The Ghosts of Bush Weeks Past

Bush Week

Bush week is a relatively timid affair nowadays, but there was a time when it was something more. A time when it was an infamous part of Canberra’s cultural calendar, when ANU students could shut down city streets and, for better or worse, their exploits were front page news.

For a time, it served as a flash point for ongoing tensions between ANU and RMC Duntroon. In 1963, students heralded the start of the week by painting a hop-scotch court on Duntroon’s sacred parade ground, before hoisting a swastika up the flag pole. Cadets retaliated by capturing several law students; giving them new haircuts and using permanent ink to label them ‘Army property’.

Tensions deteriorated further the following year. Students struck first, setting a car alight on Duntroon’s parade ground, before breaking into and trashing the cadet’s living quarters. The retaliation was swift. Within half an hour, 150 cadets were marching up University Avenue to Bruce Hall, chanting along the way. No reports from the time say what they were chanting, but it’s safe to say it wasn’t Kumbaya.

The cadets destroyed doors, windows and furniture, and used fire hoses to flood students out of their rooms. Two Canberra Times journalists covering the mayhem, whose photographs graced the following day’s front page, were assaulted.

Realising the growing danger, an amnesty was declared in subsequent years. Students and cadets even swapped places one day annually, to try and improve relations.

The law has had to deal with a variety of Bush Week stunts. In 1965, Police launched an investigation when the annual scavenger hunt saw students break into the Australian War Memorial, taking seven paintings by William Dobell, worth $1.4m in today’s currency. The paintings were soon found in the ANU library, though not before generating national headlines.

Bush Week scavenger hunters often set lofty targets. In 1968, Police caught two students on the roof of Parliament House’s Senate chamber, trying to break in and steal a chair (presumably the President’s). Appearing in court, the students pleaded for a lenient penalty, explaining that the best of bush week still lay ahead. The judge replied “I had better take my leave then.” Both students were fined.

In the seventies, students set their sights higher, literally, managing to break into and steal several bells from atop the Carillon in 1970 and 1977.

On one occasion, Bush Week’s antagonism of the law was more direct than usual. A number of students walked into a police station wearing overalls and carrying tool boxes. Presenting officers with what appeared to be a Commonwealth work permit, the ‘electricians’ were allowed to disassemble and remove the station’s neon sign. When it wasn’t returned, officers went searching, eventually finding it had a new home in the ANU Union building.

It wasn’t the only time police were fooled by a bush week stunt.  The short lived (and purely parodic) Canberra Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan once staged a fake abduction outside the Monaro Mall. The ‘victim’, none other than Sekai Hove, was in on the joke. Men dressed in trademark white robes bundled her into a car and sped off. They were soon halted by the sound of sirens, and a police officer who believed he had witnessed a genuine abduction.

Not everyone has fallen for bush week pranks. When 200 prominent Canberrans and journalists were once invited to an art unveiling at the Hyatt, only 9 people turned up. There was of course nothing to see, and perhaps misspelling the name of the famous philanthropist on the invitations, tipped off the other potential guests?

Students did hold an art show that night, but it’s wasn’t at the Hyatt. Instead, a contemporary installation was mounted atop the Academy of Science’s famous Shine-dome. The piece was by the lesser known artist Caroma.

Some Bush Week activities have had deeper meaning; float parades highlighted controversial social and political issues of the day. One ANU Science Society float more than any other caused controversy, protesting religious influence on birth control. A woman wearing a fake baby bump and a man in Church vestments, threw what purported to be contraceptive pills to the public along the route, as students wearing togas writhed on a giant crucifix nearby. This was at a time when distributing contraception was restricted to chemists and years before the ban on promoting contraceptives publically was lifted by the Commonwealth.

For all the pranks, Bush Week has always had a wholesome side too. Activities raised many thousands of dollars over the years for Canberra charities. In 1970, the ANU Evangelical Union attempted to set a new world record in Garema Place for the longest bible reading, the record at the time being 704 hours. And in 79, students who were surely concerned with animal welfare, freed the fish from the University House pond. Though for some reason, they only made it as far as the staff water coolers… oh.

While some bush week traditions have faded, the pub crawl hasn’t. This year, it’s Gundaroo, but in earlier days, it was all aboard busses, cars (which often returned to Canberra on the wrong side of the Kings Highway) and even trains to Bungendore.

It seems students of yesteryear had a little more trouble holding their liquor. Publicans once stopped service at 4 – that’s 4PM – only two hours after students arrived, by which time bar owners had lost about as many glasses, windows, chairs, tables, and even fireplaces, as they were willing to. Not that they were too upset. Publicans boasted that they’d made more than enough money in that short time to cover the damage. Which is why ANU students were welcome back year after year… debauchery and all.

A version of this article was published by The Australian in September 2013.
A version of this article was published in Woroni in August 2013.