How Australia Day turns to water on Lake Macquarie with a long paddle

LAKE ADVENTURE: Tom Cordingley, with the Australian flag on his kayak's rudder, joins the flotilla paddling the length of the lake from north to south. Pictures: Scott Bevan
LAKE ADVENTURE: Tom Cordingley, with the Australian flag on his kayak's rudder, joins the flotilla paddling the length of the lake from north to south. Pictures: Scott Bevan

As Australians know from that intriguing line in the national anthem, "our home is girt by sea".

More than just surrounding our country, water has shaped our history. And it has shaped us. Dorothea Mackellar may have written poetically about the "wide brown land", but it is the water that also defines us as Australians.

On January 26, 1788, water carried European ships into Port Jackson for the first time, when the fleet led by Arthur Phillip dropped anchor in Sydney Cove.

And so began the waves of arrivals by water to this great southern land, as people made their way from the Old World to the new, from old lives to new, from the end of the 18th century to well into the 20th, with the massive migration programs after World War Two. .

Long before the British arrived in 1788 with their cargo of convicts, the land's First Peoples had been using the water as a source of food and culture, as a means of getting places, and as an integral piece of their identity.

So as Australians, we're not just girt by sea; we owe our existence to it. In so many ways, we are water people.

Flags along the foreshore in Lake Macquarie. Picture: Scott Bevan

Flags along the foreshore in Lake Macquarie. Picture: Scott Bevan

It seems only fitting, then, that on Australia Day, I take to the water.

I'm joining a group of local kayakers who each Australia Day paddle the length of Lake Macquarie, from Speers Point to Chain Valley Bay. The journey is about 28.5 kilometres.

What has become a tradition among the "Sunday paddling group" began seven years ago. One of the original kayakers, Ron, explains the idea as, "You've got to do something different on Australia Day, and paddling the length of Lake Macquarie is something different!"

For this Australia Day paddle, 11 kayaks are participating. Which is historically appropriate, since there were 11 ships in the First Fleet. Unlike the First Fleet, this journey is not the start of some extraordinary social experiment; it's just a bit of fun - with a bit of muscle ache likely to be thrown in.

As one of the paddlers, Tom Cordingley, says of the event, "It's just to get out there and enjoy the day."

Preparing to paddle from the Speers Point boat ramp. Picture: Scott Bevan

Preparing to paddle from the Speers Point boat ramp. Picture: Scott Bevan

The day begins just after 7am, as we slide our kayaks into Cockle Creek at the Speers Point boat ramp.

Ron, who has paddled in every length-of-the lake event, says there has been some nasty weather in the past, with howling winds and torrential rain. Not this year. Mother Nature indulges us with clear skies and even a fresh wind from the north to help push us south.

We are paddling in the wake of those who have cherished this place for thousands of years. Many generations of the lake people, the Awabakal, criss-crossed this water in their canoes.

We slide along the western shoreline, with many homes displaying Australian flags, as are a few of the kayaks.

Caroline Hargreaves with her decorated kayak. Picture: Scott Bevan

Caroline Hargreaves with her decorated kayak. Picture: Scott Bevan

Caroline Hargreaves, who is doing her fifth length-of-the-lake paddle, has attached an "Aussie. Aussie. Aussie" flag on the bow, and it is brilliantly backlit by the morning sun.

"It's a challenge," she says of the paddle, but, "it's to celebrate how lucky we are that we can be out here.

"Every day is Australia Day to me."

REST AT WANGI: The kayaks lined up along the lake shore, which is filling with Australia Day revellers.

REST AT WANGI: The kayaks lined up along the lake shore, which is filling with Australia Day revellers.

The first stop is at Wangi Point Holiday Park, where picnickers and barbecue chefs have arrived early to claim prime shoreline real estate. A couple of the paddlers hop out here, to go ahead to Chain Valley Bay to organise our barbecue.

We paddle on, passing the half way mark near Wangi Point. We know this, because Ron yells out each kilometre reached, and how many kilometres to go.

As the day heats up, there are water pistol fights to help cool off. Tom Cordingley goes further, diving out of his kayak a few times.

Tom Cordingley cools off in the lake. Picture: Scott Bevan

Tom Cordingley cools off in the lake. Picture: Scott Bevan

Given there was a shark attack in the lake only four days earlier, I wonder if he is worried at all, as he floats on the surface. He's not.

"It's a hugely remote chance of it happening."

Ron notes the water traffic is less than expected, pointing out the run between Wangi and Pulbah Island on Australia Day is usually "worse than Hunter Street on a busy day."

However, the lake is still lashed into a washing machine for a time, as the wind picks up. Tom Cordingley makes the most of the conditions, becoming a sailing Mary Poppins. He opens an umbrella and is propelled by the breeze.

Tom Cordingley with his umbrella 'sail'. Picture: Scott Bevan

Tom Cordingley with his umbrella 'sail'. Picture: Scott Bevan

After a stop on the crowded shore of revellers at Sandy Beach, we kayak the final stretch to Chain Valley Bay.

I paddle with Keith Howard, a British-born retired paediatrician, who is wearing a hat with a stunning Indigenous design. The hat was a gift from members of the Kamilaroi people in Inverell.

Dr Howard says he has mixed feelings about Australia Day and wonders if its focus should change, so that instead of remembering a moment in history that causes pain for many, the day could instead be "a celebration of the end of summer and the restarting of the working year".

As he undertakes his second length-of-the-lake paddle, Dr Howard is grateful that unlike last time, he is not bashing into a head wind and waves for the final leg.

Keith Howard paddling in the length-of-the-lake challenge. Picture: Scott Bevan

Keith Howard paddling in the length-of-the-lake challenge. Picture: Scott Bevan

We arrive at Chain Valley Bay, to a waiting barbecue lunch and a beer (purely for pain relief) just before 2pm. Discounting our rest stops, we have been paddling for four hours and 55 minutes.

But this paddle is not about times or even distance. Indeed, it is not even about just Australia Day. This paddle is a celebration of what we have every day.

As Keith Howard says, "When you look at the beauty of the lake, at the beauty of this country, and the beauty of this day, what else do you need to celebrate?"

The paddling group arrives at Chain Valley Bay.

The paddling group arrives at Chain Valley Bay.