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War, democracy and a jumbo jet

Thanks to COVID-19, Alex's long awaited school camp to the Snowy Mountains and Canberra was cancelled. Fortunately we have already given him greater snow experiences both overseas and in the mountains, but he was really looking forward to tours of the National Capital, having studied Australian democracy during the past couple of terms.

This time last year we were eating our way through Singapore and Malaysia, but now it is difficult even to go interstate. It is fortunate that we did not commit to more distant travel during these school holidays as state borders closed again in response to renewed virus outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales.

Instead we tried to make up for Alex's lost experiences with our own short visit to Canberra. Luckily several attractions reopened, though they required pre-booking.

I was concerned about Kita's separation anxiety, tried to restrict us to a couple of nights without an additional night at the South Coast. Eventually I acquiesced with an extra night in Canberra. After reports of virus cases at Batemans Bay and Albion Park I'm glad we skipped the South Coast.

I drove us down on the Wednesday, stopping at Berrima for a lunch of pies from the Gumnut Patisserie. In an effort to avoid restaurants, we booked a two bedroom apartment at the Deco Hotel in Canberra, where we had last stayed.

That afternoon we took a tour of the Political Cartoon and Truth, Power and a Free Press exhibitions at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Alex had done a virtual tour of the museum at school, but he says he really gained a lot out of the free press exhibition, which was really fascinating and included issues such as the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain, the concentration of media ownership and the pushing of fake news.

One reason for booking an apartment was so we could avoid restaurants and cook our own food in concession to COVID-19 risks, though thankfully Canberra doesn't seem to have any community transmission right now.

On Thursday I made bookings to see the ANZAC Galleries and the Galleries and Commemorative Area. The first housed the Japanese miniature submarine that was sunk in Sydney Harbour during World War II, along with the Avro Lancaster bomber G for George and a number of First World War aircraft. The second tour was through galleries of the first and second world wars. As is appropriate for a memorial, the displays focussed on the horrifying human impact of the wars rather than glorifying them. 

Despite B initially decrying the War Memorial as boring on the basis of her first visit, both she and Alex seemed to learn a lot about the wars and three hours later it didn't feel like we were given enough time to see everything. The air was so dry inside that we did need a rest. 

None of my immediate ancestors saw action in either of the World Wars according to family knowledge, though B's family lost members in Malaysia to the Japanese during the Second World War. I know one grandfather trained in the Territorial Army on Australian soil. But we felt we should still honour those who lost their lives, so as we left, Alex placed a poppy next to one soldier who shared our initials and surname on the Commemorative Wall.

Then we quickly grabbed a late lunch in the mostly closed food basement of the Canberra Centre before heading off on our next booked tour, the Australian Parliament House.

The house of the Australian government was mostly empty, parliamentarians on break, one that gets longer and longer as the government uses COVID-19 restrictions to avoid scrutiny and debate. So we followed the guide through the magnificent interior into empty chambers, before ending at the fossil of Shaun the Prawn in the limestone floor.

Alex insisted on walking up the grassy flanks of parliament house, which was built into the hill so that the people could stand above the politicians who are supposed to serve them, following on from Walter and Marion Griffins plans for the capital. Except that the politicians have subverted democracy and a fence now stands at the top, blocking the public from the apex under the flagpole.

A political reporter stood out the front of the house, either from Channel Seven or the ABC. I wondered if he was just repeating the political spin or challenging their frequently empty statements. I guessed the former, fearful of being excluded from the game of politics, confusing it with reality.

Back at the hotel, our two bedroom apartment was actually two separate rooms. That gave me a rare chance to watch the TV without interruption while the other two watched videos on their devices. I am quite riveted by this adaptation of War of the Worlds, though it is entirely unlike the original book. There was no Kita to demand to be taken out to the bathroom a dozen times a night, though I missed his comforting furry touch against my feet.

In the end I was glad that I had booked the final day in Canberra, for it hosted the final farewell flight of the Qantas 747 aircraft. A beautiful day outside, I finally agreed to hire bikes for a ride around the lake, but only if I could stop to watch the flight.

The bikes were delivered to the Canberra Visitors Centre at Regatta Point and we began our ride around the eastern side of the lake. The Captain Cook Memorial Water Jet made rainbows as its spray wet us.

I pulled over soon after the Kings Avenue bridge and watched the delayed take-off in the distance as rose northwards before setting off for a flight over the Snowy Mountains and Australia's highest mainland peak, Mount Kosciusko. 

It was then a matter of pumping hard to get back around the other side of the lake, past Kingston and through the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, towards and then away from the airport. On any other day I would have stopped to read the signs, to admire the scenery, but not today. B lagged behind, Alex kept up.

Along the way I surreptitiously noticed a few planespotters, saw the staring at their phones, adjusting cameras, listening into the tower communications. 

Past the Carillon I felt we had found a good place to watch, so we parked the bikes and I brought out my good camera. Other families also got ready as the white, red and silver 747 approached from the south. It banked and looped at low altitude over Canberra's many landmarks, disappearing behind Mount Ainslie before curving behind Black Mountain and back over the jet fountain and along the lake, finally turning around to land at the airport.

It was a magnificent show, a much better view than I had seen in Sydney, more intimate, more easily celebrated in this accessible city without skyscrapers.

B caught up with us and we returned to the fountain, where she remained while I followed Alex's insistence to ride beyond to the National Museum at Acton before returning. That was enough bike riding for us adults and even Alex was a bit tired.

We heading back into the city centre for a late lunch of really good Malaysian food at Mings' at No Name Lane, our first and only restaurant meal of the trip. We were the only customers by that time.

Then a bit of wandering around Civic. I really like the Canberra Centre, quiet though it usually is. Though we bought little, the shops are nice and I'll be sad when the end eventually comes for the department stores. I do hope they can survive.

The wind was too light to fly a kite, but Alex still wanted to go up to the Arboretum. With the sun dangerously low in the sky, I drove us up the hill to the top of the Arboretum. The centre was closed for the day, though children still played in the playground. I hurried towards the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion, across the grassy slopes, for I wanted to catch one last look at the Qantas 747.

After waiting and waiting, the light of the day fading, I finally caught a distant sight of the red tail with the white kangaroo. Then distinctive four engined jet finally rose above the trees and steeply up across the purple skies, crossing behind the spire of Black Mountain's Telstra Tower, disappearing into the darkening sky as it headed back for its final landing in Sydney.

And though I have flown that route many, many times, never in such a magnificent bird as that one. I felt a sense of sadness watching it go, imagining that I was on board, flying away on an adventure to distant lands. Unable to do so now, never to do so on a 747 again.

Our extra night in Canberra had meant changing rooms, now a single bedroom apartment. I was banished to the comfortable couch, our dinner was leftovers, too tired to shop for anything else.

Then it was our turn to join the 747 in returning to Sydney. With only the briefest of stops in Berrima to buy pies for lunch and dinner, I drove us home in time to collect Kita from boarding. He is surprisingly good, though he yelps when we gets confused and lost. 

At least we had a break from the house and the routine that we have been living since the pandemic hit Australia. We return to more cases in Sydney and the question of when things will even approach normal. Back to dreaming of holidays. 


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