Yowie Man: Cycling Canberra's ultimate ghost road

Passing within metres of our premiere sports stadium, running beneath one of our major hospitals and winding through a secret spooky swamp, Old Weetangera Road has to be Canberra's ultimate ghost road.

When, several months ago, this column first shone the spotlight on some of our long forgotten thoroughfares, nothing could have prepared me for the avalanche of subsequent correspondence.

While there are an uncanny number of self-confessed ghost road aficionados who have cobbled together long lists of dead-ends, paper-only roads and bygone routes, Steve Skitmore has taken his enthusiasm for his favourite phantom thoroughfare, Old Weetangera Road, to a new level.

Archaeologist Steve Skitmore rides along part of the Old Weetangera Road near Calvary Hospital. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Archaeologist Steve Skitmore rides along part of the Old Weetangera Road near Calvary Hospital. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Not only has Steve developed a knock-out 13km heritage trail linking remnants of this historic road which ran from present day Lyneham to farms in what we now call the West Belconnen area, but later this week Steve is leading a special heritage ride along the trail.

Steve's interest in the Old Weetangera Road began several years ago when cycling along the bike track through O'Connor Ridge.

"I was curious as to why the path was flanked by such incredibly over-engineered embankments for a simple bike track," says Steve, who then "began looking at old maps and discovered the cycle path was built on top of a road that was almost 200 years old".

1913 Military Survey Map showing the route (in red) of the Old Weetangera Road, also annotated with today's main population centres. Photo: Steve Skitmore

1913 Military Survey Map showing the route (in red) of the Old Weetangera Road, also annotated with today's main population centres. Photo: Steve Skitmore

"The earliest reference to a track between the Canberra and Ginninderra valleys is from the 1830s, and this was formalised into a road in the 1860s," says Steve, who with the assistance of an ACT government heritage grant developed the trail which now predominantly follows contemporary bike paths which criss-cross the old road.

"I wanted something tangible to provide users of the old road with an understanding about its European past," says Steve, who has marked the trail with seven funky steel interpretation panels erected at key historical points.

One former Canberra resident who remembers being driven to school along the old road in the 1940s and '50s is Nan Betts, who lived for many years at Kama, near current-day Hawker College.

"There were about five of us picked up by a big black Buick provided by the Government Bus Service, and I got car sick on the bumpy trip every bloody day," she recalls.

Richard Southwell and his rabbit cart at the intersection of Weetangera and Ginninderra roads. Photo: Hall School Museum

Richard Southwell and his rabbit cart at the intersection of Weetangera and Ginninderra roads. Photo: Hall School Museum

When the number of school-aged kids living along the road increased, the government upgraded the Buick to an old green panel van but the 45-minute daily journey to Ainslie Primary School didn't get much smoother for Nan.

"We had to climb in the back double doors of the van, sit on a bench seat and hold on tight, especially for the teeth-chattering corrugations on the flats, and also for the steeper sections of O'Connor Ridge where it was barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass.

Nan especially remembers the area known as Flea Bog Flat which she recalls was "densely timbered and full of pot holes".

Nan Betts, now 80 remembers travelling along the Old Weetangera Road in the 1940s and '50s from her parent’s property in current day Belconnen to attend school in Ainslie. She now travels around her farm in Yass in a Polaris Buggy, with her granddaughter Anna. Photo: Supplied

Nan Betts, now 80 remembers travelling along the Old Weetangera Road in the 1940s and '50s from her parent’s property in current day Belconnen to attend school in Ainslie. She now travels around her farm in Yass in a Polaris Buggy, with her granddaughter Anna. Photo: Supplied

"When I was a teenager, on moonlit nights I'd drive through there in my little Ford ute with the lights off," she says, adding "it was quite ghost-like".

When the bog wasn't spooky, according to historical accounts, it was living up to its name. For example, in his 1967 autobiography, Tales and Legends of Canberra's Pioneers, Samuel Shumack describes this section of road after rain. "On the east side the mud was about three feet deep for three chains or more, and like glue. On the west side it was a foot to eighteen inches deep, with the consistency of thin gruel." Lovely.

But it's not just living treasures like Nan (who, despite her age is still managing a farm near Yass) who are thrilled with the new heritage trail. It also gets the tick of approval from 26-year-old landscape architecture student Fehin Coffey.

Fehin Coffey and Steve Skitmore at the Old Weetangera Road where it meets Purdie Street in Bruce. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Fehin Coffey and Steve Skitmore at the Old Weetangera Road where it meets Purdie Street in Bruce. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

"I've always lived in this area and at different parts of my life have ridden along sections of the trail to visit friends, go to uni, you name it, without realising its significance," says Fehin, who earlier this week joined Steve and your Akubra-clad columnist for a ride along the trail.

Steve Skitmore, I tip my hat to you. It's passion projects like this that help showcase the many layers of Canberra's rich history, a past worth celebrating with the official start today of the Canberra & Region Heritage Festival.

Fact file

Old Weetangera Road Trail: This 13km (one-way) "trail" follows remnants of the Old Weetangera Road between O'Connor and the Molonglo River near its confluence with the Murrumbidgee. As you walk or cycle the trail you will pass through bushland, urban areas and rural pastoral leases, and gain a real insight into the early European landscape of Belconnen.

Guided cycle: You can ride part (7km return) of the Old Weetangera Road with archaeologist Steve Skitmore on April 17 (12pm and 2pm). Bookings essential via the Canberra & Region Heritage Festival website: www.act.gov.au/heritagefestival

Did You Know? It is likely that low points of the O'Connor Ridge have been traversed for thousands of years. According to Steve Skitmore, "There are also many important indigenous sites and artefacts noted in the greater Black Mountain area."

Don't miss: On Sunday April 14 (11am) renowned Canberra historian Dr Barbara Dawson will open a new exhibition at the Hall School Museum and Heritage Centre (Palmer St) which documents six pioneering families who settled in the Ginninderra District in the 1800s. All welcome, gold coin donation. Exhibition opening to be followed at 1pm with a concert MC'd by David Kilby of ABC radio fame. A must if you love brass.

Track notes 

Here are my top five stops on the Old Weetangera Road Trail, all of which you can either drive or cycle to.

O'Connor Ridge: The section of bike tracks between 161 Dryandra St, O'Connor, and Canberra Stadium follows the old road and if you look closely, down in the culverts you can even find rusting car engines, no doubt the remains of vehicles which didn't make it over the hill.

Calvary Hospital: Arguably the best-formed part of the old road still accessible is this section, a couple of hundred metres long, which runs through the scrub off Purdie Street towards the back of the Calvary Hospital campus.

Flea Bog Flat: Although having driven along Belconnen Way almost every day for the last decade, I've never noticed this intriguing bog near the corner of Haydon Drive. It's creepy in here during the middle of the day so I can only imagine how spooky it was for Nan Betts when she drove her ute through here at night with the lights turned off. You can still see fence lines and drainage ditches which mark the alignment of the old road.

The old Weetangera Cemetery, near present day Hawker. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

The old Weetangera Cemetery, near present day Hawker. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Old Weetangera Cemetery: Take a stroll back in time through one of the ACTs oldest cemeteries which served the largely Methodist community of Weetangera for more than 80 years. The church, dismantled in 1955, is marked by a stone cairn at the entrance to the graveyard which is located on the western side of William Hovell Drive, a couple of hundred metres short of its intersection with Drake Brockman Drive.

River Crossing: The old road became what is now Stockdill Drive near the Pine Ridge property and crossed the Molonglo River near its junction with the Murrumbidgee River to connect with the Uriarra Road. In 1859, this was the main road to the Kiandra goldfields and beyond, and thousands of prospectors would have passed through here on their way to try their luck at the diggings.

Where in Canberra?

Do you know the location of this display? Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Do you know the location of this display? Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Clue: For show only (now)

Degree of difficulty: Easy - Medium

Last week: Congratulations to Brett Lamson of Cook who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo, below, as a circa-1890 photo of Gungahlin (originally called Goongarline, an Aboriginal word for "rocky hill" which was later anglicised to Gungahlin) Homestead located near the corner of the Barton Highway and Gungahlin Drive. The 1865 late Georgian residence with a grand sandstone Victorian extension in 1883 is now home to Soldier On, a charity which supports men and women who have been physically or psychologically affected by their military service.

Gungahlin Homestead c.1890, viewed from the south-west. Photo: Supplied

Gungahlin Homestead c.1890, viewed from the south-west. Photo: Supplied

While Brett laments "shame it isn't open to the public, I wouldn't mind having a look inside," I'm pleased to announce that the National Trust (ACT) is hosting an open day on Saturday April 13 (10am-3pm). Entry by gold coin donation, and tickets will be available on the day for free tours of the homestead. Ask your guide to show you where the homestead's fixed phone was located - apparently it was the district's first private line.

Identifying the location of the two-storey mansion proved trickier than I thought with only a handful of readers, including Jordan Gannaway of Kingston, Rohan Goyne of Evatt and Adele Rosalky of Deakin, submitting correct answers. "I used to work there when it was the home of the CSIRO Division of Wildlife Research," reports Adele, adding, "my boss and I had offices on the front veranda, visible in your photograph."

In fact, Bruce Ronning of Conder reveals his dad, Lou, was caretaker of the CSIRO research centre in the 1980s and '90s, explaining, "when I lived there the entire front face of the building was covered in ivy and I always thought it would be the perfect setting for a gothic horror."

"Sometimes when dad was away I would do his evening rounds, which meant walking through the building at night checking doors and turning off all the radiators that staff would leave running," recalls Bruce, adding "turning the massive key in the big front door lock, then pushing the heavy old door open to reveal a huge staircase ascending into the dark gave me the creeps every time."

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday April 13, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.