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    Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
    One day in December 1967, while visiting Melbourne, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt decided to take a trip to his favourite local swimming spot, Cheviot Beach, with some friends. Cheviot Beach is well known for its strong undercurrents and riptides but despite attempts by his friends to dissuade him, Holt told his friends that he was going for a swim and headed off out to sea. Harold Holt has never been seen again. This is just one of the endlessly bizarre and fascinating stories that visitors to the New Parliament House in Canberra are regaled with on the tour of the facilities. Conspiracy theories exist to this day that insist that Holt was taken aboard a Chinese submarine and helped to defect, or that he was abducted by aliens. The fact that he had been suffering from ill health for some time, had been known to faint in parliament and was said to have had a heart problem which probably wouldn't have been helped by leaping manly into a strong current off a beach in Melbourne seem to be far too logical explanations to be taken seriously by many people. This is Australia, after all - nothing is straightforward. The old Parliament building was closed a few years ago when the new one was completed, and is now a museum. Tour groups are led around the shiny new building, which you might imagine would be about as exciting as watching paint dry if it weren't for the fact that our guide was a gloriously cheerful and excitable old-timer called Max who really wasn't so different from his namesake in the 70s TV series "Hart to Hart". Max kept calling everybody "Folks" and took great pleasure in responding to the slightest question with long, drawn out stories of Australian bizarreness which had us sitting around like schoolchildren eager to learn more. Apparently the captain of the Australian Cricket team, a man who essentially hits balls for a living, earns eight times more than the Prime Minister who does nothing other than run the entire country. We visited the Senate and the House of Representatives, learned the intricacies of the Australian political system which is at times just as odd as you might have come to expect, and discovered that there are two thousand five hundred clocks in the building just in case you don't have the time to turn your head to find out if it's time for lunch. Whenever it is time to vote for anything, these clocks all chime in unison to let MPs know wherever they are - which must surely cause something of a minor earthquake. Everyone then jumps up from whatever they are doing and runs like an Olympic athlete because they only have 4 minutes to vote before the doors are locked on the voting chamber and they get fined for not turning up. It all sounds like an interesting combination of total chaos and a task from Big Brother. Only in Australia. On the subject of voting, the electoral system in Australia is just as strange as I had expected. For a start Australia enforces compulsory voting, which essentially means that everybody in the country has to go down to the voting station and cast a vote for every local or national election whether they want to or not. For me, this rather removes the whole point of voting in the first place as many people who don't like any of the options are forced to vote for whoever they consider to be the best of a bad bunch - especially when you consider that this law was introduced originally because hardly anybody was turning up to vote, which does sort of suggest that nobody wanted the same things any of the politicians wanted and raises some interesting questions about democracy. Anybody failing to vote is sent a letter asking for an explanation, and if they can't give one then they have to pay a fine or go to court. Nevertheless, many still get around the system by taking advantage of the fact that ballots are secret - so as long as you turn up at the voting station, take a ballot card and then put it into the ballot box, there's nothing really stopping you writing "to hell with the lot of them" on the card as there is no way of tracing anyone who does so. The political system was explained in more depth in the House of Representatives by a cute brunette who was much more interesting than any of it, and everyone shuffled out whispering to each other furtively about their sudden deep understanding of politics and daring each other to ask for her phone number. One of the more laughable things I have discovered recently is that the rules state "if not enough members turn up for any parliamentary debate, there aren't enough people to make a decision and everybody should go home". In practice, however, the MPs usually agree to not notice that there aren't enough people present and press on anyway so a decision can be made even though there aren't enough people to make it properly. This doesn't come as a huge surprise to me - if you've seen the Aussie Parliament live on TV, you will fully appreciate the chaos that reins supreme. Parliamentary privilage means that Australian politicians cannot legally be sued for anything they decide to say about each other in parliament, which means that there's none of the "Right Honourable" mumbo-jumbo that you get in British Politics - Aussie Politicians seem to be allowed to say exactly how they feel in the house, and often turn the air blue questioning the Prime Ministers parentage and suggesting that the MP opposite might like to stuff his reform bill up his arse. It's great fun - many happy times can be had sitting, open mouthed, watching parliamentary TV. In theory, an MP can be arrested and tried for "contempt of parliament" if they go too far, but that's never happened. Australia really doesn't seem to able to put anything together itself, as the whole of downtown Canberra was designed in the same way as the Sydney Opera House by a bloke who won the honour in a competition. At the time, Sydney and Melbourne were fighting over which was more suited to be the Australian capital - so rather than actually having to commit to a decision on this important political point, the government simply decided to upset them both by building a new city somewhere in between, create a brand new state called the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) to put it in so that nobody could boast about living in the same state as the capital, and relegate Sydney and Melbourne to arguing amongst themselves. They then decided they'd done enough for the day and created a competition for somebody else to actually design the place. An American by the name of Burleigh-Griffiths put in a design that was so unlike the others that he won hands down; again without anybody apparently putting any real thought into how much it would cost to build. The winning design had all the consulates and Parliamentary buildings lined up around a neat central walk with gardens and memorials something like Pall Mall in London, and that's how it stands today with the old Parliament building and the ANZAC war memorial at one end and the gleaming new Parliament at the other. In between, there is a mile of fountains and gardens. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and the ANZAC monument stands as a memorial to all the officers and soldiers who lost their lives fighting the war of 1939-45, all of whose names are engraved on the walls around a fountain. At the far end is the tomb of the unknown Australian soldier as a figurehead with which to remember the loss of life and next door is a huge exhibition containing film and artefacts from the war and letters sent to relatives by those who died. This is a very morbid and depressing place to visit, and perhaps that is why it is full of tourists shuffling from room to room with solemn looks on their faces - I saw people sitting outside on benches with tears streaming down their cheeks. It has to be said that, apart from the buildings I've described here, there isn't a heck of a lot in Canberra. But then, it was only really built for political reasons anyway so they're hardly likely to fill it with theme parks and nightclubs. Taking a slow drive around the 60 Embassies and High Commissions is nevertheless quite good fun - somebody has actually built them to represent the countries in question so that, for example, the Japanese embassy is a pagoda. This gives the whole place a sort of Disney feel and is something worth seeing while in town. And in case you are wondering what the difference between an embassy and a High Commission is (so was I until I asked), it seems countries that are part of the Commonwealth, such as Canada and Britain, have High Commissions. Everybody else gets an Embassy. You learn something new every day. The National Gallery is also a cool place to visit, with it's collection of classic and modern art. The guides are so highly trained that they can describe each painting and sculpture to you in such a way that, for a very brief moment, you think you're actually starting to understand why a pile of bricks is worth fourteen million dollars. Then you shake your head and it becomes a pile of bricks again. Among my favourite art in the museum is a painting of himself by Rubens in which the skin tones are so lifelike that it really does look like somebody travelled back in time and took a photograph. There's also a modern painting which looks so much like a photograph that I would've sworn it was one if I hadn't been told otherwise. I'm told, in fact, that it is one of the worst insults you can give a painter to say that his painting looks like a photograph because you're not acknowledging the work that's gone into it, and I can sort of see the point.My complete travel journals are at www.offexploring.com/globalwanderer and /globalwanderer2
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    Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
    i loved it, didn't think there would be much to do but there is, specially if the weather is not nice cos everything is inside, plenty of place of interest and the town is beautiful too. a must see
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