Our nation’s relatively lengthy isolation from the rest of the world has given it some pretty kooky flora and fauna, and a totally unique natural environment.
There’s a certain big rock in our red centre that captures a lot of attention, but Australia also has some famous water features, mostly renowned for being empty.
Lake Eyre in South Australia has bucked this trend of late. Floodwater from Queensland allowed it to reveal its full breathtaking beauty in 2011, and again this year, for the first time since the mid 1970s.
A lesser known body of non water is Lake George, situated about 40 kilometres from Canberra on the Federal Highway.
It has had a mysterious and tragic history since its European discovery in the 1820s. Its inexplicable water level, eerie beauty and contribution to local mythology make it one of Australia’s most remarkable natural features.
One of my last assignments as a staff photographer for The Canberra Times was to join forces with senior journalist John Thistleton to explore the lake’s past and present.
It has long been renowned for a water level that bears no correlation to current rainfall, leading to wild theories that it was somehow connected to another lake, perhaps in Peru.
There are also no shortage of ghost stories and tales of UFO sightings – which seem far fetched – until you find yourself stranded on the lake bed hundreds of metres from your vehicle (which you can no longer see) with nothing for company but a tripod and some nice pictures of a fast-fading sunset.
The ghost stories mostly stem from road tragedies that occurred along the old Federal Highway, which skirts the lake’s north-west shore.
What is now dual carriageway was once a windy stretch of single-lane road which claimed 21 lives in a six-year period. In 1989 and 1990 alone there were 56 accidents.
Many otherwise rational motorists have come forward with tales of an emotionless man staring blankly at passing vehicles – or a terrified little girl running along the roadside, dangerously close to the traffic, looking back over her shoulder screaming.
Before Canberra’s front garden was landscaped with the Burley Griffin water feature, Lake George was also one of the main recreational facilities for those in the nation’s capital.
It’s hard to believe now when you look out at the fence posts and animal carcasses littering the lake bed, but there were once two sailing clubs based on its shores.
The early European settlers believed they had reached the mythical inland sea when they came upon Lake George in the early 1800s, and it remained a huge expanse of water until at least the 1960s.
But it also had a reputation for treacherous and changeable conditions. Five cadets from Duntroon drowned in a tragic army training accident in those days and, in 1958, a whole family from Queanbeyan (including three small children) perished while returning from a picnic on the opposite shore.
White Australians weren’t the only ones to believe there was something fishy going on. The lake’s traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people, speak of a bunyip (a mythical creature which haunts swamps and billabongs) being responsible for mysterious happenings going back thousands of years.
During the 1990s the office of The Canberra Times was sent faxes, sometimes one a week, by a reader who insisted the lake masked a massive joint military operation between Australia and the US.
Underneath the lake bed, so the sender claimed, was an enormous Dr Evil-style lair from which the US was maintaining a secret military presence in the southern hemisphere. The regular communiques even included detailed sketches of silos containing nuclear warheads and how the lake could be manually drained.
I don’t know if the paper even followed up on this conspiracy theory (it would have been some scoop if it turned out to be true), but I can vouch for the fact there’s something not quite right about the place.
I spent many hours exploring the area while gathering a collection of images and there was more than one occasion where my imagination began to get the better of me.
One evening I discovered a remote access road to an old fishing shack on the lake’s northern edge which gave a rarely seen view of the eight-storey high wind turbines which now loom over the eastern shore.
It was dead calm, allowing the turbines to cast perfect shadows on the lake’s surface as they caught the golden sunset light.
My vantage point was probably one hundred metres from the shore (about half way up my gumboots), maybe one kilometre from the car and seemingly a world away from civilisation.
It was beautiful – but it was an eerie beauty. The vibrant bird life which has returned to the lake made the only noise I could hear, but once the sun had dipped over the horizon, the whole scene seemed to plunge into near darkness much quicker than usual.
I became suddenly panicked about getting back to the car, fumbled clumsily with outrageously expensive non-water proof camera equipment, and almost lost a battle with the mud for continued ownership of my overpriced Blundstone gumboots.
With more luck than good judgement I eventually found my vehicle and an hour later was back in the office, quite relieved I wasn’t spending the night with a thousand ducks, a wide variety of ghosts and an ancient bunyip.
It really is an odd place but this project, and others like it, are among the most satisfying to work on.
A thoroughly researched, well-written feature on a unique local topic is pretty much all newspapers have to hang on to in our changing media climate.
People know yesterday’s news before they read it in a morning paper – so why not focus on timeless features such as this which inform, entertain and actually give the newsgatherers some time and space to properly explore the subject matter.
Anyway, I’ll step down off my soap box now so you can read Thiso’s cracking yarn by clicking here.