ANZAC Day in Canberra

Last week was kind of crazy.

The meteorologists warned us of ‘gale-force winds’ on Monday night, but everyone sort of shrugged their shoulders and moved on with life. I had arranged a two-day student photo shoot for the Tuesday and Wednesday, so no matter what, I needed to believe in good weather.

We all know what happens to the best laid plans, of course.

I spent the night stuffing towels into our south-facing windows, which revealed their weakness. Newcastle saw the worst storm since 2007, when rough seas and strong winds beached a stubborn container ship on Nobbys Beach. We called off the photo shoot by 7.30 am. By 8.00 I’d had word that the University of Newcastle had closed its campus – no work for me. Our neighbor’s tree had toppled into their neighbor’s garage, and I knew this was a day to stay inside.

Sydney Storm
Leaky windows looking pretty good at this stage.

By Friday, the storm had moved south. As arranged, I left the office at noon for a 4 1/2 hour drive to Canberra, the nation’s capital.

“Canberra?” my boss said, when I requested the time off. “What are you going to do there?”

Somewhere along the line, Canberra got a bad rap. It’s too many hours inland. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter, full of politicians and devoid of soul.


I’ve been to Canberra once, in 2009. We stayed with friends of Jared’s from college, in a cosy cottage with a wood-burning fire. Jared took me skiing (yes, in Australia) and we had a boozy night out in town.

This time, we stayed with the same friends, who are now married with a toothy little baby. They still have a cosy house with a wood-burning fire (fun fact: it used to house a pair of Russian spies), and we had a grown-up sleepover with mattresses on the floor: Australian, American, English, and French all claiming a spot.

The sun shone for the whole drive down, belying the trainwreck of a week we’d just had, weather-wise.

Newcastle to Canberra

There was a compelling reason to head to Canberra this particular weekend; it marked 100 years since the ANZACs landed in Gallipoli. April 25th is ANZAC Day, traditionally commemorated with a dawn service and followed by a day of two-up. We spent Friday night at Canberra Stadium watching the Brumbies defeat the Highlanders in the SupeRugby. I drank a lukewarm ‘hot’ chocolate and attempted to ignore the woman behind me, who insisted on repeating her mantra for 80 minutes straight:

“Come on Brum-BAYS

Canberra brumby
Waiting my turn to meet the Brumby.

It was an early night because we all rose at 3.50am on Saturday morning to attend the dawn service at the National War Memorial. The event was remarkably well-conducted. A reported 120,000 people attended the service, yet we were able to park the car and drive away afterwards in minimal traffic. The dawn service was somber and concise, which I appreciated.

Canberra ANZAC Day
Picture-taking at 4.30am. Obviously my strong point.

Truth: I attended the dawn service primarily because I’d never been to one before. It seemed right that if I was ever going to do it, it should be at the 100th anniversary in Canberra. I was amazed at how composed everyone was, including the young children, and at the distinct lack of kerfuffle as we all headed back to our cars when it was all over.

When we returned to the house, things went like this: coffee, breakfast, nap. A few hours later, everyone woke up and wandered outside to the backyard, where we watched the baby as he watched the world, coveting raspberries and coffee mugs; basically anything he didn’t already hold in his hand.

Also, Canberra has fall. LOVE.

Late in the afternoon we made it to Manuka Oval for two-up in the dirt. It cost $5 to get in to this once-a-year event, where heads and tails becomes a lucrative (or poverty-making) event. 100 years ago, the ANZACs played two-up in the dirt, so every year on ANZAC day, it becomes legal for today’s punters to do the same. The crowd places their bets, the spinner flips three coins, and the majority wins. All you need to do is choose: heads or tails?

For the first time this year, I participated in two-up. Although it seems intimidating – money of all colors changing hands, people betting with each other via a conduit in the middle – it’s actually quite simple when it comes down to it. I held a pink $5 note in my hand for a few minutes before a guy approached me, offering to match it for heads or tails, whichever I preferred.

That’s how it works – you find one person to bet against. One of you chooses heads, the other tails, and tails (typically) holds the money. I chose heads, so he held $10 ($5 of mine, $5 of his) until the spinner tossed the coins.

Manuka Oval
No more bets, time to spin.
Manuka Oval

It was heads – I won. I took the $10, feeling somewhat guilty for relieving this stranger of his 5 bucks, but thrilled all the same. We chatted – he and his mate asked where I was from; I said Indiana, expecting a blank. Unexpectedly, a lightbulb went off in the friend.

“I know Indiana!”

“You do?”

“Yeah – Pawnee, Indiana, Parks and Recreation!”

It used to be that people would only know Indiana when I referenced its proximity to Chicago, or mentioned one of the following: the Pacers, Indy 500, or *sometimes* the Indianapolis Colts. A TV show? That’s progress, my friends.

A few minutes later, my opponent offered one more bet.

“Double or nothing,” he said. “It’s my last ten bucks.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “But this time I want tails. And it’s my last bet.”

I held the $20, the spinner threw tails, and I finished $15 richer. Not everyone shared my success; in particular a man in the center ring who was flashing green $100 notes every time he bet. Maybe he won, maybe he lost, but either way I didn’t wish to be in his shoes.

We popped into the Oval to watch the first half of the AFL, but when it started to sprinkle we hightailed it back to the house for burgers, a fire, and some magic tricks (Long story, don’t ask). The next day we stopped for breakfast and an unexpected architectural tour of East Acton before heading back to Newcastle.

Canberra Architecture
This building has won awards. Please don’t ask me to name them.
Canberra Architecture
I can get behind this.
Canberra sculptures
What happens when elves grow to human proportions.
Golburn NSW
My second visit to the Big Merino, and he only looks wiser.
Golburn NSW
For the first time, I went INSIDE the Big Merino. Yes, those are his eyes.

The drive was uneventful; I slept, Jared drove, we got home around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Our furniture is still out of place, pulled away from the leaky windows, waiting until we hear back from the insurance company on when someone will be here to assess the minor damage. I was glad to have had a break from the aftermath of the storms, in a place that is much more than its reputation suggests.

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  1. I did not realize there were parts of Australia that had seasons! I feel like Canberra should be considered cool to visit for that reason alone.

    1. It was so pretty, felt like I stepped right into Indiana in late September. It is autumn here now, but in Newcastle that translates into rain and slightly cooler temperatures. The whale migration will start soon though so that’s a pretty good trade off for changing leaves!

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