If you've been bushwalking in Canberra, you've almost certainly savoured the view from Gibraltar Peak. A maze of granite monoliths, the 1040-metre peak commands extensive views over the Tidbinbilla Valley and beyond to Canberra. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose first bushwalk in Canberra was to this rocky outcrop.
However, the one drawback on this popular three-hour walk is the route, which painstakingly follows a fire trail almost the entire distance to the summit. Glaringly hot on a summer's day and subject to the blustery cold in winter, the hike along the fire trail has long been endured as a means to an end.
But that will all change tomorrow when a new route to Gibraltar Peak will be opened by the ACT Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, as part of the festivities at the annual Tidbinbilla Extravaganza.
Earlier in the week, on a misty early morning, I embraced the opportunity to be one of the first to walk the purpose-built walking track. And, wow! It's a completely different experience to the old walk. In fact, the journey to the top is now almost as attractive as the peak itself.
The first thing you'll notice is that it's much longer than the old fire trail (8.2-kilometres return versus 5.5-kilometres return) but that's because the track winds enticingly over small creeks, around cool gullies and through open grassland. And not one unsightly fire trail within cooee! Oh, and the best part: the gradient is much gentler. Your heart rate will get up but it won't race out of control like it did on steeper sections of the old route.
At about the half-way mark (2.2 kilometres from Dalsetta) the track reaches the previously inaccessible Eliza Saddle. Mt Eliza is the hill, which as you enter Tidbinbilla, looms large behind the visitors centre. It's of special interest to those who delve into the study of mysterious creatures as it's named after the wife of early settler George Webb, who was among the first Europeans to spot a yowie in the Canberra area back the mid-1800s. But that's a story for another day. Back to the track.
Although there's no view from the saddle, you get a feeling, immersed in the scrub, that something special is lurking just around the corner. From the knock-out rustic picnic table (an ideal spot for a cuppa), it's like a choose-your-own-adventure. One track leads up to Gibraltar Peak (1.9 kilometres away) and the other leads down the eastern slopes of Eliza and skirts by Birrigai Outdoor Centre, and eventually back to the start of the walk.
However, it's the summit which beckons, so onwards and upwards I forge. Through the forest, on a number of occasions, I can make out the largest monolith on the peak poking through the mist as if guarding the surrounds.
One of the few redeeming features of the old fire trail route was that it passed a magnificent stand of grass trees (Xanthorrhoea australis). And just when I think this new trail is going to be grass tree-free, around the next switchback is a small cluster of the photogenic native plants. If you stop to admire them on the sharp right hair-pin corner, take a moment to look over your shoulder. The saddle below perfectly frames another of Tidbinbilla's distinctive peaks - Camels Back.
It's hard to believe the track is new. Using local rock for steps and carefully sculptured into the contours of the hill where possible, it is testimony to its conservation-minded builders. A few hundred metres further on, wedged into the side of the hill, is a lookout platform from which, on a fine day, you can see as far as Black Mountain Tower and beyond. The platform blends in with its surroundings, its pre-fabricated modules brought in by helicopter to minimise disturbance to the surrounding bush.
The last 200 metres of the track climbs though a labyrinth of 400-million-year-old granite tors, rock overhangs and hidden clefts. Be careful playing hide 'n' seek here: you might never be found.
There are dozens of vantage spots to stop for lunch and admire the vista below.
According to local lore, these rocks were a key entry point into the area for Aboriginal people. Apparently an elder would light a fire to guide people into the valley below. I stop to contemplate how many people over the ages have sat atop this rocky outcrop and under what circumstances. The mind boggles.
After a bite to eat, I retrace my steps to Eliza Saddle, where feeling energetic, I take the track down towards the visitor centre via Birrigai. The mist has now dissipated and the winding path leads through a magical and quite expansive grass tree forest. Many of the bubbly-barked trunks have been contorted into all sorts of shapes by the 2003 fire storm that ravaged this area. Burnt bark also peels off surrounding tree trunks like giant lolly wrappers.
This track eventually links up with the Birrigai Time Trail, which conceals all sorts of crawl throughs and rock overhangs, including a rock shelter found to have been continuously used by Aboriginal people for more than 21,000 years.
Already one of the most popular walking destinations in Tidbinbilla, this new, longer but much more interesting (and gentler) route to Gibraltar Peak is destined to become a Canberra bushwalking classic.
The new Gibraltar Peak Track: To be officially opened by the Chief Minister at tomorrow’s Tidbinbilla Extravaganza. It commences at Dalsetta car park (site of the old visitor centre) and is 8.2-kilometres return. Allow 3-4 hours.
Take care on the peak, especially with children as there are steep drop offs.
Feeling energetic? A longer loop option (13-kilometres return, allow 4-6 hours) allows you to walk back from Gibraltar Peak via the Birrigai Time Trail and the visitor centre.
Tidbinbilla Extravaganza: Tomorrow 11am-3pm. A fun-filled day of entertainment for the whole family, Paddys River Road, Tidbinbilla. Free entry. Kids will especially love the trackless train ride, craft station and SES obstacle course. I suggest taking a picnic, but a limited selection of food and drink will also be available for purchase.