March in Canberra signals two things: the official start of Australia’s autumn harvest season, and the annual Enlighten art and community festival. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government sought to attract tourists and encourage people to see Canberra “in a whole new light” with the first Enlighten in 2011; since then, the events have become increasingly larger and more popular for both locals and out-of-towners. Over Enlighten’s two and a half week run time, Canberra is awash with roving light installations, film screenings, outdoor activities, special exhibitions, kids’ activities, cultural and musical performances, and special ticketed events like outdoor dinners and dawn hot air ballooning. Enlighten’s centerpiece, though, is the nightly illumination of Canberra’s cultural institutions, all of which come to life after the sun goes down.
Last year at this time when I was still in Uzbekistan, I saw an #Enlighten promotional video featuring Canberra’s museums and government buildings splashed with color and light a la Sydney’s “Vivid,” albeit on a smaller scale. I didn’t really get what it was about initially, but had to admit I wouldn’t mind living in a town with giant glowing jellyfish displayed downtown, an Old Parliament House flashing vivid messages, free concerts, and food trucks all over the streets. How different than Tashkent!
After all, Canberra is the same town that throws a spring festival (Floriade) celebrating millions of flowers planted just for the occasion, and a variety of other multicultural festivals and events throughout the year. But I was really hooked by the Enlighten pictures showing hordes of multicolored hot air balloons floating peacefully over Canberra’s rolling hills and Lake Burley Griffin. I have been obsessed with hot air balloons since I was a kid, but sadly, although I attempted to balloon in New Zealand about five times in 2006, the weather never allowed it, and I had yet to balloon anywhere. Flipping ahead to early 2018 in my planner, I wrote, “Enlighten!!”
Because the 30+ page Enlighten brochure of events ended up being a little overwhelming when it did come out, I relied on Facebook to keep me informed of real-time dates and locations for events.
Our first Enlighten event was the Night Noodle Markets, near the Old Parliament House and Reconciliation Place, a lawn area on the shore of Lake Burley Griffin. At this event, more than two dozen hawker-style Asian-themed food trucks park around the perimeter of a fenced-off area, with colored paper lanterns hanging and music playing throughout.
The food was spectacular, but in future years I’ll go on a weeknight rather than a Saturday – the market was totally mobbed, with a half hour wait to get in, and 20 minute minimum waits at each food and beverage stand. But with culinary choices from Japanese to Thai, Chinese, Malaysian, Korean, and beyond, it was worth it even with little to no available seating. Each thing I tried was more delicious than the last, and I thought the value for price was fair.
Never mind that we’d originally gone down to the area to attend something called “Neon Circus” and totally missed it due to my underestimating how long it would take to get something to eat. Pack your patience if you decide to do Night Noodle Markets on a Friday or Saturday night. I had intended to go back on a weeknight but it didn’t work out. Word to the wise: In order to keep lines moving quickly and hands cleaner, this Enlighten event, like some others, was cashless. So be sure to bring your local chip-and-pin debit card, and not your American credit card … like some people, ahem.
We also did the main Enlighten activity, which was to spend some time walking around the areas between Questacon, Old Parliament House, the National Portrait Galley, and the National Library to listen to the live music and check out the light installations. The best thing about these events is that you can find street or museum garage parking and it’s all free! Many of the museums have special exhibits and extended hours, also free.
It was the kind of community-centered event that I’m beginning to associate with Canberra: fun, outdoor, and quirky. Line up to have your picture taken in a photo booth and then watch it broadcast across the building in front of you, accompanied by neon photo frames and background music? Why not.
We also did a ticketed event, called Dinner Under the Stars, held at the National Arboretum’s Discovery Garden overlooking Canberra’s Molonglo Valley. We arrived a little early after a long day at work and although we had a chance to take in the scenery, sadly my phone battery was so low that I took very few pictures and no panoramic shots whatsoever. I have been up to the Arboretum three times so far, but was always distracted by work or conversations and have never managed any great images – yet.
After enjoying some cold water under the soaring ceiling of the Arboretum, diners were invited by staff to make our way outside to the gardens for a happy hour before the seated meal. Renowned Canberra chef Janet Jeffs prepared a series of appetizers including barbecued octopus and rabbit game pies, followed by a dinner served family-style: salad, potatoes, vegetables, and roasted pork loin with plum sauce. The dessert involved ginger, lemon, walnut, and caramel – but somehow the flavors together worked very nicely.
The tables were long and rectangular; that, and the first-arrived, first-seated threw us off a little bit and forced people to be more social than they might have otherwise been. We were lucky enough to sit next to a really interesting and well-traveled couple a bit older than us, though, and we spent such a delightful evening conversing with them that we were among the last to leave. It got a little colder than I expected (and I’m the one usually in a tank top and sandals until temps drop below the 60s), and so the food was very quick to get cold – not my favorite thing. But it was tasty all the same.
I think the value for money here was also great; although the dinner tickets were about $80 USD, it included unlimited Australian wine and nonalcoholic drinks, which in and of itself was fantastic. The only thing I can say really disappointed me about this event was that we were supposed to be able to see some kind of laser light show over Parliamentary Triangle below, but from so far away I never noticed it, and the staff never pointed it out. I had hoped that some of the colors from Enlighten below would be visible from the Arboretum, but alas, it was not to be.
The Enlighten event that I had been looking forward to the most, hands-down, was hot air ballooning. My husband and I, along with three colleagues and friends, had reserved and paid for our spots months in advance. Although hot air ballooning is routinely available in Canberra during the spring and fall, ballooning during the Enlighten festival is particularly special because dozens of balloons launch each morning, weather permitting, from the lawns of Old Parliament House. This year some of the special balloons included a big green frog and a bright and beautiful hummingbird.
Being able to fly with so many balloons at once and the social media images I saw over the early days of Enlighten really raised my already-high expectations for this event.
So on the morning of the flight, coincidentally St. Patrick’s Day, I was already showered and dressed when I called to confirm the flight. I dialed the automated number at the appointed time: 04:45. All I heard was the date and time stamp, and “We are delighted to confirm…” I hung up and sent a group text: IT’S ON.
We arrived at the meeting point at a quarter to six, filled out our paperwork (and laughed while translating our weights into kg), and waited around for the pilot briefing. Outside a drizzle started, and it slowly but surely turned into a downpour. Everyone milled around for ten minutes, then 20, then 30. Finally a rep from the hot air balloon company called everyone together, and held up a tablet showing the Doppler weather pattern for the next couple of hours. The crowd collectively groaned in disappointment. Our Enlighten hot air ballooning was not to be. (The next day was the last day of the festival, and balloons didn’t end up flying that day, either.)
As we were leaving, another of our colleagues ran up with his little son, who had come to watch us and see all the balloons over the lake at dawn. We explained to them what happened, and although the little guy seemed to understand, he kept that hopeful look on his face a little longer. The five of us posed by the balloon basket in the rain with overly exaggerated pathetic looks on our faces. In the process of a bystander’s taking our picture, he dropped my friend’s new iPhone and shattered the screen. Yeesh. It was all a bit much to put up with at that hour!
Fortunately, one of our colleagues knew a restaurant nearby that opened at 07:30, unusual for a Canberra weekend. We stopped at his house first for espresso, then made our way to the cafe where we met yet two more friends. Although by the time we left the sun was shining brightly, we tried not to let it get us down.
So instead, we spent St. Patrick’s Day afternoon at the Canberra Yacht Club on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin waiting for Skyfire, the fireworks that mark the annual end of Enlighten, to commence. Some of us met up with a few different people to stake out our picnic table, eat fish and chips, do some good old-fashioned Irish drinking, and play my favorite trivia game, Americana. Eventually my boss and his wife wandered by, and they joined our table too. An Irish holiday, with deeply American and Australian twists.
All in all, the Enlighten festival was a wonderful experience. I think next year we might try to get around to some more museums and light installations, and perhaps might try Mt. Ainslie as a vantage point for the fireworks (which looked WAY more awesome on social media than they did on my iPhone, LOL). Although Canberra is no Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane, it certainly pulls its weight in fun for a little town. And as we know from living in Tashkent with little or no community feeling or activities, we can make our own fun if need be!
In my next post, I will tell the story of what happened the following weekend when we made our second group attempt to hot air balloon over Canberra. (Hint: It has a much happier ending!!)