“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“…I have become a work of art. Welcome to the pleasuredome”
Frankie Goes To Hollywood “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”
I hate Canberra. Always have! I still have nightmares of visits there with my family when I was a youngster – the endless hours it took to get there (always with a thermos of instant coffee and cut sandwiches – no roadside cafes with bain-marie stodge and International Roast coffee for my parents), then being dragged through every door and corridor of the War Memorial, old Parliament House and every other building that the ubiquitous ‘Tourists Guide to the ACT’ booklet told us to visit. We stayed in “budget” motels, all decorated with the same teak laminex, the same matching curtains and bedspreads in orange floral fabrics, bathrooms with folded-edge toilet paper, bag-wrapped glass and a “Sanitised” paper banner across the toilet seat. All served an almost cold breakfast to your room in the morning, served on a teak plastic tray that was left outside your door. Where would we be without cold toast, rock hard pats of butter, little plastic sachets of Vegemite, peanut butter, honey and various jams;Kellogg’s ‘Variety’, and Lipton’s tea bags draping out of a stainless steel teapot? Add in the small impish squeals from my mother as she tucked sample soaps, complimentary shower caps, miniature shampoo and conditioners, and sachets of tea and coffee into the suitcase, and you have, evidently, the ideal holiday scenario. Mmm!
Then there was the weather!
The last time I was in Canberra was in 1982, to audit the stocktake in a retail store owned by Pellegrini and Co. I have to point out I wasn’t there voluntarily. Canberra was covered in fog when I arrived, and was still covered in fog when I left. I didn’t see a single minute of sunlight in all the time I was there. I determined to never return. Never let it be said that I am not softening in my old age. I decided to give it one final chance at redeeming itself.
We stayed at my partner David’s family home at Mount Annan on the Friday night – a trial on its own – then headed off for Canberra at 7.00am on Saturday morning. It no longer takes endless hours to get there, though that isn’t necessarily advantageous. Before the M5 was built, you could visit a multitude of small towns en route to the national capital. Now, you can drive there from Sydney in three hours, provided the monotony of the drive doesn’t induce a microsleep. No longer is there an obligatory stopover at Goulburn, to climb and admire the view from the eye of the Giant Merino (1). No, we had to do a detour to see this grand example of Australian kitsch. After climbing the ghastly concrete interior up into its head, I took a photograph from the eye, just to prove that I had been up there as I was sure mo one would believe me, but all it managed to capture was fingerprints, and perspex-blurred clouds. Even the souvenir store failed to intrigue us with myriad counters of boxes-that-bleat-when-shaken – what is the purpose of these? – and tiny fleece covered model sheep. Probably made in Taiwan anyway!
The other port of call to break the journey was at a tiny township called Marulan. Neither of us had ever heard of it, and the tiny castle on the signposts pointing to it captured our imagination. I was disappointed at not finding a castle in the town! Instead we find a tiny two-street town going back to the 1820’s. It’s hard to imagine that until the M5 was built, trucks would roar up and down its main street. It is one of those church/ police station/ post office/ school/ historic Victorian railway station/ pub/ general store/ and several historic homesteads-type towns. Two of these beautiful homes had been converted into a factory by the addition of a very ugly 1970’s redbrick facade. The roof peaks of the original historic buildings could be seen poking up above the added frontage. I wept at the ruination! Just to the south of Marulan are the remains of the ‘famous’ Moccador Pavlova Factory (2), which was built in the shape of a large pink and white pavlova. And I thought the giant merino was pretty hard to beat! The more modern (operating) general store and pub were the only two buildings open. Everything else was boarded up. Poor Marulan has been bypassed three times in its history, and is now totally cut off from the world. A new housing sub-division is going up, but somehow, I don’t think it’s going to relive its boomtown era again.
A quick stopover to view the currently dry Lake George, and we were in Canberra.
I’d like to say its changed, but I’d be lying. However, I have to admire its wide avenue-styled, tree lined streets. There is a lot to be said for planning a city, though I don’t really think – to be political – that I want to live or work in an area named after a predecessor of fishnet-stockinged Alexander Downer. We only got lost once – which is better going than when I went there with my father in the late 60’s. We managed to go around the circuit road so many times that I started to think Canberra only consisted of one street! David and I orienteered our way around the circuit road and finally found ourselves, though somewhat dizzy, at King’s Park.
Entry to Floriade was free – a pleasant change after paying to get into the Bowral Tulip display last year. Before venturing into the gardens, we decided to have a look at the markets set up at the entrance to the display. Now if we were expecting plants, and all things horticultural, we were to be bitterly disappointed. You could purchase Chilli Chutney – so hot that David’s mouth was out of action for the next hour – and one of the few times in my life I exercised discretion in the presence of food. I thankfully threw the hand up and avoided it, leaving the assault on my palate until lunch. On top of that is fudge in every imaginable flavour; puzzles; clothes; jewellery; sunglasses – just about everything but flowers and plants. And here was me thinking it was a horticultural show! Passing by a prominent display of willow branches spray painted in realistic fluro colours with matching watering cans – the connection between the two items is lost on me as the branches were obviously dead – we overheard another store holder commentto the owner of the matching willows and cans that he was “Glad to see you in shorts, Now we really know that summer has started”. David and I exchange a look! It may have been 28°C in Sydney that day, but it was only 20°C in Canberra, for God’s sake! A garish display of artificial flowers distracts us. Decisions, decisions. We decide to avoid the wrath of the mother-in-law by indulging David’s grandmother with a bunch – she has a great love for them, despite being a fanatical gardener. I’ve never quite understood that.
From here we traipse to the displays. There were 1,188, 011 plants. I counted them, so trust me on that. Most were in full bloom, though due to the cold weather several beds were fallow, barren grounds and hadn’t achieved blooming status. One bed that was supposed to be a mass of white lilies was just a sea of pointed green leaves. I admired them anyway, as we had come a long way to see this. Mother Nature decides what will be, and obviously this year she was being a bitch. The garden theme this year was “Poetry in Flowers”. Areas are divided into themes’, such as “Kubla Khan – Xanadu”, inspired by oriental carpets; “Ode to the Plum Blossom”, a floral interpretation of Lu Yu’s poem in camellias, viburnums and rhododendrons; “Song, From Pippa Passes” – I got the giggles thinking about what Pippa may have passed – by Robert Browning, planted with 58,000 hyacinths, muscari, narcissus and tulips; “Noise by Pooh” – the giggles are now hilarious laughter – the centrepiece of the children’s area, depicting A.A. Milne’s famous bear created with 53,000 blooms. One major problem with setting the gardens out in these phantasmagorical designs is that you can’t see them! From ground level, the designs are totally lost. “Kodak” have kindly placed some Photo-Moments stands along the way, which raise you about 2 feet off the ground, but that still isn’t enough height to give you a vista showing the designs off to there fullest. There should have been stands set about 6-8 feet off the ground to show off the displays – but then, this is our political capital, and either nobody thought of it, or the idea is still in some public servants in-box. I wasn’t even aware that the designs were in place until I thumbed through a magazine the next day at home.
Anyway, it didn’t seem to phase the thousands of beige-outfitted elderly men – Panama or tweed hats are the official headwear of the gardener male – and their partners, in three-quarter-length white or bone pants (visible panty line optional), over-blouse of blue and white floral (blowsy enough to propel them along in the breeze) and over-sized straw hats with floral hatbands, tied with a chiffon scarf tied under the chin in a giant bow – the official headwear of the gardener female. They pointed, oohed and ahed, tittered and tutted, and cupped blooms in their hands as they wandered from bed to bed. The serious gardeners stood in groups, dissecting, analysing and correcting every nuance of every flowerbed. I often wonder if these people can ever just enjoy a beautiful display as a beautiful display, or if it must always be never quite good enough.
The arrival of a very large troupe of Japanese tourists provided a momentary distraction to all the beauty around us. David and I were sitting in a tent set up as a café, eating and trying to enjoy a very limp – and obviously not fresh – Waldorf salad when they arrived. In typical Japanese tourist fashion, they were herded into two groups, segregated by large signs on green and yellow cardboard, mounted on sticks and waved in the air. The writing on them was Japanese, but considering where they were, I imagined the groups were possible named plum blossom, and cherry blossom, or something equally Japanese. Anyway, they didn’t manage to see all that much. They were shuffled into one spot, did a 360-degree rotation accompanied by the very audible click if twenty cameras going off at the same time, then they were off amongst a lot of pointing and chittering. Probably off to the market. One almost felt sorry for them.
A quick trip to the Theatre of Film and Sound to view some of the archived material from the Canberra based film preservation group ended our tour of the garden. It had taken us about two hours to cover the whole area – and yes, we did find some plants for sale. Real plants, that is! We picked up a tub of flowering Daffodils, to drop off at David’s mothers on the way back.
I can’t in all honesty say that Canberra has endeared itself to me, but they put on one hell of of a flower show!
(1) The Big Merino:
Built in 1985 is a monument to Goulburn and the surrounding district’s fine wool industry. Standing 15.2 meters high, 18 meters long and weighing 97 tones he is an impressive life-like model of Rambo, a stud Ram from a local property, “Bullamallita”.
The complex was opened on September 20 1985 by John Brown who was the federal minister for sport, recreation and tourism. The idea was originally conceived by brothers Attila and Louis Mokany.The Big Merino was constructed by Adelaide builder Glenn Senner and took six months to build. The frame is steel, covered and shaped with wire mesh, sprayed and detailed in reinforced concrete. The architect was Gary Dutallis.
As the Goulburn bypass took effect on the city, Goulburn changed. The city expanded and a new development at the southern end meant that the Big Merino previously the first stop off the southern exit from the expressway was now stranded in no mans land. On the 26th May 2007 this grand structure moved 800 metres towards the southern exit to greener pastures.
The move has given Rambo a new lease on life with the construction of a new gift shop and a permanent exhibition from Australian Wool Innovation depicting the 200 year history of wool in Australia which is housed in the Big Merino structure. The second floor will eventually show all the stages of wool processing. Marshall Judd was commissioned to construct the under belly and three new legs representing a more complete, free standing model than previously shown.
The Big Merino gift shop displays an eclectic range of quality gift wear, cosmetics, souvenirs and accessories. We aim to supply our overseas and local visitors with the best quality products made from fine Australian merino wool. Our range includes Australian made ugg boots, locally hand-dyed gossamer-fine wool scarves, merino possum blend scarves, hats, jumpers and jackets, Mohair throw rugs and scarves, pet doonas, medical and baby’s sheepskins as well as plush sheepskins.
(2) The Old Pavlova Factory:
Just to the south of Marulan are the remains of the ‘famous’ Moccador Pavlova Factory which was built in the shape of a large pink and white pavlova. The factory used to manufacture pavlovas, handmade chocolates and cheesecakes and offer devonshire teas to travellers but it was a casualty of the town’s by-pass. It closed in 1991.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/travel-factsheet/marulan–places-to-see-20081124-6fx9.html#ixzz2VbstoFXr