• Personal Stories

The ladies of Lake Burley Griffin

Canberra import Katie Price shares her story of the ‘Ladies of the Lake’ – an unlikely group of swimmers enjoying the self-anointed ‘most mocked swim venue in Australia’.

By Lady of the Lake, Katie Price

Lake Burley Griffin (LBG): Most mock it as a swimming venue. And have no idea what they’re missing out on.

The challenge of the cold. The core workout from freshwater. The luminescence of blue green algae. The company beyond compare. The view.

Minutes from Parliament House you could be forgiven for thinking you were in an isolated bushland lake.

Apart from the ever-present Telstra Tower which will one day lure us like the Sirens across the lake with the easiest sighting marker ever.

I’m a very enthusiastic but not very talented ocean swimmer. When I moved to Canberra from Sydney in December 2019 people kept reminding me how far it was to the Coast. 2 hours 16 minutes door to door.

If you think I bought a property without checking how far the nearest shoreline was you’re out of your mind. Then they would jest about how if you really got desperate you could always swim in Lake Burley Griffin.

Then they the closed both highways to the coast on the very day I moved due to the Black Summer bushfires. Desperation became my middle name.

Through COVID we’ve all done things we never thought we could.

Mocked preppers with our last square of toilet paper. Learned to use Zoom. Found the mute button. Forgotten to turn it off. Cut our own hair. Regretted it. Learned to live 99% of our lives within the four walls of home.

Swum in Lake Burley Griffin because all the pools were closed. Found a swimming sisterhood like no other in the Ladies of the Lake.

Katie, far left, and the ladies of the lake

My swimming group and I joke that if we ever find Excalibur in amongst the weeds, algae, carp and oversized cod then an Australian Prime Minister and Opposition Leader might actually serve an entire term without being rolled for the first time since Beazley retired at the 2001 election.

But whilst we’ve yet to leave the lake with a sword cleaved from solid rock we do find our broken souls renewed.

Mel and Dory were the first to just keep swimming. They posted on the Facebook group “Did you swim today?” and Katie, despite having accidentally started a flame war about Fahrenheit vs Celsius, found them and brought along her colleague Trudie.

Then Bex and Laura came along. An Arch2Arc athlete, an English Channel team swimmer, an escapee from the Alcatraz psych ward, a kiwi and a keen ocean swimmer who was worried she’d need a wetsuit.

She needn’t have worried.

If you need a wetsuit to swim: wear one. If the choice is swim with a wetsuit or don’t swim then a wetsuit is a no-brainer.

Personally I hate the expensive, cumbersome things that get between me and the water.

About as safe as getting between a mother and their young. I’d much rather spend the time acclimatising as the water temperature drops through autumn and noting that spring is often the coldest season for swimming.

Equally, I will happily wear one if I’ve been sick or if a surf club is going to toss me like a sack of potatoes in and out of the rubber ducky rescue boats. Training exercises.

We found we could all comfortably swim for at least 20 minutes at 8 degrees without a wetsuit.

There are certain flow activities – where your brain is so present in the moment that it literally mutes your chattering monkey mind.

The best and worst part of any swim is initially diving in. That moment when you cease to be earth bound and attempt to become amphibious. Your body and mind align. Often in the gutter with a complete potty mouth.

When diving into freezing water or jumping out of a plane you are actually encouraged to swear. Swearing stops you from holding your breath.

People have been known to hold their breath whilst free falling or freezing to the point of losing consciousness. You forget everything except the water and your breath. You even forget about the algae, the monster cod, the weed and the way the weed wraps around you.

I’d still rate myself as a decent swimmer when it comes to acclimatising to cold water having had to adapt from Sydney winter (which often bottoms out at 16’c) to San Francisco summer (about 12-15’c).

Twain wasn’t kidding when he wrote the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. None of that prepares you for LBG.

Luckily at the same time a whole heap of friends were preparing to do an ice mile. So our endeavours looked positively normal.

I was used to hot showers, steam rooms and saunas. LBG is wild swimming at its finest.

The facilities consist of some grass upon which to spread your towels and some gravel/dirt pretending to be a beach.

You have to be able to strip off and warm up using towels, clothes and warm drinks. I briefly stood on sartorial standards and refused to wear ugg boots out of the house.

I now have a dedicated pair just for swimming. After over a year of swimming we only just found there was an amenities block with a toilet.

We don’t swim far, we don’t swim for long when it’s really cold. We chat, we laugh, we swear, we keep each other sane and we check for hypothermia.

There’s a sisterhood we have forged in the lake that no lady with a blade could ever split.

We’ve supported each other through health crises, surgeries, theses, work dramas, unemployment and dropped off food whilst sick or locked down and even provided electric blankets.

It’s something I’ve noticed across all of my ocean swimming groups. The water washes away artifice. Authenticity becomes us.

In the musical Keating! the smarting treasurer for whom the musical is named laments PM Bob Hawke failing to honour the power sharing Kirribilli agreement and sings a lament that captures LBG beautifully:

When all my best laid plans have gone astray
I head down to the shores of Burley Griffin;
and try to wash the pain away.
In winter time the water cuts you chilly
Walter dug it oh so deep…
In winter time the water cuts you chilly
And I swear I see a lady with a blade…
In winter time the water cuts you chilly
but it purifies my soul anew.

I can guarantee neither Paul nor Casey Bennetto who wrote Keating! have actually swum in Lake Burley Griffin or LBG if “chilly” is a sufficient descriptor for the cold of LBG in the Winter. I suspect it was deployed because it rhymed with Kirribilli.

But it absolutely purifies my soul anew.

Join the ‘Ladies of the Lake’ for a swim or learn more about them via their Facebook page here.

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 13 December 2021
  • (Updated on 4 August 2023)

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