A taste of Indigenous culture in the National Museum garden

Have you discovered the new forecourt garden at the National Museum in Canberra? It’s been gracing the entrance to the museum for about 18 months though I must admit I’ve walked past it a few times without paying much attention. It turns out it contains a whole world of discovery: a mosaic of plantings from across Australia, places to sit and even a little amphitheatre. Perhaps most surprising is the plethora of native plants which have provided food sources and medical supplies for Indigenous cultures for thousands of years where you least expect them.

My awareness was raised this time as I took part in a Tasting Australia garden tour, part of a series of seasonal walks through the garden with each season highlighting different plantings and smells. The tours, which have been running for a year, are led by Adam Shipp, a Wiradjuri man and a Canberra local, from Yurbay. Adam combines his interest with the land and environment, sparked by his days as a Parks Ranger and informed by knowledge that’s been shared from Indigenous elders across the country. Ah, the things you discover when you have someone knowledgeable pointing things out.

The first thing we learnt about was Kangaroo Grass. I’ll be honest—I really thought it was a weed but actually it’s a native grain, a little like wheat, whose seeds were historically collected, dried and ground before being made into a bread. It’s a grain that’s gluten free and very high in protein. It’s even being used commercially in Melbourne now after author and Indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking work to process kangaroo grass to prove the commercial value of native Australian crops. There’s another grass in the garden that’s a relative of rice and a spikey plant that produces a grain a bit like quinoa—all those food supplies just lurking there inconspicuously in plain sight.

Next up I learn that the familiar red bottle brushes (callistemons) are a source of natural sugar. Just follow the bees and you can pick the flowers to steep in water—cold is best—to make yourself a little bush cordial. Pretty subtle if you’re imagining the Cottee’s- type cordial but sweet nonetheless.

We wander among other plants that produce an array of useful things: sap that produces a strong adhesive, timbers for grinding stones or boomerangs, and materials for baskets and rope. Others have medicinal properties, to be used as a poultice to draw out infection, to clear up a sinus headache or perhaps to soothe your sleep. Watching the plants can also provide an indication of when other things are occurring in nature as natural weather watchers. And of course, there’s an array of plants which provide foods, from grains and seeds to greens to eat with your meal.

Of course, some plants are poisonous so it pays to know what you’re doing. Get it right though and you can use one of those poisonous plants (when ingested) to stun fish in waterways instead.

We finished our tour with a cup of bush tea flavoured with lemon myrtle and a sample of some different seeds and leaves and even a little native pepper. It’s not quite like scones and cream at the Ritz and it’s not going to fill your tummy but it is very interesting.

Some of the plant species we talked about which produce edible seeds can be found in various locations around Canberra, including various species of wattle so it’s possible to go out and do some foraging yourself for a little supply of wattle seeds—which are nutty and quite delicious. But you need to know where to go, how to differentiate between different species and how to recognise the best time to gather seeds. It’s a time consuming process which is why you don’t see many such seeds commercially. One exception is Cootamundra wattle seeds, a great source of Omega 3 oils, which are now available online.

If you’re in Canberra and want to delve a little deeper, Adam’s business Yurbay offers a range of workshops and talks, including hands-on walking experiences in Canberra locations which introduce the local foods and medicine plants of the region. For those dedicated to food, Adam can also do bush tucker cooking classes on demand.

Check with the museum when the next tour is on, or if you can’t get to Canberra, the good news is you can hop onto the Museum’s website and take a virtual tour through their videos instead.

Even if you don’t get on a tour, next time you’re at the museum, look a little closer at the garden on the way in. It’s a treasure trove just in itself. Ask at the Information Desk about free host talks about the garden features and the importance of fire and smoke or pick up a brochure about local bird life.

Don’t get confused though about the Garden of Australian Dreams a little further in behind the fence: there’s another world of discovery there as well hidden in the symbolism.

Window view of the Garden of Australian Dreams

Canberra’s having a party and you’re all invited: Enlighten Festival

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If you’ve been considering a visit to Canberra, the mild month of March might just be the perfect time to book it in when the annual Enlighten Festival lights up the city—literally.

Held over 17 days from 26 February, Enlighten is one great big birthday bash with a string of major events, and my absolute favourite time of the year to be at home in all the fun. Culture lovers, foodies, photographers, party goers —take note cos you can take part too.

This year it’s going to look and feel a bit different as the city marries holding a festival during a pandemic, even in a country that’s managed to avoid its worst ravages, but that’s where Canberra’s wide open spaces come into their own. There’s a lot more scheduling, smaller numbers, necessary registrations, and cleaning in between sessions, and sadly this year the Night Noodle Markets won’t be present to reduce numbers. But in good news, all of our other favourites will be making an appearance.

First up are the Enlighten Illuminations (26 Feb – 8 March), when the Parliamentary Triangle lights up in a dazzling display of coloured illuminations and the area comes alive each evening with live music and roving entertainment, with its own street food alley and a chilled out beer garden. Always a great vibe.

Various cultural institutions around town get into the act as well and put on a range of interesting events, including the Botanic Gardens, the zoo and the mint. Details are still emerging.

Because of COVID, things will be a little different this year and while most of the events are still free to get in to, bookings are required, including attending the Enlighten Alley or the beer garden. It’s to manage numbers and help tracking people, just in case of you know what. Head to the official website to book in a time slot.

Top tip for visitors: If you’re visiting Canberra, make sure you download the CheckInCbr app on your phone when you get here, if you haven’t done so already, to make check- ins super easy and save you entering in details every time you go somewhere new. One app will get you in just about everywhere.

To make the festival even more dazzling, then we add in a hot air balloon festival into the mix. Why not? The nine-day Canberra Balloon Spectacular (6-14th March) has been happening in Canberra now for over 30 years and it truly is a sight to behold. It’s the only event of the year that has me getting up in the dark to head down to the lawns in front of Old Parliament House to watch the balloons fire up and inflate in the rising dawn before they drift off across the lake and the city or to some other spot to catch the floating flotilla. You have to book in here this year as well.

It’s fairly spectacular, which I guess is why it’s called the Balloon Spectacular. Morning light, the Canberra landscape, all those coloured balloons—it’s pretty much a photographer’s dream so take along your camera or phone or both. If you’re keen to get some good photos of the event, I’ve got you covered with my aptly titled Tips for photographing the Canberra Balloon Spectacular.

The famed (infamous?) and very well-endowed Skywhale is hitting the Canberra skies again, this time in the company of her recently-announced-to-the-public-partner, Skywhalepapa, who takes charge of their clutch of whale babies in a paternal show of modern masculinity. Have you heard about these whales? They’re massive art creations by Patricia Piccinini in the form of hot air balloons and part of the Every Heart Sings art project. The new family launched together in February next to the National Gallery and there’s another two scheduled flights over Canberra planned for 8 March and 3 April 2021 before they take off across Australian skies as part of a National Gallery touring exhibition through 2021 and 2022. Maybe they’re coming to a town near you.

As the National Gallery writes: “Centred around the two balloons, the Skywhales: Every heart sings project spans music and song to knitting and baking. The story of the skywhale family is told in Patricia Piccinini’s new children’s book Every Heart Sings, while an exhibition in the Tim Fairfax Learning Gallery brings together studio drawings, 3D models and an interview with the artist to look at the development the skywhales. An accompanying online learning resource for primary students look at concepts of love, care and responsibility in relation to ourselves, families, and other living beings. Musician Jess Green (AKA Pheno) has created a song, We are the Skywhales, keen knitters can make their own skywhales from a pattern developed by a local Canberra knitter, and Three Mills Bakery have produced a limited edition skywhales croissant for the three Canberra flight events.

More than just hot air balloons! They even have their own song. You can find out more about the whales and the art project, as well as how to book on one of their two remaining flights in Canberra here. Love them or hate them, it’s great to meet them in person (or whale).

Don’t forget, balloon flying is always weather dependent so it pays to check whether they’re flying before you head down. I’ve previously written up some tips about how to get the best out of the event which are all still good advice. You’re welcome.

As if that wasn’t enough, then the festival is combined with Canberra’s annual film event, Lights! Canberra! Action! Each year Canberra film makers are given a theme to explore (this year it’s hope) and a list of ten different items to incorporate into a film which then have to create and edit in just ten days. The event culminates with the screening of the finalists’ films at an open air cinema on 5 March at Stage 88. Again it’s free but you have to register. Just like Cannes, sort of. (Edit: the tickets got snapped up in a flash but in good news, a second batch has been released today, that’s 23 Feb at time of typing, so get in quick if you’re super keen. If you miss those as well, perhaps watch out for cancellations?)

Music lovers can then have a relaxed evening out under the stars with a Symphony in the Park experience where classics are given a new twist in the hands of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. This year they’re combining with the BABBA group and celebrating the music of ABBA. Orchestral backing and ABBA music—yes! Just quietly, I have to say I love ABBA! And you know the drill—free but you have to register. (Edit again: Looks like this was super popular and tickets are sold out here too. Again, perhaps watch out for cancellations as you may be lucky.)

One last thing. The whole thing finishes with a flourish with an all day party on 8 March to celebrate Canberra Day and the founding of the city, 108 years ago. Hell, we even made it a public holiday. No doubt there will be music and good times, and in the morning Skywhale and Skywhale Papa will be making an appearance at the balloons. You need to book in for that as well, and you might be able to book a ride in the balloon. There’s more info about the whale balloons and their two coming planned flights here.

So in short, it’s a really fabulous time to be in Canberra.

But do you want to know the really sad news? I’m not even going to be here myself for most of it to partake. It’s seriously my favourite few weeks of the year to be at home when I rip through at least one memory card in my camera and I’ll miss the balloons. A little bit devo about it actually. I know it will be back again next time, but not with ABBA. Ugh!

For the rest of you though, soak it up!

Burleigh Heads: a foodie’s paradise

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Kitchen staff at work at Labart Restaurant in Burleigh Heads

The last time I visited Burleigh Heads as a teen many eons ago, it was all about the beach and working on my already ridiculously-tanned tan. The beaches are still spectacular and the same laidback vibe remains, but this time it was all about discovering the foodie delights, and it didn’t disappoint. Turns out I needed more than just four nights to get around all the places of note, which must mean just one thing – I’ll have to go back for more. Here’s a taste of what I discovered.

Breakfast

It’s said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that view seems to be especially noted in Queensland where the breakfast bar is raised to a new level. There’s a world of delicious choices—fresh, healthy and delicious and served by a swag of smiling and efficient souls. So, when in Rome …

Just on the outskirts of town is Commune Cafe, a humming, quirky cafe breathing new life into an old concrete block from the ‘70s. While lots of fellow diners focussed on the array of healthy choices— like acai bowls, super smoothies and maybe the famed corn fritters with coriander—it was the great display of home-baked goodies that spoke to me. I mean, who puts a snickers bar in a muffin? Well, apparently Commune do! Pancakes, my breakfast of choice, seem to have gone out of cafe favour of late but here they’re brought back to glorious life, with a great little twist – and I mean that literally.  Great space and teamed with efficient, happy peeps and Campos coffee.

Pancakes with a twist at Commune Cafe Burleigh Heads

Another excellent discovery was Paddock Bakery. Technically, it’s not actually in Burleigh. It’s in Miami Beach but let’s not split hairs when the food is excellent. As the name implies, it’s a bakery pumping out fresh breads and pastries, part of the extensive menu that will have you struggling to make a choice. It sits in a cottage behind a picket fence in the ‘burbs, full of cute indoor and outdoor spaces including a huge shaded courtyard with various nooks and crannies and now with an extra building to keep up with the crowds. A charming horse float serves quick coffees for those seeking takeaways. You can even pick up a pretty plant or cactus or two. Don’t miss the freshly pressed juices.

Picket fence at Paddock Bakery at Miami Beach

If you prefer to have brekkie at home, or even if you’ve already eaten out, do not miss Burleigh Baker. It boasts a small selection of sourdoughs which are fermented and baked on site. The fig and walnut bread was recommended to me and I’m going to proclaim it as the best fruit bread I’ve ever eaten.

Tarte Bakery makes an impressive French statement on the corner in its black and white tiled glory and tempers it with a bit of coastal cool. Headed by the former owner of Paddock Bakery above, it’s a relatively new addition to town. It certainly didn’t take long though to draw the crowds who happily line up for crispy pastries, lemon curds, bagels and freshly baked breads as well as cooked favourites with a twist.

Rhubarb and strawberry galette at Tarte Bakery Burleigh Heads

The village also has a couple of fab delicassens and gourmet foodie stores on James Street: the aptly named James Street Deli and the nearby Golosi Food Emporium. We’re talking cheeses, antipastos, fresh dips, prosciuttos and pretty much anything your gourmet heart desires for fancy takeaways or picnics. James Street Deli has a range of ready-to-go meals for eating at home and Golossi also has a cafe menu—all your bases covered.

Lunch or Dinner – you choose

For a true slice of Italy, head to Osteria del Mare where the food is an authentic as the accent of ex-Sydney chef and owner Andrea Riva. A casual coastal-inspired cafe in blue and white and fresh timbers, it serves up all the traditional fare you’d hope for and a few little variations as well, like fritto misto with calamari, prawns and zucchini. The pizzas are stretched and rolled and left to rise naturally for 48 hours before they’re cooked on stone and pasta choices abound. I’d recommend the creamy mushroom ravioli. The excellent Nero D’avola red wine wasn’t available by the glass, so hell, we just had to order a whole bottle, or perhaps do like the Italians and take an early aperitif and try a refreshing Aperol  or Venetian spritz.

Margarita pizza at Osteria del Mare

The bustling crowds at sleek but casual Vietnamese restaurant Jimmy Wah’s in downtown Burleigh is a sure giveaway that the food inside is good. Very, very good. Under the watchful eye of Jimmy Wah himself of Good Morning Vietnam movie fame, every beautifully plated dish that emerges from the visible kitchen is singing with vibrant Asian zing, full of rich and sometimes subtle flavour but without the burn. The remarkable dumplings in a mirin and soy broth had me playing the Masterchef taste test game trying to identify each ingredient. It’s refined, modern Asian all about the flavours. Think tempura spiced cauliflower, fresh salads or pork belly with lychee and chilli salsa. Don’t neglect the excellent wine and cocktail choices—they’re worthy of thorough investigation and a good pairing lifts the fare to an even higher level.

Jimmy Wah looking over diners at his restaurant in Burleigh Heads

Whatever you do, you really shouldn’t miss relative newcomer to Burleigh, Labart Restaurant.  The work and lovechild of an ex-Sydney chef who headed up the kitchens of Monopole, Cirrus and Est, along with marketing wife, it’s raised the dining bar level in town a notch or two. Sophisticated without being pretentious, it currently offers a set dinner menu for $125 a head or a shorter lunch menu for $90 a head, which changes with the season and the availability of ethically-sourced produce. Each dish is a perfect blend of flavours and textures. I’m still dreaming of the star anise ice cream, spring raspberries and puffed wild rice. The wine list is dedicated to natural and biodynamic wines.

 star anise ice cream, spring raspberries and puffed wild rice.

If you’re after a fun place for dinner washed down with a cocktail or two, and maybe some beats on the side, Light Years Asian Diner is the place to be. It’s described as a modern Asian diner, so think vamped up diner style seating and long tables but way cooler and with much better food and a bar on the side. It’s Asian and the food meant for sharing, so lots of little plates and big plates. Probably more for the younger crowd as the night wears on and the music gets turned up, so get in early if you want a quieter meal. The Vietnamese slaw is terrific. I’m also learning a great new respect for how cocktails can complement the food.

Fresh prawns and Asian slaw at Light Years in Burleigh Heads

If you venture some a couple of kilometres down the road, you’ll discover Miami Marketta in, you guessed, it Miami Beach. This is a vibrant street market affair featuring stalls from cuisines across the globe—gozleme, paella, karagi chicked, sushi, bao buns and just about everything in between, with an array of sweet choices to finish. There’s an atmospheric bar with shades of bohemia on one side and open seating on the other, and a supply of live music. There’s also a charming collection of unique and quirky fashion and jewellery stalls featuring local designers as well to keep your retail hunger sated. Lots of fun for a night out.

Paella at Miami Marketta Miami Beach

If you’re looking for suggestions on other activities to do on the Gold Coast beyond Burleigh, have a look at this article as well: https://boomingon.wordpress.com/2020/11/23/a-canberra-girls-guide-to-the-gold-coast/

Have you been to Burleigh? What are your fave must-do places to eat?

Bar at Miami Marketta Miami Beach

Newcastle: revisiting the place of my youth

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I visited Newcastle last week, the city I was born and grew up in. It’s strange that this place where I spent so many wonderful years and which is so very familiar – the geography and our shared history etched deeply into my brain – is now quite foreign as well. It’s a place I know and loved well but it no longer feels like home. Not even close to home.

It was to spend time with my ageing Mum, as she slowly recedes a little further away from us and into herself, though she’s in total denial about that. It’s a trip that’s fun in some aspects and very hard in others.

The beaches where I spent so much time at in my youth—in various bikinis baking in the sun in the company of friends, a little transistor radio set to 2NX, a can of Coke and a pack of Malboros (oh, how disgusting, I think now)—no longer beckon me to visit during the day. They’re far too hot for me now in summer and the waves I once gleefully jumped over and dived under seem far too cold. I’m only inclined to wander there as the evening starts to cool to try and capture a sunset or, very infrequently, a sunrise. Very early mornings and I don’t get on, which is unfortunate as that’s when the light and beaches are at their glorious best.

I walked past the Ocean Baths, teeming with people enjoying an evening swim even at 8pm. That’s a time when I’m normally at home sipping on a glass of wine happily ensconced on my couch. I spent many an early morning in those ocean baths in the bracing water taking swimming lessons, from a cross male teacher in white shorts with a long wooden stick which he used to push you back out away from the roughened pool walls if you ventured in too close. I’m sure that wouldn’t be allowed nowadays, although I did learn to swim pretty well. I still associate those swimming lessons, and the ones at Lambton Baths, with the zing of freshly squeezed orange juice and the scent of grilled sausages that greeted us for breakfast when we got home.

Every time I ventured out in the car, memories abounded. The library we borrowed books from as kids, the roads we took for family Sunday drives with our 10-cent bag of lollies in little white paper bags, the shopping centre now transformed into a massive beast that had me lost inside, school yards, the pub we hung out at en masse every Friday night as teenagers (when IDs weren’t so important). They’re very fond memories from a pretty blissful childhood and a carefree and happy youth, but they’re not enough to make me want to go back. And the heat at night is something I’m glad I’ve left behind.

It’s not my city anymore. I enjoy my visits and catch ups but now I feel a bit like a visitor who just happens to know her way around the ‘burbs and understands the landscape.  While I can admire the beaches, I don’t yearn for the coast. I prefer the hills and the trees, and I’m certain that’s been kinder to the health of my skin.

I was born a Novocastrian but my heart’s elsewhere now. After 35 years in Canberra, that’s now the place that feels right and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

What about you? Are you living in a place that feels like home?

Celebrating Australia: moving forward by recognising the past

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It’s Australia Day – a day each year when we celebrate this spectacular country and nation – and when we, once again, go through a series of conversations about whether this is an appropriate day on which to celebrate it.

I am privileged and grateful to live in this beautiful land I call home and I’m pleased to celebrate it and all it is to be Australian. But in recent years, like many others I’ve questioned why we have to stick to celebrating Australia on a day that’s so divisive: that is, the day when the First Fleet arrived and a British flag was struck into the earth in a clear assumption of Terra Nullius to begin their new settlement.

How can that event, and what came after, not stir up pain and hurt to the families of those who watched from the sidelines and saw their way of life torn from them and changed forever? Yes, that settlement allowed Australia as we know it to grow and it’s how I got to be here, but it caused a lot of grief to Indigenous people along the way.

Each year those conversations get louder and involve a greater diversity of people. As a nation, we seem to be becoming more aware of the pain and anger the celebration of Australia on this day causes to First Nations people. That’s a good thing. But the day also becomes more divisive, and that’s not a good thing.

If you’re not sure what that first flag meant in real terms to the people already living here, go and see the new Australian film High Ground about the conflicts between colonials and Indigenous people. It will provide you with a graphic and confronting reminder of what’s gone before.

Alternatively you might find relate to these words by Damon Gameau, author, storyteller and film maker (of That Sugar Film fame), who really encourages us to put the shoe on the other foot.

Photo: @ECImagery

“So just imagine you’re sitting at home with some family and friends. You’ve just had a nice meal and are enjoying conversation and having a few laughs over some drinks.

You notice a van pull up out the front. A few men get out and walk towards the front door.

You get up to greet them. They don’t speak much English but want to come in and say hello. They’ve been on the road for a while so you cautiously welcome them in, offer them a drink, interact as best you can and after a while they leave.

You watch them head to their van, they open the rear door and start pulling out furniture. You then see another couple of vans pull up behind them, more men get out and also begin to unload furniture. It’s at this moment you notice that some of your friends and family are suddenly feeling very ill. One of them tells you they think the strange men might have put something in their drinks.

The front door then bursts open and the men start moving in the furniture. You protest but they’re stronger than you and clearly on a mission. They start destroying your place, breaking possessions, smashing family heirlooms and throwing your own furniture out onto the street. There is lots of screaming as many of your family members are now very sick, while others are being beaten by the men.

In a very short time, your house as you knew it, has been completely rearranged. You hardly recognize the new design and amongst other things, there are strange animals running up and down the hallway that have killed your own pets and trashed the carpets.
You and your remaining friends and family have been forced to watch all this unfold chained to the back shed. The men occasionally give you some blankets but any family member who uses them seems to die during the night.

One day, the new occupants, which have now grown in considerable numbers, yell out to you that today is the one year anniversary of their arrival. They are calling it Renovation Day and want to mark the occasion with a celebration every year. They say Renovation Day is for all the residents who live on the block so you and your single remaining friend should come in, have a few beers and celebrate.

With a heavy heart you refuse their offer.

The men then yell at you from the window to cheer up, to lighten up, to get over it as it was so long ago. One man even tells you that moving in day wasn’t too flash for them either.

You sit and observe, unable to bring yourself to join in.

Year after year, this goes on. You watch the people in your house celebrating Renovation Day.

But one year you notice that fewer people are drinking and laughing. And over the next few years more and more people stop celebrating altogether. They don’t seem happy in their new home and just look out of the window into the backyard.

These people seem very different to the men who first arrived.”

Of course we’re not just celebrating a single event in our colonial history, but all that our nation is – including what was here before and what came after – our growth, our culture, our communities, our achievements, our multiculturalism, even our sense of humour and what it means to be Australian. We’re not looking to turn back the clocks of time, but maybe we should do a better job of acknowledging what went before and not choosing to keep celebrating on a day that continues to put a dagger into the hearts of many. As a white Australian, I don’t feel the grief that 26 January represents to Indigenous Australians, but I do accept that it causes pain. That should be enough to stop doing it.

Why can’t we celebrate our country then on an alternative day? To be honest, most white Australians are more concerned about the day being in summer, including a barbeque and a mandated public holiday than about the actual date it falls on. Many just want to dig their heels in for fear of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (though I’m unsure why being empathetic is considered going mad?) or perhaps because “it’s always been celebrated on that day” – which by the way is actually not true. But even if it’s been so for a while, doesn’t mean we can’t move on.

Perhaps instead we could choose the day our Federation was formed, or the first day of summer, or a rolling day like the third Monday of January – you know, to ensure the summer barbie on a day off is still in play. It really doesn’t matter much which day, as long as it’s not 26 January.

The conversation should be about listening as well as talking and it’s not helped by insensitive and ignorant comments from a Prime Minister who’s in the habit of getting his colonial history mixed up and tries to equate the troubles of the landing party with the assault on the native people already here. If, as the PM suggests, it wasn’t ‘such a flash day’ for any of the parties involved in the event we choose to commemorate, it begs the question of why we insist on keeping it to celebrate Australia?

Let’s hope one day soon we can celebrate Australia on a day that doesn’t cause pain. But in the meantime, here’s to our blue skies, open spaces, our multiculturalism, our sense of humour, caring for each other, a democratic government, freedom of speech, free health care and lots more.

We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do in some of those areas and we’re far from perfect, but it’s still a great place to be.

A tourist at home: showing off Canberra’s finest for the visitors

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There’s nothing like having a few interstate visitors in town to get you out and about sightseeing in your own backyard. It’s prompted me to put together a little suggested itinerary of some of Canberra’s treasures and things you shouldn’t miss if you’re heading this way. Here’s what we did.

National Botanic Gardens

Nestled at the foot of Black Mountain is a world of botanical discovery, with a strong focus on natives, and a great place to get your daily dose of fresh air. Don’t miss the cool and misty rainforest gully walk and look out for the new, expansive Banksia garden, established last year to celebrate the garden’s 50th anniversary and boasting over 70 banksia species. Who knew there were that many? It’s also a wonder for little kids with discovery trails, a tree-house to climb, and ducks and lizards galore who are rather cooperative when posing for photos. The lizards at least, the ducks not so much.

Parliament House

I took my sister here last week, thinking we were booking a guided tour. Turns out they’re not running at the moment so I ended up being the tour guide myself with the able assistance of some of the very informative and helpful staff around the building. Despite housing a number of idiot politicians (and the occasional able one), the building itself is amazing and features some beautiful Australian craftsmanship and timbers, and also a truly spectacular tapestry in the grand hall. The term Eucaplyptus green is very apt here. For kids, a roll down the grass hills at the sides is a must. I have done it myself, not too long ago when I definitely wasn’t a kid. Currently there’s an exhibition about Barton, our first PM.

Old Parliament House

This grand old former seat of government has been transformed into a marvellous museum that seamlessly combines history with the present. The Museum of Australian Democracy is one of my favourite places to visit in Canberra, either to keep the kids entertained at PlayUP, attend a special event or exhibition, or even wander through the rose gardens. The current Behind the Lines political cartoon exhibition is definitely worth a look. I’m also looking forward to doing the ghost tour I was booked on last year which was another COVID casualty.

National Museum of Australia

Underneath that soaring orange arch at the edge of Lake Burley Griffin lurks our very own national museum dedicated to telling stories through objects and words. Even the building itself, a triumph of modern architecture, is a marvel and has many hidden stories to tell. I divulged some of them here. They are currently showing the Endeavour Voyage exhibition, which provides some alternatives views of the voyages of Captain Cook (you can view it online too), and also an exhibition introducing the nominations for this year’s Australian of the Year award. See if you can pick the winner.

The National Zoo and Aquarium

I love this zoo! Sprawling over 25 hectares, it’s one of the largest privately owned zoos in Australia, which is great news for its residents who get to live in enclosures often two to three times the norm. The zoo is really dedicated to caring for the animals and also conserving them in the wild, and that’s the reason their rather fancy onsite accommodation Jamala Wildlife Lodge was started – to support animal education and conservation projects. Although it’s usually pretty solidly booked, they have some vacancies at the moment because many Sydney visitors have had to cancel because of COVID restrictions. If you’ve been hankering after an overnight stay here, this might be your chance as you currently pick up bookings with a 20% discount. It’s still not cheap but it’s a great experience. (Soon I will tell you my tales of staying there!).
hectares, it’s one of the largest privately owned zoos in Australia, which is great news for its residents who get to live in enclosures often two to three times the norm. The zoo is really dedicated to caring for the animals and also conserving them in the wild, and that’s the reason their rather fancy onsite accommodation Jamala Wildlife Lodge was started – to support animal education and conservation projects. Although it’s usually pretty solidly booked, they have some vacancies at the moment because many Sydney visitors have had to cancel because of COVID restrictions. If you’ve been hankering after an overnight stay here, this might be your chance as you currently pick up bookings with a 20% discount. It’s still not cheap but it’s a great experience. (Soon I will tell you my tales of staying there!).

National Arboretum

You really shouldn’t come to Canberra without visiting the National Arboretum. Really. It’s a spectacular collection of 94 forests of rare and symbolic trees from around the world and its moods change with the weather and the seasons. Growing on the site which saw horrific fire damage during the 2003 Canberra fires, many of the trees are still babies but two of the forests are actually over 100 years old. And just quietly, it has some of the very best views of Canberra and some amazing photo opps, especially at sunrise and sunset. There are also walking and cycling trails, a bonsai and penjing collection, various exhibitions and an amazing playground for the kids. The grassy hills are also the perfect place to fly a kit. Bring something warm – the wind up there on the hill can be brisk. Check out what’s happening here.

It’s been nice to show off some of Canberra’s array of sites and entertainments. It’s also been wonderful to spend January outside in the sun. Amazing to think back to this time a year ago when we were all cowering inside with locked windows hiding from the horrid bushfire smoke from the disastrous fires and that all of these places were closed.

How many of these have you been to? What’s your favourite?

The year that was – in pics

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The year that’s passed was not what we expected. It brought catastrophic fires and pestilence and mayhem, it was bleak and crazy and unspeakably cruel to many, but we managed to make the most of it and find the joy. For that, I’m grateful.

We squeezed in a family wedding just before Covid hit;

watched the little ones grow and played in the park;

took the time to do simple things like walking in the bush and swinging in trees;

welcomed a new baby;

took the time to put our feet up and relax;

found the beauty in each day;

saw some of my stories published in national magazines;

enjoyed the mundane and cooked a lot;

cherished our own backyard, literally;

explored some new places;

watched the sun rise and sometimes set;

sometimes we ate like kings;

tried new experiences and discovered treasures at home;

gathered when we could;

and sometimes wore a mask.

It was far from great but it wasn’t all bad and I’m counting my blessings.

I hope you found the joyful bits too.

May 2021 be kinder to the world.

Finding the light in a pretty dark year: 12 positives from the year from hell

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2020 was a shocker. For hundreds of thousands it was devastating, heartbreaking and life-changing. While there’s been a myriad written on the year from hell and without diminishing the pain and suffering of so many, there’s also an opportunity to reflect on what’s brought us together this year. We can think about some of the positives that emerged from the year as we leave it behind—because life’s too short to just concentrate on the bleak and there’s still a lot of amazing out there.

  1. Our hands may have been forced as Rona raged, but we did slow down and breathed a little slower and a little more deeply. Sometimes we actually stopped. As activities and commitments were cancelled, the weight of expectations lowered and there was a chance to get onto things we mightn’t otherwise have done. Getting on top of the ‘to do’ list, reading, spending unrushed time with family or friends, stepping off the crazy carousel even if just for while.
  2. Community spirit was amazing. Choirs sang, kindness and good deeds flourished, and people were (largely) positive and worked to support each other.
  3. We found joy in simple tasks and learned to appreciate some of the things we’d normally take for granted, like walking outside, visiting friends or giving a hug. Many people learned to bake bread.
  4. Homeless people were supported like never before and many were provided with homes, though huge challenges remain.
  5. We adapted to challenges and we used technology in positive ways to keep connected and to keep businesses alive and to teach children. Zoom became a new verb.
  6. While overseas trips were off the table, we rediscovered our own backyards and saw our towns and countries with wider, more appreciative eyes. In many cases, travel slowed down and we took time to smell the roses in someone else’s gardens.
  7.  Governments and countries worked together collaboratively and research and knowledge was shared.
  8. The work of health care workers and teachers has never been more appreciated.
  9. The way we work was transformed and working from home became an accepted norm. It may never be the same.
  10. Nature got a bit of respite from climbing carbon emissions (well, after from those devastating fires) as travel eased and cities closed down. Wildlife flourished and cities were transformed.
  11. We practised better hygiene and learned to wash our hands properly, meaning other flus and diseases actually decreased.
  12. We realised that we can do things really differently if we really have to. Let’s hope we can heed those lessons into the future and adapt our way of living to protect us from the next threat that’s lurking just about the corner—our changing climate. At least for that, we already have the vaccine and the cure—we just have to actually use them.

It seems many of us hope as soon as we hit 2021, things will miraculously turn around. It won’t be that simple and there’s a hell of a way to go, but let’s hope we can take the lessons of the year and carry them forward.

What’s been the best thing for you this year?

Here’s hoping we can leave the negatives behind but carry forward the positives. Let’s remember to smell the roses, and here’s cheers to a better 2021 for the world.

A holiday done differently: kicking back in the country

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Usually when I go on holidays, it’s not about rest and relaxation. It’s all go go go with activities and sightseeing and squeezing in as much as possible, taking photos, taking notes, sampling as much of the local cuisine as possible. Either that or spending time with family and being busy in lots of other ways. But not this time – this little trip I’m doing something completely different.

I’m staying in a lovely light-filled and airy house (perhaps it’s a homestead) up on a hill overlooking Hume Dam and out in the sticks. Well, I’m a city girl so ‘out in the sticks’ is a relative term but secluded according to my normal existence. It’s actually only a few kilometres to the nearest little township and about 20 minutes drive from Albury but it feels forever away.

It has views for days, which change hue as the day progresses, and I wake up to pale pinks and muted blues and greens and the sight of hills and water. There’s a couple of horses in the paddock to the right and a herd of cattle that come strolling by every once in a while. Lovely.

We had friends stay with us the first couple of nights but then more days of just hanging with no plans or agendas and time to spend doing very little. It’s not something I often do and it makes a rather welcome change. I don’t think it’s going to alter my usual vacation mode but I’m certainly savouring these quiet days while I can.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even bother anymore to take a book with me on holidays as I never get near to opening them. This time though, I’ve had my nose in a lovely book that was in the house and golly gosh, I’m actually going to finish it by the time I leave. Occasionally I look up to watch the colours of the lake and hills transform.

Strangely it’s a book I have myself at home, yet despite having owned it for ten years I’ve never got around to reading it there. This is what down time must be all about – doing those things you don’t normally let yourself do.

As I sit reading that book with a glass of wine I ponder on how connected this world is. That book is of France, Paris and St Remy de Provence, two areas I have visited and love. In fact, we visited places and shops in that village suggested in that book and brought home chocolates purchased on its recommendation. It’s written by the wife of someone I worked for many moons ago in Sydney, in my second ever job, a job I loved. Just three of us in the entire company in a little suite of offices high overlooking Sydney Harbour. As read I sip a chilled chardonnay from Italy, from a young Australian wine maker (whose wife is from Canberra) who we met while holidaying in the Piedmont in Northern Italy. I’m looking across to the mighty Hume Dam which I discover is being upgraded with money (many millions of dollars of it) my husband worked to secure in his previous life as a public servant. Just out to the left is the Bonegilla migrant site, now an ‘experience’ for tourists to discover the past where I visited and caught a video of an immigration officer from the 1940s: it’s a face I know and the father of a good friend.

Ah, what a connected little world we inhabit.

When my feet get itchy from too much sitting, I wander around and venture out with camera in hand to catch some photos in the glow of evening light. Sometimes it’s successful and sometimes not.

I’m reminded that capturing moving and back-lit black angus cattle in the fast fading evening light is a bit tricky. That sounds was a not successful.

Not far from our holiday abode is Albury and I did make it in there for a visit. It’s the town where my mum grew up for 10 years and where my parents met and ‘courted’. I find her previous family home: just as she described overlooking the botanic gardens and looking rather grand. I imagine it looks pretty much as it did back then and I wonder how many of the trees and plants in the gardens were once tended by my grandfather, a keen gardener, and back then the local newsagent. I think I’ll take a copy of the photo we have of that house from the 1950s and send it to the current owners.

Not far away, somewhere on the banks of the Murray, was where my Dad proposed. It makes me happy to think of that. He would have been so pleased when she said yes. I’m glad she did too.

This little country stay has been about kicking back. It’s been a different sort of break for me, these days of slow relaxation. I imagine this is how many people usually take their holidays.

I’ll savour it for the moment because next time I’m away I’ll no doubt be back to my usual hectic self.

More jewellery acquisitions for Christmas – for a very good cause

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Confession: I have a bit of a thing for collecting jewellery. Not the super expensive gold and diamonds type jewels (although I’m fairly partial to a pearl or two), but I do have enough pretty things to adorn outfits for the rest of my life, and then a few more lifetimes after that.

And yet, when I spied yet ANOTHER very special necklace and bracelet, I just couldn’t resist.

Here me out, though, cause now I’m going to justify this wanton obsession. (Life rule: you can justify just about anything if you try hard enough.)

My big excuse is that the jewellery was purchased from a non-profit organisation whose work supports a really good cause. So, I figure it’s more a donation than a purchase. Just not tax deductible. And I get something lovely for it.

It was from the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, an organisation that works to restore health and dignity to women in Africa by treating and preventing the horrendous – and preventable – childbirth injury, obstetric fistula. That’s an internal injury caused by a prolonged, unrelieved obstructed labour, which leaves women incontinent, humiliated and cut off from their communities. Nasty stuff that women in developed countries don’t really have to think about.

The organisation was founded 60 years ago by two Australian surgeons, Dr Catherine and Reg Hamlin and started when they did a three-year posting to Ethiopia. They spent their lives dedicated to bringing treatment and education to the world’s most marginalised women who have suffered these terrible childbirth injuries. What a marvellous couple! I didn’t even know what a fistula was before I read about this organisation – because in Australia with decent medical treatment it’s not an issue. Now the foundation has restored dignity to over 60,000 women, an amazing number of lives transformed. Catherine Hamlin died earlier this year. You can read more about her here.

The particular jewellery pieces I spied when flicking through their online catalogue had an even more compelling story attached to them. They are made from discarded artillery shells scattered over the mountains of northern Ethiopia, the residual reminders of former war conflict. Local farmers collect and supply the shells to local artisans who melt them down to make delicate silver beads. These are then sent to a fair trade project which employs local women to make the jewellery in a safe community environment.  

I mean, when I read that I really couldn’t resist. Wins all round. I do feel much better knowing about the work my purchase supports, even if I don’t need the extra bling.

And they’re so pretty!!

On top of that, at least this latest acquisition of jewellery was the result of an actual purchase using cold, hard cash (well, more accurately, an online credit card) rather than just gathering more jewellery from virtual strangers on holidays and in other devious though accidental ways.

If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, perhaps take a look at their catalogue of lovely fair trade goodies. There’s more jewellery, bags, scarves, homewares, kitchen items, gifts for babies and cookbooks and spices. Even a yoga mat. In a very 2020 way, there’s also a selection of cotton face masks!

I was sorely tempted by the hand woven straw placemats too but I’m supposed to be clearing things out of my house rather than putting more in so I desisted. Just.

And remember, it’s not just shopping – it’s supporting good works.

There’s a number of other very worthwhile organisations that do similar gift catalogues which I’ve purchased from previously. For years my Mum would give all her kids World Vision goats or chickens, delivered to someone in need overseas, and I gave my own kids several as well.  Here are a couple more to choose from:

World Vision

Salvo’s

Oxfam

Happy shopping! Or if you don’t like shopping, you can always check out the work of these organisations and just give them money instead! Or buy something for someone else, like a nightdress and a new dress for one of the women being treated.

So many choices!

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