My apologies for not posting in a while. As I mentioned, my work was keeping me away from my computer for the past few days – 11,000 miles away, to be more precise. I was in Australia.
After a short 29-hour trip, in which I completely lost the day of November 6th due to the quirkiness of the international dateline, I found myself in Australia’s capital city for a conference and a series of meetings with the Australian Defence Force. The meetings weren’t until Tuesday and it was only Sunday afternoon. So I had made other plans, among them: cycling.
Canberra is situated around the man-made Lake Burley Griffin, named after the American who designed the plan for the city in 1910. Oddly, his first name was Walter, but they decided to use his middle and last names when naming the lake after him. I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for that, but I have come to find that there are all sorts of small oddities like this in Australia. In any event, the name of the lake is incidental to this story. What is important is that there are a series of cycling paths which almost completely encircle the lake. Additionally, there is a bike rental shop right on one of these paths.
I read on the internet, that Mr. Spokes opened at 9:00 AM and I therefore walked the two miles from my hotel to the lake and presented myself shortly after that time. The shop’s website mentioned that they don’t open on days of inclement weather, so I was mildly concerned about the torrential thunderstorm that blew through the city in the early morning hours and the forecast for showers later in the day. This concern was elevated after my arrival, when I saw the shop was closed. Two other hopeful patrons were waiting and one of them even tried to call the shop to figure out if they would open. In a few minutes, we were all relieved to see the shop’s proprietor, Martin, pedal up on his bike to open for the day. We were literally in business!
After filling out a short form, Martin provided me with an Avanti Mountain Bike with an eight-speed internal hub (all the shifting occurs inside a hub on the rear wheel – you don’t see the gears). He provided a helmet, a lock, a map, and some water to boot. All of this came with a fee of $25 for a four-hour rental. In a land where a medium soda costs $3.80, I considered this to be quite a bargain. After a brief orientation from Martin, I was off.
Then I came back. The gears weren’t working after 4th gear.
I guess this is to be expected in a rental bike, which assuredly aren’t treated with the same love and care by the general populace as one would treat their own bike. Martin seemed surprised that I was having difficulty but quickly agreed to swap the bikes out. He provided me a Shogun Metro with a “traditional” derailleur and I immediately knew this would work out very well for me. The gears worked great and the Shimano shifters were identical to the ones on Old Ironsides.
Confident that I was finally ready to go, I set off with the sense of exhilaration you get when you are at large in an unfamiliar place. My plan was to circumnavigate Lake Burley Griffin in a counter-clockwise manner with some detours to see various attractions along the way. I expected the ride to be about 25 miles. As it turned out, it was closer to 31 miles. You can follow the twists and turns of my trip by clicking on the Garmin link above.
My first stop was outside the National Museum, which sits on a small peninsula on the north side of the lake. After pausing to take some pics, I pedaled alongside the waterfront and rejoined the bike path, at which point I immediately became lost. I found myself on the campus of Australian National University, and doubled back on my track until I found the right pathway. It should be noted here that although I had a map with me, the word “map” is used in a very generous manner in this context. A more appropriate wording for the document would be “Helpful Guide That Generally Keeps You Pointed In The Right Direction.” The major streets were named and little else. A great many minor streets were not even depicted. No worries, as the Aussies, would say. I would quickly figure out my missteps and then everything would be “right as apples!”
After a short while, I came across the Black Mountain Peninsula, another small outcrop upon which is situated a very nice park. After some more obligatory pics, I rejoined the path and headed to the west (or most rural) portion of the lake. The path followed the lakefront, with small twists and hills. It was a very nice day, though the clouds were threatening and a breeze was kicking up. I passed several cyclists who were enjoying the path. Interestingly, it seems the American practice of waving at a fellow cyclist is not largely followed here. I suspect it’s because cyclists aren’t quite the novelty in Australia that they are in America. Thus, coming across one is not an event worth noting with a hand wave.
I passed under tunnels and through groves of Cork Oak Trees. I saw any number of exotic birds including magpies, which are in the habit of dive-bombing unsuspecting pedestrians and cyclists in an attempt to grab some hair for their nests. Cyclists discourage this practice by attaching snap-ties to their helmets, with the pointy ends facing the sky. I noted that my helmet did not have any such modification and hoped for the best.
The pathway eventually took me along the south side of the lake, where I passed the zoo and a marina. I came across Stirling Park, a nice setting with many small monuments and sculptures. Several of these had an oriental style that seemed a little out of place without any sort of explanation. It was still quite pretty, though. I hopped off the path to pedal on a broad sidewalk which was right next to the lake. Very nice. In a short while, I found myself in the vicinity of Parliament.
There are actually two parliament buildings in Canberra. The Old Parliament, which is now a museum, was built in 1913 and remarkably lasted only 70-odd years before the Aussies felt the need to build a new one. I pedaled around the grounds, which featured gardens for the Senators and Congressmen, a statue in honor of King George V, and a ramshackle tent city erected by Aborigines in what appeared to be some sort of protest.
I made my way to the new Parliament building, a modern-looking structure featuring a massive (83 meter) flag pole flying an Australian flag larger than a city bus. The views from this location were fantastic. There is a very long axis of buildings and parks extending from Parliament across the lake to the Australian War Memorial and Mount Ainslie. It is an impressive vista.
I then rejoined the path at the National Portrait Gallery and was pleased to hear the bells from the National Carillon playing a pretty tune on the other side of the lake. At this point, I reached my most difficult navigational challenge. I needed to ride on city streets until I found the entrance to the delightfully named Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve, where I would ride on a series of trails before rejoining the path on the north side of the lake. To do this, I needed to find Newcastle Street. Sadly, my “map” did not name the two streets which I had to find before reaching Newcastle. It helpfully told me I would be in the vicinity of the National Train Museum and a Fish Market. I found both of these landmarks, but couldn’t locate Newcastle Street. You can see my failed attempts on my Garmin page. I actually came quite close!
I was now very much improvising as I went. With only a basic understanding of the city’s roads and a marginally-useful map, I tried to make my way to the north side of the lake. Fortunately, there are several prominent landmarks such as Ainslee Mountain and the Telstra Tower on top of Black Mountain, that helped me keep my bearings. I eventually found the northern end of the wetlands, where I decided to simply rejoin the path and continue around the lake.
In short order, I happened across Royal Military College – Duntroon, where the Australian Army trains its officer corps. I stopped by for a visit and searched for a way to the top of a hill which featured the grave of Brigadier General Bridges, Australia’s first-ever general officer, who died at Gallipoli in 1915. Bridges also founded the RMC, so his resting place makes perfect sense. Climbing further uphill, I came upon a very pleasant scenic overlook. Again, you can see my probing attempts to find my way up the hillside over unfamiliar roads on my Garmin.
I drank the last of my water and headed downhill and back to the cycle path. After a few miles of pleasant pedaling along the lake front, I found myself back at Mr. Spokes. Martin welcomed me back and informed me the Avanti hub was indeed shot. We then chatted about his shop and cycling in Canberra. He told me there were a lot of mountain biking enthusiasts in the city and Canberra hosted some sort of world championships just last year in the mountains south of town. He also mentioned that November was one of his slowest times of year, which I thought odd as it was springtime and the weather was fantastic. Martin said that things really pick up for him around Christmas. I told him of my mild disappointment at not seeing a kangaroo, and he said they are best found in the mornings or early evenings slightly further out of town. Mount Ainslee is a great place for “kangaroo hunting.”
And with that, I bade Martin “g’day” and headed back to the hotel. I thus concluded one of my slowest-paced and yet one of my most enjoyable rides ever. Canberra is a very scenic city, full of parks and interesting diversions. Seeing it by bicycle was a fantastic way to take it all in!