This you may feel to be peculiar review if you are expecting me to tell you about telescopes and all things astronomical. Indeed, if I had written this tip pre-18 January 2003 that is precisely what I would have been writing about.
On 18 January 2003 massive bushfires raged across Mt Stromlo and a number of Canberra”s southern suburbs. Miraculously only 4 people lost their lives in those fires (which lasted four days) but 500 homes and businesses (mainly homes) were lost. The Mt Stromlo site was severely affected and lost its workshops and design offices, the administration block, the director’s residence, library, archives and all but one of its all important telescopes.
Over the intervening years the observatory, owned by the Australian National University’s (ANU) Research School of Astronomy, has re-established itself though most of the telescopes are now at Siding Spring Observatory in the Warrumbungle Mountains near Coonabarabran, NSW while the administrative centre, the offices of the astronomers and students, the mechanical, electronic and optical workshops, and the computer laboratories are located at Mt Stromlo.
Today I recommend you visit the site to reflect on the damage fire can do – suburbs and homes elsewhere have been rebuilt so this is the only remaining reminder of the fires. There is an official bushfire memorial near by on Cotter Road which is the subject of a separate review.
Mt Stromlo is an all the more poignant site for those readers who have been affected by bushfires or who have lived in areas affected. While not directly affected by the 2003 fires as I live on the north side of the city, I still vividly recall the pure orange skies and the absolute dryness and stillness in the air (though it was far from still where the fires raged) of that weekend and the dead cinders of the fire falling in my garden – some ten kilometres from the fire itself. While Australia is a stunning country and a fantastic place to live (and visit!) it is prone to severe weather extremes – from prolonged drought to severe flooding to horrific bushfires. For my money nothing is worse than uncontrolled fire – there is so little you can do.
I digress, back to Mt Stromlo which began operation as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in 1942 and became part of ANU in 1957. There has however been an Observatory here carrying out astronomical observations for over 100 years.
The operating part of the site is not open to general visitors – this includes part of the area affected by the fires and since rebuilt. That said you can see the charred remains of the Observatory’s 74” Reflector Telescope (picture 1) – equal 4th largest telescope in the world when it was erected in 1954, the shell of the building which housed a 26” Yale-Colombia Refractor telescope (picture 2) and the remains of a 50” Reflector telescope (picture 3) on the lawns close to the remains of the Observatory’s director’s residence (picture 4).
Dr Walter Geoffrey Duffield, founder and first Director of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory is buried (at his request) at the northern end of the complex on a ridge of Mt Stromlo overlooking the Murrumbidgee Valley. Not even his resting place escaped the path of the January 2013 bushfires. The fence and cross were burned and many of the lead letters on the gravestones melted. The site was fully restored later in 2003.
Close to the former director’s residence, is a new sculpture by Anne Graham opened in 2007 (picture 5). The sculpture is entitled “Walking on the Moon” and is a flat round concrete plinth with a flat moon like appearance. I guess the sculpture is completed and becomes “Walking on the Moon” when you, the visitor, walk on it! Worth a look if you are up here but I will keep my real thoughts to myself on this one.
The ANU has put together some additional information on the site, in the form of a walking trail, which can be accessed here – https://services.anu.edu.au/campus-environment/trails-tours/mt-stromlo-heritage-trail.
The Visitors Centre is open from 9 am – 4pm on weekdays, 7.30am – 5 pm weekends.
The formerly ghastly Stromlo café which closed some time ago is operating again under new management. I havn’t visited the new cafe so cannot comment on it.
The views from the Observatory site also make the drive up worth it. Please be aware that cycling up the Mt Stromlo is a popular activity so do be careful as you drive up and down.
Mount Stromlo – located approximately 18km southwest of the centre of Canberra and accessed via Mt Stromlo Road off the Cotter Road.