A site to behold, but not for us

A site to behold, but not for us

Mystical Lake George, once upon a time one of Canberra's rivals as the chosen spot for the federal capital city, is sporting some water again after for quite some time spent looking like a vast paddock, like an AFL oval for matches between teams of giants. ''All our hopes are up and being fulfilled … there's a sheet of beautiful blue and silvery water,'' Helen Bayes rejoiced one day last week from the Silver Wattle Quaker Centre beside Lake George.

''There's water as far as we can see north and as far as we can see south. We're on an east-facing point and have a view of about 280 degrees and it all looks so peaceful and clean and full of life.''

Sheep graze on a dry  Lake George near Canberra as dawn breaks.

Sheep graze on a dry Lake George near Canberra as dawn breaks.

Photo: Mike Bowers

Of course as a journalist, every fibre of my fibrous being revolts against the spoiling of a story with any facts but, alas, it's sometimes unavoidable. We all love the stories of how Lake George's ''mysterious'' fillings and emptyings are controlled by a team of pixies that's always playfully emptying and filling other lakes (often in China or Tierra del Fuego or New Zealand) to either empty Lake George or fill it. Alas, the true explanations of the lake's fluctuations are all to do with plain truths about rain and evaporation. Water gurgles into the lake (from a small catchment area) when there's lots of rain but then, because the lake is so shallow, those waters evaporate in dry times. It's not that pixies have pulled out the magic plug and the waters have trickled away to China.

The Quaker Centre is close to the escarpment, part of the catchment area, and Bayes reported that during the deluge there were ''wonderful waterfalls and rushing creeks all along the scarp and the sound was quite marvellous''.

"An ideal Federal City" by Charles Coulter.

"An ideal Federal City" by Charles Coulter.

Photo: National Library of Australia

Yes, Lake George was actively championed by some as the ideal federal capital bailiwick. Senators inspected it, via an excited Bungendore, in 1902. But the site's most enthusiastic champion was a Mr A. Evans, who sang the site's praises in 1901 in a paper presented at a federal capital city congress (of engineers, architects, landscape architects and other worthies) at Melbourne in 1901. To illustrate this hymn of praise, Charles Coulter painted for him for display at the congress a literally fabulous impression of what the perfect federal capital city at Lake George would look like. The National Library has the priceless treasure of Coulter's painting. It is a surreal and amusing thing, imagining an ornate and pompous city that's an orgy of domes, steeples and pillars and of intimidatingly gigantic public buildings.

Evans must have been bewitched by Lake George by a visit when it was spectacularly full. At the congress, he rhapsodised that ''water is health-giving and pleasure-giving and is the most important factor in affording a grand perspective to a noble city [and] it is the object of this paper to show that Lake George will afford the loveliest waterside site the heart of man can desire''.

Evans's vision of the city that might arise there, realised by Coulter in the painting, has some almost hallucinogenic qualities. ''On the sloping hillsides and down to the water's edge are the palatial buildings of state and learning, while dotted among the foliage appears the villas of the residents and the spires of churches and public buildings.''

Those of you who have never known the lake to be brimmingly, beautifully full and who have only ever known it as a paddock (sometimes of dry and golden grass and sometimes of plump grass of a pleasing Raiders' lime) and a tiger snake sanctuary will hardly recognise the lake from Evans's hagiographic description of it to the congress.He sang that the lake's waters ''abound with Murray Cod and other fish'' and that the whole brilliant bailiwick was so perfectly situated for a great capital city that ''it would be an easy matter to run a railway on to Kiandra and so open up the Switzerland of Australia to afford the citizens of the Commonwealth all the pleasures of the Swiss Alps.

As our centenary looms, it's character-building for Canberrans to know that the choice of the Canberra site didn't just happen. This idyllic place, Canberra, was in a ''battle of the sites'' and one of the places we somehow outbattled was mystical Lake George and its scenic shores with the promise that was offered of an improved Venice.

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