Guru Bung Dhaura, Stirling Park and Westlake

Stirling Ridge, Ngunnawal scar tree, remains of the Westlake settlement and Lotus Bay.

Nov 11, 2022

Despite starting and finishing a stone’s throw from the city centre, all the Sunday walks include some bush tracks. The walk with the most bushland walking is the 24 km which takes you over the National Arboretum and around Black Mountain.

But the shorter Sunday, 7 km and 12 km walkers won’t miss out. Both routes will lead you through an area of bushland that has great historical significance to the capital. 

7km hill walk

Volunteers walking up Stirling Ridge – planning the bushland section the 12 km and 7 km routes in 2020.

“Canberra has a reputation as the ‘Bush Capital’. So when we began planning the routes for the Aussie Peace Walk, we wanted to ensure that all walkers, no matter what distances they chose, experienced a little of the city’s natural bushland.”

The Guru Bung Dhaura (stony ground) or Stirling Park in Yarralumla, is an area of natural bushland on the southwestern edge of Lake Burley Griffin.

This is Ngunnawal land and an area reserved for womens’ cultural business. Curiously shaped and scarred white gum trees and indications of burials can be found in the bush. The views of prominent hills to the north might resemble a woman.

After European settlement in the 1820s, the area was allocated to land grants of early squatters. Its rough and stony character was not suitable for sheep or cattle grazing so the Guru Bung Dhaura was not greatly affected by pastoral activities and it retained its bushland character.

But nearby was the Yarralumla station that was owned successively by the Murray, Gibbes and Campbell families, and along the Molonglo River were the farm cottages of their employees. Those often called the area The Gap because of the creek that ran down between the higher parts to the river.

map of Westlake

National Capital

When Canberra was selected as the site for the Federal capital in 1908, the first Commonwealth employees set up camp on the Guru Bung Dhaura.

The very first were the surveyors who selected the city site and undertook the initial contour surveys that were later used for the city design competition.

There was also a camp for Commonwealth and State politicians who wanted to see the site selected for Australia’s capital.

surveyors huts
camp
Constructing a capital city in the bush

With The Stroke of a Pen

When Walter and Marion Griffin were selected to design the city that was named Canberra, the Guru Bung Dhaura became the western end of their city and lake design. Because of that, Walter Griffin named the area ‘Westlake’.

It was positioned near the parks and arboreta but little construction occurred during WW1 and the area remained undisturbed. 

That began to change in 1922. Work commenced on the construction of Hostel No 1 – the Hotel Canberra (i.e. the present-day Hyatt Canberra). That was soon followed by the Provisional Parliament House and nearby administrative buildings known later as East and West Blocks.

Other projects began to build Canberra’s roads and drains, to make its bricks and to excavate the main sewer. There was also an extensive afforestation program.

All these activities required a large workforce that had to be housed, and many men and their families were accommodated in tented camps in a temporary settlement on the Guru Bung Dhaura.

The temporary settlement comprising 42 temporary wooden cottages was erected between 1924 and 1926.  These were known collectively as the Gap Cottages and they were a big advance on the canvas accommodation that had come before. They housed the families that built early Canberra. It was a strong working-class community that looked after each other and was suspicious of outsiders. After WW2 the community absorbed displaced immigrants from continental Europe and Scandinavia. 

the griffins
girls looking at signs

Tourists from Finland learn about the area whilst photographing kangaroos in the background.

westlake-cottages

The Gap Cottages settlement lasted until the 1960s when it was dismantled. Many of the cottages were removed and set up elsewhere. Though long gone, traces and signs, cottage numbers and their occupants’ names remain in Stirling Park. Amongst them was Ernest Albert Corey (1891-1972) who was awarded the Military Medal for bravery four times in WW1.

Near Stirling Park

These days, many embassies and high commissions are located on the fringes of the Guru Bung Dhaura.  It has also been designated as the site of a new Government House, and as being suitable for a new home for the Prime Minister. However, none of those plans has been realised and the site remains a patch of rich bushland close to Parliament House.

Ngunnawal people continue to value its rich cultural significance. Former residents of the Gap Cottages retain strong community ties and still regard the area as their home.

Several memorial plaques, information and locational signs can be found and give a sense of their long-lasting community associations. And other community groups and nearby residents seek to preserve rare native flowers and grass species that grow over the Guru Bung Dhaura.

Though being close to Australia’s Parliament House and busy inner Canberra, the original bushland and terrain of the Guru Bung Dhaura have survived to represent the nature and character of the Australian landscape and the many people that have lived on it.

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