Canberra

A CAPITAL IDEA

Following is a personal view of our nation’s capital with an overview of facilities for visitors with disabilities. For comprehensive information on disability and accessibility for attractions and accommodation, please visit our satellite website, Canberra Disabled Travel.

If you were to ask me for one of Australia’s most rewarding destinations for a few days break, I’d have to say Canberra. Okay, a two-week holiday and there’d be a bit of thumb twiddling, but for a short break (up to a week) there’s a huge amount to see and do.

Interestingly, a competition was held to give the city a name. One of the more intriguing entries was an amalgamation of the State’s capitals and, there but for the grace of good judgement, you could now be reading about Sydmeladlperbriho.

Canberra still suffers from a stigma that was decades in the making. In the 1920s the general consensus was that the city was a terrible thing to do to a good sheep property. In 1934, the future Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, said that Canberra was a ‘place of exile’. During the Great Depression, the place went into hibernation and stayed there a bit longer than the rest of the world. Nothing much happened in the 1940s, apart from construction of the wonderful War Memorial. At that time, one politician remarked that the best view of Canberra was to be had from the rear end of a train. The 1950s saw a time of measured panic due to a housing shortage and lack of office accommodation. The city didn’t even get its lake until the 1960s.

But, today, a century since the foundation stones were tapped into place, finally, the city works.

There’s a lot on offer for all ages, it now has a sense of history and it’s no longer ‘lights out’ at 9 pm. Because of the large student population and public servants with a fairly high disposable income, there’s a buzzing nightlife with good bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Friends of mine who live in Canberra swear by it, as opposed to the past when people swore at it. The locals have a sense of carefree fun, use the recreational facilities and have a quirky sense of humour. For example, a couple I know like the camaraderie and occasional drink at the Canberra South Bowls Club, or as they call it, the DunRootin’ Club, because most of the members are over eighty.

To the things to see and do…

Parliament House is a must. Highlights include the huge Arthur Boyd inspired tapestry in the Great Hall, the Tom Roberts’s painting of the opening of parliament in 1901 and the Prime Minister portrait gallery. (Gough Whitlam is my favourite – it’s more about vision than visage.)

The 48 marble-clad columns in the foyer are meant to represent a forest of eucalypts, but the symbolism was lost on me. If it’s real trees you want, you can explore the surrounding 23 hectares of gardens or the Parliamentary Parklands Trail.

Wheelchairs are available for loan, at no charge, from the Information Desk. There is lift access and, naturally, disabled-friendly bathrooms.

At the base of the hill is Old Parliament House, which has a certain charm, and even politicians will admit that the intimacy and warmth is the one thing that didn’t transfer to the new building.

It was built as a temporary chamber and was one that the city’s architect, Walter Burley Griffin didn’t want – he said that it ‘would be like filling the front yard with outhouses’. But, as outhouses go, it’s one of the best and it served the country well for six decades.

There are free guided tours and you’ll soak up more of Australia’s political history here than in the posh building up the hill. It’s also home to the Museum of Democracy. The gardens are also worthwhile, there’s a cafe and you should make a note to visit the toilets. They still have the red and green lights that were used to tell the ‘sitting’ members to get a move on if they were required in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

There is wheelchair access and there are wheelchairs at reception.

Well I remember Gough Whitlam on the steps of Old Parliament House in 1975 saying, ‘Well may we say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor General’. For me, that’s the big difference between the two parliament houses: the old one was intimate; a place where politicians entered and left through the front doors, passing ordinary people, sometimes fighting off the media with ‘no comment’; and with a view along Anzac Parade to the War Memorial – lest they forgot. In the new building, the politicians have their own car park and entrance at the rear of the building, and only call the media when they have something they want to announce. Could this be part of the reason politicians sometimes seem to be out of touch with ordinary Australians?

There’s a lovely story about former Labor Attorney-General and High Court Judge, Lionel Murphy and the man who sacked Whitlam, Sir John Kerr, negotiating the steps after a long lunch. A journalist noticed them and a Commonwealth car waiting below, and assisted them to the footpath. Murphy spun on one heel, closed an eye and said, ‘You stupid bastard, we were going up, not down’. The photo is of Sir John, drunk as a skunk, at the 1977 Melbourne Cup.

Adjacent to Old Parliament House, the National Archives keeps records tracing the events, stories and decisions that shaped the nation, big and small. Prized items include the personal papers of former Prime Ministers Billy Hughes, John Curtin, Harold Holt, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating. Other exhibits include the design entries for Canberra and new Parliament House, and well-known trademarks of companies such as Arnott’s and Sunlight.

All archive rooms have wheelchair access.

The Australian War Memorial is also a ‘must do’. It is one of the world’s finest military museums, and can be an extremely moving experience. It was opened on Remembrance Day, 1941 and that day, Prime Minister John Curtin referred to it as a ‘house of treasures’.

These ‘treasures’ were the Australians who lost their lives on far-flung battlefields and were buried where they fell. The Memorial gave the families of the dead a solid ‘grave’ and place of remembrance on their own soil. It has undergone significant redevelopment in recent years, featuring the refurbished Bradbury Aircraft Hall and the new Anzac Hall, an exhibition space big enough to take planes, tanks and even the Japanese midget submarine that entered Sydney Harbour in 1942.

Disabled parking facilities are available close to the Memorials main entrance in the underground car park and also in the car park adjacent to the Memorial Administration building. Inside there are facilities for the disabled, including wheelchairs. Access from the underground car park to the Memorials main entrance is via a gradient ramp with handrails. The lift for disabled visitors is adjacent to the main entrance at the front of the Memorial. The main stairs have handrails on both sides.

At the foot of the War Memorial is Anzac Parade, with its own memorial alcoves. One belongs to Kemal Ataturk, the man who commanded the Turkish forces at Gallipoli (Ataturk means ‘Father of the Turks’). The memorial honours him, and the heroism and sacrifice of both the Anzac and Turkish troops who took part in that bitter campaign.

The red gravel on Anzac Parade itself is said to symbolise blood, and the trees lining the parade are a mix of Australian and New Zealand natives.

After the filling of Lake Burley Griffin in the 1960s, imposing public buildings were constructed along its shore. The National Gallery of Australia is always vibrant and somehow manages to secure amazing special exhibitions – this could be reason enough for a Canberra visit.

Wheelchairs are available from the cloakroom. There are two motorised wheelchairs available for use in the general galleries only. People using wheelchairs can navigate the Gallery via lifts and ramps. The parking for people with mobility difficulties is available at both ends of the underground car park. The spaces closest to the car park entrance/exit are recommended as they are closest to the lift. There are two disabled toilets; one at new entrance (ground level) near the cloakroom and another near the fashion and jewellery displays on Level One.

The new National Portrait Gallery featuring Australia’s most famous faces from politicians to pop stars. Apart from wheelchair access there are two wheelchair portraits, athletes Louise Sauvage and Betty Cuthbert.

Parking spaces for people with mobility difficulties are provided in the underground carpark close to the public access lifts. All the galleries, cafe and shop are on one level. Wheelchairs and strollers are available, bookings are recommended.

Next to the gallery is the tall and imposing High Court of Australia.

The photo is of the first three High Court judges (two work experience kiddies behind perhaps?).

Attendants are on hand to take you through the building and explain how the Court works.

The High Court has friendly staff, footpath access, swing doors, rest rooms, lifts, parking, defibrillators and first aid kits, and a wheelchair available for people with a disability.

If you have children, just down the lake is Questacon, an excellent hands-on science museum.

You can experience an earthquake, watch a lightning display, balance a ball in mid air and make music with light beams. In fact, if you don’t have children, drop in anyway because it’s a place that just combines science with fun. You don’t have to know the relationship between the Higgs-boson particle and the Large Hadron Collider to have phun with physics!

Questacon has an access ramp on both sides of the building, for entry to the ground floor foyer. All of Questacon’s galleries are accessible by two ramps and an elevator also runs to all of the galleries. Entry to the Japan Theatre (where most of the live science shows take place) is accessed by a couple of steps, but the theatre is equipped with a wheelchair lift, so disabled visitors are able to access the theatre. The other theatres are also wheelchair accessible. They also have a few wheelchairs which we can lend out to visitors if needed (at no cost), and there are seats spread out through the centre allowing people to have a break from all the science-related fun. They also have disabled bathrooms in the entrance foyer, and some more inside the galleries. There are several disabled car spaces in the car-park.

Questacon is adjacent to the National Library of Australia and the International Flag Display.

The library has good collections of Australiana, rare books, changing exhibitions, film screenings, educational events and behind-the-scenes tours.

There’s also a bookshop, licensed restaurant, bistro and Internet cafe. Cafes attached to public buildings are usually good value because they also feed public servants, who would kick up a stink if they were being ripped off.

You can access the front entrance and the Main Reading Room through automatic doors. Apart from the Petherick Reading Room, all other areas on the ground floor, including the Bookshop, the exhibition gallery and bookplate café, are accessible through open doorways. There are 15 stone steps leading to the front entrance. The steps have hand rails that are lit at night. Car spaces for disabled access are on the south (Treasury) side of the building. The lifts have control panels that are at a convenient height for people in wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are available from the cloakroom on the ground floor. All reading rooms have wheelchair-accessible desks. Access to the information desk, the issues desk and some of the desks for using the catalogue are designed for access by people in wheelchairs. Wheelchair-accessible toilets are situated on the LG1 to the left of the lifts.

The Flag Display colourfully depicts the city’s international population with 80 flags dedicated to the United Nations and other nations that have a diplomatic presence.

The flags are flown continuously and lit at night, casting a vivid reflection on the lake. If, like me, you find that some flags look more like a licorice-allsort than a symbol, each flagpole has a plaque to identify the nation. The then Governor-General, Sir William Deane, launched the display on Australia Day, 1999. I mention this for no other reason than I may not find another to include the name of a truly great Australian.

The lake itself has its own features. The Captain Cook Memorial Jet is a pretty impressive spray and the National Carillon, on Aspen Island, was a gift from the British Government to celebrate the city’s 50th anniversary.

The footbridge to Aspen Island is named after John Douglas Gordon, who played the inaugural recital. This made me think: What makes a person wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, that’s what I want to be – a carillonist!’.

The carillonist may be greeted at the base of the tower approximately five minutes after the conclusion of the recital, although I can’t imagine him/her running the gauntlet through a huddle of screaming autograph hunters.  Recitals are Wednesdays and Sundays 12:30pm to 1:20pm.

There are good views to be had from the top floor but to get a sense of the city as a whole, head to Mt Ainslie, Telstra Tower or Black Mountain.

Disabled parking and access to the National Carillon on Aspen Island is available.

The National Zoo and Aquarium is terrific.

A wheelchair and motorised scooter are available for hire but bookings are recommended. Carers are admitted free (Carer ID required). Some parts of the zoo can be difficult (due to the natural hills) and some gravel paths become soft after rain. There is usually an alternate route. There are a number of disabled toilets as well as disabled parking.

On one visit to Canberra, many years ago, I went for a scuba dive in a large tank (no longer there). It was actually more a ‘moonwalk’ than a ‘dive’ as you wore weights to allow you to walk around the floor of the tank – it was a great way to get close to stingrays, sharks and the peering faces of other tourists – although part of my experience was watching our young son, the other side of the glass, burst into tears at the sight of Dad underwater – and the more I clowned around, the more he thought I was in trouble. He now scuba dives as well… whew… thought I might have scarred him for life!  The photo is a large sun bear from the zoo, BTW, not a shark.

2001 saw the opening of the colourful and controversial, yet hugely popular, National Museum of Australia. If you think ‘stuffy’ goes with the word museum, forget it here. It doesn’t look or feel like a museum.

You can actually experience the stories of Australia and Australians using the latest hand-on interactive technology. From the rock art of Kakadu to the Hills Hoist and Vegemite. This is Australia! There are areas especially for children, a waterfront restaurant, two cafes and a shop with a huge range of souvenirs and gift ideas.

I love their advice to parents, that includes – Write your mobile phone number on your child if he/she may wander. Bone up on stuff like the Stolen Generation so you can answer children’s questions.

I borrowed my first motorised scooter here – mainly to just experience driving one – but then I discovered what freedom, mobility and reward they bring to people with a disability like mine.  Totally addicted!  Woo-hoo!!

Disabled parking facilities are available close to the National Museum’s main entrance. There is free hire of wheelchairs and motorised scooters. You will need to provide contact information and identification when borrowing these items. Numbers are limited and, although not stated as necessary, best to book 24 hours in advance.

If you’re into miniature attractions, Cockington Green is a must. If you’re not into miniature attractions, avoid this like the plague.

The centrepiece at the Green is a depiction of life in a British village – only smaller. Miniature buildings, tiny townsfolk going about their daily business, animals and vehicles, all are constructed down to the finest detail in perfect scale.

Allow at least an hour. Or not.

There’s wheelchair and disabled access & facilities (including a disabled toilet) and wheelchairs and an electric scooter are available for hire.

There are also Australian and international sections. The best time to visit Cockington Green is in spring when the gardens are at their best. Floriade is an annual celebration of flora from mid-September to mid-October and lots of entertainment is thrown in to combine fun with flowers.

Within the grounds of the Australian National University is the art-deco ScreenSound Australia – the National Screen and Sound Archive. The memorabilia traces the history of the radio, film, television and sound industries in Australia. The exhibits include the FX car used in the film Malcolm, homemade radios, historic newsreels, recordings of early radio shows and Australia’s first ‘Oscar’.  The Oscar was awarded to Damien Parer for his World War II documentary, Kokoda Front Line… and Yours Truly is in an archive on a newsreel, for being part of the first school group to walk across the Kokoda Track, in 1969.

There are also continuous screenings of movie classics throughout the day. And while you are watching, if you sense the shadowy figure of an usher at your back, check again. A number of people have reported sightings of ghosts – the building used to house the Institute of Anatomy. And… cut!!

All areas of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia are wheelchair accessible. Wheelchair access to the building is available from the south-facing entrance (Liversidge St). A wheelchair is available from NFSA reception. Bathrooms with disabled facilities are located in the main building.

Blundell’s Cottage dates back to 1858 and the cottage, garden and shed are as they would have been when George and Flora Blundell were in residence, except it then overlooked a river. The river has since become Lake Burley Griffin.

This one is a bit pokey for wheelchair access but there’s not a lot of walking. There are no disabled toilets either. There is a bench seat for those who need to take a break.

The National Capital Exhibition, which tells the story of Canberra as the National Capital is better for those needing more assistance. The Exhibition is located at Regatta Point, Parkes and has wheelchair access as well as throughout the Exhibition itself. There is also ample free disabled parking. At the Exhibition there is a wheelchair on hand that can be used if required. Entry to both Blundells Cottage and the NCE are free of charge.

The Botanic Gardens is home to kangaroos, native plants and a rainforest gully, and is a good spot for a picnic. There are two wheelchairs and two electric scooters are available for use by visitors, free of charge. Bookings are recommended.

The Royal Australian Mint (below) has free parking and there are 4 disabled parking spaces.

At the Royal Australian Mint, visitors can mint their own coins and The National Capital Exhibition is the place to head if you want an interactive historical background on how Canberra has developed from a sheep property to one of the world’s best landscaped cities.

If you are a fairly ‘able’, outside the city there’s excellent abseiling, rock climbing, rafting, caving, bushwalking and horse riding. You can also take a hot-air balloon flight or drop in to one of 22 boutique wineries where the cool-climate vineyards have picked up many awards.

If you are not sure which winery, visit the Kamberra Wine Tourism Complex first – it provides a focal point for the region’s wine industry with tastings, a bistro and demonstration winery. It’s on the corner of Northbourne Avenue and Flemington Road.

To see real Aboriginal art and special sites among some great Australian bush, head to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.

Tidbinbilla offers restricted mobility access to many popular locations including The Sanctuary, the Koala enclosure and Sheedys picnic area.

Sydney has Double Bay, Melbourne has South Yarra, Brisbane has Park Road in Milton and Canberra has Manuka.

If you want to blend with the locals, it’s pronounced Mar-nar-kar, not Ma-noo-kar, and it’s the place for boutique shopping and al fresco dining … darling.

For Asian cuisine, head to Woolley Street, Dickson. And here’s one you won’t find anywhere else – Ethiopian in Dickson – with wheelchair access and wheelchair accessible toilets! Careful how you say it – Fekerte’s – This restaurant, run by eccentric owner-chef Ferkerte Tessaye, is 100 percent Ethiopian. With an array of interesting dishes on offer, such as keywat (spicy beef) and lega tibs (lamb marinated in spices and sauteed with onions and peppers), this eatery has a popular local following. The dining room is sleek and modern, but the food takes centre stage. With dishes like cauliflower fritters in chickpea batter served with a yoghurt sauce, there’s something crunchy, spicy and tangy (use the lemony injera bread to sop up all the sauce) for everyone here.

Fekerte’s has wheelchair access and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.

We will be updating the dining section shortly – one little gem I tried recently was the Urban Pantry in Manuka – fantastic risotto and that’s not an easy dish to make ‘fantastic’.

Moving on and, not that I’ve tried it, if you want to pick up a few marital aids, head to Fishwyck, the porn centre of Australia. Because Federal laws differ to state laws this is also the centre for video duplication, adult web sites and retail sex shops. Fireworks are also legal in Canberra. The porn and fireworks capital of Australia and some people think it is boring… sheesh!

There’s a large student population in Canberra and the well-heeled, double-income public servant couples know how to party, so the atmosphere at night can be exciting. There are wine bars, dance clubs, acoustic venues, piano bars and jazz spots.

The Casino offers all the traditional gambling games and evening entertainment ranges from cabaret performances, karaoke, comedy and a nightclub for over 25s. Other facilities include bars, restaurant, TAB, Sky Channel and, being a casino, there are naturally ATMs and currency exchange facilities.

Still waiting to hear back on disabled facilities but have a hunch they will be good – disabled dollars are worth the same as ‘abled’ ones and disabled gamblers might stay seated longer!

King O’Malley’s (named after the eccentric American born ‘founder’ of Canberra) has a light snack menu and a range of beers including Kilkenny, Guinness and Caffreys. PJ O’Reilly’s is a traditional Irish pub that was actually designed and built in Dublin.

Canberra has a range of accommodation that is disabled-friendly.

bellabarA personal favourite in hotel accommodation is Rydges Capital Hill (used to be The Pavilion) – comfortable rooms, great indoor pool, bar & restaurant and handy to the sights while in a quiet area. There are six disabled rooms with bedside assist as well as bathroom facilities and access.

Rydges Lakeside is a Canberra landmark and a lovely hotel. It has just undergone a major refurbish and is looking and feeling wonderful. There are disabled rooms and the ground floor Locanda Italian Steakhouse restaurant and Bellabar are wheelchair friendly. Locanda served up one of the best steaks I have ever enjoyed with unarguably the best ever, ever pepper sauce – plus desserts to die for!

Rydges (as well as QT and Art Series Hotels) offer Priority Guest Rewards membership. It is totally free and one of the best loyalty rewards cards we have found – you get 10% off accommodation at more than 40 hotels around Australia and New Zealand plus 20% off food and beverages (that’s where the real value is).

For comprehensive information on disability and accessibility for attractions and accommodation, please visit our satellite website, Canberra Disabled Travel.

A LITTLE HISTORY…

The name ‘Canberra’ is meant to be the Aboriginal word for ‘meeting place’. The first official ‘meeting’ in this ‘meeting place’ happened in 1913, when three foundation stones were tapped into place by the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley (who declared that it would be the finest capital city in the world – pictured). A gun salute boomed, dogs barked, horses shied, babies cried and people cheered before the official party retired to a large marquee to eat and toast the day’s events. One sorry reflection is that there was no Aboriginal representation at this gathering.

An international competition was held in 1911 to find the architect and designer for Canberra, and an American, Walter Burley Griffin, got the nod. Every Australian school child is taught the name Walter Burley Griffin, but very few would have heard of Walt’s wife, Marion Mahony Griffin. In 1898 Marion became the first woman in the world to be licensed to practise as an architect, and she did the perspective drawings for Walter’s winning entry – without visiting the site.

The Griffins sailed out and set up house in Melbourne in 1914, but World War I meant that funding for the project was redirected. Little progress was made on the site and, in 1921, Walt found himself out of a job.

To make ends meet, the Griffins set up an architectural practice, and their designs included Newman College at Melbourne University, the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne and the towns of Griffith and Leeton in New South Wales. In 1924, Marion and Walter moved to Sydney to supervise the development of the leafy suburb of Castlecrag.  The Great Depression hit, Walter was reduced to designing municipal incinerators, so they decided it was time to move on. They left Australia for India (I wonder if they knew that ‘griffin’ in India is a name given to a newcomer) and he died there two years later, in 1937. Marion returned to her hometown, Chicago, and died in 1961, aged 91.

canberra old parliament house