The Suburban Wilderness

How losing your way in a nature reserve can fuel the paranoia and imagination of your teenage self.

Lysterfield Lake as seen from the dam wall on a cloudy day (S Lamaire, 2015)

In the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne there lies a great big lake and roughly 1,400 hectares of suburban wilderness: Lysterfield Lake Park. It was here that my friends and I found out how ridiculously easy it was to become lost on an excursion to a nature reserve.

It’s a late morning in early May 2013 and we are on our last high school excursion to Lysterfield Lake Park. It’s educational of course, vital for our end-of-year grades and so, of the fifteen or so people in our Geography class, about nine bother to show up.

On the bus I sit and watch the south-east suburbia of Melbourne give way to open fields and rolling hills, to little vineyards and orchards. It feels like we’re heading way out into the country, the kind of place you’d have to drive hours to get to instead of taking a 20-minute trip down the road.

Lysterfield Lake Park was once a reservoir, but over time the area had turned into a recreational reserve. Yet it still remains home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. It’s a haven for horseback riding, mountain biking and boating. It’s perfect for picnicking, long leisurely walks and a whole bunch of other stuff to help get you back to nature. Even though we had learnt about Lysterfield in class, when I step off the bus and onto the pavement of the parking lot, it still feels like a foreign place.

As a class we walk by the park’s only café and down towards the sandy shoreline of the lake. Soon we’re surrounded by different groups of people. Four men with bicycles in puffy raincoats and tight shorts are riding in single file up one of the bike tracks. Two women with neon pink jumpers are jogging their way along the path above the dam. Bunches of primary school children are chattering around little wooden tables in the picnic area.

For the sake of the project, and probably for the purpose of not getting lost, we split into groups of three. My friends, let’s call them Dee and Clarke, complete our terrific trio. Dee is our navigator; Clarke, our photographer; and myself, the data collector. The groups disperse, all of us going off in different directions. Dee, Clarke and I walk along the shoreline, snapping pictures of the water birds, of the trees and of ourselves.

It is meant to be autumn but Melbourne is having one of its whacky weather days: torrential rains one minute, blue skies the next. I can’t tell you if the air was heavy or crisp, if the wind was strong or not there at all, or if we knew things wouldn’t go quite as well as we had planned them that day.

The rainbow at Lysterfield Lake Park (S Lamaire, 2013)

Soon it begins to rain and Dee is the only one who had the good sense to bring along an umbrella. The three of us try to squeeze under it, waiting for the deluge to pass. It lasts all of fifty seconds and in front of us appears a stunning rainbow. We can see the end of it touching the other side of the lake, a wonderful spectrum of colour against the grey skies and murky waters. We take it as a good sign, snapping some more photos before we head off towards the Lake Track.

Now might be a good time to tell you that Lysterfield Lake Park boasts a whole bunch of interconnected tracks and trails: walking tracks, mountain bike trails, even a horse riding track runs along the outer borders. The Lake Track is a walking track that loops around the lake. It goes for about eight kilometres and even has a shortcut for those who can’t manage the whole circuit.

The track starts off quite narrow and we have to walk in single file. The gravel, damp from the morning rain, makes a squelching sound beneath our shoes. We dodge over waiting puddles and angle away from the wet undergrowth that spills over onto the path. Around us are the tall frames of eucalyptus, all of their branches dripping with rainwater.

‘Oi! Come look at this!’ Clarke calls out from ahead. He has found a beaten path sloping down towards the lake and is venturing off to follow it.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ Dee and I call. But soon the three of us find ourselves weaving through the trees, stepping on and over rocks, and before long finding solid timber in place of the soil. We are standing on a small pier. Thick layers of moss decorated with bird droppings cover almost every part of its surface. There’s a railing on one side but not on the other so we have to watch our step. The pier leads a little way out into the lake, stopping short of some tall reeds. Clarke snaps a few shots for the project and no doubt a few for himself. We stay for some selfies and head back to the Lake Track, finding it easily thanks to a jogger bobbing past.

After a while the track opens up, wide enough to fit a car. We don’t feel enclosed anymore. That is until the track breaks into two, one path continuing on straight and the other heading left. There is only one sign and it reads ‘Lake Track’. Awfully helpful. It’s like a Scooby Doo dilemma: which way should we go gang? We know the Lake Track loops around but is this where it begins to turn? Or was this turn a different track altogether that might take us deeper into the reserve? There is a unanimous decision to keep heading straight. As it turns out, the turn is the shortcut and we would still be on the Lake Track no matter which way we went. We have obliviously taken the long way around.

‘Our muscles begin to ache and our backpacks begin to feel like bricks.’

We know about the controlled burnings that happen here, but the little forest of blackened, dead trees surrounding us looks spooky in the grey daylight. I collect some data and Clarke takes more pictures. The track soon begins to rise and fall while twisting and curving this way and that. Our muscles begin to ache and our backpacks begin to feel like bricks. We have been walking for over an hour now and I can’t even tell if we’ve started to circle back yet.

‘Does anyone feel lost?’ I ask while we curve around another corner.

‘It really shouldn’t be taking us this long but we’ll be fine. The track is supposed to loop back around to where we started.’ says our navigator, Dee.

‘What if the bus buggers off without us?’ says Clarke.

The question brings on a startling moment of sheer panic. What if the bus leaves without us? The moment passes when Dee says, ‘They can’t leave without us. Our school’s too poor to deal with a lawsuit.’ We laugh and the thought is pushed away but our pace picks up all the same.

Twenty minutes later Dee suddenly stops. ‘Do you guys see that?’ She is pointing off into the trees on our left. I try to follow her stare but find nothing.

‘What the hell is that?’ says Clarke.

‘What?’ I say. ‘What is it?’

Dee directs my eyes to the base of a particular gum tree standing in a dark area of the thicket. There is a shape, animalistic and menacing, that I can just make out in the gloom. It stays stock-still and seems to stare back at us.

‘It’s either a big fox or funny-shaped tree stump,’ jokes Clarke.

I try to distinguish the face of a fox or the bark of a tree but the shape doesn’t become any clearer. It’s too dark.

Dee’s voice rises an octave or two. ‘Let’s just go, please. Quickly.’

I linger for a moment, watching the unmoving shape until I decide that it really is just a tree stump.

After another half hour we begin catching glimpses of the lake through breaks in the trees. We walk by joggers, cyclists and even other groups. The feelings of dread and isolation are quickly evaporating. Finally we come to the end of the Lake Track and our bags, our muscles and our minds feel just a little bit lighter.

Lysterfield Lake as seen from the dam wall on a much sunnier day (S Lamaire, 2015)

Retrospectively, I don’t think we ever really felt like we were going to be wandering around the suburban wilderness forever. After all, the bus wouldn’t leave until everyone was back on board, the dark shape was (probably) just a tree stump, and we made it back to civilisation alive and well.

‘But the world isn’t such a scary place when you’re in the company of friends.’

Clarke is now somewhere in South Australia learning how to fly giant metal birds, but Dee still lives here in Melbourne. We’ve been back to Lysterfield Lake Park a few times since the excursion. We go to get back to nature, to get away from the stresses of university and to walk the tracks and trails and still get a little lost. But the world isn’t such a scary place when you’re in the company of friends.