On the skyline south-west of Canberra is the ACT's highest road. The Mt Franklin Road has for decades taken people into the Brindabellas. It is an inspiring drive along a road steeped in story.
The road was begun in the dark days of the Depression. It is one of a number of mountain roads built to provide employment and create worthwhile public infrastructure. The Barry Way south of Jindabyne, the Mt Wellington Road behind Hobart, and the Paluma Road west of Townsville are other examples.
For thousands of years prior to the Franklin Road's construction, there were the paths used by Aboriginal people to access the mountains. Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Wolgalu and other peoples knew the ways up, along and over the ranges, heading for the bogong moth feasts, trade exchanges, marriages and ceremonies that formed such crucial parts of their lives. The paths were deeply embedded in the songlines which told the stories of those routes. As Wiradjuri man and ACT Parks officer Dean Freeman told me, key peaks were key places in those songlines.
Then came settlers whose bridle and dray tracks followed many of those Indigenous routes, especially the passes through the gaps in the ranges. Surveyors like Harry Mouat, who surveyed the ACT border along the Brindabellas from 1913-15, recorded those trails in his fieldbooks and the official 1929 Feature Map of the Federal Capital Territory shows numbers of tracks in the mountain country.
Former owner of Brindabella Station, John Dowling, told me in the 1990s how for many years into the early 20th century the gouges made by the hubs of dray wheels on the tight corners of the primitive road over the Brindabella Range and down to the Franklin family's station at Brindabella could still be seen.
While a road over the Brindabella Range was there by the time Canberra started to develop, a road along the range did not exist. The push for that road came largely from the Canberra Alpine Club, led by president C.E. Lane Poole. A forester and head of the Forestry School, Lane Poole and his daughters had bushwalked and skied along the range, and he said that trips in the roadless wilderness were sometimes more like ordeals than pleasure excursions.
Lane Poole and others met with Interior Minister Paterson in November 1934 to push for a road, with tourism, snow sports and bushfire control being the rationale. Paterson saw the value of the project in putting unemployed men to work and the road got under way. Built largely by hand, it reached Mount Franklin by 1937.
A relic of the original road construction has for years been visible just south of Bendora Hill. It is a surveyor's reference tree, with the hand-engraved code "7 1/2 M" chiselled into it. It signifies the distance from the road's beginning. Though damaged by the 2003 bushfires, this ancient snowgum with its mark was still visible last time I was up that way.
The road facilitated the building of Canberra Alpine Club's Mt Franklin Chalet in 1938, and the creation of the Bulls Head village a year or so later, from where rangers did catchment and bushfire patrols. After World War II, Bulls Head became a logging centre.
At the junction of the Franklin and Brindabella roads a new road headed northward, the Two Sticks Road. Reflecting that sense of Australian bush irony, the junction became known as Piccadilly Circus, named after one of London's busiest intersections. It may have been Brindabellas forester Cyril Cole who borrowed the name, having served in Britain during World War II. The road's terminus remained at Franklin for some years before being extended southward past Mounts Ginini and Gingera by the late 1940s.
Former surveyor general J.T.H. Goodwin (who played a significant role in early Canberra and whose name is commemorated in the Goodwin Homes aged care facilities), surveyed part of the road, despite being in senior years. His observations of local brumbies led him to call the northern summit of Gingera Wild Horse Point. Brumby stallions sometimes interfered with the horses belonging to road workers.
The road was finally pushed into the upper Cotter in 1958, and the following year a linking fire trail from Orroral joined it near the ranger base at Cotter Hut.
The Mt Franklin Road opened up the Brindabella Range for skiers, bushwalkers, tourists, foresters, rangers, firefighters and timber getters. But using it in winter could be arduous. The first ranger family at Bulls Head was that of Doug Maxwell and his wife May and sons Colin and Graeme. They were often snowed in. "We had more feeds of bread and dripping than anything else during winter," said Graeme.
For Franklin skiers, the trip to the Chalet could be demanding. There was no organised snow-clearing, so heavy snow blocked the road to vehicles, sometimes many kilometres short of Franklin. Skiers had to cross-country ski all the way to the Chalet before they could do their downhill skiing on the runs there. A 1943 photo shows skiers passing a snowed-in car; amongst the group is Doug Maxwell with a packhorse carrying the skiers' provisions. It was a long way from today's trip to Perisher or Thredbo!
Once RMC Duntroon built its lodge on Mt Ginini in the 1950s, cadets at least had access to more snow-capable army vehicles. A year-round vehicle on the road from the mid 1960s was the diesel tanker conveying fuel to the aircraft navigation facility on Ginini.
In the 1980s the police often locked the gate for winter at Bulls Head to prevent vehicle access, regardless of how deep the snow actually was. Since Namadgi National Park's control of the area, a series of gates has allowed access to be more sensibly regulated in accord with snowfall.
Despite bushfire impact, the Mt Franklin Road remains one of the most picturesque drives in the Australian Alps.
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