In 2019, the Canberra Region Tourist Attractions award went to a bunch of trees. Think about that; in Australia’s centre of government and public service, green came out a winner.
Yet the whole project came from something awful – bushfires. In 2003, what was then mostly pine plantation was hit, along with many Canberra homes and six telescopes at Mount Stromlo Observatory, by the scourge of Australia.
However, visionaries looked to the future and saw the chance to fulfil Walter Burley Griffin’s original plan to have an arboretum on the western side and so 250 hectares were set aside. It’s the largest monoculture of its kind in the world.
Still, in truth, the National Arboretum is so much more. The view from either the café or restaurant over the A.C.T. is sublime. It’s in the area they call “The Village”, a name that came from the company that sponsored it. Perched on a small ridge, the eye-catching building has wrap around glass, so no-one misses the view, while light emanating from the double glazed roof panels, supported by massive laminated timber beams, (56 metres the longest) means no-one is in the dark.
If you glance to the side you can see the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion, an eye-catching function centre designed with acoustics in mind. The structure is an innovative pre-fabricated arrangement of steel beams and insulating composite panels, clad externally in zinc, echoing the ribbed roof of the Village Centre to the north apparently. It also has echoes of the Sydney Opera House for me with the sharp vertical angles. In between the two is a large field favoured by kite fliers shaped like a Greek theatre, because its intention is to become an outdoor auditorium for concerts.
However, inside the main building is a surprise. Well, if you haven’t done your homework it will be. There’s a first class bonsai and penjing exhibition, garnered from enthusiasts everywhere and a must-see while you are here.
In case you were wondering – Bonsai is the art and science of growing miniature trees and shrubs in containers by regular pruning of the roots and branches. It has been practised in Japan for at least 1,200 years, and includes training, styling and maintenance of the trees. Bonsai originated from the Chinese practice of penjing, which is the art of and science of growing miniature landscapes in a pot or tray, and can include rocks, different types of trees and ground covers, and perhaps small objects or figurines. Penjing may have a story, name or piece of poetry attached to it, and has been practised in China for at least 1,400 years.
There’s also a quirky gift shop in the village with unusual items should you be inclined for same.
Oh, and then there’s the arboretum itself. Varied plantings are scattered everywhere and, beneath the Dairy Farmers Lookout on high, you can see more of them than from any other land based viewpoint. While you’re at the highest point it’s hard not to notice Nest III, an eagle sculpture of rusting components, that confronts your eyes. You’ll probably see that old spanner that you lost years ago included in the nest itself, along with 100 others.
The other big feature of the arboretum is the Wide Brown Land sculpture, in similar rust brown, set beside the Himalaya Pine. It’s written in running writing and sits upon a prominence looking back to the main building. It’s a must take photograph.
When it all opened in 2013, it was estimated that they’d draw in around a million tourists over the first five years. Well, they got that wrong didn’t they! Around 4 million found their way here, which would partly explain why the expensive carpark in usually always busy. My take is that they could run the whole place with the money they make from it.
Probing further on subsequent trips I made my way to the mature cork oak trees on the lower slopes. They were planted from acorns brought from Spain by Walter Burley Griffin himself as far back as 1917 and established by Thomas Weston. Apparently their quality is good and they have been harvested on a few occasions under supervision from Portuguese professionals. The 8 hectare section contains almost 4,500 trees.
En route to the cork I passed plantings of , eucalyptus and some Japanese Flowering Dogwood, whose white flowers were slightly past their best. However, I was amazed when I wandered out behind them and found a large planting of magnolia with their first flowers just showing. The magnolia forest (magnolia grandiflora) contains a few rare Chinese magnolias (magnolia delavayi) as well.
In between the hills there’s a zig-zag path that runs up the slope (or down depending on your viewpoint) and the triangles it makes can be purchased if you have a spare $50,000; which would explain why only about half a dozen have been taken up to date. It’s called the Central Valley Path and the potential for this is exciting to say the least. It was the last thing I wanted to see so, on my last day in the A.C.T., I rode off down the hill from Higgins and inadvertently came in through an obscure, and rarely used, entrance at the far end of the oak forest. I knew this because of the outdated signs it had proclaiming that the café was closed when it had been open for weeks.
Reaching the path at the base I worked my way upwards until, ¾ of the way up I came upon an angry worker who said I shouldn’t be on the path, there were signs he said. I pleaded that there weren’t any but he insisted. He let me shoot the last triangle I wanted and then I ventured off and up the steep climb to Dairy Farmers Hill, just to say I’d done it. Apparently it’s a bit of a thing to do in Canberra.
Later, at the bottom of the hill, I checked out the path entrance and, in fact, there was a sign. However, it had been removed from the path and turned sideways between a couple of trees. No wonder I hadn’t seen it.
I left the park and its 94 forests of rare and endangered species, including the famous Wollemi Pine, feeling that Australia has, indeed, created something special that will satisfy for millennia to come.