ACT News


Hot air brings people out in force

"Where's Darth Vader?'' everyone, grown-ups and children, could be heard chirruping as, in pre-dawn darkness, Canberrans arrived for Monday's Balloon Spectacular.

The miserabilists had said people would stream out of the city over the Centenary weekend but in fact Canberrans stayed at home and went to the celebrations.

Two of the 4000 who attended Monday morning's occasion were in fabulous fancy dress.

They loomed out of the gloom and into an oasis of floodlight to where the Darth Vader balloon lay flaccid and nondescript on the grass, looking for the moment like a length of black seaweed washed up on a beach.

The costumed men, Trooper Assist (that's her rank) Fiona Kirk explained to this columnist (for the costumed figures themselves were too cyborgy to speak to earthlings) were Canberrans Travis Kirk and Drew Ridley. They are members of the local garrison of a worldwide legion of Star Wars enthusiasts.

''It's a worldwide thing. There are garrisons everywhere. These two belong to the Southern Cross ACT/NSW Garrison,'' Fiona Kirk informed.


Travis Kirk (''That's my husband,'' Fiona advised proudly), was dressed in fetching cream and tangerine as Star Wars figure Commander Cody. Ridley, a Darth Vader lookalike in shiny black armour, was in the glossy regalia of a Shadow Trooper. The Shadow Troopers are ruthless Darth Vader's ruthless elite troopers.

Funnily enough, even though Commander Cody and the Shadow Trooper were toweringly hefty and were carrying futuristic blunderbusses and looked as if they really could take care of themselves, Trooper Assist Kirk announced she and another female Assist were there on Monday as the two men's ''bodyguards''.

Sometimes, apparently, when these figures from the garrison appear in public, people, especially children, try to souvenir bits of the characters' fabulously expensive-to-make (between $2000 and $4000) costumes.

As the balloon billowed and fattened the two figures swaggered (with that Tony Abbott macho gait that implies the smuggling of very big budgies) to where the roaring orange and blue flame was powering hot air into Darth Vader, to stand guard.

The Darth Vader balloon has been brought from Belgium and the news of its presence here, Trooper Assist Kirk enthused, has galvanised Australian garrisons.

''Next week there will be four [costumed] Darth Vaders here and I don't know how many Shadow Troopers. They're coming from all over Australia.''

The black balloon grew and grew beside us, blotting out everything else. A fox terrier (there were dozens of dogs there yesterday) looked on, too awestruck to bark. In a trice the black mass went from looking like nothing in particular to one of the two most instantly recognisable heads and faces of all (the other is the Mona Lisa). It lifted away, to cheers and whoops from we mere terrestrials. Up it went into a dawn now too well-lit (and beautifully pink and golden) for there to be any stars left.

There was a terrific moment five minutes later when Darth Vader, having ascended with the back of his head to us and having idled to a point somewhere just above the National Library, turned, slowly, to fix us all with a scowl of malign contempt as if we, to him, were all maggots. The psychopathic cyborg looked as if he might spit at us, although, of course, he was too smart to do that while wearing his helmet-mask. Then he turned away from we maggots, and, pointing his face in the rough general direction of Belconnen, glided away with the rest of that morning's armada.

What a start, so early a one, to this important day! Happy Canberrans floated away to their cars as if they, too, were little balloons, pumped up with love of life and love of their city.

Little speed but swathes of style

Robert and Meryl Lovell's glistening 1907 De Dion-Bouton gives one an idea of what a spectacle Sir Galahad must have been in his silver armour.

It is next to impossible for any vehicle to stand out in the glamorous company of the assembled contraptions on display at the national one and two-cylinder vehicle rally at the National Museum. All that polished brass!

And yet the Lovells' shining De Dion-Bouton does stand out. At yet another teeming Canberra Day occasion on Monday (and the miserabilists said Canberrans would all get out of town, to the coast and to Sydney), people milled around this gleaming, single-cylinder apparition. Owner Robert Lovell of Lismore (in a natty 1907-style waistcoat and accompanied by similarly 1907-ish dressed wife Meryl with a parasol and a bonnet) had to tell visitors again and again all about his car.

He told them that it was made in France in 1907 and delivered to Australia, to Melbourne, in that year or the next.

''It's eight horsepower, single cylinder and you can see [reeling off a great list of 'systems' it has] how very advanced the French were in those days.''

There are, incredibly, steam-driven cars at this 60-vehicle rally but the De Dion-Bouton always ran on whatever fuel could be procured from a pump.

It has needed lots of work and yet, unlike the classic old cases of cars that are found mouldering in a farm shed badly gnawed by rust and with families of bunyips living in them, it was very well looked after by a rich gentleman who collected 106 veteran cars and so has been responsible, Lovell reports gratefully, for preserving so many cars that would otherwise be lost to us.

This glistening car (''I like polished metal, so I polished it'') eventually went on sale when its unhappy owner divorced.

The rally, with lots of models that may well have been driven to Kurrajong Hill for the ceremony on March 12, 1913, continues at the museum until March 15.