Only last week I received an unsolicited tweet proclaiming ‘more reasons to dislike Australia Day’ with an accompanying photograph of a Coles Express sales display featuring garish celebratory plastic car flags and bumper stickers.
It seems the nation is dividing into two chief and distinct Australia Day tribes — those who like it brash, boozy, loud, and who litter the countryside more than ever before. And then there are those who find beauty and moments of reflection amid this strange-bronzed landmass that offers a surprising amount of subtlety and generosity, if you know where to look.
Over the 2012 Australia Day weekend I experienced both at Lake Tooliorook — situated near the western Victorian townships of Lismore and Derrinallum — where my kayak was stolen and my sister caught her first rainbow trout. The Lake is not, on face value, ‘picture pretty’ like the watery scenes you see on calendars and postcards at Australia Post shops, but it does have its charms.
There is an excellent camping and picnic reserve that also features a boat ramp and jetties. In the background stands Mount Elephant, which is the remarkable remnant of a volcanic cone that dominates the surrounding landscape. From various angles the mount’s shape does resemble a massive elephant profile lumped on top of the surrounding plains.
There are many natural crater lakes throughout the Western District, but Tooliorook is man-made, when landowners and local communities met and decided it was a good idea to transform what seemed useless flood-prone farmland and associated swamp areas into watery respites.
Subsequently, landholders and locals and their guests and the occasional visitor began to enjoy the recreational pursuits of shooting, fishing, water-skiing, swimming, or just visiting and sitting in a car while ‘watching the water’. Like many similar picnic areas, Tooliorook is managed and maintained by a volunteer committee and numerous helpers, a typical and magnificent Australian story. Hence, a visit to Tooliorook (like similar facilities) offers a personal and friendly touch.
Except on Australia Day, as I darkly discovered, when the holiday weekend sees an invasion of tribal types preferring to advance the loud message that concepts of ‘trust’ and ‘civility’ belong to another era. The turnout consisted of supersonic jet skis and speedboats and all sorts of gizmos and toys accompanying campers, who set themselves for all-night binges featuring the random tossing of empty beer cans and cig butts into the night sky.
I had not calculated for this phenomenon. On the days before the holiday weekend, I was visiting my sister and her family property, which has frontage on a section of the lake. I was there mostly to kayak and fish. Taking my kayak on tours of NSW and Victorian waterways has become dear to me. Having recently adopted fishing as an additional recreational activity, I have come to relish paddling my trusty companion on many different rivers, lakes, and coastal estuaries. I’d also discovered among fellow boat and fishing people a powerful feeling of trust and camaraderie. If, at any time, there was strife, a helping hand was nearby.
The days leading up to Australia Day had not gone so well. I had car troubles, it was hot —excruciatingly hot — and I was not getting a bite. On the eve of the holiday, I invited my sister to fish from the bank, while I trolled nearby. It was her first time fishing. I’d tried for days with no luck and within a few minutes, and one cast, she landed a magnificent 1.2 kg rainbow trout. Call it beginner’s luck, the sort that drives an aficionado nuts, whether fishing or at the races. Nevertheless, her catching the fish was thrilling. I left my kayak upturned that night on the bank of the private property, determined to start the routine again with sis early again on Australia Day.
The kayak was only visible and accessible from a boat, and the heist must have occurred between midnight and dawn. It would have somehow involved transporting (or towing) an awkward 4.5m object coloured a vivid lime green at least two kilometres over water to the only boat ramp, and then whisking it through the camping area undetected.
Nowadays, it is a fact of life that those reassuring police stations that you drive past in country towns throughout Australia, presumably offering a sense of security and trust, are no longer open for business on weekends — especially Australia Day weekends — when most of the shenanigans take place. Local constabulary has been outsourced and centralised and mostly delivered via a combination of automated and Internet "services". As I discovered, there is no point ringing the local station until Monday morning, when the local copper is back on duty.
Other than sulk, there was not much I could do. Sis had caught her first fish on Australia Day; and in the presence of family, we ate it that night. It was delicious. I composed a new anthem titled: Advance Australia Fish. And yes, I upgraded my kayak.
Ted Hopkins is a writer, Carlton premiership player, and founder of Champion Data. His latest enterprise is www.tedsport.com.au . His book, The Stats Revolution, is available from slatterymedia.com.au