The Canberra Centenary Trail (Southern Section)

Day 5 - O'Connor to Holder (15.5 km - 390m ascent - 440m descent)

For the past four days, the Black Mountain Tower had been a continuous focus of this circumnavigation of Canberra - finally today we would climb it. I say we because the fair Nello had joined me for today's section and it was good to have some company. It was an unseasonably chilly morning, despite the sun, as we headed off from our start point at Frith Road, climbing quickly up into the bush to follow an embankment pathway around the base of Little Black Mountain. Passing a battery of electricity transformers to rejoin a wide road, we headed more directly up the mountain, the white concrete needle of the tower dead ahead and framed by the forest.

Black Mountain Tower

The tower from below

A little later, a sign directed us to the footpath leading up through the dry sclerophyll forest to the tower itself - first angling across past orange flowering bitter peas and purple-tinged hopbush, then taking on the steep slope directly on a narrow paved path. Despite the cool air, jackets quickly came off for this climb.

Foot track up Black Mountain

Path across the scrubby woodland of Black Mountain

Then we stepped out and the tower rose up before us. Many years ago, as a student, I joined the protests against its erection, preferring a natural skyline to the capital. Now, I admit that I was wrong - it is an impressive edifice and has become such an integral part of the Canberra landscape that it could even be said to define it. Moreover, the views from the tower are the best to be had of the capital city, its lake and the mountains that frame it.

In between the office blocks and apartment towers of the town centres, suburban houses lie almost hidden by the canopy of the urban forest and you can really appreciate why it is called the bush capital. The fair Nello and I took the lift up to the viewing platform and took it all in, then sat down for a mug of coffee and did it all again through the large glass windows of the cafe.

Tower view of Woden town centre and Mt Tennent


The grand view of the west end of Lake Burley Griffin from the tower

Springbank Island

Yarralumla Bay

It was time for another variant - the official route down Black Mountain doubled back into the dry forest on the northern slopes and then took a long circuitous route down on the west. Our route was more direct, following a gravel track down a south-eastern spur to a series of look-outs that gave different perspectives of the lake and city, framed by the forest.

The central and west basins of the lake

Glimpse of the lake between the trees

We then crossed the vehicle road and continued on down the spur leading to Black Mountain Peninsula on a steep and loose-gravelled firetrail, The Lakeview Track. This was one of the reasons for choosing this variant, as the glimpses of the lake and the distant observatories on Mt Stromlo were lovely. The forest here also seemed brighter as we crossed a lush green gully to emerge onto a grassland, scattered with tiny everlasting daisies, at the base of the mountain.

Descending the spur from Black Mountain

Views out over the Tidbinbilla Range

A moister gully on the southern slopes of Black Mountain

The distant Mt Stromlo Observatory

To our left, a bike path headed out from Civic and we joined it briefly to pass under the the looping roads of the Glenloch Interchange and reach the broad grassy woodland of Aranda Bushland, with its, rare for this region, snowgums. Ahead lay one more underpass, which took us away form the bikepath and into the magnificent dappled shade of an 80-year old cork oak forest.

Bike path past the Aranda Bushland

The Hovell Drive underpass

Planted for commercial production and last harvested for cork in 2001, it is now a beautiful part of the new National Arboretum. It was great walking beneath the dappled shade of the canopy, admiring the grey-fissured texture of old bark and rich brown roughness of the new bark. Only the hum of traffic from the nearby interchange stopped this from being tranquil perfection.

Dappled shade of the cork oak forest

The bark of the cork oak

The bark of this cork oak was harvested in 2001

Leaving the mature oaks, we began to pass by new plantings of the arboretum - Chilean monkey-puzzle trees, flowering dogwoods and horse chestnuts - before passing up through an old stand of Himalayan cedar to a point where we could look over the extensive plantings of trees from all over the world - some already a few metres tall, others still protected by their pink plastic shelters.

A young Andean monkey-puzzle tree

The new horse chestnut forest at the National Arboretum

Amongst the Himalayan cedars

The National Arboretum, officially opened in February 2013, contains 104 different "forests" of native and exotic trees, many of which are endangered or symbolic species. Complemented by a superb timber built visitors centre, pavilion and amphitheatre, amazing kids playground and hilltop sculptures, with some of the best views in Canberra, walking through the arboretum has been one of the highlights of this trail. The forests may be small now, but we are looking forward to watching them grow and seeing the landscape change as they do.

Site of the National Arboretum ( imagine how this will change in time as the forests grow)

After climbing (straight) up a curious zig-zagging pathway that seems to be some sort of gigantic landscape artwork, we had a slow lunch break looking out over the lake and hills of Canberra from the Visitor Centre deck (PS don't miss the National Bonsai Collection - some of the bonsaied native plants are superb).

Children's playground at the arboretum


Inside the Visitors' Centre

The panorama of city and lake from Dairy Farmers Hill

Black Mountain Tower and the Vistor Centre

Wide brown land

Nest III by Richard Moffat (how best to use scrap metal)

The cool westerly wind was strengthening, so we continued our climb up past the Saharan cypress to Dairy Farmers Hill, bare-topped but for several large Aleppo pines and a wonderful scrap metal sculpture of a wedge-tailed eagle on its nest. With panoramic views in every direction, it was hard to understand why the official trail route did not pass by here.

Brindabella Mountains panorama from Dairy Farmers Hill

Saharan cypress above the lake

From the hill, we descended quickly into the lee of the wind, across a grassy slope and faint track through the Eastern red bud forest to reach a southward bound dirt track. This led us past a string of water tanks positioned to irrigate the new forests, out of the Arboretum plantings and into a forest of 10-year old radiata pine. Ten years old because the mature pine forests that covered all of this Greenhills region were destroyed by the fires of 2003.

Walking through the radiata pine forest

It would not be a Canberra walk if there were not a section of radiata pine - until the fires, which burst from the surrounding pine forests to destroy 500 houses, we loved them as places to stroll, jog, collect mushrooms and walk the dog. Now they are mostly gone and the near city landscape has changed for ever - hills are open-topped and new towns, such as Molonglo, are springing up in their place. We are much more ambivalent about pine forests now.

The Molonglo River at the MVIS bridge

Descending out of the pines, we reached the Molonglo River, crossing it on a concrete bridge that held back the debris of floods past to reach a bike path on the far side. This bridge is called the Molongo Valley Interceptor Sewer Bridge, but you really don't want to know that. The route through this whole area is fairly fluid at the moment as all to the west, the land has been fenced and cleared for the development of new roads, infrastructure, pondage and houses in the new town of Molonglo. One day the Centenary Trail will pass through this region, but not today. We skirted by the metal fencing on a brand new bike path to pass beneath a bridge on the Cotter Road and reach the suburb of Holder.

Skirting the perimeter fence for the new Molonglo subdivision

Earthworks at Canberra's newest town development

The cuboid architecture of brand new suburbia

Once again, we had reached a bus route and it seemed a good place to stop for the day - the no. 28 bus is not all that frequent, but it was a pleasant spot to rest up as we waited. It had been a day of highlights on the trail and I felt more convinced that it was showcasing the best natural features of the nations' capital.


Day 6 - Holder to Kambah (11.5 km - 390m ascent - 330m descent)

Some days you just don't feel like walking all day - today was one of them. The choice was 24km all the way to Tuggeranong or 11km to Kambah - there was no bus stop in between. An easy stroll in the morning seemed a much better idea and, as the fair Nello had to mind the grand-daughters today, I got a lift with her back to my starting point at Holder. The excursion would be even quicker.

More traditional streetscape in Holder

Eucumbene Drive

Thus I found myself wandering westward along a grassy track between the houses of Holder and the new Stromlo Village. This was pretty much a transit stage, but when I turned south to walk beside Eucumbene Drive and began to notice the new contemporary-styled architecture of houses on the left and the open grasslands on the right, it became a stage of reflection. A bit over ten years ago, the houses were all 80s vintage architecture and the west side of the street was at the edge of a dense and mature pine forest. Then came that fateful day of the fire that Canberra will never forget - January 18, 2003, and Eucumbene Street was the first to bear the brunt of the firestorm. Imagine the sky turning black with thick acrid smoke and the roar of the bushfire, as it approached with the speed and noise of a freight train, the 20m pines exploding into flames and the rain of burning embers and fireballs, driven across the narrow strip of bitumen by the fire-generated winds to envelop the houses opposite and drive deep into the heart of these western suburbs. I can't - that day when over 500 houses were destroyed is simply unimaginable.

The green pastures of the Equestrian Centre

I was glad to reach the end of the street and walk past the green open paddocks of the Equestrian Centre and on to more pleasant memories. I was heading for Cooleman Ridge - we once lived in its shadow and it was a favourite haunt of my family. Now I had a chance to revisit.

On reaching the entry to the Nature Park, I climbed steeply up a firetrail to join the perimeter firetrail that meandered around the ridge between houses and grassy woodland slopes. The views over the suburbs of Weston Creek were already opening up and were even better when I made my first track variant and climbed the steps to Cooleman Trig. Out to the west, the green grassy paddocks led my gaze towards the blue horizons of the Tidbinbilla and Brindabella Ranges. These paddocks were once part of the land settled by the fair Nello's ancestors, long before the city of Canberra existed - perhaps that is partly why we liked coming out here so much.

The houses of Chapman from the ridge track

On Cooleman Trig

From the trig, I followed a track down past an large and active wombat burrow to the far side of the ridge. This is where we would come to get away from it all, a tranquil place where the city on the other side of the ridge ceased to exist. A slight detour led me to the peaceful little dam where I sat and reminisced to the sound of frog and songbird.

Track heading away from Cooleman Trig

A peaceful dam on the far side

The far side of the ridge

Mt Tennent from Cooleman

Then it was on again, wandering slowly around the dirt track and taking in the panoramic views to gradually work my way up past a large water tank and rejoin the official track. The track followed the spine of the ridge, across the grasslands and past lovely formations of granite boulders that framed the views over city or mountains. Cooleman Ridge is another great ridge-walking area of Canberra.

The track along Cooleman Ridge

Boulders on the ridge

Another Cooleman boulderscape

The summit of Arawang

One more variant was needed however - instead of following the official track down and around, I took the narrow footpath up through the scrubby wattles to reach the summit of Arawang. This hill top has more great views out over the city towards Black Mountain Tower, again a distant needle, and southwards over the southernmost town centre of Tuggeranong and its suburbs (especially if you walk across the small grassy plateau to the southern rim of Arawang).

Lincoln Close, Chapman (the phoenix arises)

Track up through the wattles

View over pastureland and mountains from Arawang

Arawang trig

As in past days, the wind began to pick up and, for the first time, high cloud was drifting in. I descended Arawang on the steep rock footpath on its eastern face to rejoin the official track where it spilled out from the Nature Park and on to Namatjira Drive. Here a bike path followed the road south and past the Kambah horse paddocks.

Kambah horse paddocks

Tuggeranong Lake and town centre from Arawang

It was the start of another transition stage, but a short one for today, as I headed down the grassy verge of the road leading to Kambah Pool and stopped at bus shelter to wait for the No. 60 bus. Each day, I have wondered whether I would still enjoy the walking and each day I have for different reasons. Today was a trip down memory lane.


Day 7 - Kambah to Gowrie (18.5 km - 210m ascent - 220m descent)

I didn't walk yesterday. With winds of 60 kph gusting to 90, it seemed like a good day to stay at home and catch up with a few jobs. The frontal system blew through overnight and this morning was perfect, still air and blue sky, so after yet another bus trip, I found myself heading off down the Kambah Pool Road from the Barritt St bus stop.

This was a transition stage, but as I wandered down the broad grassy verge, between manicured golf course and the forested slopes of McQuoid Hill, I found myself enjoying it. I even found a couple of golf balls out in the long grass and threw them to a chap on the green of the par 4 second - he said that he probably hit them there last week. A trio of horse riders were also out enjoying the morning sun.

Horse-riders below McQuoid Hill

The zig and zag of the new trail

Fore!! Golfers on the fairway of the second hole

Ahead I could see the metre-wide scraping that I recognised as the new track, now somewhat overgrown (which is not a criticism, as I much prefer to walk on track like this than something that is over-engineered, but is it written in the Trackmakers Manual that tracks should always meander even when they don't have to?).

No swimming today!

Looking across to the Bullen Range

Suburbia was left behind, as the track took me down the road and directly towards the rugged Bullen Range backing the Murrumbidgee River. It was heading to a well-known walking track along the Murrumbidgee Corridor and one of the feature sections of this centenary trail. I reached the head of this track, turned east and followed it through the shrubby bushland that sloped down to the river. For a while, I meandered along, looking out at the eucalypt and wattle covered slopes of the Bullen Range opposite and listening to the twitters and whistles of unseen birds. This river corridor is a migration route for many species of small bird and its was full of them today.

The Murrumbidgee River wends its way below the Bullen Range

The walking track here has been "upgraded" for the new centenary trail (which is planning-speak for made suitable for cyclists) and a couple of kilometres along, I reached a stage where a new route had been cut to work around a couple of gullies. However, I also noticed that the old foot-track had been ripped up at that point. It seemed fair enough to the give cyclists a new route but at the expense of walkers? I knew this bit of track - it descended into a couple of steep little gullies to approach the river - in fact, a small detour takes you to a lovely spot for a break and relax on the river, the only access point in this part. It was too nice a section to miss, so I headed across the ploughed up piste to reach intact foot track and continue on the "old" route. The river was lovely.

A nice part of the Murrumbidgee between Red Rocks and Kambah Pool

Heading on, the foot track climbed to rejoin the new trail just before the classic viewpoint of Red Rocks Gorge - a narrowing of the valley where the Murrumbidgee has cut its way through the landscape to expose sheer walls of orange-red metamorphic rock. A few workmen were here finishing off a brand-new metal viewing platform and putting in some stone steps to it - they assured me all would be ready before the trail was officially opened next week-end (October 27). The views from the platform both up and down the river were as impressive as always.

Red Rocks Gorge

View to the east from the new river lookout

The red rocks of Red Rocks

Pushing on I climbed up the track to cross over the high saddle to the north of the gorge - the air honey-scented from the nectar of flowering eucalypts. The landscape opened up as I crossed a couple of gullies, with trackside shrubs competing for attention with vibrant red flowering grevilleas and mists of pale purple covering the melaleucas. In the distance a couple of kangaroos bounded across the paddock.

Eucalyptus in flower

The upgraded trail crossing the grassland slopes

Track passing beneath a mistletoe

Crossing the next ridge, I could see the a big sandy bend in the river and the distant red rooves of the Tuggeranong Town Centre on the hilltop behind - I was approaching civilisation again. However, it was time for another detour. My stomach told me it was lunch and I knew of a nice shady eucalypt down near the river that overlooked the water and sandy beach. I followed the fenceline down, walked through the rusted old gate, found my tree and enjoyed both the tranquility and the sandwiches.

The rooves of Tuggeranong town centre

A still and sandy reach of the Murrumbidgee

At this point the Tuggeranong Creek flows down into the Murrumbidgee and the official trail does a big loop to cross it on a small bridge further upstream. However, there is a foot-crossing that saves a bit of walking, so after lunch, I rejoined the trail briefly but then followed the sign to where a foot track descended to the creek and crossed it on a long rock rib. Several kangaroos watched nonchalantly as I passed. There are often big mobs in this area and, judging from the number of active burrows, there is also a big population of wombats.

Kangaroo country below the Urambi Hills

A few of the local mob

Foot crossing at Tuggeranong Creek

Once on the other side, I followed the track back towards the river, passing through a massive infestation of St John's wort to reach an old stone wall built by the early settlers (at the end of this wall there is another nice riverside lunch-stop beneath the shade of a big casuarina).

A casuarina lined section of the Murrumbidgee

Drystone wall built by the first European settlers

Modern apartment living in Greenway

From here I stayed with the official track, climbing up through the grassy woodland, using my GPS (signage should be in place now) to reach the buildings of the Tuggeranong Town Centre. The centre is on the west bank of Lake Tuggeranong and has a lovely foreshore and parkland, so why does the official route go down the main street? I headed for the shore to enjoy the lake, the waterbirds and a cup of coffee.

Gardens in the Tuggeranong town park

Lake Tuggeranong foreshore

The waterbirds of Lake Tuggeranong

This could have been a logical end-point for the day, but I decided to push on to shorten the next (and final) day's walk. The foreshore path continued on, passing beneath the road bridge before crossing the upper reach of the lake on a footbridge. I suspect that I was getting cantankerous, because again I deviated from the official route to continue around the shoreline of this upper reach and keep away for the busy road.

The upper reach of Lake Tuggeranong

Pondage in Monash

Eventually though, I had to cross it and join the bike path that led up a parkland spine passing through the suburbs of Tuggeranong. At first the walking was pleasant, alongside a reed- and casuarina-lined pondage, but after that had passed it turned into a bit of a trudge, and a fast trudge at that as I realised the bus would soon be pulling up at the Gowrie shops. I left the bike path and took what seemed a shorter route by footpath and street - it probably made no difference, but in the end I made the shops in time!

Bike path along the suburban greenbelt

An inter-suburban wetland

Now doesn't that make you feel warm and fuzzy?

Today, more than any other confirmed my suspicion that this trail is a little bit cyclocentric and highlighted the difficulties of finding the right balance for a multi-usage track. There are definitely times when bike-rider and walker must diverge for both to get the most out of the trail and I suspect that, in time, these variants will become quasi-official.


Day 8 - Gowrie to the Federation Stone (19.5 km - 530m ascent - 540m descent)

The last day on the trail had arrived and I felt keen to complete it as the fair Nello dropped me off at the starting point in suburban Gowrie. She was on her way to the gym and offered me a lift - no point being a zealot about using public transport. As such, it was my earliest start and the air was still quite crisp as I set off down the bike path and into the Fadden Pines. This remnant of an old pine plantation had been left as a picnic and recreation area for the local residents and it was pleasant strolling beneath the dark canopy of these big old trees.

Early morning shade in Fadden Pines

The bike path led me through an underpass and back into residential houses, though in typical Canberra fashion, it followed a broad greenbelt of parkland and playground that divided the suburb. I was quite enjoying the walk and came to the conclusion that it is best to walk these more urban sections of the trail in the morning when the mind is not pre-occupied with the thought of that cold beer at the end of the day.

The urban side of the urban fringe

View across to Isaacs Ridge

The greenbelt gradually narrowed, funnelling me out to the gate of the Canberra Nature Park - Wanniassa Hills Section. This is another lovely area that offers woodland and open ridge tops with expansive views over the Tuggeranong Valley. However, and I suspect in deference to cyclists, the official trail skirted by and onwards on a flatter route - it was time for another variant, the first part of which was a gravel road that curved easily up to a large water tank.

Everlastings in the Wanniassa Hills

From here, a narrow and at times, faint, footpath climbed up the grassy slopes to reach the tree-covered ridgeline. It was while climbing up that I first noticed the haziness in the sky and it soon became obvious what it was - smoke drifting down from the horrific bushfires in the Blue Mountains, some 200km to the north, was creating a palid pall over the cloudless sky of Canberra.

Smoke haze from the Blue Mountains bushfires

The flora of the ridge, however, provided the distraction needed - yes, the ubiquitous St John's wort was omnipresent and would soon carpet the open hillside in yellow and yes, there were purple patches of Paterson's curse, but these weeds apart, golden everlastings were flowering in abundance and, for the first time on the trail, I spotted the grail of plants, an orchid - a small cluster of donkey orchids to be precise.

Purple haze of Paterson's Curse

View from the ridge over the top end of Fadden

The road to Mt Wanniassa

Wanniassa trig

Woden town centre almost hazed out

I wandered from woodland to open ridge, with views out to the hazy east and south across the rooves of Fadden, to reach the short detour to the trig of Mt Wanniassa. The smoky haze had created an opaque prism and distant features faded into obscurity, but it was still a great spot to sit and contemplate my surrounds to the intermittent songs of the local bushbirds.

A pall of bushfire smoke over the Tuggeranong Valley

A resident of Wanniassa Hills

To my east, I could see the communication towers on the spine of Isaacs Ridge - it was my next destination and, retracing my steps to the track junction, I continued my route down from the Wanniassa Hills to cross the Long Gully Road. After a few hundred metres of walking alongside this busy road, I took to the horse trail that led directly away from it and directly up the steep slope through the young pine trees of the Isaacs Plantation.

Climbing up through the Isaacs pines

This was another variation, as the official route continued around base of the ridge, but a ridge has views and that is where the walker should be.

Overlooking smoky Woden from Isaacs Ridge

Road down from the communication towers

On reaching the crest, the dirt access road followed a fenceline up and down along its spine, with colour-washed views out towards the suburbs of Woden and Mt Taylor and eastwards across the Mugga Hills. The haze was getting thicker and I could faintly smell its smokiness. Even the kookaburra found it no laughing matter. On the opposite side of the fence, there was virtually a monoculture of St John's wort - at least it was outcompeting the Paterson's Curse.

A wattle grove on the ridge with Mt Taylor in the distace

Looking back along Isaacs Ridge

Start of the descent from the ridge

Fire trail at the base of the Isaacs pines

Eventually, the gravel road turned to descend sharply into the pine forest and pick up the banked perimeter track at its base. I was back on the official track, though not for long. It led back into open eucalypt woodland at the back of the houses of O'Malley and then continued on to do a long loop to reach Red Hill via the Hindmarsh Drive / Mugga Way traffic lights. There is a much shorter route for the adventurous walker, one also used by participants in the Sri Chinmoy Triathlons. In fact the pale blue markings they put out for their upcoming 100km Centenary Trail Run helped guide me along the footpaths and gravel tracks through the box-gum woodlands (and wort lands) behind O'Malley.

The house of O'Malley and Woden town centre

St John's wort jungle

Woodllands in front of Mt Mugga Mugga

They brought me out to a pretty reed-lined pondage just to the north of busy Hindmarsh Drive, a good lunch spot, before pushing on to my objective - the twin storm water pipes beneath this busy road.

Yet another kangaroo

Wildflowers in the woodland

The O'Malley Pondage

Light at the end of the tunnel

Storm drain exit in Garran
Just 1.5m in diameter and 50m long, the concrete pipe was the ideal way to get to the other side - the fun of childhood adventures relived. From the pipe exit, a track headed up the traffic-noisy bush corridor between the houses of Garran and Hindmarsh Drive (it is a credit to the track design just how little of it is disturbed by traffic noise). However, on reaching the gateway to Red Hill Nature Park, I turned away from the road and tranquility was soon restored.

Panorama of Red Hill suburb, Mt Mugga Mugga and Woden form the slopes of Davidson Hill

The trail across the Red Hill Ridge

Black Mountain tower in the smoke haze

The day was warming up and, for the first time, I was working up a good sweat. as I climbed, first Davidson Hill and then Red Hill on this open wooded ridge, with its hazy, but spectacular views over the inner south of Canberra, north to the barely visible Mt Ainslie and the faint outline of the flagpole above Parliament House - I was nearing the end of the trail.

A haze-faded view of fountain and flagpole

Foot track from Red Hill to suburbia

The red earth road (why Red Hill is so called)

Mt Ainslie hiding in the smoky mist

Still, there was time for a coffee at the iconic Red Hill Restaurant, site of many a marriage proposal or celebration in the early days of the city, before descending down the steep red earth track to suburbia.

The iconic conic of Red Hill Restaurant

Grass trees at Red Hill Lookout
(homage to Mr Curly)

All that was left was a stroll down the broad eucalypt-lined boulevard of Melbourne Avenue, directly towards Capital Hill, where I wandered through the parliamentary gardens. It was good way to finish, with the regular glimpses of the aluminium flagpole, the world's biggest trig, dominating the parliament and the hill.

The flagpole - rising majestically above the trees

Sleepy Melbourne Avenue

A walk through the Parliament gardens

The back door of Parliament House

End of the trail - the Federation Stone and Parliament House

Reaching the front of the parliament building, one small task remained and that was to wander over to a small brown button on the lawns in front - the Federation Stone. Here, in 2013, Canberra was officially named and its history as the capital of Australia began. One hundred years on, it is the appropriate place for this Centenary Trail, which show-cases the delights - urban, natural and rural - of the bush capital, to end.

Happy 100th birthday, Canberra!!