A self-guided tour back to Canberra's early settler past
Canberra Tracks is a name given to eight self-guided driving tours around Canberra, where visitors stop at several historical landmarks along the way to learn about the city's indigenous and early settler past. The city of Canberra has history dating back 20,000 years with the Ngunnawal people, before the early settlers started to appear in this region in the early 1800's. British explorers named the area The Limestone Plains when they passed through here, after the geology in the area and the grassland plains. By 1900 there were farming properties and small towns dotted around the region. The Limestone Plains Track is the second track in the series, concentrating on the Capital's convict past and first free settlers and pastoralists who moved to the area and made this region their home.
View of the Limestone Plains and Canberra, from Mount Ainslie Lookout
Stop 1: Mount Ainslie Lookout Mount Ainslie Lookout has undoubtedly the best views of Canberra, with hundreds of tourists and school busses visiting it each day. At 843m above sea level, this is the ideal first stop on this self guided drive, to imagine what life was like for the early settlers who settled in this harsh climate with little supplies. The fresh water of the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee Rivers (which have now been dammed to form Lake Burley Griffin) attracted early settlers as it provided clean drinking water and the flat grassy plains were perfect for grazing livestock. There isn't any farmland left today, however if you stop off at Mount Pleasant Lookout nearby (also part of Track 3), you can view the stately building of Duntroon which was the home of the regions largest property in the early years. It is now part of the Duntroon Royal Military College used today.
View of the farming properties on the Limestone Plains in the early 1900's. Source: Canberra Tracks website
Stop 2 - Duntroon Dairy From Mount Ainslie it is a short drive back down to the next stop on the self-drive route, the historic Duntroon Dairy. The property of Duntroon was owned by Robert Campbell, who was given the land as compensation after the government "lost" his ship on a government charter in the 1820's. Robert Campbell settled in Duntroon and began setting up his estate with this dairy, built in 1832, built to provide milk and butter for the many people living and working on his estate. It is believed that Duntroon Dairy is the oldest surviving building in the ACT. Unfortunately there is no public access to go inside Duntroon Dairy, at the time of writing, although it is visible from the gate on Kelliher Drive, Russell.
Stop 3 - Blundells Cottage This historic remnant from the Duntroon era is only 5 minutes from the Dairy and it is open to the public each Saturday - see here for how to book a tour. Blundell's Cottage was built in 1860 to house Duntroon's head ploughman, William Ginn and his family until they moved out in 1874, before it was occupied by George Blundell, a Duntroon bullock driver and his family up until 1933. The last inhabitants of this historic building moved out in 1961, before it was preserved as part of Canberra's early history.
Take a walk around the outside of the building and run your hands over the brickwork of this hand-built dwelling. Situated on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, which was once Molonglo River, it is a scenic place to stop for a break of your self drive and take in the views.
Stop 4 - St Johns Church The next stop on this self drive, just a few minutes away, is St Johns Church, another building with a Campbell and Duntroon connection from the mid 1800's. In 1844, the Campbell's provided the land for the church to be built on and paid for half of the building costs so the people on their estate had a church and community meeting area. Walk through this historically significant building and read the plaques on the wall, which make historical reference to the Campbell's and early pioneers who frequented the church. St John's Anglican Church is an active community church today, so you may walk through and hear the organ being practiced for the next sermon or see people in worship.
Outside, explore the historic cemetery and visit the St Johns Schoolhouse Museum to learn more about this school, also built by the Campbell family, to school the local children in the area. It is open Wednesdays and weekends only, see website for more details.
Only a 10 minute drive across the city is the Government House Lookout on Lady Denman Drive in Yarralumla. Just a short walk from the carpark, walk up to the lookout to view Government House from a distance. Although now the home of the Governor General, Peter Cosgrove and his wife Lynne Cosgrove, this house used to be named Yarralumla House and was a prominent sheep property in the early days of Canberra. The Yarralumla and Duntroon properties were the two great pastoral properties of the region, with Frederick Campbell, a grandson of Robert Campbell, buying Yarralumla in 1881 to start his own property. For more details on Government House Lookout, see here.
Stop 6 - Lanyon Homestead It is a 20 minute drive from Yarralumla down south to Lanyon Homestead, a picturesque early settler property which would make an ideal rest stop on this self guided tour. This homestead was named after John Lanyon, who acquired the property in 1835 and used convict labour to build many of the outhouses that can still be found there today. This property is open to walk around and if you want to view inside, take a tour and be guided by expert guides who paint a picture of what life was like on this isolated property. To read about the occupants and history, see here.
Take a walk around the grounds and visit the gardens and vegetable plots that provide all the fresh ingredients for the Lanyon Café on site. Sit back and take in the rural views from this historic café and enjoy the hospitality on offer. For an article on Lanyon Café, see here.
Travel down the long driveway and over cattle grids to get to Lanyon Homestead
Stop 7 - Calthorpes House Take a drive back into the city to visit Calthorpe's House, a house preserved in time from the late 1920's. This was the family home of Harry Calthorpe, the local real estate and land agent for new settlers, who lived here with his wife and two daughters. If you join a weekend tour, you will need to place protective booties over your shoes to walk on the original carpets still in the home. The furnishings are all original, with toys still in the bedrooms and a fully stocked kitchen. This property is fascinating to walk around - it is like the Calthorpe's have just popped out for a few minutes and everything is left exactly as it was. There is even an old air raid shelter in the back garden to visit, as evidence of the threat of World War II . For an article on Calthorpe's House, see here.
The last stop on this self guided tour is just a short drive away to Old Parliament House, now named The Museum of Australian Democracy. This prominent building was opened in 1927 and was used until 1988, with many colourful years in between. This photo below shows how Canberra was still a "Bush Capital" when it was built, with pastoral land surrounding it at the time of opening.
Today you can visit The Museum of Australian Democracy and wander the halls and visualise the government from the early year's mapping out Australia's future. Whilst there, stop for a coffee at the Terrace Café out the front of the building, or for something more substantial visit Hoi Polli restaurant inside.
The Canberra Tracks - Limestone Plains self-guided tour is a fascinating trip back through the years to a time when Canberra first started to develop and the region started to grow. This track will take a full day or two to explore if you lingered at each stop and took tours at each location, which is highly recommended. The tours at these locations are often taken by passionate volunteers who have extensive knowledge about Canberra's early history and the families that lived here. So take your time and enjoy a day or two exploring Canberra's historic Limestone Plains - before moving onto Track 3 to explore this region further.