Five secrets hidden beneath Canberra, but how many are true?

Five secrets hidden beneath Canberra, but how many are true?

Canberra has more than its share of stories of subterranean secrets, from prime ministerial escape routes to military dug-outs. But how many are true? Tim the Yowie Man separates fact from fiction.

Duntroon den

Ross Thomas, left, and Peter Anderson share a yarn with a skeleton in the ‘room within a room’.

Ross Thomas, left, and Peter Anderson share a yarn with a skeleton in the ‘room within a room’.Credit:Graham Tidy

Myth: In the 1950s, a number of Duntroon cadets surreptitiously dug out a bunker beneath their accommodation quarters in order to hide their dirty clothes.

Verdict: True. And it’s still there!

The facts: In 1958 a number of cadets hacked out a bunker beneath room #92 at Cork Block, one of several residential buildings. Measuring 3x3 metres, the bunker’s original purpose wasn’t a drinking den, as many later suspected, rather somewhere cadets could hide their muddy boots away from the prying eyes of regular inspections by their superiors.


Ross Thomas returned to his old room for the first time in more than 50 years in 2010.

“When the trapdoor was inserted in the corner of my room under the bed, there was only about 15 inches of space under the floorboards – barely enough room for one person to squeeze into so we set to work with our bayonets and entrenching tools (a small spade) to dig out a bigger space,” he says.

Ross Thomas enters the secret bunker in a Duntroon dormitory that he helped dig as a cadet.

Ross Thomas enters the secret bunker in a Duntroon dormitory that he helped dig as a cadet.Credit:Graham Tidy

Thomas’s merry gang of workers would take turns in filling their kit bags with dirt, haul them up through the trap door then drag them through his room, out the window and across the veranda to where they’d be emptied beneath a gum tree.

Take me there: Cork Block is strictly off-limits as it is part of the Royal Military College of Duntroon. Thankfully, however, the hole wasn’t filled in and it now stands as a monument to an innocent era over half a century ago when cadets made their own fun.

Did You Know? When a year later superiors became aware of the secret bunker, there were surprisingly no ramifications for the cadets. “I’m not sure if it was quiet admiration of what we’d achieved or because they couldn’t find any Standing Orders titled ‘construction of an extra room’ with which they could point to, but we were let off, scot-free,” Ross says.

Cotter caves

Exploring the Cotter Cave.

Exploring the Cotter Cave.Credit:Tim the Yowie Man

Myth: Hidden in bushland near one of Canberra’s most popular picnic precincts is a cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites.

Verdict: True.

The facts: There is a large cave at the Cotter. Although now closed to the public, it was a tourist attraction in the 1930s-40s, when Cotter caretaker Stan Margules led tours into the abyss.

Max Hill, formerly of Pialligo’s "Pine Grove" and now of Griffith, fondly remembers Margules’ strict but fair manner.

"He was generally helpful and tolerant but had a sharp eye for those who broke the well-known rules,” Hill, who regularly explored the cave as a teenager in the 1940s, says.

“Somewhat fearfully we used to climb down to the rocky floor of the cave with no torch, just matches and cigarette lighter to light up our way.

"We would tell jokes, sing songs, tell yarns.

“Most of all we loved to hear ghost stories, we especially delighted in hearing our young ladies squeal in terror and clutch their friends.”

Margules’ popular cave tours stopped in the mid-1940s and less than 10 years later the caves were permanently closed to the public due to the threat of vandalism and safety concerns.

Despite this lengthy closure, trespassers have still infiltrated the 80-metre deep cave, spray-painting unintelligent mono-syllabic musings on its walls and sadly snapping off almost all of the cave’s stalactites and stalagmites.

Tim the Yowie Man explores the Cotter Cave.

Tim the Yowie Man explores the Cotter Cave.Credit:John Brush

“Thankfully there is evidence of formations slowly starting to re-form – but they will take thousands of years,” laments John Brush, an experienced speleologist who mapped the caves in 1975, and who several years ago joined this column on an expedition with Parks authorities to highlight the reasons for the cave being closed.

Take me there: Access into the Cotter Cave is strictly prohibited, but a viewing platform complete with interpretative signage allows you to peer into the cavern (don’t forget your torch for an even better view). This platform can be accessed on the Bullen Loop walking trail which departs from Cotter Avenue. The scenic 4.5km track (allow two-hours) crosses the Cotter River several times on bridges and includes large stepping stones to cross Paddy’s River. You can also access the viewing platform more directly by driving about 1km past the small Cotter Bridge at Cotter Avenue and take the left dirt road as you head up the hill out of the Cotter precinct. After about 600m, you’ll arrive at the Paddy’s River Crossing. Park before the crossing. The viewing platform is located on the right of the road up some stairs.

Did You Know? The closure of the cave also aids the conservation of bent-winged bats. It is hoped that a lack of human disturbance in the cave and the steel gate, especially designed to allow the bats to fly both in and out of the cave, will encourage their return.

Subterranean sculpture

Bert Flugelman's subterranean sculpture being buried in Commonwealth Park in 1975.

Bert Flugelman's subterranean sculpture being buried in Commonwealth Park in 1975.

Myth: Buried somewhere in Canberra’s premiere park is a large sculpture.

Verdict: True.

The facts: Beneath Commonwealth Park is one of Canberra’s strangest sculptures - six large aluminium tetrahedrons which in March 1975 were buried by a bulldozer in a trench measuring 5 metres deep by 4 metres wide and 20 metres long.

Take me there: Sure, you can’t see the tetrahedrons unless you have access to state-of-the-art ground penetrating radar, but that shouldn’t stop you attaining a deep appreciation for the sculpture’s creator, Bert Flugelman (1923–1913), who advised detractors to imagine “what was under their feet and dwell upon the artistic merit of how the artwork was interred”.

You too can experience this "artistic merit" by taking a stroll through Commonwealth Park to near Nerang Pool where you’ll see a plaque indicating approximately where the tetrahedrons are concealed. A word of warning however, the precise location isn’t revealed, presumably in case someone tries to dig them up. So just in case there’s a security guard on the look-out, I wouldn’t wander around with a metal detector or shovel.

Did You Know? Bert Flugelman, came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, producing huge geometric sculptures for many public spaces across the country. His polished Stainless Steel Cones (1982) are one of the most recognisable artworks in the Sculpture Garden in the National Gallery of Australia’s sculpture garden. And, yes, these ones are above the ground!

‘Those’ tunnels

Sebastiano Mammoliti (back right) working in a tunnel leading from the old Canberra hospital in Acton towards Parliament House, circa 1955.

Sebastiano Mammoliti (back right) working in a tunnel leading from the old Canberra hospital in Acton towards Parliament House, circa 1955.

Myth: There are tunnels connecting Old Parliament House with other key government buildings in the Parliamentary Triangle (and beyond), built as an escape route for our prime minister in case of emergency.

Verdict: Busted.

The facts: While rumours of a network of secret tunnels beneath the Parliamentary Triangle are rife, officially, the only tunnels around Old Parliament House are for infrastructure purposes.

This myth seems to stem from the known existence of a number of service tunnels incorporated into the design of Old Parliament House when it opened in 1927, which include a system of Lamson tubes through which documents were once transported pneumatically between the house and the general post office (then located in East Block) and the government printing office in Kingston.

Fuelling the myth of the secret tunnels is that for strategic reasons the pneumatic tubes were extended during World War II to link to West Block, then home to the Department of Defence. There are also a number of concrete tunnels up to 70 metres in length in the current Department of Defence in Russell, but their purpose is for staffers to easily walk between buildings without having to clear security check-points.

The spy-proof communications bunker built for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the 1970s beneath the car park at the John Gorton Building has also led to speculation that it was part of the so-called labyrinth of tunnels radiating out from Old Parliament House. From 1978 to 1996, the site handled all government cablegrams for transmission to addresses outside Australia either in plain language, code or cipher, as well as all inwards cablegrams for the Australian government.

Take me there: Today, you can see skylights leading into the bunker at the John Gorton Building, which is now used for less secretive purposes by other government departments, in the car park near the corner of Parkes Place East and Dorothy Tangney Place.

Did You Know? There are, of course, many "non secret" service tunnels beneath the Parliamentary Triangle. “My enduring memory is of me and my dad sitting on the foreshores of what used to be the Canberra Hospital (now the National Museum of Australia) and telling me that in the 1950s he and his mates built those tunnels that go from there towards Old Parliament House,” reports Joe Mammoliti, who believes “there will always be rumours about secret tunnels in Canberra.”

Trapped train

The railway bridge across the Molonglo River near Jerrabomberra Wetlands, shortly after it was destroyed in the 1922 flood (Mt Pleasant at left).

The railway bridge across the Molonglo River near Jerrabomberra Wetlands, shortly after it was destroyed in the 1922 flood (Mt Pleasant at left).Credit:National Archives of Australia

Myth: There is a locomotive buried somewhere in Civic. According to most versions of the story, the locomotive was left stranded in Civic after the railway line from Kington to Civic was unexpectedly closed. With no way to remove the heavy locomotive, red-faced authorities decided to bury it instead.

Verdict: Busted.

The facts: “This is a story I’ve heard many times,” explains John Cheeseman, former Australian Railway Historical Society (ACT Division) operations manager.

“There was a railway line completed to Civic in May 1921 to carry coal to the Kingston Powerhouse and then passengers onto Civic,” Cheeseman says. “The main feature of this line was a timber trestle bridge over the Molonglo River at the point where the river now enters East Basin of Lake Burley Griffin."

John Cheeseman dismisses the ‘buried’ locomotive in Civic as a myth.

John Cheeseman dismisses the ‘buried’ locomotive in Civic as a myth.Credit:Karleen Minney

Regular readers of this column would be aware that this bridge only lasted until July 1922 before being washed away by flood waters and was never rebuilt.

“There is no evidence of any locomotive being ‘trapped’ or ‘stranded’ in Civic when the bridge was lost as during its short life the line was generally worked as an out and back shunting run from the main Kingston yard and the locomotive would have returned to Kingston after each run,” Cheeseman says.

“So, sorry to say but I believe the buried train story is just an urban myth.”

Take me there: You obviously can’t view the buried train, but you can see part of the disused railway corridor from Kingston to Civic, located immediately behind the CIT in Reid.

Did You Know? The terminus for the Kingston to Civic railway line was in Garema Place, near the location of the chess pit.

Contact Tim: Email: or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick. You can see a selection of past columns online.

Where in The Snowies?

Do you recognise this spot in The Snowies?

Do you recognise this spot in The Snowies?Credit:Tim the Yowie Man

Clue: Cluck-cluck

Degree of difficulty: Medium

Last week: Congratulations to Simon Spinetti of Kaleen who was the first reader to correctly identify last week’s photo, below, as Blue Lake in Kosciuszko National Park, which freezes over in winter.

Where in Canberra last week.

Where in Canberra last week.Credit:Mike Edmondson and K7 Adventures

Spinetti, who just beat Helen Cross of Kambah and Peter Harris of Latham to the prize, remembers “back in the early 1990s skiing across the frozen lake in early spring with a bunch of friends,” adding, “it was a nervous crossing”.

The photograph was taken by renowned high-country photographer Mike Edmondson during one of his sought-after photography tours he runs in conjunction with K7 Adventures. You can check-out more of Mike’s handiwork at and he also has an exhibition currently on show at Tootsie (289 Comur St) in Yass until September 1.

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to The first email sent after 10am, Saturday July 14, 2018 will win a double pass to Dendy - the home of quality cinema.

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