On a quiet backwater of Lake George, a herd of inquisitive black angus heifers gather around a sleek white hovercraft.
While a hovercraft wouldn't be an unusual site in the Florida everglades or even in wetlands of Kakadu, it's one of the last things you'd expect to see on farm land just 50 kilometres to the north of Canberra. However, according to Mike Nell "near record rains which have left paddocks partly submerged and swollen creeks filling Lake George, a hovercraft is the easiest way to get around."
Nell is owner of Goulburn-based Viper Hovercraft, one of only a handful of manufacturers of the James Bond-esque vessels in Australia. While the main market for his futuristic fan-forced fun machines are cashed-up coastal types after the ultimate big boy's toy, Nell also argues they are ideal for farmers to access stock and vital supplies during floods.
"You can access so many more areas in a hovercraft than a boat," explains Nell as he powers up his 65 horse power amphibious beast, and sending fresh cow pats flying my way zooms across a waterlogged paddock to deliver hay to stranded cattle. He is back in less than three minutes for another load. "It would take a farmer an hour to drive around the same flooded creek, assuming his vehicle didn't end up buried up to the axles in mud," claims Nell.
Due to their unique ability to negotiate a range of challenging terrain, Nell, who is already exporting his hand-crafted machines to flood rescue authorities in Taiwan, believes that emergency services in Australia like the State Emergency Service (SES) could also benefit from the addition of hovercraft to their fleet of watercraft, "especially in flood prone areas like southern Queensland, northern Victoria and the southern tablelands of NSW".
While hovercraft may be a practical way of getting around during significant rain events, "once the flood waters recede, apart from Lake Burrinjuck near Yass, there are a lack of potential hovercraft-friendly locations in our region," laments Nell.
That is, as I point out to Nell, except for mercurial Lake George, now at its highest levels in almost two decades and still rising. In the midst of the millennium drought, about five years ago a Lake George winemaker joked to me that if the lake ever filled again, he "might start a hovercraft tour taking tourists to the far side of the lake and then back to the winery for lunch". Sure, it was pie in the sky stuff back then with the lake was a dust bowl, but now as its enigmatic waters continue to rise, maybe it's not such a far-fetched idea after all.
While Nell "isn't interested in operating tours on the lake", he does agree "it would be a great place to explore by hovercraft." He does, however, warn that "any operator using the lake in such a way would likely be met with significant opposition from conservations groups."
"People are scared about what they don't know," he explains, adding "as a hovercraft flies above the ground it actually leaves little impact on the water and vegetation."
However, if the number of people who queued up for selfies when Nell parked his eye-catching craft outside the Bushranger Hotel in Collector earlier this week is anything to go by, a hovercraft may not even need to get it's skirt wet to be a tourist attraction. "It's not every day you see one in these parts, especially outside the pub," exclaimed one local cocky worried he'd had "one too many," while snapping photos on his smartphone.
Should hovercraft tours of Lake George ever get off the ground (no pun intended) it wouldn't be the most unusual mode of transport used to explore, when full, the largest inland freshwater lake in NSW. Since the late 1800s pioneers, adventurers, and daredevils have travelled on, around, and above the lake in all manner of ways, from push bikes to paragliders. Here are my top 5.
1. Paddle steamers: Before Lake Burley Griffin was created in the 1960s, when full, Lake George provided the best opportunity for local water sport enthusiasts. It was especially a hive of activity in the 1870s, when more than 20 passenger vessels cruised the lake, including two steamboats Victoria May and Lady of the Lake. At least one paddle steamer, the Pioneer, also plied its waters in the 1880s.
2. Strange sailboats: In his definitive tome Magnificent: Lake George The Biography (Dagraja Press, 2012), Canberra author Graeme Barrow reports "between taking weather recordings, William Glover, the 'Meteorological Observer' stationed at the lake, in the late 1800s hand crafted a 19 foot cedar yacht fitted with a centreboard, jib and mainsail". Subsequently, several yacht clubs have called the lake home, including the Canberra Sailing Club (during 1950s) and due to prevailing winds (those wind turbines on the eastern side of the lake are there for a reason), it is also an attraction for thrill-seeking windsurfers.
3. The trawlermen: In 1850, Collector grazier Terence Murray stocked the lake with Murray cod. By 1870, there was so much fish that a trawler worked the lake, commercially netting the fish. Unfortunately, soon after the trawler arrived, the lake did one of its famous disappearing acts and the fish subsequently died due to lack of water.
4. Record-seekers: When dried-out in the 1930s, Lake George was the location of an unsuccessful attempt at breaking the land speed record by motorcyclist Wizard Smith. According to local folklore, the daredevil borrowed a 13 tonne roller from a road contractor working on the Federal Highway to roll-out a long stretch on the middle of the lake to test his vehicle. However, heavy rains followed and the lake filled-up, forcing Wizard to abandon his record attempt.
5. Wacky watercraft: It recent years several modern-day Huckleberry Finns have attempted to tame the lake in a ranger of "vessels" including hollowed-out pumpkins left over from the Collector pumpkin festival (really!), inflatable toys (don't attempt this now the water levels have increased) and even a 50-year-old bath tub. "The bathtub may now be submerged," laments Collector honey Tsar Gary Poile, adding "perhaps we need a hovercraft to search for it!"
Viper Hovercraft: Check-out videos of hovercraft in action, including international roving rev-head Jeremy Clarkson taking a green-coloured model for a spin in an indoor Sydney arena: www.viperhovercraft.com.au
Warning: Boating conditions on Lake George can change quickly and be very dangerous. Much of the lake is privately leased from the NSW Government should only be accessed with appropriate permissions.
Did You Know? The world's first hovercraft championships were held on Lake Burley Griffin in 1964.
Following this column's exclusive exposé on historic 'Old Graham' (Bush Secrets, 12 September 2015), many readers requested an opportunity to visit the private garden and sculpture paddock, located between Boorowa and Cowra. Good things come to those who wait - country garden and bush art lovers, put these dates in your diary.
What: Open Garden at 'Old Graham'.
When: Saturday October 29 and Sunday October 30, 2016, 10am-4.30pm
Cost: $7 per person.
Where: 3021 Frogmore Road, Hovells Creek, NSW. A two-hour country drive through undulating lush green farmland punctuated by bright yellow canola fields. From Boorowa, take the Crookwell Road towards Wyangala Dam. After 14km turn left at Gunnary Creek onto Frogmore Road and after a further 30km Old Graham will appear on the left hand side of the road, just after a large woolshed.
Expect: A delightful, minimum care, drought‐hardy and fire resistant country garden developed by owners Liz and John Baker around an historic stone Cobb & Co inn and a 10 hectare paddock featuring over 75 large-scale sculptures.
Highlights: David Austin roses, iris walk, pond and bog garden, rustic arbour paved with convict bricks, slab hut, antique Sydney sandstone folly and stone bridge.
Don't Miss: Last year the Baker's were awarded this column's coveted gong for the most impressive labyrinth in the region. At the time this column published photographs of the 21-metre stone labyrinth, based a medieval turf labyrinth located in north Lincolnshire, taken from atop a ladder. In a quest for an even better appreciation of the scale of the labyrinth, the Bakers recently photographed it from a drone. Impressive.
Perfect Picnic: Spread your picnic blanket in the green sculpture paddock or tuck into one of the morning/afternoon teas catered by Frogmore Community Hall.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: Bombs away!
Degree of difficulty: It's so hard, you deserve an extra clue: near a Canberra pool.
Last week: Congratulations to James Graham, of Hughes, who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as Guthega Dam which captures the headwaters of the Snowy River at about 1600 metres sea level. Graham beat a torrent of correct readers to the prize, including Mark Phillips, of Deakin, and Max Rowe, of Hawker, who worked for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority from 1958 until the end of 1968, first in head office and then in public relations. "In those days we worked up to a month without a day off and we were on call during the night," recalls Graham, adding "I will never forget the snow, the mud and the ice and the blistering heat at Tumut and Khancoban."
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday October 22, 2016 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.