Canberra’s wonderland of whimsy

by Tim Dawe

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The Pod Playground at National Arboretum Canberra

Canberra. Love it or loathe it, Australia’s bush capital is different. Even critics agree it’s a good place for young families. My last visit was my first to the Arboretum, arriving with two children – two under two.

The 250-hectare National Arboretum Canberra arose from the ashes of the 2003 Christmas bushfires. From 2005 it was planted with 94 forests of rare, endangered and symbolic trees from Australia and the world including Giant redwood, Dragon tree and Wollemi pine.  Eleven more forest plots are planned. And, like my mantra on Canberra…“it’ll be really great in a few decades”.  It’s a museum, a gallery and a laboratory all about trees. And it’s important; as Svalbard Global Seed Vault is important.

Now back to the excited nearly two-year-old. We drive steadily up, and up, past a squiggly-shaped “ski-slope” – central valley walk – to Village Centre, a stunning, timber-vaulted, light-filled space with restaurant, gift shop and café. With pram stowed and “nearly-three-months” asleep we have a babycino with tiny teddies and survey the landscape. It still looks like a dairy farm with squares of saplings. Wide-angle views show glimpses of a formed lake, a tower on a black mountain and a large flag above a square, silver flagpole. And at another angle, a “wide brown land” sculpture honours Dorothea MacKellar’s poetry.

A few baby steps away is the National Bonsai and Penjing collection. It’s the perfect height for nearly-two. Further away are a large amphitheatre and the soaring Margaret Whitlam Pavilion. Left for another visit are specialised walking tracks for humans, and horses. That’s all well and good; we’re here for the main event – Pod Playground.

At first sight this playground presents surreal figures from science fiction – all twisty-turny. Nearly-two is keen but not rushed; there’s time to examine an insect and doodle in sand. Mum feeds nearly-three-months.

Giant interconnected wooden acorn pods stand on metal stilts in a sand pit. Climb a ladder, walk through wood-panel passages with turning things, crawl through scary net tunnels and we’re way up – four metres high. Now what? Nearly-two bravely sits on my legs as we slide down and around in darkness to shoot out of the tube onto sunny sand. “Again?” For less thrill-seeking fun there are the big bad Banksia men (cones) cubbies with speaking tubes and hidey-holes, and nest swings. There’s also a charming bridge of bells for the littlies. Older kids find the climbing wall.

Pod Playground is a well-planned and built wonderland of whimsy with a million dollar view; a place to explore, challenge, and yes, grow. It’s safe, secure and free. And it’s also popular. By midmorning the walkways are gridlocked with prams. Young mums with babes swap stories. It’s nearly time to move on. “Again, Grandpa?”

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