What Lies Beneath and Above Lake Boga

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Mar 07, 2017

The fortunes of this Victorian Mallee town have long been tied up in its lake. Sue Williams discovers its secrets and meets the locals who wouldn’t live anywhere else.

It was the worst of times but, somehow, the best of times, too. The tiny town of Lake Boga in the Victorian Mallee near Swan Hill – three-and-a-half-hours’ drive from Melbourne – had been brought almost to its knees. The global financial crisis had hit local farmers hard, the drought seemed never-ending and finally the unthinkable happened – the lovely lake at the centre of the 700-strong settlement dried up for the first time in more than 100 years.

Where once there had been a beautiful expanse of blue, there was now a cracked, dusty plain littered with detritus and noxious weeds, smothering the area in a stink of dying carp and clouds of midges rising up from the lake bed. People even started to talk about quitting the town that had been founded in 1838, if only they could sell their homes at rock-bottom, knockdown prices.

“No-one wanted to live here,” says Lake Boga bed-and-breakfast host Tricia Pollard of that time back in 2008. “There were a lot of depressed people around and a lot of apathy, too.” 

Jamie Hooper, a chef turned gourmet food producer, agrees. “Some people thought the water would never come back,” he says. “And the smell of the dead fish and all those gnats swarming the house... It was terrible.”

But the locals were made of stern stuff. They’d pulled together before, during World War II, when their lake became the site of a top-secret flying-boat repair depot used for Catalinas and other aircraft from across Australia and the world. As more than 1000 technicians and intelligence officers were drafted into the area and a miniature city sprang up, everyone kept resolutely silent to enable it to play its critical role in the Allied war effort. By war’s end, the base had clocked more than 1050 arrivals and departures of flying boats and serviced 416 aircraft.

“You couldn’t even tell your family elsewhere about it,” says Daryl Allen, manager of the Lake Boga Flying Boat Museum set up on the shores of the lake. “Even if you worked in the underground intelligence bunker, you weren’t allowed to go into any other department but your own. It was kept a tight secret.”

Drawing on the community’s ability to rally together when the chips were down, in 2008 Tricia suggested that they set to work to turn the negative into a positive. People loved to see South Australia’s Lake Eyre with its waters at historically low levels so why not similarly try to transform the dry Lake Boga into a major attraction?

Locals turned out in force to clear the lake bed of rubbish – including thousands of golf balls, fishing rods, 6000 rounds of ammunition left from wartime and two live grenades – then a Dry Lake Bed Dinner was announced for April 4, 2009. No-one was certain how it would go.

They shouldn’t have worried; it was a triumph. More than 2000 people arrived from all over Australia and overseas to eat at tables decorated with white cloths and candelabras and dance to bands, as well as take part in a 3.2-kilometre walk across the lake bed and watch a fireworks display as a grand finale. The event captured national attention and won awards Australia-wide.

“It’s a great example of how you can have a bad thing happen and you turn it into a nice thing,” says 64-year-old Tricia, who, with husband Bruce, a former sheep farmer, runs Burrabliss Bed and Breakfast. “That’s what we do in small towns. Afterwards, we had a lot of other towns call us to ask how we did it. The community really pulled together and we got back on the map again.” 

Overnight, the mood of the town changed and the good news kept coming. With the lake dry, the Rudd government gave Lake Boga a sizeable grant under the economic stimulus package. That helped the Lions Club build its new flying-boat museum, housing a restored 16-tonne, 31-metre wingspan Catalina – one of only 17 left in the world and almost four metres wider than the planes in the QantasLink fleet – along with all its wartime memorabilia, photos and machinery.

“From bad luck came good luck!” laughs Daryl Allen, 58. “That got us the money we needed for the reconstruction. Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think the museum would end up like this, with 20,000 visitors a year now. 

That museum has gained an international reputation. Lake Boga was chosen as a base because it was so far inland that Japanese bombers couldn’t carry enough fuel from their island bases in the Pacific to reach it. It also had a rail line nearby and the lake was pretty much round so flying boats, which came from as far afield as the United States and the Netherlands, could land on the water from any direction. Little wonder it’s a historical treasure-trove and from March 17 to 19, an air show, water displays, a theatre dinner and party will mark the depot’s 75th anniversary.

The dry lake even brought Australian waterski champion Megan Smith back to buy the town’s pub from her mum; she’s the fourth generation to run the Lake Boga Commercial Hotel. And, of course, when the lake filled back up – with a Back to Boga festival held in 2010 to mark the occasion – everyone was eager to make the most of the water.

Megan, 46, learned to waterski on that lake, winning her first trophy at the age of 10 and a series of Australian championships throughout the 2000s. “There’s so much to do on the water here now for families and kids,” she says. “You can swim, fish, hire kayaks or canoes, waterski, sail, jetski, go wakeboarding, sit on the beach, walk the tracks around the lake... It’s a very family-friendly area and it is a great community. I grew up here but I travelled a lot. Yet there’s no place I’d rather be.”

The area is also a favourite for birdwatchers, with 68 species identified, and the shady Turtle Lagoon complex provides more lovely walks. Sunsets over the water can be stunning, while clear night skies make it a top location for stargazing. The Lake Boga Observatory and Planetarium has no fewer than four powerful telescopes to scan the heavens.

“I moved here 10 years ago because it has very dark skies and no light pollution. The proximity to the lake helps visibility, too,” says owner John Fowler, 86, who runs a presentation for visitors about the solar system as well as exhibiting his stunning glass artworks at the venue.

Along with its new tourist-centre status, Lake Boga has housing developments attracting more permanent residents. Land blocks that were sold for $17,000 during the dry days are now advertised for close to $200,000.

Another major asset is the town’s local store, which sells everything from groceries, homemade cakes and coffee to books, jewellery and local crafts. Former teacher Janine Spry took it over two-and-a-half years ago and has turned it into a community hub: there’s even a garden out the back for locals to grow vegetables and participate in art workshops.

“I’ve been here 37 years but we sold our farm in Boga when the drought started then decided we needed to be in business again,” says Janine, 60. “It’s such a nice little community here and the CWA, in particular, has been very supportive.” 

She stocks as much locally grown produce as she can. Some is from hydroponic strawberry and raspberry grower Jeff Sibley, 54. “The climate here is perfect for soft fruit, with hot, dry summers and springs that fluctuate between the wet and heat,” he says. “But I love it here, too. Last night, the sunset on the lake was unbelievable. The sky was red and the water was glowing gold. We’ve got really good people here and everyone works well together. There are third- and fourth-generation families, as well as new people moving in.”

One of those fourth-generation residents is Nathan Free, who now runs the stone-fruit and vegetable farm his great-grandparents began. Nine years ago, he turned it into an organic operation then in 2015 travelled the world for five months on a prestigious Nuffield farming scholarship to pick up tips from others, including the Amish Mennonites in Illinois, US, who are leaders in more effective composting. 

“The priority was to establish good soil health and good biodiversity,” says Nathan, 28, of Alkira Organics, which supplies Woolworths and other supermarkets as well as fine food stores. “We can produce food organically and still feed the large populations that we expect in the future for a reasonable price that the consumer can afford.”

Jamie Hooper is looking forward to the town becoming a good-food hub. He uses as much local produce as he can in his Jamie’s Fine Dressings range, which includes flavours such as Red Wine & Herb Vinaigrette, Moroccan Spice and Balsamic Chilli & Honey. Jamie, 55, grew up in the Mallee country, cooked in Melbourne and Swan Hill and now lives on the shores of Lake Boga.

“We all love that lake; it’s just beautiful,” he says. “And the dinner we had when the lake was dry really boosted morale and lifted everyone’s spirits. When they said the water was coming back, everyone was really excited. Why would you want to live anywhere else?” 

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