The coldest place in Canberra?

It’s a sight for sore eyes. It’s just gone 8am and standing despondently in a car park on the western slopes of Black Mountain Nature Reserve are two middle-aged men. They’re standing awkwardly close to each other. In fact, clearly under-dressed for an early morning walk, in a desperate bid to keep warm, they’re almost cuddling.Their names are Mark and Antony – two visiting interstate friends of mine that I’ve dragged to reputedly the coldest place in all of Canberra, the Aranda Frost Hollow.

Allow me to explain. It’s all part of a tradition that’s been running for the last decade or so in which the three of us (friends harking back to uni days) catch-up for one big weekend a year. To spread the travelling burden we’ve each taken turns in hosting it at our home city. This year it’s my turn to throw out the welcome mat and the only date that suited us all was midwinter, which even for the staunchest supporter of Canberra isn’t the best time to visit.

These two really are struggling; and it’s little wonder. Mark hails from Brisbane and only owns one jumper and that’s for his weekly forays to the cool room at his local bottle shop, picking up cases of XXXX. Meanwhile, the last time Antony the Adelaidean (what do you call someone from Adelaide anyway?) wore anything woollen on his head was a bright red tea cosy that his mother had knitted him for a primary school fancy dress party. And that was 30 years ago.

Since the date for our annual bash was set several months ago, the amount of pessimistic email banter from Mark and Antony about the potential for adverse (read: cold) weather intensified to the point where in early June I even had to consider changing my internet bandwidth to cope with the constant messages of abuse. All sorts of mitigation strategies were thrashed out from whether or not we should invite a new participant to our fun-filled weekend (a brass monkey statue was mentioned as the leading contender) to rigging up hot water bottles to the inside of our shirts to keep our core temperature up. Antony even suggested that we spend the whole weekend in the Qantas Lounge at the airport.

To say it got a bit much was an understatement. So a couple of weeks ago, I decided that if these bothersome buddies were going to whine so much about the weather before they’ve even arrived, I may as well give them something to really complain about once they got here. I thought of finding the reverse of an electric blanket for their beds (but I don’t think they’ve been invented yet) and even adding a late night dip in Lake Burley Griffin (but didn’t fancy that myself) to our itinerary. Eventually I hatched a plot to coax them out into a frigid winter morning under the pretext they were heading out for a hearty breakfast. As a crack of dawn feast is a bit of a tradition in these catch-up weekends, they easily took the bait.

But I suspect the stunned look on their faces as they read the interpretative sign in the car park titled ‘‘Frost Hollow to Forest Walk’’ is more to do with the inability of the mercury on the thermometer I’ve brought along to rise into the positive zone, than the fact they are not scoffing a wilted spinach omelette washed down with piping hot macchiato.

Not wanting to let them fall victim to hypothermia (they are my friends after all) I’d earlier stashed a selection of balaclavas, scarves and gloves in the boot of the Yowie mobile which begrudgingly they don.

So while most of Canberra enjoys a weekend sleepin, with Mark and Antony still shaking their heads in disbelief (and no doubt also in an attempt to keep warm), the three of us, resembling a gang of thugs about to rob the nearby bank, clamber over a stile that leads into the frost hollow.

A lone magpie sitting atop a sign almost blushes at the tirade of obscenities that Mark fires in my direction. It’s only a five-minute crunch through icy paddocks to the saucer-shaped dip in the landscape. The morning is still and although there’s only a light frost, ringed by a veil of fog it feels much colder in the middle of the hollow than back at the car park.

In all, the treeless hollow is only a few hundred metres across and is surrounded in parts by snow gums for it’s even too cold for them to grow in the middle of the hollow. Now that’s cold.

I check my smartphone which indicates it’s currently zero degrees at the airport and according to my trusty thermometer, here in the frost hollow it’s minus 4.‘‘It’ll feel warmer if we walk to the top of the hill,’’ I bleat gleefully to Mark.

Prepared to do just about anything to keep warm, he leads the trudge upwards. Out of the frost hollow, the track winds uphill where we pass a large mob of kangaroos. Mark, somewhat impressed, remarks it’s ‘‘the biggest mob of kangaroos I’ve ever seen’’.

At the top of the hill Mark sheds his scarf and smiles in my direction. Just when I think he’s warming to our little morning adventure he proceeds to tie the scarf into a noose-like knot and waves his fist threateningly at me. I motion the way back towards the car and scurry off. On the way back, the loop track takes us through a forested area.

It’s quite enchanting especially on one downhill stretch where almost all the trees on one side of the track are dark-trunked stringybarks and on the other side white trunked scribbly and brittle gums. According to a fact sheet on the walk prepared by Friends of Aranda Bushland, this is a great spot for a photo in late summer when the bark is newly shed.

But as Mark and Antony poignantly point out, having just marked the winter solstice, we are almost as far away from summer as we can get. Back at the car park and with the frost already starting to melt, we reflect on our morning’s escapade. Despite their earlier reservations Mark and Antony begrudgingly reveal that they did enjoy (ok, well maybe tolerate ...) the early morning stroll.

‘‘How many Canberrans have walked the Aranda frost hollow in mid-winter – let alone bananabenders?’’ rhetorically asks Mark. And he’s right. I bet not many.

‘‘It’s incredible to think that the city is just beyond the tower,’’ says Antony pointing towards Black Mountain now poking above the fog, before adding, ‘‘we’re probably closer to the city than the majority of Canberra suburbs,’’ but I bet hardly anyone knows about it.’’ Well Antony, thanks to you and Mark, a few more now do.

PS: Our next annual weekend is to be held in Brisbane, and although not scheduled until 2012, Mark says that he’s been trawling through the Bureau of Meteorology records to find out which weekend of the year in Brisbane is historically the hottest and most humid.

Oh dear, what have I started?


Frost Hollow to Forest Walk: The starting point for the walk is a stile located alongside the short access road to the Black Mountain Reserve car park which is accessed off William Hovell Drive near Aranda. There is a fact sheet about the walk prepared by Friends of Aranda Bushland which includes a map. It took us just under an hour for the return walk, but we were walking quite quickly.

A frost what? Frost hollows occur when cold air drains to the lowest ground in an area and stays in a pool of significantly colder air.

Did you know? The Aranda snow gums are listed as a Heritage Place, being the best Canberra example of a frost hollow with its vegetation largely intact.

Freeze factor: Can you better the Aranda frost hollow? Where is the coldest place you’ve been in Canberra?