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Route 18 Dickson to Gungahlin

In the mid 1970s I was sent on a mission, with a couple of friends, to learn my way around London. We were taken to the local bus station in Colney Hatch Lane where my friend’s mother braved the looks and wolf-whistles of the London Transport employees to get to the office to secure three Red Bus Rovers. We were given the tickets and told not to come home until dinnertime with stories to tell. These tickets only allowed travel on buses, not on other forms of public transport in London, like the tube, so it was going to be above ground all the way.

Off we went. That day we travelled into the West End, window shopping in Tottenham Court Road with its electronic shops, Oxford Street with department stores and shoe shops, Carnaby Street with hippy stuff, Cambridge Circus with its theatres. Of course we took in Trafaglar Square, Pall Mall, Buckingham Palace and Leicester Square. When we got bored of looking in one place we hopped on a bus to go to another a few stops away. We ended up at Clapham Common and started to make our way home. We arrived home, at dinner time, tired but happy and full of stories. This was the first bit of real freedom we had.

I am not sure I would send my children, at 14, into London on their own now, but the past is a different country.

Not all bus journeys are exciting and the Number 18 to Gungahlin was just a bus trip. Nobody gave me fantastic stories, there was not one extraordinary thing that happened on the route, the bus driver knew which roads to take, and the route does not take in any landmarks, architecture or places of interest. Having said all that it did offer me a chance to sit and take in my surroundings, take interest in what was on offer and think about the larger picture of bus travel.

Route 18 starts at Dickson Interchange, located just off Northbourne Ave near a tram stop. It was designed this way for the trams and buses to intersect smoothly on trips to and from major satellite towns around Canberra. Buses to Belconnen, Gungahlin and into the City centre can be caught from here. Dickson is a major hub with shops, restaurants, library, doctors, dentists, and government buildings housing public servants, and is where Canberra’s China Town is located. The Lunar New Year with the Year of the Rabbit is being celebrated all this week with dragon dances, Kung Fu demonstrations and, of course, food.

I could have travelled to Gungahlin by tram or, as it is officially known, Light Rail; it is a shorter, more direct route, but that would have meant I missed out on the delights of the suburbs of Mitchell, Franklin and Harrison.

The young woman sitting next to me at the bus stop is wearing the most amazing shoes and socks. I want to strike up a casual conversation about the attire but she has headphones in, head down and is refusing to respond to my attempts at eye contact. When the bus arrives she averts her attention from her phone long enough to tap on and acknowledge the driver as she passes and then slumps into a seat to remain glued to the phone.

The bus enters Mitchell. This is an industrial area of Canberra. Not many houses, no blocks of flats and green areas, that I can see. Named after Major Mitchell, who also has a cockatoo named after him. Light industrial areas and cockatoos? I wonder what kind of man this Mitchell was. The bus passes the usual car repair shops, kitchen and bathroom places, a cement works, the Australia Post depot, more than one church; Miracle and Fusion, the Spice of Life Adult shop and Wikipedia tells me there is at least one brothel. I wonder why the young woman with the great socks gets off in the middle of this area. She and another man both searching Google maps on leaving the bus, get off in the this wasteland.

The bus leaves Mitchell and crossed the main road with the R1 tram tracks. We enter Harrison; houses, ponds, green spaces and many trees. I notice two plovers, or Masked Lapwings,

patrolling a space that they think is their nest. It is on the nature strip outside a house on the corner of two streets. The birds are both agitated and marching up and down calling as there are a number of people crossing the road walking towards them. One bird looks like it might take off and swoop but changes its mind and goes back to marching.


These large and conspicuous birds are common on most of the east coast of Australia. They have a distinctive call. They spend most of their time on the ground looking for grubs, worms and other food. Once paired the birds set aside a bit of land to be a nest. They do not build nests but defend the bit of ground they have chosen until the eggs hatch and the young birds are nearly fully grown. The ground they choose as a nest can be anywhere: a patch of grass on the side of the road, a footy oval, a garden bed, or on the side of a car park. It is not surprising that many of these pairs of birds do not breed successfully during some seasons. Predators like cats, foxes, rats, other large birds can easily spot and take eggs even though the plovers will defend them vigorously.


A group of teenage boys boards the bus. Five of them dressed in uniform of baggy shorts, black t-shirts and hoodies. I am sure their trainers cost nearly as much as a small car. They are clearly in a group but each has ear phones wedged into their ears, screens in hands. the boys take up different seats across the bus. They nod at each other, check their screens, more nodding. Maybe they are texting (old hat) or What’s Apping, or Discording each other? A decision is made. They all nod together. Maybe it is about where they are going to get off?

Teenagers, and others, have been wearing earphones since the introduction of the Walkman in the 80’s. The Walkman was the first time everyone could take their own music with them without disturbing anyone else. Large boomboxes were a thing for a while but were intrusive to anyone who did not want to listen. We have now moved on from the Walkman, to Diskman (short lived, like the CD) to MP3 players like iPods to everyone with a smartphone having access to stored and streamed music. The earpieces have changed too: from small earphones, like you get on a plane, to large earphones which cancel other noise, to cordless, Bluetooth connected pods, which fit in your ears, just like hearing aids. These boys were all wireless, watching as well as listening, nodding to each other and along to the music they were each listening to. As we approach Gungahlin there is more nodding and looking at each other. They then rise, as one, to hop off the bus a couple of stops before the end.

Canberra is a city with vivid seasons: spring and autumn are very noticeable. On this trip, as the bus meandered through the back of Gungahlin, I noticed we are moving towards autumn. This has been an unusual year: third El Nina in a row. The higher than normal sea temperature is giving the east coast of Australia a lot more rain and lower day time temperatures than usual. Queensland is copping the brunt of this currently with some communities flooded for the third time in as many years. As the water runs off and is collected in the Murray-Darling system the communities down stream get a slow moving wall of water, up to 14 metres, heading towards them.

For us, in Canberra there are some advantages to this; the landscape which is usually brown and dry by this time of year is still green and verdant, but a change of season is in the air. The crepe myrtles are flowering, the tall grasses which have been so green up until a couple of weeks ago, are browning off, large, full seed pods swinging in the air, the green leaves of the trees have hardened into a dark rich green and some of the trees are stressed by the lack of water. The silver birches are always the first to look tired and weedy struggling with the higher temperatures and less rain. A bank of Silverbirches on the edge of a street are moving in the wind, leaves already yellow and sparse, shedding with the sway, The stunning sliver trunks bright against the mown lawn.

We arrive at Gungahlin.

Gungahlin is a place on a very human scale. There are high density tower blocks but tucked out of sight of the main street. The tram and buses intersect, as in Dickson, with wide public spaces filled with trees, public art and groovy looking street furniture. This planned place has been put here for people, not cars.

It is difficult to get around the centre of Gungahlin with a car. The main street only works one way, is narrowed with street calming measures and has a raised pavement where pedestrians have right of way. Any car venturing down this street will have to slow right down, take its time and wait for the pedestrians, making their way between the three bits of the shopping centre.

I wander around the shops, stopping at a couple; the wonderful Dobinsons: bread, cakes, pies and baker who loves to chat. It’s such a pity they do such dreadful coffee; only large paper cups full of milk and not much coffee.

I also stop at the bookshop, Bookface. I have a lovely chat with one of the women there about walking through Europe. I am after a trilogy of books by Patrick Leigh Fermor who walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in the late 1930s. It took him a while as he got caught up in World War II and stayed for a long time in Crete as part of the resistance. We chat about the wild notion of deciding to get up and walk, with no plan, no responsibilities or money and just see where it leads you. I can see in this well-dressed, calm, assured, young woman’s eyes that walking could be a possibility for her, something admirable, daring and intrepid. This kind of adventure offers the a freedom that is frightening and overwhelming and would bring many people to complete inertia. I order the set of books. I have a dream to follow in his footsteps, but it is the kind of dream that you have to make happen, being completely myopic about doing so, and mostly it just stays as a thought. I will enjoy reading the books and dreaming.

I head back to the bus stop. The woman with the great socks is there. I double check it is the right person. I am tempted to talk to her to find out why she got off the bus where she did but she is talking to someone on her phone, earpiece in, animated, angry, not giving off just sit down and talk to me vibes, so I leave her and wonder.

Route 18 did not offer up anything grand or juicy today, but it did offer me opportunities; to take the scenery in, to spend time in my own head, and to appreciate, fully appreciate, the idea of planned cities.


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