Local Waters [63]

By Trevor Costa

It’s around eight in the morning as I push off from the small sandy beach. There is still some fog drifting around Black Mountain Peninsula and the slight easterly breeze has blown two hot air balloons across the lake towards the finger of land. Flames flash from the top of the gondolas, sending a hushing roar across the waters. Both balloons rise in an effort to clear the peninsula. One doesn’t make it and bumps and drags to a stop in a clearing. The other shoots skywards caught in a thermal from the mountain and is soon way out of reach of the needle spire of Black Mountain Tower.

I like this lake. I read somewhere recently that in this age of the sea change society, it takes courage to stop longing for the elsewhere and genuinely embrace and appreciate your local environment. For a sea kayaker who longs for the briny blue but who lives on the wrong side of the Great Divide, it takes some courage to embrace the local inland waterway. When that local waterway is Lake Burley Griffin, the stoutest of hearts may falter. But for me (and scores of other Canberran paddlers) the lake is the only realistic paddling option for recreation and training between trips to the coast. There is no blue water, surf, swell nor endless expanses. This is inland paddling alright and for the hardier sea salts among us this article may not be your cup of tea, so I suggest you go feed your parrot and polish that wooden leg. For all others, Lake Burley Griffin should not be underestimated as a destination for a day or night paddle and if you are heading for our nation’s capital be sure to bring your boat along.

The lake shares the name of the bloke who originally came up with the idea to build it, way back in 1912. But it wasn’t until 1964 (2004 was the 40th anniversary of its creation) that Lake Burley Griffin, as we know it, came into being with the damming of the Molonglo River. At 15kms long and with around 40kms of shoreline and more than a kilometre at its widest point, it’s big enough for recreational and training purposes and offers the paddler a variety of scenery and interesting places to ponder along its length. Seeing many of our national monuments and important buildings from the water, can put a new slant on things.

It’s still cool on this autumn morning and the muscles don’t warm until I have done a half orbit of Spinnaker and then Springbank Islands. Springbank is the larger of the islands. Named after the property that now lies at the bottom of the lake, it has a jetty and picnic facilities. Spinnaker is smaller and lacks any facilities but is still nice for a stop over. From Springbank Island you can head to the northern shore to paddle up Sullivans Creek and check out the grounds of the Australian National University, or head around Black Mountain Peninsula for a paddle past the Governor General’s modest shack and on to Scrivener Dam. But not today – I’m only just getting into a nice paddling rhythm as I spin off Sputnik-like into the West Basin.

If this was sunset I’d be weaving my way through the sailing fleet that makes the most of the evening breeze but on this morning there is only a pair of Dragon Boats making their way out from the yacht club. They are racing each other, chanting out the strokes while on the shore a pair of sleek outrigger OC6s sit waiting their turn, trying not to look out of place. The Dragon Boats race noisily by, paddles flashing, team t-shirts and hulls bobbing to the synchronised strokes, 1, 2, 3, 4.

The lake is home to a variety of water craft and a few prototypes of now well-known brands of sea kayak undertook their trials on this body of water. As you require a permit to use powered boats, the scarcity of such craft makes the lake an ideal and relatively safe destination for the paddler. It’s well suited to a spot of night paddling. With most buildings in the eastern basins well lit and offering a colourful and spectacular scene from the water, at night the lake presents yet another perspective to view the city. The western basins have no buildings to illuminate the waters and on moonless nights the headlights of cars trace the distant shorelines and fog can add an eerie dimension.

As I come round Acton Peninsula, a few fisherman are trying their luck near the National Museum. Popular and not so popular fish species call the lake home. Large carp are not hard to spot at any time as they often work the more popular tourist spots. They make a living by shadowing cuter wildlife, like the black swans, which are favoured by visitors, and by snatching the bread crumbs missed by the beaks at the surface. The lake is also stocked by shyer fish that enjoy a better public image, such as Murray Cod and trout. Police divers have told of being surprised in the line of duty, as they come face to face with monster cod on the dark bottom of the lake.

In the morning light, the National Museum itself is surprising enough. Love it or hate it (I love it) you can’t help but be impressed by the unique structure. Ahead is Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and to the left across another basin is a small shop by the lake’s edge that sells a mean hamburger and from where a colourful fleet of hired paddle boats, canoes and kayaks set sail on all but the worst days.

Seems oversized Murray Cod may not be the only monsters to ply these waters. There are stories of a resident monster in the waterways that date back as far as 1821, when there were the occasional sightings of an unusual creature that inhabited the sandbanks of the Molonglo River. There were several reports of a cow like creature with flippers that would slip back into the river when disturbed by the amazed humans. Now dubbed the “Burley Beast”, there are still the occasional reports of unexplainable disturbances on the lake’s surface that appear to be made by something submerged, travelling at speed and very large.

Not today. There is nothing but the breeze and my bow wave disturbing the water as I come under Commonwealth Avenue Bridge and into the Central Basin. On the left towards the northern shore and just off Regatta Point is the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, a fountain that can pump a spout of water up to 147 metres high. On a hot day the spray offers a pleasing opportunity to cool off. But today it looks just great from a distance.

On the southern shores, are the National Library and newly-renovated foreshores with the rows of plaques honouring the Australians of the Year and further on, the new structures that sweep out into the lake and act as the tourist ferry jetties and a place where people can get close to the water without getting wet. A squadron of colourful hot air balloons are scattered across the morning sky above this scene.

Reconciliation Place is here with its unconventional architecture. This structure is even more curious when viewed from the water and as you paddle past the gap in the wall you cross the nexus between Mount Ainslie and the Australian War Memorial on the northern shore, and old and new Parliament Houses on the southern shore. I can see the majestic flag pole of New Parliament House, and momentarily as I glide by, Old Parliament House nestled at its bigger brother’s base. The National Portrait Gallery is around here and The High Court of Australia and National Gallery of Australia dominate as I paddle around the next bend.

Cutting across the lake I’m startled to hear overhead the roar of flames. It’s the same balloon I saw a few kilometres back, the one that cleared Black Mountain Peninsula in the morning light. It’s descended low over the lake now and is being blown back towards the Peninsula and Black Mountain. The winds up high must be blowing in the opposite direction to the easterly breeze low over the lake allowing the balloon to do a type of circuit. I can see the people in the gondola pointing and waving and taking pictures. I try to act nonchalant concentrating on maintaining my paddle rhythm, while realising I’ve witnessed some fine balloon piloting.

Ahead is Aspen Island with Kings Avenue Bridge in the distance. I swing into the channel between Aspen and its smaller islands and stop for a snack and a drink at the base of the National Carillon. The 160 foot high Carillon tower was designed by a Western Australian architect firm and was officially opened by the Queen in 1970 as a gift from the British Government to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Nation’s Capital. The Carillon’s 55 bronze bells chime every quarter hour. During special occasions carillonists will beat out crisp chiming renditions from high in the tower. The small bay at the base of the structure offers a perfect amphitheatre to sit in your kayak and listen to such recitals and attempt to name that tune.

Nobody’s at home this early, so I paddle along the channel that separates Aspen from the shore, under the footbridge and back into the basin leaving a scattering of spooked ducks and coots in my wake. To the left is Kings Avenue Bridge and East Basin. If the wind is up it can get a little choppy on this corner from the rebound off the walls at the bridge footings. All just a bit of fun and at times a welcomed break from all that still water paddling. Although conditions on the lake are usually within the capabilities of an experienced sea kayaker, things can get rough during strong winds and small boat alerts are not uncommon. In such conditions the shallow basins, such as East Basin can produce a short lumpy chop which history has shown can be fatal for the ill prepared. As these unfortunate few demonstrate, the biggest danger to boaters on the lake would appear to be from capsize, resulting in hypothermia and/or drowning.

During winter, prolonged immersion in the freezing waters could certainly ruin your day, so a paddler should be adequately equipped with good, warm apparel and be armed with self-rescue or assisted rescue skills. But the colder months can also offer some of the best paddling with its colourful autumn or frosty wintry scenes (a light dusting of snow on the Brindabella Mountains often makes an exotic backdrop), clear water and endless expanses of sky. As the cold conditions seem to deter all but the most dedicated water lovers, you can often have the lake virtually to yourself.

There are many good places to launch on the lake and the prevailing wind direction usually dictates the choice of where to put in. It’s always nice to have a wind at your back on the return journey. If you are driving to the lake and are trying to figure the direction of the prevailing wind, the flag flying on new Parliament House offers the most ostentatious wind vane in the country. For those with sails, the lake can also offer some exhilarating tail wind rides back to the car.

In summer just on dusk, wind direction can change in a matter of minutes from a hot north westerly to a cooling and much appreciated easterly (known locally as the Bungendore Doctor) as the coastal winds finally find their way inland. I have yet to find a better way to see out a hot summer’s day in Canberra, than to be on the lake and greet the arrival of that coastal breeze. If you time it right it means a tail wind ride both ways.

At the far end of East Basin is the entrance to the Molonglo River and a kilometre or so upriver is Molonglo Reach. Under the Lake Burley Griffin Management Plan the various boating interests, sailing, rowing and canoeing, are recognised with the designation of principle use areas. Molonglo Reach has been set aside as a principal use area for canoe training and includes a purpose-built canoe/kayak launch area. This site can be accessed opposite Plant Road that leads out of Duntroon Military College and off Morsehead Road. This is home to the Lake Burley Griffin Canoe Club and where they undertake their time trials.

This stretch of river is favoured by birds with quite a range calling the river and lake home. The Jerrabomberra Wetlands in particular are a waterfowl haven and can be found at the southern end of East Basin. From the Molonglo Reach, the river east of the Dairy Flat Road Bridge leads into a designated ski boat area. From personal experience, paddlers are better off avoiding this stretch. It’s very much the case of not enough river and way too many ski boats.

I decide not to enter East Basin but head for home and to take advantage of the slight easterly breeze to chase the balloon back towards my launch site, maybe in time to see it shoot skywards again.

Inland or coastal, our local waters play an important part of keeping a paddler in the sport, a place to keep fit and to recreate. And as the recent plans to develop the foreshore at Bundeena demonstrate, it’s worth taking an interest in their future if we are to have a say in protecting their values. It’s all too easy for familiarity to dampen appreciation, especially while counting the paddle strokes until the next big trip and longing for the elsewhere.


Recreational boating on the lake is regulated under the Lakes Act 1976, which can be found on the web at: http://www.legislation.act.gov.au

The regulations for navigation and avoiding collision are not too dissimilar to NSW Boating Regulations. The regulations also form part of the Lake Burley Griffin Management Plan. The regulations for the Molonglo River are administered by the ACT Government through Environment ACT, but again are fairly consistent with NSW Boating Regulations.