If one’s life can be blessed by location and circumstance alone, then I surely was.
Added to that my parents shared their own love of nature and animals, both domestic and wild, with me from the time I was born. This inevitably led to my spending a good portion of my formative years in and around Lake Wendouree observing and interacting with wild species, or walking our domestic dogs. We even had a shallow bottomed boat from which to fish for food, or observe wild life and plants beyond the shores!
The education I gained by Lake Wendouree was as rich and possibly more profound as any gained via formal avenues.
The impact of the environment and eco system of Lake Wendouree has left an indelible mark on my being. Originally the lake was a swamp. It remains home to a rich array of wild birds, as well as water rats, ring tail and brush tailed possums,long-necked tortoises, micro bats and smaller critters like leeches, mud eyes (great bait for fishing) and the dreaded nocturnal minuscule flying “lake insects” who flock to every available light source during warmer months, moving in swarms that permeate your nostrils and eyes as well as penetrating light fittings within a several kilometre radius, indoors as well as outside. Mosquitos predate on these little fellas, so serve some useful purpose. So too arrives the brief season of the emperor gum moths.
If the lake insects and mosquitos are not annoying enough there is also the dreaded black hairy stinging caterpillars that worm their way indoors, up walls and cling onto ceilings, only to drop down onto an unsuspecting human, leaving them with a red mark that swells, stings for hours and remains tender for days. These particular, critters, peculiar to the immediate vicinity of the lake itself, equally love dark floors and carpets, where they are happy to relax until a toddler crawls inadvertently onto them. Ouch!
The area around the shores of Lake Wendouree is considered prime real estate in Ballarat. Sure, you do get extraordinary and ever changing views, but a real marketing point should be how well your home is insulated, not just against Ballarat’s much maligned climatic extremes, but from those dreaded lake insects and stinging black caterpillars. Then there is the issue of fencing high enough to protect from the inconvenience and unsightliness of tumble weed, yet maintain those increasingly expensive views, given that dreaded tumble weed flourishes when the lake reverts to its swampy origins in times of drought. Perhaps climate change, or the universe itself, has a sense of humour?
That said the rich array of indigenous birds that favour its habitat as their home, either permanently, or on migratory or occasional visits, seek out this designated sanctuary. They provide a mecca drawing bird watchers from around the world. An added bonus is that these birds have lived at such close quarters with humans here for thousands of years; most are near to semi domesticated. They will usually oblige for photographs or close study. Nowhere else do I know a place where you can observe such an abundance of multiple species nesting or raising their young, at such close proximity, that are so tame, you may well easily reach out and touch them.
I was introduced to birding by day and nocturnal animal spotting from infancy. I watched mesmerised as the black swans undertook their courtship rituals, involving mirroring each other’s movements, then constructing their nest in the reeds and finally the joy of watching young cygnets emerge and in turn grow into stunningly graceful black swans. I realised fairly early on, that in winter’s depths the blue coots, purple swamp hens and dusky moor hens leave the chill of the water to graze and forage for food on the shores, favouring young kangaroo grass shoots. I watched in awe as the musk ducks dived and swam metres under water in pursuit of a succulent mudeye or yabbie, before surfacing for air, and their solitary lifestyle in comparison to other more social birds. I discovered the different behaviours of duck species, from the tree roosting and nesting wood ducks, to those that nested in the reeds and stayed closer to the safety of the water, like the black ducks and rarer blue billed ducks and chestnut teals. My heart beat faster, as I realised I was amongst the first to witness the re-emergence of our beloved water rat, a species believed to be lost to the drought and exotic predators. Amazing what can survive in the most adverse of circumstances, only to re-emerge and enrich our world afresh!
More recently I witnessed many species return in numbers to Lake Wendouree, as a result of the much bemoaned reduced amount of water during the drought. This is owed to sensitive habitat development and rehabilitation by Ballarat City Council and Landcare groups, along with advice and participation of the Wauthorong community, to increase swampland breeding areas and finally the return of the water body when the drought broke with avengeance. Some birds, like the sacred ibis, roost permanently in vast numbers, others like the even rarer black tailed native hen arriving on their migrations. Even more exciting is witnessing tiny rare species of rails and crakes, return to raise their young around the shores, but you have to be really keen to notice them, so tiny and well camouflaged they are. Unlike the other birds the rails and crakes are shy and wary of humans and other likely predators. More obvious is the occasional visit, by a squadon of pelicans, landing with clumsy precision after an enviable display of formation flying!
Then there are the grebes, invariably entertaining and exquisite. I adore the crested grebe and fill with joy when a new clutch of eggs emerges, the chicks following their mother around for just a few short weeks, before being abandoned to their own devices. Sometimes a goshawk will venture down from the air current, hoping to swoop on an easy meal. Yes, even with death, comes a reminder of the interdependence and connectedness of all living things on this planet.
I know the spot where the night heron will emerge at dusk, his eerie call a vivid memory of my childhood. I have seen tawny frogmouths and owls hunting at night and at rest in the trees by day. Yes, mine has been a privilleged existence!
Funny, how so many people view the lake as a “natural environment” within the city of Ballarat. It is far from it. Oh those complaints, when, during the prolonged drought the lake dried up completely during summer, as if it were attempting to remind us what this environment, full of seasonal complexity and variation held, prior to colonisation and the redirecting of run off to create a seemingly permanent if incredibly shallow body of water.
Then there are the huge numbers of exotic trees that stand where once river red gums, zanthoreas, banksias, heaths, eggs and bacon, blue devils, strawflowers, billy buttons, sundews, native orchids and other species once flourished. Kangaroo grass remains underfoot and considerable effort has been made to restore stands of bull rushes in recent times. With that, blue wrens, fan tails and honey eaters are returning in increasing numbers!
I think of the rich food sources that once flourished here and were enjoyed by the local Wauthorung tribe.
Whilst Lake Wendouree remains beautiful, it is very much a changed and constructed environment. Yet there are yabbies and redfin to be eaten, fruits, roots, and seeds to be harvested along with rushes to weave baskets, or tie up your plants with, all within the newly constructed swamp habitat adjacent to Lindisfarne Crescent and on the lake's southern shore.
Gazing across the lake towards Mt Bunninyong (from the Wauthorong Bunninyawang) and Warrenheip (Warrungiep) it is possible to almost transcend time, to a dreaming place of permanency and abundance. I have never felt quite at home, removed too far from the gentle watch of those ancient volcanoes. The lava that once flowed from them to create the environment that I grew up in, stains the blood red in my veins, puts the fire into my belly and fills my spirit with golden dreams for a future that sustains us all, on a daily basis.
How ironic that Lake Wendouree takes its name from the Wauthorong word that means “go away”!
Still, Lake Wendouree remains a place of abundance, renewal and community interactions and building. New rituals and cultural gatherings like the Begonia Festival, rock concerts, fireworks annually on the 26th of January, are now performed on its shores and trade continues in a new form with a fortnightly farmer's market, food vendors and even local trade shows. Perhaps Lake Wendouree is a place as close as we might ever get to lead us into an era of genuine reconciliation and cross-cultural awareness and understanding?
It is a spiritual home of Ballarat's citizens that defines who we are, way beyond the process of colonisation and the impact of the wealth of the gold rushes, that moulded us for several generations, a mere blink in the eye of history. Our swampy heritage, that is Lake Wendouree defines and shapes our future, as much as it did our past.
I continue to regard Lake Wendouree as an extension of my own garden and an essential element of “home”!