May 20, 2019 • Kevin Smith
6 min read
When there's rain Lake Keepit is an oasis enjoyed by locals and travellers alike. But with relentless drought shrinking the lake to a fraction of its size, boating, fishing and water skiing have given way to experiences of a starkly different kind. Venture out into the expanse of cracked earth and mudflats for an enlightening self-drive that exposes not just the impact of extreme weather, but also relics of a past life that would normally be hidden under water.
Lake Keepit lies within the big sky country in New South Wales. Here you’ll find ever-growing towns like Tamworth, Manilla and Gunnedah. The biggest of the lot, Tamworth is well known as the home of the Golden Guitar and the massive Country Music Festival which draws thousands of party-goers and music lovers each year.
It’s an old place that goes back to 1818 when explorer John Oxley passed through looking for pastoral land for his peers. This was the beginning of big things for the area. Over the next 100 years the place boomed with sheep and cattle grazing leading to population growth, buildings springing up and in 1888, the erection of a power station that would give Tamworth claim to the first electric street lights in Australia. Finally in 1945 Tamworth was declared a town. Today it’s a huge inland city and a good place to resupply.
The fertile soils within and surrounding the Tamworth area were caused by volcanic activity some 300 million years ago, when deep ocean sediment was pushed up, creating the Peel fault line. In ‘recent times’ – that is to say 20 million years ago – the earth finally opened up, spewing the ash, lava and mud that would forge the hills, deep valleys and fertile land that exists today.
Not so fertile when stricken by drought
The local Gamilaroi people made the surrounding areas their home. It’s reported that there were nearly 4000 Aboriginal people living here across two different tribes. Food and water was plentiful – think fish, kangaroo and many other land animals – and the land was used resourcefully, with rocks used for tool-making, grasses for weaving baskets and possum skins for clothing.
The countryside around Tamworth is a mix of rolling plains and steep rugged hills. Among it you’ll find quaint little villages such as Manilla. Long gone are any signs of industry, but these small towns do welcome travellers with coffee shops, boutique second-hand shops and free camping beside the river.
We spent time in Manilla wandering the shops coffee in hand, locals greeting us with huge country smiles – a rarity in the world today. But when we were told about Lake Keepit and the history surrounding this vast area of water, our appetite for adventure kicked in and we were off.
We took the short 20 minute drive west of Tamworth and soon found the turnoff to Keepit hidden just off the highway.
Approaching the dam site, we decided to stay at the Reflections Holiday Park for a few days to explore. After an easy check-in, we headed another few miles to the main camp areas. The massive park is spread along the foreshore and accommodates all types of rigs and travellers. Along with large campsites, you’ll also find glamping tents.
A BMX track, water fun park, several kids’ parks, huge camp kitchens with central fireplaces and even a shop are features of the property. Keepit is that big it even has its own sailing club, whose clubhouse boasts water views.
We headed across open plains to the dam where we chose a campsite under some majestic gums.
Severe drought means Keepit is suffering immensely and, at the time of my visit, claimed to have only 0.7% of water.
Some say this makes the self-drive tour around the dam a morbid affair, but when the water levels are this low, the old ruins of Huntgrove Homestead can be found and explored.
If you’re staying at the park, the staff will give you a free mud map which explains where to find the ruins. Following the directions, it’s actually hard to imagine this huge expanse of land full of water. There are deep gullies and large flat areas that will vanish once the river flows in again, and the route takes you a good 5km into the dam – it sure looks funny on a GPS unit driving in the water.
Water layers in the lake bed
At this point you’ll arrive at several old graves. While there are no dates on the stones, office staff clued us up on the history. They are nearly 150 years old and belong to the Fitzgerald family that settled, farmed wheat, and lived in Huntgrove Homestead.
Walking around you can still find wrought iron ornamental pieces that once adorned the graves. We, like others that have been here, picked up a few random pieces and placed them back on the sites as a gesture of respect.
Further on towards the wall of the dam we followed the map to where old building foundations can be found. The freshwater has kept them in relatively good condition, and old relics started to appear everywhere; from dray wagon parts, ceramic plates and cups to random pieces of metal.
Before the valley was flooded, a rock well was sunk just nearby the buildings and we were lucky enough to find it completely intact, including the stonework.
When full Lake Keepit covers nearly 11,000 acres and is a water wonderland with fishing for huge cod, water skiing and sailing extremely popular. On the outer reaches of the dam a slippery dip sits high and dry waiting for the water to rise, with only birds now sitting on top of the rails scoping the area.
Boat ramps stop 100 - 200 metres short of the water’s edge, large obnoxious European carp stir up the mud flats looking for a feed, and huge numbers of pelicans gather together in case an unlucky random fish swims by.
But even though no water is filling Keepit, it remains a place of great interest with some of the best camping you’ll find for miles.