Anyone who was finding their way as a young adult in Canberra in the mid-1990s knows that a night out in the capital was pretty good. From the sticky floor at The Private Bin to downstairs Mooseheads before the place burnt down, they were fun times.
There was Seasons Sports Bar; Liquid Lounge; a thriving gig culture at ANU Bar, The Terminus, The Asylum and Gypsy Bar; and four bourbons for $9 at Canberra RSL. And, of course, the seething responsible-service-of-alcohol black hole of Jolly Jugs at Pandora’s on a Thursday night.
All great memories from a time when rules were a little looser and Canberra’s social pulse was at its peak. But towards the end of every Saturday night out in Civic, there was an impending sense of dread at the prospect of the absolute worst part of the experience: the 2:00 am taxi queue.
More than two decades later, the thought of the queue snaking around Alinga Street into East Row as cabs slowly dribbled through the bus interchange still induces a cold sweat. You’d leave the nightclub or pub, get steaming chips and gravy from Chicken Gourmet, then join the back of the line, sometimes for up to two hours waiting for a taxi to get home.
It was shocking.
Today’s younger generation wouldn’t have a clue about this notoriously consistent and fearsome element to a Canberra Saturday night out. Welcome changes to the taxi industry and the advent of ridesharing companies Uber, Ola and Shebah have given customers in the ACT more choice and rendered the queue extinct.
Uber arrived in Canberra in 2015, with Ola following in 2018, and all-female ridesharing service Shebah launching locally that same year. The ACT actually has an oversaturation of ridesharing options, which lends itself to separate problems, but revellers ending their night staring at the back of someone’s melon for two hours in the freezing cold isn’t one of them.
The issue back in the ’90s was the presence of only one cab company in operation, Aerial Taxis, and at 2:00 am on a Sunday morning there weren’t enough of them to cater to everyone at the same time. With a mass of boozed-up people all wanting to get home to hit the pillow, things often got heated. People pushed in and occasionally punches were thrown.
Sometimes drivers wouldn’t take passengers to certain parts of town if their shift was nearing its end – you can imagine how that went down.
It was also common for strangers heading to the same suburbs to share rides to split fares, but I’m sure this sometimes ended badly as well.
Much of this messy experience was in the depths of Canberra’s winters.
One of my best mates, Fred, never wore a jacket on nights out for fear of leaving it behind in a pub, so he would shiver his way through the queue at night’s end. Likewise, young hypothermic girls wearing short skirts and tank tops would cower together to stay warm in zero degrees. Absolute madness.
However, the queue did provide the occasional highlight.
Back in those days, Canberra Raiders players were common sightings at joints such as the Private Bin and Corvo’s, and on one night in 1994 the boys were out celebrating a big win over the Sharks that afternoon. Brett Mullins had scored a hat-trick of tries, and while I was standing in the queue at about 3:00 am he bolted past – showing his trademark clean pair of heels – and bellowed, “I’m going for number four!” before disappearing into the night.
Unbelievably, in the next game, Mullins did actually score four tries against the Rabbitohs. Then he backed it up the week after that by scoring four again against the Knights. He really meant what he said.
Most of the venues from back then are gone, and Canberra’s modern nightlife has hugely evolved, but the city on a Saturday night still has a unique energy to it. However, young people out on the tiles don’t realise how good they’ve got it as they are free to go home whenever they want.
The dark cloud of the Civic cab queue has been banished to the annals of ACT’s social history, alongside Jolly Jugs and the Bin.