‘The usual?’ The man in Gloria Jeans asked as I reached the counter.
The usual? Blimey, I thought, I’ve been coming here too much. I stood back, looked at the menu and ordered the usual.
After 3 months living in Sydney I had started to feel predictable and stale. I loved Sydney and the small-boy-in-the-big-city wonder it gave me, but if anything I was enjoying life too much – there are so many things to do in Sydney that living there was more entertaining than my body and wallet could strictly afford. I hadn’t just fallen in the trap of feeling settled, I’d jammed the trapdoor open and vaulted myself in face first. Realising that my coffee order had been memorised, I faced the need to hop the perimeter fence of Sydney’s CBD and remind myself why I’d gone travelling – I needed to do something I’d never done before.
‘I need to do something I’ve never done before,’ I sulked to my flatmate, Mike. He opened a bag of BBQ Shapes and suggested we take a day-trip to Canberra. We’d heard Canberra wasn’t the liveliest place, but we mused that you can’t claim to have truly lived in a country without growing tired of its capital city. There was a quiet moment of nodding before we mobilised and booked the Greyhound bus. Then, Mike said we should’ve hired a car. We swore, cancelled the Greyhound bus and hired a car.
‘Where are all the people?’ Mike asked when we arrived. Canberra was peculiarly lifeless, it felt like an empty film set compared to the glare of Sydney – home. Silently I wondered if we’d made the right choice by going, a concern which was widened by the lady at the tourist information centre who, when we asked what we should do to start the day, responded wearily, ‘Uhm…’
We decided to seek a high vantage point to take in the city, after all there is little tourists enjoy more than an expensive view of the tops of buildings. From the intimidatingly named Black Mountain the rest of the ACT seemed barren, with the mesh of Canberra laid out like neat lines of crumbs in the pile of a green and gold carpet. The geometry of Canberra is precise, its calculation and spaciousness no doubt makes it easy to navigate for chauffeur-driven diplomats going to and from Australia’s Parliament buildings, but to us it felt impersonal and distant. The unfamiliar quietness was as much of a welcome breather as it was overbearing.
Mid-way into the journey back, Mike patted me on the arm and pointed ahead. ‘Am I seeing things or is that an enormous sheep?’
I rubbed my eyes and wondered if we’d had too much sun. ‘No, it’s real. The enormous sheep is real.’
We pulled over and realised we had happened upon the Big Merino, one of Australia’s famous ‘Big Things’ that appear from time to time on the country’s roadsides. They’re essentially blown up monuments, oddities that put smaller towns on the map and tempt tourists to visit to collect photographs and fridge magnets. We stared and laughed at the merino’s unnervingly gormless eyes which gaze over the Hume Highway with the smug intensity that animals have when they’ve done something wrong. Intrigued and slightly disbelieving, we walked into the visitor centre and began climbing the stairs through its body. After reaching its head we stood and chuckled as we watched the evening dusk sink over the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales through the eyes of a giant fibre-glass sheep.
‘Well,’ Mike said, ‘I bet you’ve never done this before.’
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