Sunday, 22 November 2009

Canberra: Worth Going to See?

"Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see."

The words of 18th century wordsmith Samuel Johnson passed through my mind yesterday as I visited Gold Creek Village in the northern suburbs of Canberra. Johnson was talking about the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, a geological feature; while Gold Creek Village is about as artificial as you can get.

It's basically a tourist precinct containing several attractions and some fairly daggy shops. There are a couple of historic buildings, but otherwise the complex looks like it dropped in from about 1987.

You can tell I'm not a fan of attractions that seem to exist largely to give people something to do on a quiet Sunday - it doesn't speak well of the vibrancy of the city as a whole.

However... if you've already ticked off the big attractions in the national capital - the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National Bonsai Collection (not kidding) - then you could do worse than spend half a day visiting Gold Creek. Take a postmodern sense of irony with you, and you'll enjoy it even more.

A prehistoric display

Our first stop was the National Dinosaur Museum, a big barn of a building with a single floor of exhibits and a little shop below. The first thing you notice about the place is that it's not your modern hands-on hyper-interactive kind of facility. In fact it's a classic old-fashioned museum with lots of displays in glass cabinets, loads of text, and a number of big dinosaur replicas.

Having said that, once you knuckle down and start reading the text, it's a pretty interesting place. Rather than starting from the age of the dinosaurs, the chronological displays start from the dawn of time and proceed past the dinosaur extinction to the present day. There's a quirky little section on cryptozoology and claimed sightings of modern-day sabre tooth tigers near the end that makes a neat follow-up to all the big picture stuff.

The museum does have a small amount of hands-on options, eg fossils you can touch. The text is well written and accessible, and there's a wealth of info about the Australian aspect of each prehistoric age. Though you have to chuckle a little at quotes such as "By the end of the Carboniferous [era], Canberra... has become covered by the southern ice cap." And I thought the city was only founded in 1927.

The bottom line re the National Dinosaur Museum? Minimal bells and whistles but good content... will work best for those already interested in dinosaurs.

Little Englanders

A short walk took us to Cockington Green. It's hard to know what to make of this place on first glance... replica English village buildings in a garden setting in Australia's national capital screams "cultural cringe" when you first hear of it.

Interestingly though, the Green does display some departure from the traditional "Isn't it lovely" approach. The miniature buildings, mostly at 1/12 scale, are based on structures from different places in Old Blighty. Though the buildings are generally olde worlde types, the model people and vehicles around them are modern, with late-model cars parked next to Tudor cottages.

The modern elements added a touch of extra interest to our stroll through the grounds, including an electric train snaking through the countryside, and a streaker at a soccer match. It was about that this point that our senses of humour kicked in, and we started to speculate where the secret druids were, dragging sacrifices into the woods by night.

And then we rounded the corner to see a group of model policeman bending over a model body lying in greenery just near a clump of bushes. And further on we found the model Stonehenge, with a bunch of suspicious robed figures standing in the middle. Narrelle thought they looked like monks, but I thought they were druids. Up to no good.

And so it went, with us walking through the beautifully tended gardens past canal boats and castles, noticing little jokes (like the pervy golfer) or possibly imagining them (like the pervy golfer).

And then to the international section, full of replicas full of spectacular foreign buildings, sponsored by various embassies in Canberra (planning for a full-blown Australian section is also underway). Not as much scope there for humour, but plenty for the "Been There" game.

But that's a story for another day...

Next Week: The "Been There" Game!