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.

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