Lake George, splayed at the edge of the Federal Highway half an hour from Canberra, has long been the stuff of myth and legend. This eerie, atmospheric place that suddenly fills with water only to miraculously empty has spawned many tales—about bunyips, UFO sightings and ghostly apparitions—and sadly many deaths. And where the hell does all that water actually disappear to?
For decades I’ve witnessed this mercurial place transform from lapping lake to fields of green, seemingly overnight, and been fascinated by the stories that abound. So when local investigator, Tim the Yowie Man, was hosting an evening soiree at Lerida Estate winery to divulge some of the lake’s secrets, it seemed a no-brainer. I had to be there.
The mystery of the disappearing water
The history of the lake goes back millions of years, as the 250 metres of sediment and bedrock below attest, providing a boon for scientists. Originally the lake drained into the Yass River but seismic movement along a fault line caused a major lift in the land, cutting off inflow from river systems and forming what we know now as the Cullerin Block with the lake sitting at its base. That’s the big escarpment you drive along as you head to Sydney.
The term ‘lake’ seems a misnomer in this instance, given lakes usually contain water. Although now mostly seen as a large flat stretch of grazing land, in many periods including the 1980s and ’90s and even in 2016, water would lap at the edges of the highway before suddenly disappearing, as if by magic, sometimes retreating kilometres overnight.
These dramatic fluctuations have given rise to much conjecture, including theories that as the waters emptied out in Lake George they filled up somewhere else across the Tasman, or even in China, in some strange aquatic balancing act. Some proffered the idea of mysterious underground canals or tunnels, or possibly quicksand, to explain the disappearance act.
It’s perhaps somewhat disappointing to learn it’s not that complex and science has a simple explanation. The lake bed, stretching 25 by 10 kilometres, is large and very shallow and has no river inflows. This leads to a lot of quick evaporation. Simples! Basically more water goes up than comes down, not nearly so intriguing as the notion of secret channels and alternating lake levels in foreign lands.
And those sheep? They’re not as stupid as they look. They just move as the water levels change.
Capital, raceway or a place to swim?
Discovered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1820, Lake George was named for the then King of England, but there is evidence Aboriginal people were in the region 60,000 years beforehand. The Indigenous people called the lake Weereewa, meaning place of bad waters or a place of conflict. Perhaps an ominous name.
The lake area was one proposed to be the site of the new capital of Australia, with the lake waters to feed nearby agricultural lands. Only trouble was when the official party turned up to review the site, there wasn’t much water to be seen, putting to bed the idea of transforming the area into ‘the Venice of Australia’. At one time consideration was also given to making the lake into a speedway. In retrospect, it was a fortuitous decision to look for alternative locations for both.
Gazing across the flat green fields of the ‘lake’ dotted with sheep, it’s hard to imagine this place once held more water than Lake Burley Griffin and was the scene for many a family day out. In the 1960s it hosted swimming and boating events and sailing boats dotted the water. Even the odd paddle steamer found its way there. People would travel from near and wide to frolic in the waters, travelling from Sydney by train for the day. The regattas, however, could be fraught as westerly winds could postpone events and lead to many boats capsizing and rescues.
There was a time too when recreational and even commercial fishing was rife, but it’s hard to keep fish alive when the water keeps disappearing.
Tragedy on the lake
Sadly, the area has also been the site of many deaths, both on the lake and on the once treacherous stretch of undivided highway flanking it. When the lake is dry, it seems totally implausible this site could be the site of drowning deaths. Even impossible. But this part of the many strange lake stories is unfortunately true.
The lake’s shallow depths and calm appearance belie its dangers, and when full, the lake is prone to strong gusty winds which can change suddenly and whip up the icy waters into a frenzy. More than a dozen people have lost their lives through drowning or hyperthermia since 1949. Five of those occurred in one incident in 1956, when five cadets from the Royal Military College Duntroon drowned when their small boat capsized in the suddenly rough waters. It was days and in some cases months before their bodies were found when the water levels dropped. A few years later, a family day out on the lake turned to tragedy and a family from Queanbeyan drowned with only one person surviving, the priest who was with them, to tell the harrowing tale.
For art’s sake
Nowadays the waters are largely missing in action and it’s more common to spot an artwork than a sailing boat. Given the many moods and ever-changing landscapes of Lake George, and despite its sometimes dark history, it’s not surprising the lake has inspired a range of artistic endeavours. The site of the sporadic month-long Weereewa Festival started in 1999, the lake has drawn artists and musicians and many a dancer to float and frolic across its surface. A number of artworks was temporarily installed on the lake bed during one festival, and if you’re looking in the right place, you might stumble across a sunken house, one installation that stayed on.
Other art pieces have appeared over the years including a striking herd of zebras out on the plains. Popular as they were, unfortunately the two Canberra creators didn’t seek permission from the land lessee so the striped family was duly removed. Happily the zebras reappeared later that year at Floriade, with Baby George zebra in tow. Guess where he was conceived?
But wait, there’s more
But what of those reported UFO sightings, including a double sighting by a mother and daughter, and the phantom hitch hiker, a young girl, who seeks a ride on the highway? Is she the small girl who drowned on the lake decades ago? And what were those strange lights on the horizon and why did hundreds of fish suddenly die overnight? And when was the lake ‘monster’ last spotted?
If you’re keen to hear more, you can join Tim the Yowie Man on one of his regularly run events, or track down the thoroughly comprehensive Magnificent Lake George: The Biography— by recently-deceased Canberra local Graeme Barrow, which provides a detailed and fascinating history.
There was much to learn while sipping on lovely local wines, but even on an drizzly evening that coincided with a full moon and the summer solstice, there were no ghostly beings to be found lurking around the lake.
Perhaps I may have to go a little further south around Collector to find a ghost and meet some of their reported ‘locals’. That might have to be my next port of call.
A shortened version of this article first appeared on HerCanberra. See if you spot the differences.