Thursday, January 1, 2009

The lady of the lake

ENTERING Lake Bolac on December 4, I am struck by the relatively new sign saying: "Home of Aquatic Sports". Lake Bolac is empty. A week before this visit, at a national conference in Brisbane organised by the Red Cross, I heard an epidemiologist from the ANU, Professor Tony McMichael, say that just as the sort of weather conditions experienced in the Sahara desert have moved north into southern Spain, so too the climate that allowed crops to be grown in western Victoria is moving south and passing out to sea.

Other relatively new signs around Lake Bolac show where to back your boat into the lake. If McMichael is right, these signs are like Roman ruins in Britain a week or so after the Romans left.

You can tell the story of Lake Bolac several ways. You can talk about the Aboriginal clans who lived around the freshwater lake, which had a regular supply of short-finned eel. Lake Bolac, in the Western District north-east of Hamilton, is part of a cycle that takes the eels to and from the north Coral Sea. A giant stone eel is mapped out in a nearby paddock. At some stage, part of the stone eel was moved to make way for the road that is now the highway to Adelaide. One indigenous view is that this is when things started going wrong.

On March 28, Lake Bolac will have its fifth Eel Festival. The crowd will number about 1000. There will be a concert with black and white artists. There will be a "healing walk", which will follow the paths the coastal clans, the Gunditj Mara and Kirrae Wurrung, walked to attend the Aboriginal eel festivals.

Neil Murray, who wrote the Australian classic My Island Home, has written a song about the healing walk, Where My People Go. The walk was his idea. Murray is from Lake Bolac.

Una Allender, born Una McIntyre, is the secretary of the Eel Festival committee. McIntyre is an old Lake Bolac name. A cousin of hers was wife to one of the major figures in the history of the Victorian Liberal Party, Sir Henry Bolte. Una describes her family as true-blue Liberal. Attending Melbourne University in the late '60s — she completed a degree in agricultural science — she was exposed to "other ways of thinking".

The man she married, now a teacher at Timboon, was for a time an army officer.

She came back to Lake Bolac with her family when she was 27. She has three handsome sons, one of whom still lives on her property with her. Her living quarters are modest, and decorated mainly with works by female artist friends, but she has managed to keep together her father's original 400 hectares.

When asked the hardest work she's done, she replies with a grin: "Pulling a motorbike out of mud."

Una calls Lake Bolac "a semi-permanent wetland". Her family farmhouse, 15 kilometres west of Lake Bolac, once looked out onto a semi-permanent wetland of its own. Brolgas nested at one end; at the other a former midden and seven elderly redgums remain.

Una says their last wet year — the last time the wetland in front of her house filled — "was '83-'84". She has also planted thousands of trees. To spend time on Una's farm is to hear constant birdsong. She halted salinity in one of her paddocks by planting trees. She says she understands the Aboriginal idea of "belonging to a place".

Una is anxious for me to understand that the Eel Festival is not about her alone. The chairman of the festival committee, David Allen, is a local landowner. "David's role is very important," she says. He has been able to explain to other landowners what the Eel Festival is about, allaying fears and inviting their participation.

Una is also a member of H11 H12, a group that seeks to bring together all the parties with an interest in the rivers and waterways of the region. Over the years, she has been on most of Lake Bolac's committees, preparing afternoon tea for the cricket club, manning the canteen at the footy.

She's a member of the history society, a life member of the tennis club.

Having looked at her farm, we drive to Wickliffe, 11 kilometres from Lake Bolac, to look at the Hopkins River. Some of the healing walks have followed the Hopkins. From Lake Bolac, the eels swam down the Hopkins back to the sea. There are all sorts of stories and songs arising from that, but there is hardly any water in the part of the Hopkins we see.

Kirrae Wurrung woman Pat Clarke grew up at Framlingham eating eels taken from the Hopkins River. She has done parts of the healing walk and sung at the Eel Festival. I ask her how she sees Una Allender. After some thought, she replies: "As a down-to-earth person who does her best."

Finally, I visit the lake with Una. It has beautiful old redgums that, in her words, have no doubt seen the lake dry many times before. She tells me about the "first beach", the one up from the boat shed, where the swimming enclosure once was, and the "old beach" , a smaller beach that "is, or was, my favourite". That was just near "the point", the main tourist camping area and a favourite spot for local teenage parties and community picnics. The Ararat Highland Pipe Band played, there were foot races and "raspberry vinegar (cordial)" for the kids. There was even a Miss Lake Bolac competition. A woman who won the title in the 1950s still lives in the town.

Through Una, I get a ghostly picture of what the lake has been. Speedboat races were held here from the 1950s to 1970s, along with water-skiing. A ski jump was built by local enthusiasts. Sailing — and in later years, windsurfing — was popular and the annual Easter regatta attracted many entries. The old boat shed is now part of Lake Bolac College. Rowing, says Una, is another sport lost to the community.

Una's friend Margaret Wills can remember duck-diving to the bottom of the lake out in the middle and coming up with handfuls of sand. Now there is about a metre of silt. This has built as a result of the weir introduced to make the lake a permanent water source. Not only was the lake's natural cycle thereby disturbed, so was its ability to flush itself clean.

"I don't think anyone really truly believed the lake would actually dry up," Una says. "Even though there was plenty of evidence to suggest that it would. Personally, I always took the lake for granted — it was just there, and always had been." But she says that over the past few years, the plight of the lake "has occupied a good deal of my time and thoughts".

Una is in no doubt about climate change. "I've read enough maps and graphs. I've seen the continued failure of our spring rains. I've seen the increased incidence of severe weather."

Lake Bolac's hottest day on record (42.4 degrees) was in December 2007. Its coldest (minus 4.6) was in October 2006. It also had a tornado in 2006, one that left wheat silos lying about like crunched-up beer cans, and the mysterious phenomenon of thousands of eels appearing dead on the shores of the lake. "It's all been downhill for the lake since then," Una says, "and now the worst has happened."

THIS story began with me entering Lake Bolac on December 4. It is two weeks later that I go with Una to the lake. The dates matter, because in between it has rained. "We get more rain in summer now," says Una. "It's good for dams, but too late for the farmers' crops."

On my second visit, a layer of water, centimetres deep, covers perhaps one-eighth of the lake. Una says a dry lake has its own beauty, but that the sight of water, the glint of its silver light, is mentally refreshing. She admits that the sight of the dried-up lake can have a depressing effect, but says: "The people of Lake Bolac now have to look to the future for the township, with or without water in the lake."

Una and I drive to the freshwater Fiery Creek, which feeds into the lake. Because of the recent rains it is actually, ever so slightly, flowing. But when Una takes a mouthful, the water is salty. Following the creek to where it meets the water in the lake, we find half a dozen eels. All but one is dead. As we drive away, Una says: "The good news is that there is water back in the lake. The bad news is that when it evaporates, it will leave another layer of salt the lake is unable to flush out." She wants the weir to go so that such water that enters the lake can return to its natural cycle.

Una was "very disappointed" with the December decision of the Rudd Government to commit to reducing carbon emissions by only 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020. "As a new grandmother, I am even more concerned about the future of our environment and the need to pull out all stops to repair or ameliorate the damage as quickly and effectively as possible.

"I get very frustrated with the politicians and business people who cannot see the importance of this and are still worrying about the financial implications while accepting huge salaries and bonuses. The current financial mess has demonstrated how flawed their model is — it is time to try something else."

Martin Flanagan is a senior writer.

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