As you drive around Canberra you may notice tall Canberra Tracks signage at historically significant locations dotted around the city. These signs are part of eight self-drive routes around the Capital, taking visitors on full day excursions with several stops along the way. Choose a track and learn about the indigenous history of the region or perhaps see remnants of what life was like in the early settler period. The first track, Ngunawal Country, honours the indigenous people of the region, the Ngunawal people, whose history goes back tens of thousands of years.
Allow all day (or two - if you stop to do any of the National Park walks) for this this self-drive, as it takes you out of the city to the National Parks west of the city, then back again. Pack a picnic, fill up the coffee thermos and take a drive back to a time where there were no roads, no cars and certainly no coffee found in Canberra's unique landscape.
Canberra Tracks signage to look out for on the drive
Stop 1 - Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Cultural Centre
The first stop on the drive is the ACT Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Cultural Centre, which isn't open to the public however the site itself has significance for the local Ngunawal people. It was recorded by William Davis Wright, who grew up with local Aboriginal children in the 1840s and 50s, that "It served as their general and best known meeting place. It was an ordinary sized tribe, between 400 and 500 at the time of the first white settlement".
Next to the ACT Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Cultural Centre visit the Burrunju Art Gallery to view and buy artworks by local indigenous artists today.
Stop 2 - Cotter Reserve The next stop of this self drive is Cotter Reserve, 25 minutes west of the city. Cotter River is a fresh water river running through a popular recreational reserve, where Canberra locals go for a cool dip in Summer and enjoy BBQs all year around. The fresh water made this an ideal place for the Ngunawal and surrounding tribes to live by, with a plentiful supply of wildlife also in the area.
Uriarra Crossing, 5 kms upstream from the Cotter Reserve, was the place of an annual feast for local tribes each October. Hundreds of people from local tribes would gather to feast on the Bogong moths that thrived there, providing a good source of protein in their diet. The annual feast was also an opportunity for Aboriginal groups from the region to meet and establish cultural links and trade with one another.
Stop at Cotter Reserve for rest stop on your self-drive and imagine what life was like for thousands of years, on the banks of this scenic fresh water river.
Cotter River, where local tribes would hunt and fish
Stop 3 - Tidbinbilla Tidbinbilla Vistors Centre is the next stop on the Ngunawal Country self drive. From Cotter Reserve it is a 40 minute drive along Tourist Drive 5 to the Visitors Centre, the entrance to the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. This area has recorded the highest density of Aboriginal artefacts found in the ACT, where visitors can walk to the Birrigai and Hanging Rock Shelters. The name Tidbinbilla comes from the Aboriginal word 'Jedbinbilla' which means "a place where boys were made men".
Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre is a great resource for maps, history, books and local information.
Tidbinbilla is another area that is thought to have a large population of the Bogong moth, which were shaken out from under rocky overhangs. The Tidbinbilla valley floor also had a plentiful supply of possum, ducks, wild turkeys, emus, platypus, kangaroo, fish, yabbies and a range of plants, tubers, seeds and fruit to eat for local tribes.
To learn more about the rich history at this location, take the Birrigai Time Trail (3km - rated as easy) to the Birrigai Rock Shelter considered one of the oldest rock shelters in the region, or take a short walk along Hanging Rock Trail (500m - easy) to Hanging Rock. See here for more details of Tidbinbilla's walking trails. There is an entry fee per car to enter the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, see here for Day Pass prices.
Hanging Rock. Source: Tidbinbilla website
Stop 4 -Tharwa Next on the Ngunawal Country self drive is the small town of Tharwa, a 25 minutes country drive from Tidbinbilla Visitors Centre. Tharwa is part of an ancient Dreaming Track legend, which local tribes would tell about their ancestors who travelled the land. There is also evidence that the Ngunawal people used to cross this river under Tharwa Bridge on their trips to and from the mountains. Early settlers saw them take this route and followed suit, however many were swept downstream which resulted in Tharwa bridge being built in this location in 1895. Around this time, Tharwa was also the home of several Aboriginal families who worked for early settler families such as the De Salis' of Cuppacumbalong.
Whilst at Tharwa, stop for a rest at the reserve or dip your toe in the river under the historic bridge. For an article on Tharwa Bridge Reserve, see here.
Take a walk down to the river, a popular place to cross for local tribes
The Namadgi Visitor Centre is only a few minutes drive from Tharwa Bridge. The name Namadgi is an Aboriginal word and refers to the mountains south-west of Canberra. With over 200 Aboriginal sites recorded in the park, the Ngunawal people were given official recognition of their association with the land and now cooperatively manage the park with the ACT Government. Local tribes used to live here all year round with enough shelter and food (including the popular Bogong moth) to last through the winter months, resulting in more artefacts left behind. There is evidence that aboriginal people were living in this region during the last ice-age 21,000 years ago.
Take a 6 km walk to view the rock art at Yankee Hat, a rock shelter used by local tribes with the only rock art recorded in the ACT. It has been discovered that Aboriginal people began using the shelter more than 800 years ago. See more details about Namadgi National Park here. Entry to the park is free.
Aboriginal rock art at Yankee Hat. Source: Wikapedia (photo by Martyman)
Stop 6 - Tuggeranong Homestead Tuggeranong homestead is located 15 minutes from Namadgi Visitors Centre. This historic homestead isn't open to the public and is used for weddings and events on the picturesque property, however it is a significant area for the Ngunawal people, with reports of corroborees held at this location in the 1830's. The Homestead's barn, that still stands today, was built around the same time in the 1830's by convicts. For more information on Tuggeranong Homestead, see here.
Stop 7 - Mount Ainslie Lookout
Mount Ainslie Lookout, back in the city, is the last stop on this self drive. Located 30 minutes from Tuggeranong Homestead, it is a unique viewpoint to imagine what the landscape would have been like before settlement. With such large rivers running through this region, it was an ideal location for the Ngunawal and surrounding tribes to live by.
If you enjoy learning about the history of this area, why not check out the other five Canberra Tracks around the city and learn more about what makes this capital city so unique. With indigenous history dating back over 20,000 years, there is a fascinating depth of history behind today's city landscape to continue to explore.
View from Mount Ainslie Lookout, over Ngunawal Country