Winter in Canberra: Time to Heal

I land in Sydney in the late afternoon. The humid air hits me immediately as I leave baggage claim and head towards arrivals. My family are waiting for me and I embrace them, clinging to their hot, sticky skin. It’s March, autumn, but Sydney has other plans. We load the car as sweat starts to trickle down my forehead and I check the weather forecast. It’s only thirty degrees, but feels more like forty, especially in the car. It’s a three hour drive from Sydney to the man made city of Canberra. Its designer, Walter Burley Griffin planned the entire city out from scratch when the country required a capital. It centres around the lake named in his honour and is the only Australian capital with no beach. There are no direct flights to Canberra from London, which angers some, but I on the other hand look forward to the ocean and bush drive home; eager to soak up the natural beauty of the east coast before entering two weeks of isolation amidst the coronavirus outbreak. The waves in the distance are soft and the sand deserted as the sun hangs low in the sky. The glistening beams trickle down mounds and blind us through the heated windows as summer comes to an end. The city is still, as though society is on pause while the natural world thrives. It’s quiet and peaceful and for the first time in my ten years living in Australia, I can hear myself think as I drive through Sydney.

You can still smell the smoke on the outskirts of the city; the broken trees lay dormant in the woods as the beginning of autumn changes their leaves. The aftermath of the roaring fires of 2020 are tangible and scattered on our path as we hit the winding roads. These roads are the closest thing we have to an outback on the east coast. I roll down the window to feel the gentle wind in my hair as my family and I catch up. The closer we get to home, the stronger the wind becomes. The back roads lead us home faster than previously experienced as they lay empty for the first time in my life. There is a subtle chill in the air as April approaches and winter speeds ahead. Winter rolls around faster in Canberra. The early autumn days are warm, decreasing to the twenties as we leave the forties behind. The concept of four seasons in Canberra is blurry as the crisp, bronze leaves fall to the floor and the days remain warm and bright, and the nights fall below zero. The cool nights extend to the days until suddenly and all at once, it’s winter. Our unofficial winter starts in April, while the rest of the country is still scorching. Spring rolls around just as fast. By September first, flowers are in full bloom and the chill leaves as suddenly as it arrived.

We reach the Australian Capital Territory after the sun has gone down. It’s a small state, home to Canberra; the political hub of the country with equal parts nature and urban. The outline of more trees lie by the border and the shadows cast a blanket over the “Welcome to Canberra” sign. We drive past the north lake and swans and ducks float in harmony, without our interference. They seem perfectly content as they spend their nights huddled up together, and we go inside ready for months of doing the same. Possums scatter about the trees and crickets hop around the garden as we unload my suitcases with the memories of my life on exchange cut short. I make my way inside, where for the next fourteen days, I merely observe the changing leaves and feel the months of autumn and winter blur together until frost appears and we say goodbye to all heat.

After two weeks of isolation, the temperature has significantly dropped as I take my first hike with my brother. It’s a twenty minute drive in any direction to a mountain trail or lake. We decide on Black Mountain as it is usually the quietest. It provides us with the best chance of sticking to the quarantine imposed one and a half metres apart rule. We predict it to be our quarantine trail until the city fully reopens. It’s a nice drive, with a crisp breeze swirling around in our hair and the twinkle of the lamp posts casting over us. When we arrive, we find a spot down below to park, and trek up towards the look out point. Eucalyptus leaves scatter about our feet as they fall from the lanky trees. Said trees once provided a home for the now endangered and scarce koalas, however it’s been years since we have witnessed one in the wild. The Canberra native trees prove to be a fire hazard and no longer serve the purpose of a home, so many want them cut down. For now, they drape over us and shelter us from the wind as we watch kangaroos hopping happily in the distance. I always thought it was an Australian stereotype, however the city is home to an overwhelming number of kangaroos and joeys. They swarm the city’s less densely populated areas such as the mountains and fields. We never get too close, but admire their chaotic movements from far locations or car windows and zoomed in cameras. We turn to nature to escape from technology and yet we turn right back to it at any chance we get to capture the beauty we are so fortunate to be surrounded by, so I snap some photos of the lowering sun. I always forget how quickly it disappears this time of year, but I’m grateful. The walk up is long and somewhat treacherous in the sunlight as snakes and lizards often lay comfortably near our feet, yet thankfully hidden in the grass, so we are at an advantage in the early evening hours.

We find a comfortable rock to rest upon and catch our breath in order to take in the scenery as the sun sets. We overlook the city for a few minutes, and before long, it is nightfall and the moon lights up the sky. I point to the stars and name them as best I can. They appear to be brighter than usual. It’s quiet enough to hear the insects surrounding the rocks, and I take a moment to embrace the silence. Not since the 2003 fires has the city been so deserted. The sight below consists mainly of the natural world, with few cars in sight even through the city centre. However, after five or so minutes, people start to appear. They look dismayed, as though they meant to see the sunset. We cannot stay long as it starts to become crowded. Only ten to fifteen people turn up to the lookout, but in these dangerous times, we do not take that risk. We hastily find our way to the car through the eucalyptus trees. Never before have I seen this particular spot so crowded, although it makes sense; the mountains become popular during times of crisis. It’s the go-to place where one can catch their breath and step back from city life. We reach the bottom of the mountain trail, find the car and drive back through the CBD. Half of the journey consists of driving through the heart of the city and we are exposed to all the elements of Canberra. We pass the tall, mostly political buildings in the centre, the native animals and plants in the fields and a beautiful combination of natural and urban as we pass two of the city’s lakes, both of which are surrounded by cafes and restaurants. Just like the seasons, we get the extremes of both.

Over the next week, winter is in full swing. Electrical storms light up the sky for days on end as the bursts of thunder clear the air and make room for even colder days. That’s the last rain we’ll see until September. Everyone groans as the weekend approaches; the forecast predicts frost. We take advantage of our favourite season and plan more hikes, but with a new location. Our plan is postponed as the storms overstay their welcome, and we join the rest of the city in a week long hibernation as we adjust to the upcoming season.

However, we are not the only creatures who are home bound; autumn and winter are a time of hibernation for many of the native animals and reptiles. Snakes, spiders and other dangerous creatures are rarely sighted during the colder months, and even the magpies stay out of harm’s way. Come spring, all life will perk up again, and while many celebrate this period, it comes with its own challenges, for example, magpie season. The mothers swoop innocent bystanders out of fear of safety for their young. They have the capacity to permanently injure and blind pedestrians, cyclists and even babies in prams. Along with aggressive birds, spring also signals the arrival of snakes and spiders. While it is a time for celebration over warm weather and beach opportunities, the hotter months here come with their own unique challenges and the colder with their own unique perks. The absence of these creatures and bushfires make it the safest time to immerse oneself in nature.

Ironically, a key feature of Canberra’s colder months is the significant decrease of public outings, despite it being the safest time. This, combined with the fear of getting sick has turned even the hotspots for walks and other outdoor activities into ghost towns. Once the storms clear, we take advantage of the free space. Only a handful of cars in sight as we make a detour around Lake Burley Griffin before heading up to the Canberra National Arboretum. We pass only a dozen or so pedestrians riding, walking and running around the sparkling lake, most of whom are bundled from head to toe in winter gear. The arboretum lies on the south outskirts of the city, and offers an abundance of natural wildlife and plants. We park in the abandoned lot, surrounded by trees and insects. There are only four other cars in the lot, where there would usually be at least fifty.

We reap the benefits of an empty trail, both from people and dangerous creatures. Very few make their way up the same path my brother and I trek. It’s a giant mass of land with various winding paths and trails to get lost on. However, it is not just its beauty I admire, but its history. Following the devastation of the 2003 fires, a proposal was put in place; the ‘100 Forests and 100 Gardens’ proposal. Every tree planted in the forest is a rare, threatened and symbolic tree from countries around the globe, including Australia. An arboretum was part of Griffin’s master plan for the city, however many of his ideas were postponed, some indefinitely. The arboretum project was pushed forward to 2005 in order to help preserve and celebrate nature. A major component of the project’s development was to symbolise Canberra’s ability to heal and recover from natural disasters. The arboretum automatically becomes our place of escapism during the uncertainty of these tumultuous times. It has a rich history, one that now more than ever provides the city with great comfort and perspective. You can feel the city healing through the silence and falling leaves, only this year we are recovering from more than flames.

As Australia’s restrictions lift each week, with only a few hundred cases nationwide, people begin to embrace the winter months. Winter in Canberra has always been a necessary time of healing from the harshness of Australian summers. Now more than ever, the next few months will give our wildlife, plants and citizens time to recuperate from the hardships of 2020.

Sacha Paterson: I am an undergraduate literature and creative writing student at the University of Canberra. My reading and writing focus on both fiction and nonfiction ranging from essays and articles to short stories and novels. My submission is a nonfiction piece on the hardship and blessing of our 2020 isolation in wintertime in Canberra.