Travel Story The man who put WA's Lake Dumbleyung on the map

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

On New Year's Eve 1954, Donald Campbell roared across the lake in his Bluebird K7 to become the only man to have broken both the water and land speed records in the same year.

With Wagin behind us and Dumbleyung ahead, we round a corner high on a hill. What greets us is not glaring white but a deep, glistening blue. Lake Dumbleyung is full and it’s a beautiful sight.

Usually a dry salt bed, the lake has become a water enthusiast’s paradise since filling in February.

While the colder months will put off all but the hardcore waterskiers and stand-up paddleboarders, the natural beauty of the lake and its surrounds, as well as its fascinating history, is enough of a drawcard for visitors.

We are lucky enough to visit on a pristine winter day. The sun is shining, the glassy water perfectly reflecting the starkness of the bare tree trunks and swamp sheoaks on the water’s edge.

This is not a trip to be put off. The normally dry lake is close to full for the first time in 11 years. It has only overflowed three times in the past 100 years and not for the past 30.

With a length of 13km and width of 6.5km, the lake’s size alone is impressive — especially given its surroundings, where lone water bodies are usually dams dotting paddocks.

Bigger flat-topped yates and salmon gums sit above Lake Dumbleyung’s waterline, with the cutely named Pussycat Hill rising steeply to provide the perfect natural lookout.

Atop Pussycat Hill a lone tree leans at a crazy angle, for even on a relatively still day it’s still blowing a gale at this high point.

Nearby information signs tell the story of Donald Campbell, who on New Year’s Eve 1964 roared across the lake in his Bluebird K7 to become the only man to have broken both the water and land speed records in the same year.

The British speedster had arrived at Lake Dumbleyung in December from South Australia, having already set the land speed record (648.5km/h). First it was ducks then windy conditions that thwarted his efforts to attempt the water speed record.

With only hours remaining in the year, the wind dropped and Campbell set the record — 444.66km/h.

He put Dumbleyung on the map and made a legend.

Three years later on Coniston Water in Cumbria, another record attempt ended in tragedy. A high-speed crash killed Campbell instantly.

A granite memorial was put on Pussycat Hill in 1984. Every year on December 31 at 3.43pm, sunlight shines through an aperture in the rock and lights a miniature Bluebird on the plaque to recognise the exact moment Campbell broke the record on Lake Dumbleyung.

In the nearby town of Dumbleyung, 270km south-east of Perth, the community has done a fantastic job of honouring the memory of Campbell and the events that took place in 1964.

Within an impressive Corten steel structure adorned with bluebirds and eucalyptus cut-outs lies a Bluebird replica.

Installed on the 50th anniversary of the record in 2014, the replica was painstakingly researched and reproduced to the exact detail available. Signs tell the Bluebird story and that of the community’s efforts to install the replica.

The last word should go to Campbell. When he radioed his support crew in his final run on Coniston Water in 1967, there was something heartbreaking in his matter of factness and pronouncement of his own death. 

500km/h: “I can’t see anything. I’m having to draw back.”

460km/h: “I’ve got the bows up. I’m going. I’m on my back. I’m gone.”

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