In this Covidian era and all the emphasis on state and territory borders, it is worth remembering how the ACT's own border was marked out, over a century ago.
It is particularly worthwhile to reflect on the experiences of one of the three surveyors on that job, Harry Mouat.
It was Mouat who surveyed the most rugged part of the ACT-NSW boundary line, over 90 kilometres along the Brindabellas and the territory's remote southern mountain fastness.
Along with fellow surveyors Percy Sheaffe and Freddie Johnston, Mouat helped complete the 306km task. Directing the work of the surveyors was Charles Scrivener. Scrivener had already located where a city might be built in the rather nebulous 'Yass-Canberra' site that federal parliament had decided upon for the national capital in 1908.
Scrivener also recommended where the borders of the ACT should run. He was guided by the federal ministers' wise directive that the territory should encompass the new city's water supply. The federal government did not want to have feuds with NSW about water pollution.
Water shaped the territory. The Cotter River has always been Canberra's main supply (supplemented by Googong Dam on the Queanbeyan River), and explains why the ACT extends so far to the south-west, for that is where this vital river rises.
Early water engineer Ernest DeBurgh wrote of the Cotter that "it is impossible to imagine a catchment from which a purer supply could be obtained".
Percy Sheaffe began the border survey in June 1910 on top of 1421m Mt Coree. He headed in a clockwise direction around the north and east of the territory and ultimately would survey over half the border's length.
But the federal government was getting anxious about the time being taken - due to problems with earlier surveys in the area - and Scrivener decided to start a second survey party from Coree in October 1913, heading south along the rugged spine of the Brindabellas.
This was the team headed by New-Zealand-born Mouat. Known as 'Happy Harry' to his colleagues because he so rarely smiled, Mouat was destined for the wild country of the upper Cotter. Acting Commonwealth Geologist Griffith Taylor wrote that "the upper valley of the Cotter is so rugged and far from all settlement that only one or two people have traversed it, and the map simply indicates it by a broken line in a perfectly blank strip of territory".
As Mouat moved south, he picked up place names until then known only by local bushmen, like Mt Aggie, named after Agnes Franklin of Brindabella Station. Mouat made these bush names the official ones we know today.
Later in the survey when his field assistant Reg Kelly almost died on a rugged peak, Mouat named it after him, Mt Kelly.
Just south of Rolling Ground Gap in May 1914, Mouat was forced off the ranges by blizzards. Scrivener had him spend that frozen winter surveying along the upper Cotter River looking for new dam sites.
Corin Dam, built in the 1960s, is surprisingly close to one of the sites recommended by Mouat all those years ago.
Mouat had only just got married. Sheaffe married during the job. There was little comfort for young wives in the bush. There was also little privacy living under canvas, especially as the tents of the chainmen, labourers and cook of each party were close by.
Mouat's wife Iris accompanied him at times and also lived in nearby rural homesteads.
In early 1915, with Mouat working on Mt Bimberi, Scrivener retired and Sheaffe was recalled into fledgling Canberra to take on higher duties. He was replaced on the south-eastern border by Frederick Johnston, a young West Australian. Johnston drove a Model T Ford down to the south.
Johnston progressed, though the country was far too rough for the Ford to get beyond base camp. Johnston, Mouat and Sheaffe were all dependent on horses for travel and often had to tramp on foot.
Finally, almost five years after the border survey began, Mouat and Johnston joined the line in 1915 at a spot between Sentry Box Mountain and Wrights Hill.
It was a celebratory moment, but with prohibition in force in the territory thanks to King O'Malley, they settled for jelly dessert served in half-orange skins, courtesy of Johnston's cook.
Many of the numerous survey marks installed by all three surveyors still survive in the ranges. Those marks, variously timber posts and iron and concrete installations, are direct links with the very birth of the capital territory.
Of particular note are the hand-engraved reference trees, which were marked adjacent to survey marks and at each mile travelled. But many timber survey marks and delicately chiselled reference trees were destroyed in the fires of January 2003.
As it became apparent that the reference trees would in time entirely disappear from the landscape (due to bushfire - as the 2020 fires have since so powerfully demonstrated - storm and natural decay) we proposed that an example of one of Mouat's trees should be removed from the border and conserved. A working group including a number of relevant ACT Government bodies proceeded to put this idea into reality. One of Mouat's trees was selected from the southern border and flown by helicopter (true!) to the grounds of the Namadgi National Park Visitor Centre just south of Tharwa. A shelter structure with interpretive text was built around it and The Mouat Tree was opened to the public in 2017.
Mouat's work, and that of the other surveyors, continues to be remembered, as does the successful completion of a major Australian survey task.
- Matthew Higgins is an historian who has worked at several national cultural institutions and written several books about the mountains.