It’s rumoured that before Princess Di visited Rotamah Island, in the central Gippsland Lakes, people were sent to vacuum up all the kangaroo poo. The princess’s outfit while visiting the island was a tartan dress with a delicate lace collar. She saw a wallaby and two emus. Those who were present during the mid-80s Royal visit, say that Princess Di had a noticeable moment of quiet awe – that she also felt the power the Lakes have over those who connect with them.
There will be no more vacuuming in this story (phew!), but there’ll be more remarkable women. The most outstanding lady of them all being the Gippsland Lakes herself; a magnificent creature with Ice Age beginnings, and bodies and limbs that stretch out and twist over 600 square kilometres.
Close your eyes, breath in the salty air and get ready for adventure…
Our summer here sounds like the seagulls in the midst of an ‘Ultimate Fighting’ bout over potato cakes and hollers of delight as kids jump off jetties. The coasts and waterways are dappled with such a vast number of clandestine beaches and islands, that you may never find the same one on your second visit.
The Gippsland Lakes are as wild, shimmering and mysterious as a cormorant, they woo you with the oversized cheek and charisma of a pelican and have the gentle elegance of a swan.
While crisscrossing the Lakes, from Wattle Point to the McMillian Straight, from Loch Sport to Lakes Entrance, I’ll be having a yarn with an artist, a sailor and a scientist. Inspiring folk whose workspaces is the Lakes. We’ll be learning how Lee Darroch, Sarah Foley and Dr. Kate Charlton-Robb are inspired by the Gippsland Lakes, and the secrets they can share about this special place.
It’s windy on the day I head to Raymond Island. The usual ferry is out for repairs and Ugly Betty, the replacement, is sluggish in the waves. The water changes shade as a zephyr gently ripples over. One moment is a thousand colours and it’s hard not to feel creative.
Lee Darroch and I sit and laugh about how wonderfully eccentric life on Raymond Island can be. We drink decaf coffee and listen to a party of rainbow lorikeets.
Lee’s artwork is showcased in the National Gallery of Australia and Victoria. The Gippsland Lakes are her muse. Lee’s installations, weavings and possum skin cloaks stitch together song, trade and river lines of the southeastern tribes. These are stories told through materials that come from the Gippsland Lakes and surrounds. Her people are the Boon Warrung, Yorta Yorta and Mutti Mutti, but she calls Raymond Island home.
“I walk every day and collect,” says Lee. “My art is from nature, from found objects, from skin, bone, wood, seaweed, sponges, shark eggs and shells. And driftwood, I have a big obsession with driftwood. I boat across to the Ninety Mile Beach to explore – heading out in our putt-putt to find interesting things all over.”
“My favourite part of the Lakes is right here, Gragin (Raymond Island). It is a sacred, spiritual place,” says Lee. “You have a contract with nature if you live here. What I love about the Lakes is that they are full of surprises; you have to continue to explore. It amazes me that I’m always finding something else; something new or a place I didn’t know existed. There are so many places still yet to be found.”
Next stop has a view over Duck Arm and the bustle of school camps on Banksia Peninsula. I’m gazing out where a sailboat with a solo sailor struggle upwind. It’s the only vessel out. Your mind feels open in a space like this. The Lakes stimulate moments for philosophy and wonder.
Sarah Foley is sitting at the end of a jetty on Banksia Peninsula, her bare feet swinging above the water. The jetty smells like bird shit and seaweed. We swat mosquitoes and sip on peppermint tea out of a battered thermos. The educator and mariner shares this corner of the Lake with budding young sea dogs curious to explore. “This is my favourite place on the Lakes,” says Sarah. “On the right night, there is phosphorescence here. We jump off this jetty after work and all around us the water is glowing. It’s like swimming in a galaxy. I look up and see stars, then look down and see them too.” Sarah is an educator and a sailor. She takes groups of children sailing in this corner of the Lakes.
“We often come and go through places without sitting, listening and observing,” says Sarah. “It’s during this time when realizing things are bigger than ourselves, that we have the freedom to be curious. The Lakes is a teacher; an expanse ready for adventure in any direction. The Lakes have a way of unlocking a space for people to create meaning. I’ve developed a strong relationship with the Gippsland Lakes over time, and like all good friendships, no matter how much time we spend apart, we simply pick up where we left off.”
You can still be an explorer on the Gippsland Lakes. There is wilderness. Like Pippi Longstocking or Daenerys Targaryen, you too can sail into adventure and discover something new. If you tread carefully, you just might glimpse the rare metallic sun orchid, growling grass frog or wandering albatross. It’s while I’m feeling at one with nature, that I kayak over to Paynesville.
I meet Dr. Kate Charlton-Robb on Fisherman’s Wharf. We walk and talk, and she tells me about her Gippsland Lakes discovery – the Burrunan dolphin. A species found only in the Gippsland Lakes and Port Phillip Bay. Kate, a marine biologist, discovered the Burrunan as being a separate species of dolphin and rediscovered their name. She now works tirelessly to educate people about marine mammals and how to protect them.
“Boats getting too close, increased boating traffic and changes in habitat are all pressures on the species,” says Kate, “The Burrunan dolphin are a threatened species, as only 50 are thought to exist in the Lakes and another 100 in Port Phillip Bay.”
“The Gippsland Lakes are certainly one of my favourite places on Earth. They are an amazing, ever-changing and diverse environment,” says Kate. “The fact that there are this unique species living here makes the Lakes even more special. When I’m out in the boat and a dolphin comes up next to me and looks me right in the eye, the connection I get, I can’t help but love the environment the Burrunan lives in and want to protect it.”
“I can’t name one favourite part of the lakes. There’s a sense of beauty across the whole lakes. Whether I’m in Reeves Chanel, Blonde Bay or out on Lake King. They’re all incredible.”
It’s evening at Sunset Cove. The water is golden, grape and flamingo. Families are flipping snags as they sizzle on the hot plate and the air is thick with that summer BBQ smell. As this part of the planet spins further away from the sun and the shadows get longer, I dive in and feel pretty freaking grateful.
Thank you to the Tatungalung tribe of the Gunaikurnai people, the traditional owners of the Gippsland Lakes and surrounding lands. And thank you to the women, past, present and future, that have called this inspiring location home, even briefly. It is a privilege to live on, and write about, this land.