The Monster of Loch Burley Griffin

Via Facebook, Travis Longmore and Visit Canberra combined set me the very Canberra challenge of:

LLLLLOOOONNNNGGGG Exposures + a Chilly Canberra Morning + Clouds

Long Exposure over LBGIceWeather

Tim stared absent-mindedly at the computer screen, waiting patiently for his photos to upload. He didn’t realise how far his mind had drifted, until the voice of the waitress made him jump with surprise.

‘Your coffee?’ she said.

‘Umm, thanks,’ he replied, trying to regain his composure.

He cupped the warm cup in his hands and tried to regain hours of lost heat. Only minutes earlier he had been perched on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin, on what had proven a particularly chilly Canberra morning. As he had stood on the lake’s edge, finally deciding where to position his tripod, he had wondered if these early mornings were worth the freezing conditions. He had done one of his longest exposures ever, in the hope of capturing the majestic view. It had taken him some time, as it always did, to find that perfect shot in the dark and then fumble with his gear in the low light conditions. He had tried to keep warm by dancing back and forth while not knocking the tripod – he had wasted a few wonderful shots  in the past with such clumsy behaviour.

Standing there in the cold, crisp morning, his breath permanently creating steam in front of his mouth and his hands beginning to ache despite his gloves, he had wondered if it was time to switch to sunset photography? At least then he could sip beer while waiting for the shot to finish.

But the lake had been particularly breathtaking, and he was desperate to see the results. At last his computer finished transferring the shots and he started to browse through them. There were some real stunners. The orange glow of the rising sun peering through the clouds on the ice-like stillness of the lake water was beautiful, and the framing of the tree in the foreground satisfied his strict ‘rule of thirds’ requirements. As he cycled through the shots, he started to narrow down his favourites for posting on his site and other social media.

He paused on one shot that he thought to be his favourite, and was about to move to the next, when something caught his eye.

There was a large black shape in the distant waters of the lake. It was blurred, which suggested it had been moving during the long exposure, which ruled out a buoy or other fixed object.

He stared at the shot for several minutes, trying to make out what it was, and to confirm he wasn’t imagining things. He recalled that he had taken a few shorter exposure shots just before leaving. He cycled to the end of the photos, searching as he did for the elusive object. They were significantly darker because of the shorter exposures, and it took much longer to scan the photos. He tried to look at each detail as closely as he could, but each photo seemed to reveal an empty body of water.

Until the last one; there, in the dark, murky water was the unmistakable shape.

It looked like the head of an animal.

He was startled again by the waitress tapping him on the arm.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just wondering if I can take your cup and get you another coffee?’

Tim sat back in his chair, embarrassed that again the waitress had caught him off guard. He was half way through shaking his head for another coffee when a thought occurred to him.

‘Sorry, do you mind taking a look at this picture for me?’

The waitress looked at him sceptically.

‘What sort of picture? Because we had this guy in last week who wanted to show me pictures of his…’

Tim cut her off.

‘No, nothing like that; these are pictures of Lake Burley Griffin.  I can’t make out this shape in the water. What do you think it is?’

The girl bent over and peered at the screen.

‘Wow, that’s a funky looking animal.  Looks like the head of a crocodile, but with a duck’s bill and tusks. The way it’s holding itself, looks like it has a neck and it holds itself upright. Pretty cool! Is that supposed to be the Monster of Lake Burley Griffin? Nice photoshopping, you nearly had me there. I thought that was real.

The girl paused before continuing.

‘You might want to lose the tusks though; they are a bit over the top.’

Tim opened his mouth to respond, but the girl had already walked away.

She had described exactly what he had seen as well. He stared at the image again, trying to determine whether some trick of light was making a tree trunk sticking out of the lake appear like the head of an animal.

But if it was a tree trunk, why had it come and gone during the time period of his photos?

He switched over to his internet browser and started searching for Lake Burley Griffin and creatures.

In only a short time he had come across the writings of Australian National University Professor Michael Salmon, who was an apparent expert on Aboriginal and later European stories of strange Australian creatures. He had written about sightings of unknown beasts throughout Australia, including in the ACT.

He looked at his watch. He was supposed to be progressing his new freelance business today, having resigned from his position at the US Embassy last week. Did chasing a wild goose (or whatever this creature was) count as developing his business?

Taking a photo of some new and strange animal would surely help exposure? Perhaps he should just post the image now and see what reaction he received?

Then again, the reaction on social media would echo that of the waitress: “nice bit of photoshopping”. That would be the worst kind of public relations for a new freelance photographer; someone who doctored their images to create fictional creatures.

No, there was only one thing for it. He should first determine whether anyone could explain, or validate what he had seen.

And this Professor Salmon seemed to be the one to ask. His profile on the ANU website suggested his office was in the Noel Butlin Archives Centre’.

He punched the details into Google Maps on his phone. From Remedy to the Noel Butlin Archives was apparently only 10 minutes drive back up Parkes Way. In fact, the Archives seemed to be on Parkes Way. He grabbed his bag and moments later was driving south along the freeway, following the directions on his phone. Bizarrely, as he entered the distinctive orange-lit hue of the Parkes Way tunnel, the program suggested he had ‘arrived at his destination’. Surely this Professor couldn’t work in a tunnel encompassing six lanes of traffic?

Confused, he exited on to Clunies Ross Street and turned up towards the Black Mountain entrance to the ANU. He drove on to the campus, and using the redirection suggestions of Google Maps, parked his car at the end of Garran Road close to the ANU Big Dish. The elusive Noel Butlin Archives Centre and its Professor Salmon was somewhere in front of him.

As he walked along Sullivans Creek, he was surprised by the picturesque nature of the campus. He noted several photo opportunities as he walked, encompassing both the pretty creek and the mature trees and academic buildings surrounding it.

Following the directions on his phone, he walked onto a road which ended in a concrete wall with a series of large garage doors that were thankfully open. He realised he was now above Parkes Way, and was apparently entering a series of rooms built into the top of the road tunnel.

As he entered through the garage door, he discovered himself inside a large open room that had been converted in to some sort of archives space. Rows and rows of bookshelves filled the room. What a strange place for a professor to be based. Had he come to the wrong building?

‘Hello?’ he called out.

A middle-aged woman with greying brown hair popped her head around one of the shelves, three rows down from where he was standing.

‘Oh, you gave me a shock,’ she said indignantly. ‘We don’t get many visitors here. Can I help you with something?’

‘I’m looking for Professor Salmon?’ Tim said.

‘Oh. That’s even more unusual; someone looking for Professor Salmon. You’ll find him at the end of row 25.’

Apparently Tim was in the correct place.  He discovered numbers on the ends of the shelves and made his way to number 25. He found the corridor between shelves was slightly larger here. He walked down the aisle and his eyes adjusted to the darkening light, he realised at the end of the row was a small desk, lit by a lamp. A small figure was hunched over the desk, his back to Tim.

‘Hello?’ he called.

The figure jumped in surprise, and turned to face Tim. The man was wearing a bow tie and white shirt, although over this he wore what appeared to be a purple dressing gown. He was balding, but had grown what was left of hair long, and it flowed down the back of his shirt and under the collar of his gown. As he stood up to greet Tim, he discovered he was wearing stripy blue pyjama pants.

The man seemed to be some sort of perverse combination of the many actors who featured in the Doctor Who television series of his youth.

‘Professor Salmon?’ Tim asked hesitantly.

‘That’s me lad,’ the man said smiling. Tim estimated he was in his mid-fifties, now that he could see his face more clearly.

‘I wanted to talk to you about…’ Tim paused for a moment. What was it that he wanting to talk to him about?

‘My writings?’ the Professor offered.

‘Yes,’ Tim said nodding.

‘Come, have a seat,’ the Professor said, offering Tim was appeared to be a patch of floor. Tim instead walked over to the desk and leant awkwardly against it.

‘What is this place?’

‘Noel Butlin Archives Centre,’ Salmon replied. ‘The University uses it to store business and labour records from Australian business. I like it because it is nearly the closest place on campus to where the last sighting of “Burley” was.’

‘”Burley”?’

‘That’s what I call the mysterious creature of the Lake. I assume that’s why you’re here.’

‘Yeah, about that,’ Tim replied. ‘I think I may have photographed… something.’

The Professor’s eyes lit up.

‘A picture of Burley! Wonderful, my boy. Show me. Show me!’

Tim pulled his laptop out of his bag and showed the photos to Professor Salmon.

‘Wonderful my boy. That might just be him… or her, we really don’t know.’

Tim looked at this mad Professor sceptically.

‘What are we looking at?’

‘Ahhh, well now, that’s the question isn’t it.’

For a moment, Tim thought the Professor wasn’t going to answer his question. He ran a hand thought his thick grey hair before finally speaking.

‘The closest description I could give you is the “Bunyip”. There is some considerable Aboriginal and European history to that supposedly mythical creature. The word Bunyip likely originates from the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia. However, the sort of creature you may have found here has been part of many Aboriginal people’s beliefs throughout Australia, albeit with different names. Writers like Holden have identified at least nine descriptions across Aboriginal Australia. During the 1800s, Europeans started describing this thing also. There is something to this myth, my boy.’

‘You think it’s real?’

The Professor paused before continuing.

‘Perhaps, and if so, it is likely not very nice,’ his voice falling to whisper. ‘The word bunyip is usually translated by Aboriginal Australians today as “devil” or “evil spirit”. There have been sightings in this very lake of terrifying creatures. That’s what brought me here from up north. Fourteen years ago, there were a number of sightings of the ”Burley Beast”, including one by Emma Hodge and her mother Mary who were walking their dog, Remul, around the lake early one morning.

‘Well before that though, Europeans had reported sightings as well. Hume reported finding large bones in 1818 at Lake Bathurst. Note the water references boy, they are a constant theme of the “bunyip”. In 1830, fossilised bones were found in Welling Caves. In 1845, the Geelong Advertiser wrote of a wonderful new animal based again on the discovery of strange fossils.

‘All these sightings have eery similarities. A strange animal found near water, resembling a strange combination of bird and reptile, with a long bill. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Australian Museum displayed a strange skull found on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. The Murrumbidgee lad… so, not far from here.’

Tim waited to confirm the Professor had completed his spiel. His words had the tone of a prepared speech, and Tim had the feeling the man had told the same story many times before.

‘Thanks. So what should I do with this?’ Tim asked, pointing to the photo.

The Professor’s eyes grew wild and he stared intently at Tim, moving his face very close to his.

‘Nothing. Nothing at all. The bunyip has made many a sane man crazy. It has a habit of driving humans to obsessive quests. I wonder if that’s part of the evil the Aboriginal people refer to. That somehow the creature knows how to tease us with the briefest of sightings, driving us to search more and more for proof of its existence. Don’t fall into that trap, my boy.’

Geez, thought Tim, this guy should take his own advice.

‘You don’t want it?’ Tim asked.

‘No,’ the professor said dismissively, moving his face away from Tim’s. ‘I am trying to…. re-establish my academic credentials. I need to let go of Burley.’

Some of his earlier cheer seemed to have returned, but Tim still found the man disconcerting.

‘Okay, umm… thanks for the advice. I might be off now.’

The Professor turned back to his desk.

‘Good luck,’ he called over his shoulder as Tim picked up his bag.

As Tim walked away, the Professor called to him one last time.

‘Umm… Tim. You might email me those photos. Just for my records. You have my details.’

‘Sure,’ Tim replied, wondering if he really should for the sake of the man’s sanity.

Tim checked his watch as he left and realised the day’s light was gone. He had wasted an entire day speaking to the Professor. There was no time to shoot anything else, so he decided to head home. He stopped off at the grocery store on his way, and for the first time, found his eyes drifting to the statue of Alexander Bunyip as he drove past the Gungahlin library. Could the strange creature be real?

That night, he dreamt again and again of the photographs, and the strange blurry animal they depicted. He worked up at five o’clock in a cold sweat, and as if in a trance, made his way involuntarily once again to the lake. He stood on the same spot, scanning the water as he waited for his long and short exposure photographs to take, wondering what they would depict. When he could see nothing on the Lake in real time, he scanned the photographs on his tiny camera screen, before transferring them to his laptop. There, perched on the thin sand of the lake foreshore, he crouched over his computer, darting his eyes from the screen to the lake, searching both for the mysterious creature.

He repeated this ritual over and over again for many hours.

Before he realised it, it was mid-afternoon, and he had not eaten all day. All he had to show for his new freelance business was a memory card full of the same photograph. He tore himself away, convincing himself he would find nothing in the noisy late afternoon.

But that only satisfied his obsessive mind for a short period, for the next morning he found himself there again searching for the strange creature.

It was a pattern he would repeat every morning for the next week.

It was only when his rent fell due and he realised that he had earned nothing from his first fortnight of freelance work that the full impact of his new obsession sunk in. As he woke up again early one morning, he promised himself this would the last time he would attempt to see “Burley”.

He walked briskly towards the lake foreshore, on yet another chilly Canberra morning, to prepare for his last long exposure. He began setting up his tripod, when he heard a twig break behind him.

He turned to find an elderly Aboriginal woman, with flowing grey hair, watching him from behind a nearby tree.

‘You looking for the creature?’ she asked in a whisper.

Tim nodded, moving towards her.

‘Yes! Have you seen it?’ he asked pleadingly.

She took two steps towards him, but stopped suddenly, as though afraid. Tim wasn’t sure if it was him or the talk of the creature that concerned her so.

‘My daddy told stories of a creature in what your people call the Molonglo river,’ she continued. ‘Back then, it was black fella water. Then you water fellas dammed it, to create this white fella water.’

She indicated with her hands towards the lake.

‘I’m not sure the spirits like white fella water. I wonder if you actually damned us doing that; trapped the spirits; trapped the creature in here.’

She pointed again to the lake. Tim followed her hand and turned towards the water, wondering if she had seen something out there. When he turned back, she was gone.

He walked towards the trees where she had been, but there was no sign of her.

Had he dreamt her too?

He took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. He looked around. Here he was, again standing out on the foreshore on a freezing morning. For what? He had taken this shot many times before; there was nothing more to be gained. There was no creature, and probably no woman either. After a week of not sleeping, his mind was playing tricks on him. The Professor’s warnings had been correct; he had become obsessed with Burley.

Now it was time to stop, lest he end up a dishevelled man working at a dimly lit desk somewhere.

He strode purposefully towards his tripod. He would pack it up, go home, and work out how he could make money from his new business.

He unfolded the tripod and put it in its bag, and started unscrewing the lens from his camera.

He paused, suddenly distracted by a jerky movement in the water.

He looked up to see something large and muddy emerging from the depths of the lake.

Long exposure shot of Lake Burley Griffin courtesy of amazing freelance photographer, Travis Longmore. Check out his site!

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