Australia’s capital & Aboriginal culture
Updated: Jan 22
Arriving in Canberra, we settled into a hotel near the central Parliament buildings and city hall to check them out later. Elias went to fetch the van and bring it to the front door to load our baggage. He came back without the van looking like he had seen a ghost.
”There’s a big spider hiding in the doorway of the van.” Elias isn’t scared of spiders.
He measured with his fingers roughly the size of a banana. “It’s one of those Huntsman spiders.“
I closed my eyes and sighed. ”Okay, I’ll come help.”
We equipped ourselves with a measly stick, a small cushion, and cat-like reflexes.
I stood on one side with the stick. Elias bracketed it on the other with the cushion as a shield. The Huntsman was oriented vertically and compressed along the weather striping of the door. I cringed and attempted to flick it off the van. The spider chose not to fall off, but doubled-back toward me. I don’t remember much after this. There was a lot of running and yelling. Blurry trees. Flushing birds. A few jumps to make sure it wasn’t on my face. Don’t get me wrong, spiders are fine… I appreciate their role and contribution in the ecological world. I just don’t want to cuddle with them.
The spider decided the best hiding place after sprinting like a cheetah, was to head for the side mirror. It did a full body contortion and somehow fit behind the mirror and completely disappeared. We could have let him stay there. We almost did. Next thing I know, I see the bellman coming towards us with bug spray. He must have seen my one-woman meltdown in the parking lot, and wanted to help. This was a Hyatt hotel, and it’s not like they get many Huntsman spiders running around. We didn’t want help, but he was determined to save the day. Before we could process what was happening, the bellman sprayed into the sides of the mirror with bugspray, and we looked on with horror. He walked away, proud of himself. We stood there in shock, thinking, ”Well, that’s that.” We felt bad that we had put the spider in harm’s way. I jumped into the passenger seat with resignation.
Elias started to back the van out of the parking space and I looked down to put on my seat belt. I looked back up, and there was the spider fully out on the mirror spanning one side to the other like it had doubled in size. This was something out of DC Comics - the toxic substance turns something normal into a supervillain.
Elias was still hyper-alert and slammed on the brakes. The only comfort I had was a pane of glass between my open mouth and this Cretaceous-sized arachnid. We jumped out again, and captured the spider in a cup on the hood this time. It was starting to slow down. I slid a thick piece of paper under the cup and here comes the bellman again. He just wanted us to get away and stop terrorizing the other guests who are no doubt watching this whole spectacle. So we hand the cup and paper over to the bellman, who offered to take it. Not going to fight him for it. He held it with a small gap in the paper, but I decided not to give unsolicited advice.
He made it about five steps.
”AGHHHHH!!” and he flung the spider to an unsightly end.
We’re standing there watching the scene unfold, half expecting this outcome. The poor thing was on its way out of this world already. Next time we’ll just let the spider stay in the mirror and live happily undetected. Who knows how long it had been traveling with us. In fact, I would rather not think about it.
Now that that drama is behind us… back to the capital.
Canberra sits at the northern end of the Australian Alps in Australian Capital Territory. As of 2022, the population was approaching half a million people. The city isn’t situated in a very unique place. It only came to be because officials in Melbourne and Sydney couldn’t settle a dispute about who gets to have the capital city. So they stuck it in an unassuming place that had to be within 100 miles from Sydney.
An international design contest was initiated and a couple of American architects - the Griffins - won the design with their geometric motifs and concentric circles, and construction began in 1913. Driving through the center of the city, it’s a bit odd, as if 470,000 people aren’t home. Canberra manages to hide its metropolitan area with green space after layered green space. Random monuments, sculptures, and obelisks sprinkle the landscape, sometimes for historical or purely artistic value.
We couldn’t leave Australia without a better understanding of the indigenous Aboriginal cultures of the land. Back in Mallacoota, we met an anthropologist who gave us a tip that the National Museum of Australia in Canberra had the best comprehensive exhibits and assemblage of artifacts on native cultures. Man, did they ever! This museum was up there with the Smithsonian and Field Museum in Chicago. It was the best inside look so far at indigenous history that far pre-dates Europeans.
Aboriginal culture goes back 50,000 years. The people categorize themselves into three groups: the “saltwater people,” those from inland riverine areas are “freshwater people,” and those in central arid zones are “desert people.” There was no system of writing prior to colonization, but sign languages were often used, as were oral traditions. People passed information through stories. Rock art on stone from thousands of years ago has transitioned into modern acrylic “dot art.” Aborigines also used the night sky as a repository for stories and noted their own constellations. Aboriginal beliefs stem from ancestral stories and a deep reverence for the land.
(Right) This map shows the assemblage and distribution of native Aboriginal languages that make up Australia - a minimum of 250, and possibly up to 363.
(Left) This fishing net is surprisingly similar to the modern-day version we use in fisheries studies. Typically pointed to receive fish swimming into the concave end, the fish enter the net and usually cannot find their way out of the small opening. The tribes also added a couple of trigger sticks that would vibrate upon entry, to signal a catch.
(Right) An assemblage of spears from the last couple hundred years. Stone flaking was predominantly the main form of spear-making, but when Europeans arrived, materials transitioned to bottle glass and insulators from telegraph lines.
(Below) This was a painting created in preparation for a native title claim in the northern Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia by an artist in the Ngurrara tribe. It depicts the Great Sandy Desert and Canning Stock Route used in the 20th century, with circles representing natural springs and waterholes important to the claimants. Paintings were used as evidence in court rooms. Artists demonstrated knowledge of the land and created a map of notable features. The land was returned to the Ngurrara people in 2012.
There were so many incredible pieces of work, we can’t showcase them all. But it gave a glimpse into the cultures that have been lost over the last few hundred years and the history that has been preserved in recent generations.