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60,000 steps of Centenary Trail solitude

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How many of us have been up to the lookouts on One Tree Hill and Oak Hill? I certainly hadn’t, although the city approaches them ever closer day by day.

From these outposts on the Canberra Centenary Trail in the very north of the ACT, you can see Gungahlin busily stretching back towards Black Mountain and beyond, with empty roads just waiting to be filled with homes.

Last Saturday, I spent a day on the Trail, one of Canberra’s hidden gems. Traversing 145 kilometres from Parliament House and back again, it is the big adventure for us in these times of isolation and paranoia.

My stretch was from the city to Hall Village, nearly a third of the Trail’s full length. Now, walking 45 kilometres in a day is not for everyone—I do a lot of this silliness and still pulled up pretty tenderly on Saturday night.

But the Trail is helpfully segmented into seven smaller sections, ranging from the 14.5 kilometre leg between the Northern Border Campsite and Hall to the testing final 28 kilometres from the Tuggeranong Town Centre back to Parliament.

The suburbs are often in view and sometimes earshot, but you rarely pound pavement. It is largely bush track and fire trails, and for large tracts of time, I was alone with my own thoughts.

Maybe we are all listening too much to our inner monologues during this very strange time, but for me, it was a rare opportunity to think about Anzac Day.

My walk was timed to begin after a driveway Dawn Service. My thoughts centred on what a soldier might have experienced in 1915 compared to what I obviously did not in 2020; the adrenalin and terror of Australians fighting their way ashore in a strange country against strange combatants who, until then, had done them no harm.

The sections I walked covered enough mountains (Ainslie and Majura) and general ups and downs to partly replicate the Gallipoli Peninsula—minus goats and anyone firing a rifle at you.

One of those newer suburbs below Oak Hill Lookout is Jacka, named after Albert Jacka whose outrageous heroism at Gallipoli in World War I saw him awarded the first Victoria Cross of the conflict.

Shot numerous times in 1916 and 1917 and later gassed, he survived the war but his injuries meant he did not live to see his 40th birthday.

But another Gallipoli VC winner was on my mind. Private Arthur Blackburn (who was awarded his VC in 1916) and Lance Corporal Phillip Robin were among the first off the landing vessels at Gallipoli and through the course of that dreadful day advanced further than any other Australians.

The question in my mind since reading Blackburn’s account is always—how? I visited Gallipoli in 2002 and strolled the battlefields, and still cannot comprehend how anyone was able to get on the beach, climb ridges, cross ravines, negotiate barbed wire, all the while dealing with a hail of Turkish fire.

There was one other similarity. I did find a stretch of barbed and electrified fence separating the ACT from New South Wales. I will leave others to ponder over whom is being protected from whom.

Of course, my peculiar thought patterns on a walk like this won’t be yours. But there may be no better way to experience Canberra’s more secluded bush areas safely and social distanced.

All images courtesy of the author.

 Paul Chamberlin is obsessed with long walks—whether they be around Canberra, through the Kokoda jungle in PNG or up the 7,000-metre ascent of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina.

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