road was invisible because of a sharp or steep turn. The bus driver knew exactly how many passengers had booked a pickup on the different towns on highway and the timing and the duration of the stops was precise. The bus seats were spacious and there was toilet in the rear. The interesting thing was that I had not opted for any luxury bus service. This was the lowest standard for the public transport permitted by the law. When I discussed the quality of the bus with a fellow passenger, he complained that the toilet was not accessible for anyone using a wheelchair.
Soon, we arrived in Robertson, the town famous for its potatoes and the shooting site of the film Babe. One passenger joked with another: "the Hollywood people spray-painted these lush green fields to make them look even greener." Outside the bus window on the right side of the road was the sculpture of a big potato for the less knowledgeable tourists like me. On the left side were shops selling the country produce and homemade jams, marmalades and jellies. And there was no sign of the usual degradation caused by tourism and consumerism. Either people were conscious about protecting the environment or the area was off the beaten track. The bus started rolling again through the lush foliage of the National Park and arrived at Moss Vale, a historical town established in the 1880s with many buildings from the Victorian era, preserved or restored in their original style.
After Moss Vale, the bus joined the Hume Highway which connects Sydney with Melbourne. The landscape on both sides was planes with the low hills in the background. The planes on the left showed occasional small lakes or and on the right glimpses of what Australians call ‘the Great Outback.’ The landscape and the road became more intriguing once the bus left the Hume Highway and started on the smooth 81 kilometres stretch of the Federal Highway to Canberra. The hills surrounding the planes made a semi-circular bowl like structure which functioned as a trap for moisture in the air. After the rains, the planes trap water into many temporary lakes.
Many of my fellow students at the University of Wollongong had told me Canberra was a boring place to spend four years. But for me it did not matter because Canberra had some of the best libraries. The National Library of Australia was and, still is, the copyright library. It meant all Australian publishers had to submit at least one copy of all their journals and books to register their rights. The Australian National University’s library was also famous for its 2 million volumes. If all the books failed to entertain me, the city was also famous for Lake Burley Griffin, one of the largest artificial lakes in the world. The National Art Gallery and many other federal institutions were there.
When the bus arrived in the city, the first feeling was similar to arriving in Islamabad, another purpose-built and spaciously designed capital city like Canberra. There was plenty of open space between the office buildings of the Central Business District and the town centre had fewer people walking around. The bus terminal was at a walking distance from the university, which sprawled from the centre of the city to the edge of the lake behind it without any boundary walls or gates. I arrived in the administration building and signed a form, which legally bound me with the university for the next four years.
I spent four years in Canberra, a city considered boring by many Australians. I did not feel any boredom because the city had many things to see and do, including an almost daily walk along the shore of the lake with other students who lived on campus. The trees on the lakeshore changed colours with every season and on weekends the blue water surface was dotted by sailing boats and tourist cruises. The Scrivener Dam which controlled the water flow into the lake was built to such a rigorous standard that it was famous for its potential to withstand a once-in-a-5000-years flood event.
The New Graduate House, accommodation for research students, provided by the university was excellent: the independent single bedrooms apartments were almost sound-proof and looked out on the lawns on both sides. In Junes, Canberra became really cold because the sun was in the Northern hemisphere. The temperatures fell below zero and in the mornings the frost covered everything. The white landscape without the snow was something to cherish from the cozy rooms provided by the university.
The city had many shops selling second-hand books and when I was leaving after four years I had 120 kilograms of books with me which had to be mailed to Pakistan through the surface mail route. All this was possible because Australia had the IPRS (International Postgraduate Research Scholarship) program a generous educational grants program for international students.
Published in The News on Sunday
dated October 26, 2008