Short on Life but Long on Memory-The Ballad of Wilf Broadbent

 

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Private Wilfred Broadbent.

I was rummaging through my wardrobe today and found an opened package deep in it’s bowels which had been left undisturbed for I don’t know how long. Inside was an ancient, yellowed, pictorial history of the 24th battalion of the Australian Imperial Force of World War 2. I had obviously found it online and bought it many years ago and had kept in it’s box for preservation’s sake and safe keeping.

I’m not sure who would have created and produced this sort of booklet. Perhaps every fighting unit of the war had historians pore through notes on it’s service and produce a written record or pictorial history such as this for those who served within it. The 24th had seen some action and was obviously very proud of it’s performance. As it should have been.

I’m no expert but given the fact that another unit, 2/24 battalion had been raised to serve in the AIF early in the war I assume the 24th battalion was originally a militia battalion, raised through conscription and manned by “chocos”, the name the all volunteer units of the AIF used in desultory fashion to describe those members of the Australian Military Forces who were serving in militia battalions. Chocolate soldiers. They melt in the heat.

The original AIF battalions of WW2 had the prefix *2 added to the front of their battalion number to distinguish them from their Great War counterparts from a generation earlier but as the fight in the islands to the north got closer to Australia the conscript militia with their own battalions and links to the Great War were mobilized and met the Japanese in the dark, sodden jungles of New Guinea. And helped turn them back.

All militia battalions were eventually designated as AIF units thus ending the schism between Australia’s two land fighting forces of WW2. The “Chocos”, for the most part distinguished themselves in the fighting and few people who know the history of Australia in the Second World War haven’t heard of “Those Ragged Bloody Heroes”, the men of the 39th militia battalion who fought so gamely and gallantly on the Kokoda Trail-alongside their AIF counterparts.

And thus the story of Wilfred Geoffrey Broadbent begins.

Wilf Broadbent was my Great Uncle and a member of the 24th battalion. Which would be the reason for me purchasing the ancient battalion history.

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Wilf Broadbent in the centre (partly obscured). Mubo Track 1943.

I never knew him. He was killed in a car accident in 1949 and so to glean some sort of history of his life through his military record is a comfort for both me and my father who remembers his uncle only a little. He has but a few shimmering snap shots in his memory of a life cut short. He bares a remarkable resemblance to Wilf.

In the 24th battalion booklet is the photo above of Uncle Wilf. He is obscured by the magazine of his comrades’ Owen gun but the image is enough to suggest a young man morphed into an Australian jungle fighter of legend.

The men are in an observation post on the Mubo Track in New Guinea. It is obviously a staged shot but it gives some idea of the conditions endured and operations performed by the Australian army in Papua New Guinea in 1943. The Owen gun I assume was more of a close quarters weapon so the enemy would be near. The Mubo Track fighting, part of the tough Wau-Salamaua campaign, was very hard and it there is some pride in our family knowing Wilf was in the thick of it.

Wilf was involved in a car accident outside the Milawa Butter Factory on August 28 1949. There were three others in the car as well including his brother Horace and the car had been wedged under the tray of the truck. Wilf suffered compound fractures of the skull and died in Wangaratta Hospital the next day. He was 26 years old.

It’s unfair that a young man only really beginning his life had it cut short so suddenly. He had seen so much and fought so bravely. To suffer fatal injuries at an innocuous intersection in a one horse country town hardly seems right. But we remember him.

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Wilf is buried alongside his parents in Greta cemetery.

Lest we forget.

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Happy New Year!

 

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Yes. It’s the season of goodwill and Strange Notations from a Laborious Life hopes all of you have had a happy and joyful Christmas and are looking forward to celebrating the end of the year and welcoming in the new. Let’s hope there is plenty of fun and laughter to come in 2018 and our television screens and social media profiles carry a little less of the bad news which has unfortunately intersected with our lives in the last twelve months.

Strange Notations would like to join the festivities and put our own unique stamp on someone’s Christmas and New Year by offering a free giveaway. Yes. Free stuff!

Now don’t get too excited. We are not doing the Oprah Winfrey show and offering all sorts of expensive gifts to you we are simply giving someone the chance to win a peaked cap (pictured above) with the blog title on the front. A little thank you for reading and hopefully something which might come in useful on a sunny day in 2018.

Of course we are not going to let you have one too easily. You will have to answer a question correctly first. I will take the first three correct answers in the feedback section of this blog. Doesn’t matter where you are from. I will happily pay postage if you are not from Australia.

And our question? Well, I am an Australian and a cycling fan so our question will be skewed towards both those things. Please keep reading.

Q. Who is the only Australian to have won the Tour de France?

Now it’s up to you. It’s pretty easy really and even if you don’t know a quick Google search will bring you the answer very swiftly.

Good luck. And Happy New Year!

 

Where Have All the Matthew’s Gone?!

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Port Macquarie NSW

I see a list of most popular baby names in Australia for 2017 has been published and it may be of passing interest to some to know that Oliver and Charlotte are the two most fancied for boys and girls respectively.

There does seem to be a throwback to earlier times with William, James and Thomas featuring prominently for the lads and Amelia, Olivia and Grace popping into the top ten in the pink.

Henry at 13 and Harry at 28, Charles at 77, George at 38 and Edward at 48 also make the list showing the continuing royal influence in Australian cultural life. Fletcher and Christian also appear at 91 and 89 respectively although I can’t be sure if many parents are familiar with the main protagonist in the saga of the Mutiny on the Bounty.

Peter’s, John’s and Andrew’s seem to have gone by the bye replaced by much more exotic sounding monikers such as Arlo (52), Beau (70) and Chase (73). Muhammed graces the list at number 80, seemingly the only non-anglo name present. I’m glad I was born in 1970!

Notable for the girls are Ruby (17), Milla (34) and Aaliyah (88) with some old favorites such as Victoria (86) and Florence (97) just managing to scrape in.

But where have all the Matthew’s gone? What’s wrong with us? Matthew’s once ruled the world! Yes, my own name once dominated these lists finishing first or second for many a year and although I prefer the shortened version and have never really had a particular fondness for the name it was nice to be on top of the heap.

One used to run into Matthew’s everywhere and I suppose one still can if mixing in a certain demographic but just hold your horses. Matthew appears to have finished 69th. Respectable I guess but it seems the halcyon days of the Matty’s are gone. Welcome to the future and say G’Day to Ethan (7), Leo (18) and Hudson (23). Tip your hat to Levi (27), Oscar (26) and Carter (75). Please hold the door for Evie (11), Ivy (20) and Ellie (42) and make way for Maddison (26),  Addison (62) and Savannah (41).

I suppose it could be worse. Matthew could have gone the way Clarence or Horace, names which are never used anymore. We are still in there fighting. This is a call to arms to all Matthews. Let’s make something of ourselves. Let’s push those barriers and aim for the top ten once more and put ourselves back where we belong. Our challenge, our mission for 2018.

Bring back the Matt!

Being the Grinch and Strange Christmas Notations.

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Thunderbolt Rock, Uralla NSW

Oh boy! The last week at work before Christmas and I would rather be dragged along a gravel road by a team of pack horses than attend these last few days at the “happiness factory”. Everything intensifies this close to Christmas. The work keeps coming like water off a rocky outcrop, personalities intensify and conflict is never far from the surface. Irritants that one usually lets fly through to the keeper become a bugbear, like a prickle in your undershirt and alas, being Wednesday, it’s a case of being so near yet so far. Still three days to go!

Things may improve today-a little. Average folk realize their mail has little chance of reaching it’s destination if posted so late and most have gotten in early. We will probably still have the authorities patrolling-that is those who are in charge who like to hang around and direct traffic when all others concerned would rather they just stay in their offices. They really are a nuisance on the floor. Especially when their practical experience is nought.

So, three days to the break and I can only hope it is smooth sailing. I have been partnered for the Christmas period with a rather unpleasant fellow who I normally wouldn’t volunteer to work with in a pink fit. He is however better than nothing despite wanting to do things his own way and dispatch the mail earlier than we should-among other annoyances-and I will survive the experience.

I could ramble forever about the inadequacies of the staff and management and the inefficiencies which dog our performance but I made a promise to myself a couple of years ago to refrain from such criticism so will leave my complaints there before I get myself into bother. Suffice to say many of us are not happy campers and look out from our cloistered workplace at the outside world like bugs trapped in a beer bottle, hoping and praying that one day we will climb that slippery surface and slither through the shining hole that leads to the light.

Anyway, I do not want to be the “Grinch That Stole Christmas” and drag everyone down and destroy the happiest day of the year for others. I wish you all the best.

I have however made a few positives steps in my life. I applied to University and will be starting a course in March next year. It’s a bridging course which will enable me to further my studies in the years which follow plus a course in Archaeology which should be interesting-if I can keep my motivation from waning.

So, all in all, 2018 is looking like a new start or at least the first step on a new path. Work should also be downsizing next year and I am hoping (praying) that I receive a redundancy package. Nothing like a complete break to get you motivated to find work elsewhere!

I will leave you with happy cheer from me. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all and may it be safe and you be well.  And remember, like I described my current predicament earlier, this time of year can be frustrating. Family can grate and friends can be annoying. But it is Christmas time. Time to relax and enjoy and be thankful for what we have. Take care, be safe and have fun.

Roll on 2018.

A Long Road to Hoe

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DC-3 West Wyalong NSW May 2017

There is an old maxim which most would have heard which says “be careful what you wish for-you may just get it.” This applies to me today as I was offered a place in an online pathways course at the University of New England, a pre-cursor to studying for a degree in ancient history.

How did it come to this? How did a lowly mail sorter, disinclined to any sort of higher education end up, potentially, as a university student in a prestigious institution like the University of New England which has produced such dazzling alumni as Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce? (I did mention Barnaby and “dazzling” in the same sentence with my tongue firmly in my cheek.)

Well, I made the mistake several months ago of suggesting to my lovely better half Linda that I may like to study ancient history as a university degree and, knowing my predilection for vacillation over the smallest matters and noting my famous inability to make a decision and get on with it she decided to get the ball rolling herself and enrolled me at UNE. Of course I have no previous education to back myself in for a place in university so i have to do a pathways course to gain entry which I believe counts towards a degree in any case. To quote Gregory Peck in Guns of Navarone, “we’re in it now, up to our necks!”

Realistically, this is one of the biggest decisions in my life and something I have to dig deep within myself to complete. I really don’t want to spend the rest of my working days where I am and the only way out is higher education. A long road to hoe from here.

We’ll see how it goes.

Here We Are, Here We Go!

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Canberra from Telstra Tower.

Well, I’m back! I haven’t been disposed to write for some time now and checking my blog it seems June 28 was my last entry. It did seem for a while like I would never make hay here again but I have never abandoned Strange Notations from a Laborious Life, merely put it on hiatus until further notice.

Much has happened since June 28 2017. My beloved football team, the Richmond Tigers, against all odds won the AFL Premiership. I have spent the last five weeks away from my normal job driving mail vans around southern NSW picking up loads from Young, Yass, Wallendbeen, Harden, Binalong and Yass which has been different and a bit of a release from the day to day drudgery of mail sorting. My father turned 80(!). My niece moved to Paris. And this laborious life I lead never rose to any great heights but I am thankful to still be walking around on two feet fit and healthy.

Today I return to my normal duties having handed over the reins of my trusty van to my young protege. It’s been nice to do something different for sure and it has refreshed me in many ways and prepared me for the drudgery of my normal work day position, presumably sorting small parcels.

So, where to from here? Christmas is only three weeks away and the expectant crush of product hasn’t yet started to devour us at work-but it’s coming. It should be a nice easy slide into Christmas for me. I am, believe it or not happy to be returning to the mundane today after my stint driving the van.

I’m looking forward to the new year. So much expectation, so much to see, so much to experience. I’m excited to be here.

So look out! I’m back in business trying to find some reverie in my life and jot down a few strange notations whenever the inclination takes me. Onward and upward and bring on 2018!

 

The End of “Strange Notations”?

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Into the sunset for “Strange Notations”?

It’s been a long time between drinks. I haven’t written a blog post for nearly two months and so much has happened in that time that life has been a blur. I’ve been on leave for five weeks, been back at work a month and have had plenty on my plate to ponder.

I once heard it said (in fact I read it on the internet!) that all blogs eventually die and for some time I have been fearful that “Strange Notations from a Laborious Life” is in a death spiral of it’s own with posts dropping off in regularity and my enthusiasm for writing waning-all things I’m sure which contribute to the death of other blogs.

So, is “Strange Notations” heading off into the sunset? Will this be the last you hear from this earnest blogger? The truth is-I don’t know. For five years I have wanted to put my personal story forward to whoever might want to read it. I wanted to leave a small mark on the world, just so there was a piece of me left floating around when I am long gone. I think I have achieved that and I am quite proud of some of the content I have written on this site. I hope a few people somewhere got something out of it occasionally. But I have been wondering-is it time for a change? A freshen up? A new beginning (I’m starting to sound like George Lucas writing the preamble for Star wars!)?

I was thinking of starting a new blog with more specific content, a narrower reach and perhaps a larger audience. Although it would be a shame to kill off “Strange Notations” the truth is that nothing lasts forever and to grow and broaden our horizons we sometimes have to move on and leave behind the labours of our love.

I was thinking I may do some freelance writing and concentrate on producing more short stories. Something new, something different. Should I leave this blog behind to wither and die? You tell me. I am open to suggestions and welcome comments from anyone interested enough to make one.

The truth is I may soon have plenty of time on my hands with which to write. I can’t go into specifics at this stage as I am not sure of them yet myself but my life, one way or another is about to get a big shakeup. It’s an exciting but nervous time for me as I move forward. Every now and then an opportunity arises to improve yourself and that opportunity is looming for me now. I won’t make a mistake this time.

So, it may not be the last you hear from me. Or maybe it will be. I’ll keep battling ahead with laborious life and try to make the most of it. I hope you all do too!

PNG Pipe Dreams.

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Kokoda Track May 1998 between Menari and Efogi.

Tomorrow will mark 19 years since I departed Australia for the steamy climes of Papua New Guinea to hike the infamous Kokoda Track with my brother and sister (pictured). The Track (or Trail as it is also commonly known) is a narrow footpath (or more correctly a dirt track cut through the jungle) traversing the Owen Stanley range which, depending on where you terminate the hike is about 100 kilometres in length and I have been led to believe is the only way from Port Moresby across the range to the north coast (although I may be mistaken in that belief). If walking from Ower’s Corner at the southern end you will most likely finish your walk at Kokoda Village on the north-side of the range from where you will be able to catch an airplane back to Port Moresby. It is green, steamy, moist, muddy, precipitous mountainside and precarious jungle most of the way and owes it’s fame as one of the world’s great hikes to the vicious, desperate clash of arms which took place along it’s length from August to November 1942.

The Japanese Army, advancing from bases on the north coast of Papua clashed with Australian Militia and Army in a series of battles, ambush’s and skirmishes across the width of the range. The Australian’s, supply line stretched to breaking point and significantly outnumbered fell back across the mountains, screening Port Moresby and delaying the Japanese advance to the point of exhaustion. Reverses elsewhere saw the Japanese eventually abandon their quest to capture the capital and they were harassed and harried by fresh Australian troops as they retreated headlong into the mountains, desperately trying to regain the relative safety of their northern strongholds. These beachheads were eventually reduced in late 1942 and early 1943 and the defending garrisons annihilated and the Japanese Empire lost it’s toehold in Papua.

All that remains today is the Track, it’s detritus and ghosts and the people who live along it trying to eke out a very basic existence which most of us could never imagine experiencing in this day and age. And, of course, there are the Trekkers.

The Kokoda Track has for evermore attracted hikers from all over the world although of course as one can imagine, most of these hardy souls come from Australia, following in the footsteps of countrymen they never knew and testing their stamina and endurance for reasons known only to themselves. I even met a Japanese veteran in Efogi Village on my crossing.

I suppose there is a risk and Papua New Guinea has it’s dangers but you judge those risks and take your chance if you dare. Hiking companies who run guided tours on the Kokoda Track are very well organised and can get you across the mountains safely and in good order.

In 1998 there were about 500 people walking the Track every year. That has risen to 2000 a year almost 20 years later. It’s good business for the locals who, in a region which was suffering an unemployment rate of 80% in 1998, are employed as guides and porters by many travel companies. Having such large numbers on the range has certainly caused some cultural discomfort over the years and everything on the Track is owned by someone and they expect something from the tourists who are continually appearing in their villages, using their facilities and being protected from nee’r do wells who habitually stalk unwary and unprepared hikers on it’s length. Local land owners have from time to time “closed” the Track, demanding compensation for permitting trekkers to use it but these protests have never seemed to last long. The benefits of having well off Australians throwing a bit of cash around the population more than likely sees any cultural offence quickly forgotten or at least ignored.

I hadn’t realised it was the 19th anniversary of my trip to Papua New Guinea until I started writing this post. I recently stumbled upon an article about another campaign fought by Australian soldiers in New Guinea a year after the Kokoda campaign, this one in the Finisterre Range which culminated in a very hard fight for a 6 kilometre long, razorback feature named by Australian forces “Shaggy Ridge”. Ironically, many men who fought on the Kokoda Track were present at the capture of Shaggy Ridge and it is an epic of Australian arms although largely forgotten today.

As I “googled” the campaign many photos of the Ridge during the campaign and notably from more modern days were returned. It appears you can do a 6 day hike from Lae to Nadzab which climbs Shaggy Ridge and I must say it piqued my interest. I always swore I would never go back to Papua New Guinea but a hike to Shaggy Ridge, bearing in mind my much advanced age when compared to my previous visit, could be an enjoyable trip.

Would I like to do it? Yes. Am I likely to do it? Probably not. The hike itself would not be a problem, I’m sure I could fit enough to handle it. I just don’t like flying and it would take two flights, one from Moresby to Lae and another back again to do the trip. Flying in Australia is nerve wracking enough for me but flying in a country noted for it’s aircraft accident rate hardly inspires me to drag out my old backpack and start training. Also. I doubt I could drag out any old traveling companions to accompany me and I’m not likely to venture to PNG without a mate or two to hold my hand.

Ah, pipe dreams. We all have them and perhaps it keeps us breathing. If nothing else the images of Shaggy Ridge have reminded me of another part of my life when I ventured to PNG to walk in the footsteps of better men than me who gave their all. Nice memories to have and a nice life I have enjoyed.

Until next time.

Trains, Cricket and a Pair of Forgotten Heroes

 

 

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Graves of George Cross holders Privates Jones and Hardy at Cowra Cemetery.

It’s been a while. Three weeks (almost) since my last post. I really have been letting the side down. I did a single day online course about a month ago through the Australian Writer’s Centre which centered on trying to attract more Blog readers. The Writer’s Centre courses are actually really fantastic and this one was no exception and I learnt a lot. Trouble is I ended up doing the exact opposite to what the course taught me to do. They explained that you need to make regular entries so as readers know that a post will be coming out soon. Of course, almost immediately, my productivity ceased and my output fell to zero. Loser!

Of course it’s not as though the internet is breaking every time I drop a piece online. I oscillate between less than half a dozen to about twenty or so readers with every post. I won’t be challenging JK Rowling in the popularity stakes any time soon. Thus my reason for doing the course.

I did have a bit of a flurry  of activity just after doing the course but it petered out into nothingness soon after that despite my best intentions. And I have no excuse.

I have been on holiday from work for the last two weeks and before I farewelled my workmates I wrote myself a list of things to do while I was away. They were, in no particular order, find new job, write, walk and do an online course. Until I started writing this post I have not achieved any of those goals.

Linda and I did get away for a few days however. I have long wanted to visit the site of the World War 2 Prisoner of War camp at Cowra and we drove over there last week. We visited the Japanese Gardens which are close to the site and very beautiful and from there we drove onto the old site itself which is just over the small hill on which the garden complex is situated.

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Japanese Gardens at Cowra.

There is an interpretive walk at the site and it is a quiet and peaceful place situated in a shallow valley with bleating sheep and ploughed fields giving no hint of the blood that was spilled here on August 4 1944.

For those who don’t know this was the site of the biggest mass break out of prisoners of war in the Second World War. 1200 Japanese prisoners scaled the barbed wire for no other reason than being ashamed of being incarcerated and clubbed and stabbed to death four Australian soldiers in the process. Almost 300 Japanese died as a result of the escape and most of the rest were captured in the following days after realising being stuck in the middle of the Australian countryside with no real purpose or leadership was pretty pointless. Privates Hardy and Jones were awarded posthumous George Crosses for standing their ground at a Vickers machine gun post when other men would have run and not been blamed for it. Private Hardy disabled the machine gun before the pair were overrun and killed, denying it’s use to the escapees. Cool, calm gallantry under the greatest possible pressure. A couple of hard earned George Crosses to be sure!

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Site of the George Cross action at Cowra.

I suppose the story of Privates Hardy and Jones struck a chord with me as they were 44 and 45 years of age respectively, just a fraction younger than I am today. Considered too old for active service they were cast off to 22 Garrison Battalion to sit out the war guarding the vanquished. Garrison troops were often unfairly castigated as weak soldiers but many of them were veterans of the Great War, men who had been wounded in action and couldn’t return to active service and men like Hardy and Jones who wanted to serve but found themselves in that awkward age group which missed both world wars. I would suggest they got more than they bargained for at Cowra but if nothing else they died as gallantly as a pair of Australian soldiers could have. It was a tragic and pointless episode in every respect. Lest we forget.

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Graves of Japanese servicemen in Cowra.

The other place of note we visited during our meandering trip through the countryside west of Canberra was the Roundhouse Museum at Junee. The town is a big rail hub and the museum is a great spot staffed by volunteers who are former railway workers and thus very knowledgeable. The real attraction though is the trains! Several retired engines and carriages of varying ages are on display and of course you can hop aboard and get a small idea of what it might be like to drive a train.

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Linda with one of the displayed engines.

There was also an old mail carriage from the days when mail was sorted on a train which came across from Sydney and mail officers sorted on board as the train chugged through the night. This service ceased three years before I started with Australia Post so it wasn’t quite ancient history for me and also provided another layer of interest in the museum. I highly recommend a visit.

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Inside the old mail carriage.

We also visited Cootamundra and the birthplace of cricket’s greatest player Don Bradman. I knew of course that Bradman had been born in Coota but in all the years I was regularly visiting the town racing pushbikes I never knew exactly where the house was. Ironically it is situated just around the corner from the old start line of the  Haycarter’s classic, a race I participated in several times. I would have ridden past it warming up!

An old spinster had owned the house for many years thus it was in almost the same condition as it had been when the great man was born and when she died in the 1990’s the local council moved in and created a nice little attraction for passing tourists and cricket lovers.

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Bradman’s birthplace in Cootamundra.

So, all in all it’s hardly been a riveting two weeks of leave but it sure beats the hell out of being bored senseless at work and I did enjoy my few days away. I’m off to West Wyalong tomorrow for an overnighter before getting back to the grind of doing not much at all for another three weeks.

I will try once more to be a regular blog writer but I can’t promise anything. My life simply isn’t exciting enough to be constantly writing about it. But you never know when and where inspiration will strike. Stay tuned for more.

 

Memories of Fitz’s Hill/A Day in the Orroral Valley

Easter Sunday, 2017. The best thing about Easter Sunday is I don’t have to work Easter Monday. Winning!! It was a quiet day but we had a nice family lunch with lots of chocolate floating around the house. Bits and pieces of wrapper are lying everywhere and we will no doubt be picking up discarded foil fragments for weeks to come.

The most notable part of my weekend to date was a drive Linda and I took out to the site of the old Orroral Creek tracking station deep in the south of the ACT on Good Friday. In fact they call this part of the ACT the Bimberi Wilderness even though it’s only 50 kilometres from Canberra and even less from the southern suburbs. I spent plenty of time riding in these parts many years ago although it was a rare day that I ventured out beyond the fearsome Fitz’s Hill, known around town as the territory’s hardest hill climb, beyond which lies the turn off to Orroral Valley.

For any cycling aficionados who may wander by this site, read this post and not know this climb it is a significant ascent on what is now known as the Boboyan Road south of the village of Tharwa in the Australian Capital Territory. According to stats on the Cycle2Max website the climb is 2.6 kilometres long with an average gradient of 10.4%. More than enough for most of the weekend warriors around here to handle. In fact I can only remember physically riding over the top of it twice although I may have been up there (on the bike) on a couple of other occasions. I usually turned around at the bottom when I trained around those parts years ago. I usually went out past Tharwa and the area beyond called Naas on weekdays before I went to work. Couldn’t see the point of flogging myself to death in the morning when I had to stand up at work for most of the evening. I trained out the other way through the Tidbinbilla Valley or north of the city towards Gunning on most weekends. I remember riding up Fitz’s and turning around halfway a couple of times. But I am a conqueror of this particular beast.

I have been out of the loop in regards to cycling and am somewhat estranged from the local fraternity nowadays but I can’t imagine that Fitz’s has lost anything of it’s formidable reputation. The annual Fitz’s Challenge is a “fun” ride that goes over this feared sentinel every September and they seem to get hundreds of people to participate, many who have never turned a pedal in anger. I can think of better ways to spent the early hours of a Sunday morning than busting a gut on Fitz’s Hill!

The major problem with Fitz’s is not in riding up it. Any serious cyclist with the right amount of training in his legs should be able to get over it without significant difficulty. Getting down it  was more frightening! There is a climb/descent on the Orroral Valley side which isn’t too bad but the descent  back into the Naas Valley was quite a ride. For me at least. The hill falls away from the crest at quite a steep angle and drops straight down to the valley floor. Nowhere is there an opportunity to wash off speed with a switchback or an easing of the gradient of the descent. I can remember glancing at my old Cat-eye cyclo-computer as it nudged past 100 kilometres an hour and getting a good look at a guard rail as the road gently dog-legged to the right about a third of a way down. Of course by this time I had plenty of experience of handling a racing bike at speed and managed to get down okay on the couple of occasions it was required. However the hill has claimed lives on it’s steep descent and I would recommend taking care if you haven’t spent a significant amount of time riding.

For the record the Cycle2max website lists the best time for the climb at 9 minutes and 35 seconds by local Dave Moten in 2005. It may have been broken by now and the old Canberra Tour use to traverse the hill so I imagine Dave’s time is not the definitive record. A top effort nonetheless!

 

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Orroral Valley looking towards the old tracking station site behind the trees in the middle ground.

 

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Looking north from the remains of the old administration building.

So, on Good Friday I found myself ascending Fitz’s Hill for the first time in many years. This time I was in the much more comfortable position of driving a car over the top and Linda and I soon found ourselves taking the right hand turn which would take us to the site of the old Orroral Valley Tracking Station site.

I had thought about riding down this road on the rare occasions I had been out this far but not knowing the lay of land and if there were any significant physical challenges involved had put me off. I wanted to survive the ride home!

As it turned out there was nothing to intimidating on the road out to the valley. A few steepish little ascents took us past a camping site which was quite well populated. Some people really enjoy camping but I must say I can think of thousands of better ways to spend my Easter long weekend than sleeping in a tent in the Bimberi Wilderness. From the campsite there was a long, shallow descent before the road cleared the forest and the expanse of the Orroral Valley opened up in front of us.

The old tracking station of which nothing now remains except it’s foundations was built in the 1960’s by NASA. It must have been cold, lonely and isolated in those days but it played a fulsome role in the American space program tracking satellites and firing lasers at mirrors which had been left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station which is in the next valley played a much more important role in the moon landings as did the Tidbinbilla dish which did in fact broadcast the first pictures of Apollo 11 on the moon to the world. (Despite what they say in the movies!)

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At the old tracking station site.

It’s a beautiful place, quite green for this time of year considering the summer we have just endured. There were plenty of people at the site. There are picnic tables and public shelters set up and I was surprised that many had taken an opportunity to venture that far south on Good Friday. But it was a beautiful day for a drive.

As I said, there is nothing much left of the old space station, just concrete slabs adorned with a few weathered signs explaining just what was positioned in that particular spot and what it was designed to do. The only permanent inhabitants now are the kangaroos which cluster in bunches on the perimeter of the site.

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Site of “the dish”.

 

As Linda and I patrolled the old site and bushwalkers appeared from a track running from the north and quickly disappeared again as the track continued south I did think it was a shame that no significant effort has been made to upgrade the site and give it the recognition to which it is due.

We spend a lot of money, in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia, investing our citizens and tourists with the knowledge of the indigenous people who occupied this land before European settlement. Of course it’s only right that this happens and the ACT is very good at it. But I do wonder why sites such as Orroral Valley Tracking Station and it’s sister site at Honeysuckle creek are left to go to ruin at the hands of time and from the ravages of the weather. This is human history. The history of mankind and the people who worked at this site helped to make it happen. Surely some sort of complex with interactive displays would be money well spent. I think we owe it to those who spent so many years in this isolated outpost tracking satellites and furthering the knowledge and achievements of humanity. I know the complex at Tidbinbilla covers a lot of this ground but surely more could be done at other sites in the ACT. Replacing many of the indecipherable signs would be a good start.

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Linda striding through the remains of the old tracking station.

Orroral Valley Tracking Station closed in 1981. It’s dish was sent to Tasmania where it is still in use although not by NASA. it’s a very pleasant drive out to the site and I would recommend it although wildlife is present in abundance and several Wallabies risked their lives in a mad dash in front of our car as we left. It was also noted in signage that snakes can be a problem as they are anywhere in the Australian bush. So be careful.

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One of the local inhabitants.

Orroral Valley is 50km from Canberra. Head south through Tuggeranong following the signs to Tharwa. Cross the trestle bridge over the Murrumbidgee River at Tharwa Village and continue on Naas Road past the visitor centre and Mount Tenant. The road becomes Boboyan Road and soon descends into the Naas Valley with Apollo Road to Honeysuckle Creek branching off to the right beforehand. Drive over Fitz’s Hill and the turnoff to Orroral Valley is at the bottom of the hill on the other side. It is only a short drive to the tracking station site from there.

Hope you have had a great Easter.