Black Mountain

High atop Canberra’s Black Mountain within the treeline sits Telstra Tower, a futuristic-looking spire that looks like it was dropped straight from outer space. Opened in 1980 after almost a decade of bureaucratic wrangling, the tower serves as a national television and radio transmission hub, and also supports area telecom and interstate relay services. Attracting nearly half a million visitors per year, my husband and I have wanted to visit “the spaceship” since we arrived here nearly a year ago. Finally this month, on one of the coldest days of the year, we had a hearty brunch and then made the trek.

Telstra Corporation is Australia’s largest telecommunications company. It powers our mobile phones, and our home broadband internet. Some people complain about the service, but we’ve found it excellent overall, especially to what we had in Uzbekistan. Telstra’s namesake tower is a landmark and orientation point, standing at 640 feet (over 192 meters) tall and providing stunning panoramic views of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Between 1980 and 1993, the structure was actually called Telecom Tower, which probably explains why many locals just call it Black Mountain Tower since its rebranding. (Maybe it’s how I felt when corporations changed the names of the Oakland Coliseum and Candlestick Park!) The sci-fi otherworldliness of the tower, to me, contrasts somewhat mysteriously with the rural bushland it overlooks.

Photo Credit: The RiotACT

Particularly when it’s lit up at night, there can be something kind of eerie about it. I have been taken aback at times – through the window of an office, or while driving on ACT highways – to glance up and see the tower’s slim, metallic silhouette perched in the distance, sometimes shrouded in morning fog or clouds. An extraterrestrial lookout command station, a robot escaped from a video game and lying dormant, or perhaps just the reason my iPhone is working right now? Thanks Telstra!

Here is Telstra Tower looking benign and small in the distant morning sun, as I captured back in March during our hot air balloon ride:

Although I’m casting aspersions here, it’s all in jest. The tower’s 23rd century appearance is actually the main reason I find it appealing. It’s the same reason I wanted to visit the Seattle Space Needle and Tashkent’s own TV tower.

And for an eminently reasonable A$7.50 ($5.60 USD), you can buy a ticket to go up to the 360 degree indoor/outdoor viewing platforms. The tower doesn’t look as futuristic up close, but it’s still cool. It’s an easy drive up Black Mountain and there is plenty of parking.

In the tower, there is a small souvenir shop and cafe, and the ACT’s highest Aussie Post box.

Apparently there was a revolving restaurant which closed in February 2013 (it took 81 minutes to make a full 360 degree revolution), and the former telecommunications exhibit has also been removed.

I frankly think that’s kind of sad, given the potential draw of this place. Even though tourism to Canberra doesn’t rival tourism to cities like Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane, there are certainly plenty of locals and diplomats in the ACT who are quick to splash out for meals and drinks in trendy establishments. And every kid that grew up in Canberra went on a field trip to the tower. Hopefully some entrepreneur will try again.

Inside the observation deck, each window frames a captioned neighborhood or landmark that you can try to find; for example, Lake Tuggeranong or Australian National University. Our neighborhood is near the Royal Australian Mint, so that was our window. We could even see the hospital where I had my back surgery and the towers that top the pine crest ridge cradling our suburb.

Just missed his smile – looking south towards our neighborhood

If you visit the tower in winter as we did (July is the equivalent of January here in the Southern Hemisphere), be sure to bundle up.

My husband wore a coat and gloves, but didn’t make it on the outdoor platform long in the freezing wind. I only had a fleece on, but enjoyed myself out there a little longer, although in all honesty the high winds and the fence to literally keep people from blowing over the side hampered views a bit.

Even if you could care less about the spire’s operational heart, it is definitely worth a visit to this Canberra icon just for the panoramic countryside views. Although being in the tower felt (and is) high up, soaring over it a few months ago in a balloon puts things in perspective!

In the distance, Parliament House and the U.S. Embassy overlooking Lake Burley Griffin

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