The road which leads you to Australia’s Canberra International Airport (CBR) is Fairbairn Avenue, named after James Fairbairn, an Australian parliamentarian and Minister for Air and Civil Aviation. This seems apt, except he died in a plane crash in 1940, when his Lockheed Hudson crashed into the side of a hill nearby.
(Anyway, welcome to Canberra.)
A few Christmases ago, my friend Anne made the 24-hour journey from her home in Paris to visit me here. After her plane didn’t crash, even once, she texted me: “I’ve just arrived! I’ll see you in about 45 minutes.” Her international travel made that seem like an appropriate amount of time to make her way to the arrivals gate, where she imagined I’d be pressed in among the other jubilant welcome parties. But at CBR, no one presses against anything or anyone; I could see her texting me as she walked through the aerobridge, and when she looked up from her phone, there I was, and there were her bags on the carousel, about four minutes later. There was our car right next to the parking lot exit, and there’s Fairbairn Avenue; after a 12-minute drive, there was my house.
The experience of queuing is as absent from CBR as the people. As you glide unhindered through the airport—to the restrooms, to your bags, to your taxi—you wonder what has happened to all the travelers who should—surely!—be expected to be there. Have you arrived during a national holiday? Is the rest of the population laid up, blinded by an eclipse? But the people aren’t missing; CBR is always like that. A friend told me that once she was flying out of Canberra when she realized she still had her pocketknife in her handbag; she walked out the front door of the airport, shoved the knife into a decorative garden hedge, and went back through security. When she returned four days later, it was still there. Who knows what else lies undisturbed in that hedge? No one is checking.
There are plenty of dinky regional airports in the world, of course, with their low, beige ceilings, and their emptiness of passengers except for a handful of sudden arrivals and departures each day. But CBR is not a dinky regional airport; it’s a soaring, modern expanse of polished, reflective surfaces and bouncing light. There’s nice art, and self-consciously fun seating options which look more like leather-upholstered breast implants than chairs. It all has the feel of a plush hotel lobby, one you’d be more than happy to stay in. More to the point, it has flights coming and going, all day, every day.
What makes CBR feel empty is not its absolute lack of passengers, in fact, but the excess of airport in which they are diluted. Following a $500-million renovation by airport owner and local billionaire Terry Snow in 2013, the airport’s annual passenger carrying capacity of 12 million is staggeringly far out of reach of the demand, currently 2.9 million passengers, with passenger numbers staying steady or declining since then. We built it; they did not come.
Obviously Canberrans like having a fancy, empty airport. It’s stock-in-trade Canberra chat to return from a trip to Sydney or Melbourne with war stories about just how big the queues were. But the pride and the embarrassment are so mixed up in a Canberran that even writing this, I don’t actually know how I really feel about our airport. Canberra International Airport is perfectly appropriate for a capital city airport; it’s Canberra being Australia’s capital which is incongruous.
Indigenous clans, primarily the Ngunnawal people, lived in and travelled through the area we now call Canberra for at least 25,000 years before white settlement. It was a significant meeting place during the seasonal migration of bogong moths, and fertile land for harvesting yam daisies, and hunting kangaroos and emus. These are all very good reasons to inhabit a place.
By contrast, the Australian Parliament chose it to be the site of Australia’s new capital in 1909 because . . . it wasn’t Sydney or Melbourne. The two rival cities couldn’t handle the other getting top billing, so they picked a spot on a line on the map between the two instead, far enough from the coast to be safe from seaborne disease and naval attack, and cold enough to satisfy the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, who had decided “cold climates produce the greatest geniuses.” While the nation’s idiots continued to populate Australia’s many temperate, coastal cities, it took until 1973 for Canberra’s human population to outnumber the sheep.
After the location had been decided, there was a competition in 1912 for the capital’s design, with a brief from O’Malley for “a city that will be the Gotham of Australia . . . that will rival London in size, Athens in art, and Paris in beauty.” The winning entry, by Americans Walter and Marion Griffin, imagined a vibrant, communal city of medium-density urban terraces set among lively boulevards and monuments to peace and democracy. But after two world wars, the Great Depression, and a string of changing governments, the Griffins were effectively sacked to make way for a city of low-density suburbia, empty of life but rich in brutalist monuments. They did get to keep their artificial lake, which remains the heart of Canberra.
After my friend Anne had gotten over her jet lag, I took her on a tour. Four hundred thousand people live in Canberra’s extremely roomy 500 square miles, though it’s noticeably less crowded in the summer, after the university students (and many public servants) leave for vacation. We drove down one of the city’s vast, empty boulevards, topped and tailed with one monument or another, to arrive at the lake. In front of the imposing, Parthenon-inspired National Library—built according to instructions from then–Prime Minister Robert Menzies that it be “something with columns”—we looked out towards the severe eagle-topped obelisk of the Australian-American Memorial. All around us was well-kept public space free of all public, the tumbleweeds practically rolling past. “It makes me think of North Korea,” Anne said.
This is not the comparison Canberra strives for. When she later bought a postcard from a tourist shop, it depicted Telstra Tower, a generic-looking mountain-top telecommunications facility that is one of Canberra’s less consequential attractions. The postcard lines Telstra Tower alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, and other famous metropolitan towers, as if they were of a kind, without a trace of irony.
This is why the luxury of our passenger-free airport smarts: it hammers home the contrast between the aspirations of our city and how devastatingly provincial it remains. For all its dressings of a major capital—the hospitals, the universities, the government departments, the road called Constitution Avenue, the international airport—Canberra has one-tenth of the population—and one-bazillionth of the appeal to tourists—of Sydney or Melbourne. It’s almost as if whacking a made-up city somewhere in a paddock between the two and calling it the capital was an idea which lacked follow-through.
Of course, our provincialism is also why I, and many Canberrans, love it here. It’s easy. There are good schools, bicycle paths, an annual hot-air balloon festival, tree-lined streets, houses with lawns, and hedges on practically every corner if you need to store a knife. I approved of the OECD’s decision to name Canberra the world’s most livable city in 2014, just as I approved of the inclusion of Canberra bashing into the Oxford Australian National Dictionary only months earlier. Like our airport, Canberra is an extremely comfortable national joke. Or rather, it’s like our airport would be, if anyone but locals made jokes about it.
In 2014, Canberra’s tourism authority basically wrote this essay for me when they came up with a new slogan for the city: “We are CBR.” But it transpired that the slogan had more meanings that it did vowels. It’s not just the airport code! they claimed; It’s Confident. Bold. Ready. “Canberra is a wonderful place to live,” Terry Snow said. “I’d like to talk to the people who say it doesn’t have a soul.” Also confident, bold, and ready, the airport billionaire’s stepson (Canberra Airport Managing Director Stephen Byron) followed suit: “You will nowhere in the world see as good a paint finish as was done in that white ceiling,” he was quoted as saying about his new international terminal.
Canberra does have one thing, though, to lure international visitors: kangaroos. Outside of a zoo, it’s not easy to see a kangaroo in other Australian cities, but in Canberra they graze in groups on golf courses, football fields, school ovals, and suburban streets. I see them in people’s front yards when I drop my kid off to school. You see them dead by the side of the road, their little hands perched as if holding a purse (and a friend had to write off her car after hitting one). Park rangers have reported rescuing them from backyard pools, multi-story car parks, and shopping center loading bays. A Greens MP was attacked by one while jogging.
The airport has made sure to capitalize on this by installing a 10-foot-high corrugated iron sculpture of a kangaroo family right next to the runway as “a conversation piece for our forthcoming international visitors.” But if these are the first kangaroos visitors see, they are certainly not the last; their taxi may run over one in the 12-minute drive from CBR to their hotel. The kangaroo sculpture at our airport—that is named after a plane crash victim—also serves to dubiously honor Canberra’s status as Kangaroo Death Capital of Australia. We have hit almost 4,000 kangaroos with our cars this year alone, and because that hasn’t kept the numbers down, the local government has shot 3,200 more as an organized cull.
Along with our excess of airport, we have an excess of kangaroos; when Anne asked to see one as part of her tour, I was able to oblige her within minutes (making sure to remind her that such an experience would never occur in Sydney or Melbourne).
The past year has been particularly kangaroo-excessive, as drought sends more kangaroos than ever into the city looking for food. The cull, which runs for a couple of months every year, is not actually designed to prevent kangaroos encroaching on human territory, but to protect vulnerable flora and fauna in critical grassland and woodland sites from the impact of these oversized kangaroo mobs. But it’s awkward to shoot your national emblem; “COAT OF HARMS” screams an on-point anti-cull campaign poster. It’s also awkward that last year we voted for our new license plate slogan to be “The Bush Capital,” so now that’s the last thing the kangaroos see before Canberrans mow them down. Sometimes it really does seem like everything that’s good about Canberra is also kind of terrible.
The fenced-off runway of the airport is probably one of the only places in Canberra where there actually are no real kangaroos, of course, only the sculpture and the logos on the tails of our planes. Our one lure for international visitors is entirely absent from our airport entirely absent of international visitors. But we are ready for them, our “forthcoming” visitors. I think of them coming in to land at the airport and thrilling at the uncannily lifelike kangaroo sculpture beneath them. How might they feel upon seeing it again on departure? Would they really be inclined to buy a furry kangaroo key ring from the airport gift shop as a memento of their stay?
But it’s only Canberrans who are wondering about such things after all.