In which our intrepid hero tells of the mythical lands of his birth.
Once upon a time, a handful of workers used to cross a minefield and navigate a small gap in the barbed wire to labour daily in the US enclave of Guantánamo Bay. As the sun set, they’d file back through the opening to return to their homes in the Republic of Cuba.
My hometown is a bit like that.
Canberra, on the one hand, is the capital city of Australia. But it’s also the largest town in the lands southeast of Sydney. The two rarely meet, and then only briefly; by dusk, the two towns are separate once more. The parliamentarians and their staff, flown home on Thursday night, never experience Friday-night shopping or the calm silence of a Canberra weekend.
The locals file daily across the imaginary border to their government jobs, but once night falls, they return to their homes, or stop by one of the pubs which politely eschews outsiders.
The “other” Canberra—the one that only locals see—is a unique, bizarre, almost magical place, largely untouched by the troubles of other cities.
Visitors rarely get to see this place; it was there I took Mim K/W last weekend. I may’ve left for Sydney some 14 years ago, but fortunately, the Kingdom of Canberra—for once it had a King—remains open to me by birthright.
Outsiders barrel down the Federal Highway, missing the tiny village of Collector. Local guidebooks tell of its bushranger history, but make little mention of the sculptures north of town, outré forms like set pieces from a Brian Yuzna movie.
They miss the ghost tales of the flat and eerie Lake George, where, locals have it, boaters disappear with alarming frequency.
Nor do they hear about the tragic death of a young girl during the demolition of the old Canberra Hospital—where I was born—to make way for the new National Museum, or that Government House is haunted after all—but not by the ghost mentioned in the guidebooks.
They pass by the Air Disaster Memorial on the way from Canberra Airport with nary a shiver, unaware that the screams of dying passengers can be heard on rainy nights.
Outsiders think of Canberra as a city without a soul. True, Canberra is a place where nothing happens—unless you make it happen. It’s a place where generations have been born and died, have moved away and returned; its soul is built from the dreams and whimsies of true Canberrans, and closed to those too quotidian to comprehend.
The Kingdom of Canberra is a Hy Brasil in the autumn fog, a dreamland of frigid winters and searing sun. The Kingdom and its surrounds are home to dying myths and those that linger on. History becomes fable and lives on in stories told in tones inaudible to the outside ear.
During WWII, the 14th Btn Volunteer Defence Corps perched in a nook overlooking the slopes of Clyde Mountain. Charges were bored into the hillside to protect the road from Canberra to the sea from a Japanese advance that never came. When peace was declared, they disappeared from history, leaving behind only a mysterious hole peeking beneath the impenetrable forests.
To this day, carloads of children honk their horns and wave as they pass the site, a courtesy to the hole’s new inhabitant, two hours by car from Canberra:
That’s right. Sometime after peace was declared and the soldiers returned to their homes, local lore tells us that Winnie the Pooh moved in. Or maybe he always lived there. Whatever the story, Pooh still dwells on the slopes of Clyde Mountain, on the road to the sea, accepting gifts from well-wishing passersby:
As you can see, Pooh has his own mailbox and his friends have left toys, from Tigger to the heffalump that waits outside his door. They scrawl their names on the lintel to let Pooh know they popped in whilst he was out.
Such is the magic here.
Last weekend, Mim K/W experienced this magic for the first time in her life. And she fell in love with the mysterious land concealed beneath the polite but staid Capital Country.
Soon, perhaps, she’ll be one of us. And then the Kingdom of Canberra will live on in another heart.