To report that the site of the former Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station has been spruced up would be an understatement. There are innovative interpretative signs, a shiny new shelter, and a knock-out sculpture featuring the words "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind". Heck, there's even a "sky-lounge" where you can lie down and gaze up into the night sky.
And why not? Next Sunday, July 21, marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's famous first steps on the moon, which were beamed around the world thanks to the technicians at the Honeysuckle dish.
Oh, and best we don't mention the wayward folk in the NSW town of Parkes, many of whom opportunistically perpetrated the myth expounded by the film The Dish (2000) that it was their tracking station that received the signals from Apollo 11 as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface, and sent them to Houston, USA.
While there's no denying the global significance of the Honeysuckle Creek site, it's what lies hidden just beyond the footprint of the former tracking station, decommissioned in 1981 and soon after demolished, that really demonstrates the extraordinary effort by NASA to build and manage this facility for the Apollo missions in what was then (and still is) the boondocks of the ACT.
Canberra's role in the moon landing is something that has long fascinated me, so when earlier this week Jenny Horsfield of the Canberra Bushwalking Club and David Wardle of the Brindabella Walking Club invited me to join them on a recce in the bush around Honeysuckle Creek to some of these little-known locations, I jumped at the chance.
Apart from being a keen hiker, David is also an engineering enthusiast, and it's not long before he's energetically leading us through the scrub to the remains of essential infrastructure that kept Honeysuckle operations ticking over, from water tanks on a hillside to concrete fuel cradles in the valley.
However, the pièce de résistance at Honeysuckle for any avid bushwalker is the old Apollo Road, a rudimentary track hacked out of some of the most rugged terrain in the ACT in the mid-1960s to allow materials to be brought in from Canberra to build the tracking station.
"When you think of all that equipment, both construction and technical, including the dish and being transported along here, it's pretty amazing," says David, as with gloved hands we push through a tick patch of regrowth which has reclaimed much of the track.
While David bounds ahead like a kid in candy store, stopping at an old cattle grid to try and decipher markings on the rails and closely examine old bridge abutments, Jenny regales me with stories of the road.
"The old road contains many secrets, some still waiting to be discovered, others not so like the rusted remains of an old bus in the creek thought to have come to grief one winter's day and left there," says Jenny as we reach the creek after which the tracking station is named.
"This would be the very causeway Prime Minister Holt would have crossed when making the journey from Canberra in March 1967 to officially open the facility", she explains as I rock hop across the trickling creek. Heck, it would have been a bumpy ride for Holt - not to mention his escort of police motorcycle riders.
Further along are more signs of the heritage of this road, including a tree with an old insulator from the original telephone line linking Honeysuckle to the outside world.
Historical treasures aside, one thing obvious about the old road, especially at this time of the year, is the cold. The bitter cold.
Facing south, in winter this road receives no sun, so after rain or snow falls it would remain wet for weeks, if not months.
"It was this reason, along with a number of landslips that the road was eventually realigned in August 1967 to its current route on the other side of the creek," explains David.
Despite this realignment, Colin Mackellar's knock-out website at honeysucklecreek.net documents a number of first-hand accounts from employees of the former tracking station about navigating the old road.
"Although we used to travel up in four-wheel-drives, some wanted to try taking the Falcons up and we would put chains on," recalls Hamish Lindsay, a former Honeysuckle technician, adding: "I remember we passed one car with its petrol feed pipe sticking out the side, ripped out by the sometimes frozen ground..."
While John Saxon, Honeysuckle operations supervisor at the time of the moon landing, "doesn't recall ever fitting chains," he does remember that "it often took some very enthusiastic 'bouncing' by the rear passengers to get enough grip to make it to the top".
"A rather large young couple [Dick and Gloria Kirby] were much in demand for this procedure and we competed to take them home (and back in the next day) if the forecast was bad!" he recalls.
Occasional rock falls after the new bitumen road was completed in late 1967 meant the old road was temporarily reopened several times to facilitate access to the tracking station.
One landslide in 1971 caused so much damage to the new road that staff were ferried down from the tracking station in Falcon sedans, before having to traverse the abyss in the road on wooden planks.
Several months ago, this column delved into the rabbit warren of so-called lost roads of our region, and named the old Weetangera Road as our ultimate ghost road. However, after a morning re-discovering the old Apollo Road I'm beginning to think that claim was somewhat premature.
Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station site: The former tracking station site is located at the end of the Apollo Road in Namadgi National Park, 55 kilometres south of Civic. Access to the site is usually 24 hours, 7 days a week, but it is closed from the afternoon of Friday July 19 until around 1pm on Saturday July 20 to allow for an invitation-only official event for dignitaries and employees of the former tracking station to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Walk the old Apollo Road: This week two Canberra bushwalking clubs are hosting walks along this overgrown track. While the Canberra Bushwalking Club walk on July 21 is for members only, David Wardle is leading a seven-kilometre walk for the Brindabella Bushwalking Club on July 17 which is open to all. Call David on 0418 695 142 to book.
Upgrade: Given the renewed focus by the ACT parks service on promoting the space heritage of Namadgi, including the former Honeysuckle and Orroral tracking station sites along with the geodetic dome, perhaps serious thought could be given to upgrading the old Apollo Road into a dedicated walking track. It'd be an easy, relatively flat walk attractive to a wide cross-section of the community and not just serious bushwalkers. Just an idea.
Look out for: As you drive along the Apollo Road towards the site of the former Honeysuckle Creek tracking station, about 400 metres after the Namadgi National Park sign there are a couple of large boulders perilously perched on the embankment above the road, held in place by steel cables. It was this section of new road that was closed by rock falls in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
Did You Know? With no wind or atmosphere to disturb them, Neil Armstrong's footprints can still be seen in the moon dust today. They will gradually erode due to the dust particles being shifted by severe swings in temperature.
More:honeysucklecreek.net and Andrew Tink's recently published book Honeysuckle Creek: The Story of Tom Reid, a Little Dish and Neil Armstrong's First Step (NewSouth Books).
WHERE IN THE SNOWIES?
Cryptic Clue: You may need to "hang-on" for a few months if you want to use this high country loo!
Degree of difficulty: Easy - Medium
Congratulations to Roger Shelton of Spence who was the first reader to correctly identify last week's photo sent in by Greg Shaw as a raptor-inspired sculpture at the Watson Arts Centre, at 1 Aspinall St in Watson.
It proved a tough one to recognise with only a handful of correct entries. Hopefully the location of this week's photo is easier to identify.
- How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday July 13, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.
Stumpy mystery solved
It seems the mystery of Moruya's four roadside stumps, which were recently stripped bare of their seasonal clothing and had their faces brazenly hacked off, has been solved.
The culprit? The local council.
A spokesperson for the Eurobodalla Council confesses: "We received complaints about the stumpies and unfortunately our staff thought they were doing the right thing and removed the clothes."
However, due to public backlash about the removal of the clothing, Mayor Liz Innes has intervened and circulated a directive to staff "to leave the stumpies alone", and in a show of personal support has even donated one of her hats to re-dress one of the stumps, nicknamed Mrs Stumpy.
Oh, I love a happy ending.