11 August 2023

How Lake Bathurst tours swamped a couple’s retirement

| John Thistleton
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Two men standing.

Former Mulwaree Shire councillor John Reynolds with author and historian Colin Dennett, who is handing over a 30-year collection of history from Lake Bathurst to Goulburn Mulwaree Library. Photo: John Thistleton.

Lake George has captivated people with its shimmering mysteries, but neighbouring Lake Bathurst has just as many, as a Canberra couple contemplating retirement discovered.

After a public service career, raising two children and opening a bakery in Canberra, Colin and Jan Dennett thought Lake Bathurst village looked like a peaceful place to take it easy.

Semi-retired in 1994, the couple turned neglected lavender gardens and an old church hall into tea rooms at the village, 30 km south of Goulburn. But trading in the first 12 months proved so slow, on Saturdays Colin would sit in the sun reading The Sydney Morning Herald.

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In the broadsheet’s classified advertisements, he noted numbers of clearing sales for mostly engineering businesses that had been trading for decades. “I could see we were losing all this enterprise and knowledge that was going,” he said. “It was clearly because people were transferring all their manufacturing to China.”

Colin had worked for the Trade Practices Commission for nine years, giving him insight and connections into businesses. He realised once they were gone, they would be forgotten. He felt a similar fate awaited Lake Bathurst, as people came into the tea rooms inquiring about local history or sharing their families’ stories.

From that point on he began hanging on to any history that came his way and produced leaflets for his visitors. In time, coach companies inquired about tours of the area which Colin and Jan agreed to host. Their semi-retirement plan quickly became full-time as their catering, tours and tourist venture took off and occupied them for the next 20 years.

Tourists came from all parts of Australia and much of their interest centred on the actual lake which is about twice the depth of Lake George. Even during the 1990s during the drought when the lake disappeared the history was enough to keep people engaged.

Historic crowd of people

Spectators at a waterskiing meet in 1955 at Lake Bathurst, showing how popular lake events were at that time. Photo: Colin Dennett collection.

“It was a bit of an embarrassment to take people out there and I couldn’t show them all the water,” Colin said. All he could do was point from a boat ramp to a puddle in the distance.

At other times so much water filled the lake it loomed up like an inland sea. A long-time resident, Brian Boyd said there were actually three lakes, Lake Morass, Lake Bundong and Lake Bathurst, and in times of high rainfall one would overflow into the other. As the lakes filled, they created an island full of rabbits which infested the district at that time.

“The lake had a story – a fascinating story,” Colin said. A small railway branch line took people out there in time for regattas on Lake Bathurst as early as 1885. Waterskiing behind speedboats became popular in the lake during the 1950s. At one particular water meet wind had whipped up high, treacherous waves and people became fearful for three lost boys. Fortunately, they were eventually found sheltering on “Rabbit Island”.

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The Dennetts’ tours took in the Woodlawn Bioreactor when it opened in 2004 and visitors became even more curious about secret fuel dumps.

In 2006 Colin bought the World War II fuel dumps which had been built under the hills of Lake Bathurst while war was raging in the Pacific. The Department of Defence was preparing to store thousands of litres of fuel there in case the Japanese forces cut Australia’s fuel supplies.

“I feel that was the aspect of history that I was able to do most with personally, the one I feel most strongly about,” he said before revealing he is now contemplating selling the property. “It won’t leave our hands until we find the right buyer because I believe it is the sort of property that should be a community-owned property. I have been a custodian of it all that time, I don’t want it destroyed.”

Historic photo of boats on lake shore.

Lake Bathurst with plenty of water and speedboat owners and their families. Photo: Colin Dennett collection.

The author of four history books is handing over photographs, documents and leaflets he collected or produced over 30 years to Goulburn Mulwaree Council which will add them to its online collection.

At the peak of their tours a visiting tour leader who had travelled the world said Lake Bathurst was the pick of them. Colin said it may not have been as polished as overseas tours, but it was an authentic Australian experience.

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