Canberra - just a big hole?

You’ve all heard it before. You know, the line that those unwashed hordes of Canberra-bashers perennially bleat out: ‘‘Canberra’s just a big hole!’’ Well, enough is enough. During the week, I set out to road-test this austere assessment of our city. Perhaps we really are a big hole, after all?

Firstly, a quick comparison of the altitude of Australia’s capitals reveals that we are quite the opposite – in fact, at around 600 metres above sea level, we are a good half a kilometre closer to heaven than any other city in Australia. So, given we’re clearly not one single big hole, perhaps we are a series of ‘‘smaller’’ big holes? However, despite an extensive territory-wide search, I haven’t managed to find a skerrick of physical evidence to support even this secondary claim. The biggest physical holes in the ACT are of the wombat burrow variety – oh, and also a building site in Braddon where an underground car park is under construction.

Surprisingly, only one person has fallen into the hole (that we know of, anyway) and that was in 1884

The biggest four holes I unearthed during in my week-long quest are actually located – heaven forbid – across the border. Two are natural, two are man-made, and counterintuitively, all four are tourist attractions (of sorts).

1. Titanic Funnel

Wedged in the rugged realms of the Snowy Mountains is the lofty Geehi Reservoir. At first glance, this dam appears like any other of the 16 that comprise the Snowy Mountains Scheme. However, adjacent to its rock wall is a hug hole – a carefully-crafted cement funnel that allows water to bypass the dam when it reaches capacity. The funnel, which is 12-metres across at the top, is capable of discharging a mind-blowing 1534 cubic metres of water per second – that’s almost a full Olympic swimming pool of water every blink of an eye. That’s a lot of H2O. A spokesperson for Snowy Hydro is ‘‘not sure when it was last used’’, but what a sight that would be – an overspill gushing down this gargantuan gurgler. And to think my kids get scared when I empty the bath.

Did You Know? In the drier months, when the water level is well below the rim of the funnel, daredevil skateboarders are sometimes spotted (illegally) skylarking on the spillway’s horizontal exit.

Want to check it out? The massive funnel can be viewed from a lookout on Olsens Road (via Thredbo and the Alpine Way) or behind safety barriers near the dam wall (at the end of Olsens Road). Please note that Olsens Road is currently closed for winter and isn’t scheduled to re-open until the October long weekend.

2. Mammoth Mine

This hole is so big you can see it from a plane. In fact, while peering through plane windows on the Sydney-Canberra route (which flies over the top of the site), I often hear passengers gasp ‘‘hey, look at the size of that!’’ Previously a copper, lead and zinc open-cut mine, the 200metres deep by one kilometre wide hole is now an in-situ bioreactor which, since opening in 2005, has taken in over 2.2million tonnes of waste from the Sydney metropolitan area. It produces green electricity using the methane created by the resultant waste and is also home to an adjoining wind farm and aquaculture facility.

Want to check it out? The Woodlawn Bioreactor is at 619 Collector Road, Tarago. Tours are available and there is an onsite education centre where visitors can watch videos about the current operations. Bookings essential. Phone 48446262 for more details.

3. Devil’s Punchbowl

Created when a cave ceiling collapsed, this hole is over 25 metres deep. It’s the easiest of the four holes to access as there’s a goat track right to its rocky floor. The more adventurous abseil down its near vertical northern wall.

Did You Know? Around the top of Devil’s Punchbowl is a specimen of the rare Wee Jasper Grevillea (Grevillea iaspicula). This red-flowering shrub was only named in 1986 and is found naturally at just six sites – all near Wee Jasper. In total, there are only about 100 mature plants left in the wild, making it one of Australia’s rarest plants.

Want to check it out? The Devil’s Punchbowl is located at the top of Fitzpatrick Trackhead Reserve (where there are also toilets and free electric barbecues) in Wee Jasper. Occasionally, Wee Jasper resident Dr Charlie Barton (a world-renowned scientist who discovered the South Magnetic Pole) leads tours through the karst landscape, including to the punchbowl. The site is managed by the Wee Jasper Reserves Trust. Phone 62279626 for details. Warning: There are a number of marked and unmarked caves in the area which should only be explored with a guide or by experienced cavers.

4. The Big Hole

This imaginatively-named sinkhole is like something you’d expect to encounter on an expedition with Indiana Jones, not on a bush walk near Captains Flat. The 96-metre deep hole formed when overlying sandstone collapsed into a subterranean limestone cavern.

Explorer Major Thomas Mitchell, who stumbled upon the hole in 1832, was the first European to describe ‘‘its vast recesses’’ and in the 1860s, a local man called ‘‘Boxall’’ was the first known person to be lowered into the hole by rope. These days, abseilers can access the hole with special permits from the park’s authorities.

Did You Know? Surprisingly, only one person has fallen into the hole (that we know of, anyway) and that was in 1884. The unfortunate victim supposedly had his name carved on a nearby tree.

Want to check it out? The Big Hole is at the western end of Deua National Park, about one and a half hours drive from Canberra via Captains Flat. Some of the road is dirt/gravel but is suitable for 2WD. The relatively gentle walk to the Big Hole leaves from the Berlang Rest Area (and involves a short ford across the Shoalhaven River), is clearly marked and is just under four kilometres return.

Watch out for: For several decades, there have been reports of a lyrebird living in the hole. In December 1974, John Brush and his Canberra Speleological Society colleagues were so concerned about the welfare of the poor bird, that they mounted a rescue mission. Armed with nets and canvas bags, Brush and his buddies managed to capture the bird, haul it to the surface and then release it some distance from the hole. ‘‘However, to our horror, the bird headed straight back for the hole as soon as it was released, only veering away at the last moment,’’ Brush recalls. Avid bushwalker Steve Hill of Kambah, who visited the Big Hole last weekend, reports that there was ‘‘no sign of a lyrebird lurking in the hole but there were plenty of [lyrebird] mounds in the nearby forest.’’


Inspired by images from the ‘‘Beach to Brindabellas’’ exhibition which recently featured on these pages, Phillip Ironfield felt compelled to share this stunning photograph which he snapped late last month of the moon rising over the Tollgates at Batemans Bay. ‘‘It was a harvest moon when it rose and, with the bay doing its millpond thing, I could even see the dolphins at one point as they swam past,’’ reports the Palmerston shutterbug, who questions, ‘‘why do people travel to the other side of the world to experience breathtaking seaside beauty?’’


To mark the official start of winter, for the next few weeks I will be testing your observation skills with images from our winter playground – the New South Wales Snowy Mountains. Good luck!

Clue: Not far from Strzelecki’s statue.

Degree of difficulty: Easy–medium.

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to The first email after 10am, Saturday 1 June 2013, with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.

Last week: Congratulations to Chris Blunt of Macarthur, who was the first to correctly identify last week’s photo,  bottom left, sent in by Maryann Mussared as the incinerator in Westbourne Woods, near the 10th fairway of the Royal Canberra Golf Club in Yarralumla.

According to Peter Harris – one of several readers pipped at the post by Blunt – ‘‘the incinerator was designed by Eric Nicholls in partnership with Walter Burley Griffin when they began designing incinerators for the Reverberatory Incinerator and Engineering Company.’’ The duo co-designed 12 incinerators before Griffin’s death in 1937 and the Westbourne Woods Incinerator is a unique design with the addition of a sewerage delivery room. It burnt general rubbish during the 1940s and classified waste in the 1950s and was decommissioned in 1959. The building was bought by the golf club in 1960 for use as storage and to prevent its demolition.

The photo prompted Wayne McLaughlin of Weetangera, who especially ‘‘liked the variety of brick coursework patterns’’, to reminisce about the 1950s and ’60s when ‘‘everyone had backyard incinerators’’. ‘‘We upgraded to the posh besser-block model in the early ’70s!’’ says McLaughlin, who also fondly recalls that during the 1960s, residents living on oak tree-lined streets (including Ijong Street, Braddon and Scrivener Street, O’Connor) would be regularly visited by pig farmers to collect the green acorns for their stock. ‘‘The spent or leftover ones would be raked into the gutters and set alight – a great community activity, and it prevented storm-water blockages,’’ McLaughlin says.

Special mention to Robert Heacock, who even provided the coordinates for the incinerator. So, if you find yourself wandering around Yarralumla with a GPS, here they are: 689807E6091461N.


Email: or Twitter: @TimYowie or write to me c/o The Canberra Times, 9Pirie St, Fyshwick.