Melbourne? Sydney? Canberra!
Perfect weather to go for a drive.
It is hot on this January afternoon, a few weeks before Canberra’s 100th anniversary. Around 40 degrees. One of the hottest days ever recorded in this Australian Capital Territory. “Warm and dry – perfect weather!”, says Ken Edwards. As far as he is concerned, it could well be a couple of degrees cooler, but he’s thinking of his car, a strawberry-red Mercedes-Benz 220 SEb Cabriolet, built in 1964. “For classic cars the conditions could hardly be better.” Ken and his wife Alida are sharing a Cola on the terrace of the Café “Pork Barrel”, with a view of the blindingly white Old Parliament House. Once or twice a week they go for a drive in their cabrio through the Australian capital city – a city that does not look too urban with its green tree-lined skyline and only a tall building here and there.
Its most dominant “construction” is Lake Burley Griffin, an artificial lake. “Regular excursions are good for the car, you know,” says Ken. And this time he is also talking about himself: nothing could suit him better, either.
A geometry straight from the drawing board.
“Shall we?”, Ken asks his wife. “Sure, let’s go”. The convertible awaits the couple in the half-shadow. From the Old Parliament they drive up the hill to its successor: the New Parliament House, inaugurated in 1988. The political heart of Australia is, like the city itself, clad in green. A grass carpet covers the building that nestles between its two side façades shaped like elegantly curved boomerangs. Up here on the Capital Hill, an impressive panoramic axis opens up to the observer, over the Old Parliament and the lake, and beyond to the Australian War Memorial at the foot of Mount Ainslie. This axis divides the triangular layout of the governmental district into two equal halves. The geometrical shapes of the city reveal their roots: they were born on the drawing board. First there was the vision, then it became a reality.
When two cities fight ...
In 1901 Australia became a nation-state. However, Melbourne and Sydney, the largest cities, were not able to agree which of the two would be the most worthy capital city. There were also some misgivings as to the danger of a national government being co-opted by one of the two cities due to local allegiances, “local patriotism”.
So a tabula rasa solution was agreed: a new capital city was to be created. The search for the perfect location extended over many years, so that it was only in 1913 that the actual construction of the planned city was able to begin. this was in the region Yass-Canberra, between the two metropolises.
“No honking, no jostling, no impatience.”
From Capital Hill the Edwards drive down again to the “Government triangle”. Not only the weather, the season is also ideal for a relaxed cruise in the classic car: most politicians and ministry officials are still away on vacation. Christmas break. “Wonderful”, sighs Alida Edwards. “No honking of horns, no jostling, no impatience.” On normal days, says Alida, it is sometimes a bit rougher and more hectic. On top of this, in Canberra there is a half-hour-long rush hour at eight thirty in the morning and another in the late afternoon. Bearable, compared with other capitals. But the residents of Australia’s capital city, the Canberrans, are truly pampered.
Not only in respect of free streets. Also in respect of culture, architecture and education, Canberra’s offers are among the best that the continent has to offer. The National Museum and National Library are just a couple of kangaroo leaps apart. The Australian National University is considered the country's elite university.
Almost like Scotland.
In front of the National Library of Australia, Ken stops the car. His wife walks over to the park, where works of art stand among the trees. Die she ever dream as a child that this would one day be her National Library – in Australia? Alida is a Scotswoman by birth. Her family emigrated when she was eight years old. “We landed in Brisbane”, she recalls. “Later on we moved to Townsville in North Queensland. Even more tropical!” A culture and climate shock at the same time for the family. But a stroke of luck for Alida. It was in Townsville that she met Ken, who worked as a supermarket manager in the little town. They got engaged and moved to Ken’s home city: Canberra. “Here the climate is much more pleasant,” she says. There are even seasons. Almost like in Scotland.
The red beast is a lady.
In 1976 Ken Edward’s father, an automotive mechanic, founded the “Mercedes-Benz Club of the Australian Capital Territory” together with three mates. And, Ken says, he himself has been with it almost as long. 36 years. His club friends, around a hundred and fifty, have sentenced him to life membership for this: “Ken Edwards, Life Member” is written on his membership badge. Ken and Alida drive along the shore of the city lake.
At an especially quiet spot along the forty kilometres of coast, they pause. Walk down to the water’s edge. On a small peninsula in the lake, the National Museum of Australia is lit up by the evening sun. They watch the scene in silence. Just one more question. “Sure.” Is the car a him or her? “It’s a her.” Does she have a name? Ken laughs. Naturally: “The Red Beast.”