It's a 'hole' lotta fun

The sublime view from atop the Cooradigbee Range
The sublime view from atop the Cooradigbee Range

It’s a vista so deep and broad you feel like you could look into the future. Well, at least to Lake George in the east, and beyond to the ragged realms of the Brindabellas to the south. Above, a bluer than blue sky is punctuated by fluffy white clouds. Below, tucked between two parallel ranges which form the beautiful Wee Jasper valley, lies the peaceful backwaters of Burrinjuck Dam.

In fact, ‘‘dam’’ is a misnomer in this instance. A dam conjures up images of lifeless man-made concrete edifices, whereas Burrinjuck, at least now while full to the brim and glistening in the midday sun, more closely resembles one of those natural mountain lakes in the Canadian Rockies. All that’s missing are the conifers and float planes.

On most tours of our region, you’d expect a jawdropping view of this nature to be the highlight, but not today, as this is just our lunch stop on the way to Cooradigbee, Ian and Helen Cathles’ 3000 hectare slice of heaven on the western shores of Burrinjuck.

From our lofty picnic spot atop the Cooradigbee main range, which rises like a giant fossilised wave almost 400 metres vertically from the valley below, we can just make out a pelican gliding in to land on the water.  At eye level, a wedge-tailed eagle circles over the escarpment looking for his own meal. In fact, so captivating is the view into the valley, that I fumble my salami sandwich and it drops almost 400 metres down. Luckily, I have another.

Video by Phillip Sledge and Tim the Yowie Man

Although Cooradigbee seems like a nirvana on a still, sunny day like today, over lunch the Cathles explain that farming is not for the faint-hearted. ‘‘Life and death decisions are made every day – any decision you make could affect your animals, your own life or that of others or the viability of your enterprises,’’ explains Helen. The couple run more than 6000 head of sheep for super fine wool production and 1500 goats for mohair. And then there’s the weather. After the 2003 fires ravaged Cooradigbee, a freak hail storm dumped so much ice on the farm that it created mini avalanches. Exposed top soil and kilometres of fences tumbled all the way to the valley floor below.

But enough about storms and sheep stations. The main motivation for my trip to Cooradigbee today was to catch a glimpse of its fabled meteorite crater, which has always intrigued me since I first saw it mentioned on the Cooradigbee website 10 years ago. To reach the crater is an adventure in itself. Just to get to our lunch stop has required 90 minutes of traversing endless switchbacks hacked into the steep mountain tracks while riding on the back of Ian’s LandCruiser ute. While travelling shotgun does have its advantages such as the gulps of fresh mountain air, you do have to have your wits about you to avoid the odd overhanging branch.

So after one final salami sandwich (yes, I have quite a stash) I follow the Cathles’ faithful sheep dogs (are there any other?) Irma and Frank back onto the ute’s tray. Atop the escarpment the paddocks are swathed in spring flowers and we pass not one (a rarity in itself for this time of day) but three pairs of mummy wombats with bubba in tow en route to the crater site.

The last 200 metres before the crater is too steep to drive and like mountain goats we scurry along loose shale and sandstone towards the site, which really is quite extraordinary. Along a ridgeline is a large treeless bowl around 70 metres in diameter. ‘‘There’s nowhere for the dirt to have washed away which gives every indication that it may have been the result of a meteorite strike.’’ Adding weight to Ian’s theory are the line of rocks around the crater which all face away from the centre of the crater rather than a constant 45 degree angle to the west like on the surrounding hillsides.

Although not confirmed as a meteorite crater (no meteorite experts have yet visited the site), Ian has had ‘‘a number of geologists come to the site and leave totally perplexed by it. If it’s not a meteorite crater, how did it form?’’. No matter its origins – the crater is an unusual natural feature in its own right and was worth the 10-year wait to witness.

The circular route back down the escarpment yields even more surprises. First there’s a rustic hut in a gully built early last century by a Macedonian worker on the property. It comes complete with old wooden furniture and even a vodka bottle (sadly empty). Then there are the rocks with unusual dark coloured veins running through them, which according to Ian, are evidence of trees growing here some 350 million years ago.

A few more bumpy kilometres and growing near the cliff top is a stately apple box. ‘‘We call it the picnic tree,’’ announces Helen as she clambers along one of its low overhanging branches. Before long we’re all sitting in the tree like a flock of roosting birds. ‘‘We’ve got photos of the whole family up here perched in the tree,’’ as she passes me a glass of champagne – apparently a tradition when visiting the picnic tree. As I’m not driving I’m tempted to see how many glasses of bubbly it takes before I fall out of the tree, however, with the sun lowering in the western sky and the Cathles preferring not to be on the mountain tracks after dark, we head down towards my digs for the night – Cooradigbee Homestead.

Nestled among a century-old grove of spruce and kurrajong trees, the elegant homestead is a pise (rammed earth) building with wrap-around veranda and exquisite inclusions, which has been lovingly refurbished by the Cathles. Cypress pine floors and ceilings are original and the old front door still shows signs of being singed in the 1939 bushfire.

From the homestead’s extensive deck, the sun’s last rays are painting the water in soft pastels. I don the beanie and stroll down the dam’s, oops the lake’s edge which is littered with driftwood washed down during the flood earlier this year. Previous guests-cum-Tom Sawyer wannabes have half-crafted shelters out of the array of timber. One particular construction resembles a fish skeleton which is quite apt given the origin of what lies underfoot. The lines of rocks which run in vertical lines across the paddocks and into the water hold evidence of fish from 400 million years ago when this was part of a tropical ocean – and fish with armour on their heads, bodies and even their eyeballs ruled supreme. Fossils from this very spot take pride of place in the Natural History Museum in Britain.

Wedged up against the western escarpment that we’d explored earlier means the light disappears fast and soon the night’s first stars reflect on the millpond lake. I scamper back up to the homestead, pour a glass of red and curl up in front of an open fire and reflect on the last eight hours. I’ve travelled back in time 400 million years, journeyed to the centre of a mysterious crater, and sent my salami sandwich on a free fall down a ravine. It’s been one heck of a day.

Cooradigbee is much more than a tranquil haven from city life. It’s far more than a sheep station. It’s an adventurous escape in one of the prettiest little valleys I know. In my job I am fortunate to explore the far-flung parts of our region and bunk down in some of its most unique lodgings. As a result I am often asked where I would go if I wanted to ‘‘get away for a few days’’. Exploring and relaxing at Cooradigbee would be at the top of my list.

I just hope it’s not another 10 years before I return.


Cooradigbee Homestead: Caves Road, Wee Jasper (90 minutes scenic drive to the west of Canberra). From $220 per night per room or $1100 per night for exclusive use of the entire homestead which features five bedrooms (four with ensuites and the fifth with a knock-out marble bathroom). Includes use of the commercially fitted-out kitchen. Meals available on request. or or phone Ian and Helen Cathles on 6227 9634.

Cooradigbee Meteorite Crater Tour: Full day tours to the mystery crater. Price dependent on numbers and catering options (if you don’t want to pack you own sandwiches, the Cathles will make you a gourmet picnic).

Did You Know: Cooradigbee’s fruit-laden orange tree, pictured right, was planted by Governess Ashton in 1915, only to be burned to the ground in the 1939 fires. Miraculously the tree re-grew from root-stock and now bears thousands of oranges each year. A word of warning – don’t eat the fruit until November, I can testify that the oranges are currently more than a tad on the bitter side

This story It's a 'hole' lotta fun first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.