In the heart of WA’s picturesque South West lies a body of water that is changing people’s perceptions of what can be achieved with former mining operations, not just within Australia but around the world.
These days that body of water is known as Lake Kepwari. It’s a bona fide tourist attraction, attracting thousands of visitors each month for a range of pursuits that include boating, water skiing, canoeing, swimming and camping.
But a little more than 25 years ago it was still known as Western Five and comprised a sizeable open pit for the extraction of coal used in the production of electricity – intertwined industries which have been at the heart of the local economy for decades.
The transition from closure of the coal mine in 1996 to recreational lake was a long one and not without complication.
Originally predicted to be opened in 2008 – by WA’s then-Minister for the South West, Mark McGowan! – it would be another 12 years before Lake Kepwari was officially opened to the public, a reflection of the myriad of environmental, legal and logistical challenges that had to be overcome.
Not least of them was an unexpected river breach in 2011 which required a re-think of the original closure strategy and led to what has become one of the lake’s most impressive features: the fact the Collie River flows through it.
What now lies at Lake Kepwari is an aquatic playground that covers the best part of 100 hectares (more than 55 times the playing area of Optus Stadium for footy fans) with another 120 hectares of revegetated land around it. The lake has plenty of fish and marron and its surrounds support ducks, swans and variety of bird life, reptiles and mammals.
It’s one of very few former mine sites in WA to be relinquished to the State Government after use and then made freely accessible to the general public, and its success is a testament to the painstaking rehabilitation work undertaken by Premier Coal (and by extension Yancoal, which manages Premier’s mines).
“From a world’s best practice perspective, this would be right up there amongst the elite,” Premier Coal Operations Manager Braedon Gaske said.
“I don’t think there would be too many other places anywhere in the world that would have such a high standard to be able to hand over to a community for a recreational facility.
“I’d like to think Lake Kepwari is a legacy of the effort that we’ve put in. You can actually run [a site] as an active mine and then also turn it into an amazing recreational facility.
“And it will be like that for years to come.”
From a bigger picture perspective, Lake Kepwari represents something far greater than just the outstanding rehabilitation efforts that have helped turned a late 1990s vision into a 2020s reality.
It’s also symbolic of a new future for Collie, a town of a little more than 7500 people, the main street of which lies only a little more than 15 minutes’ drive from the lake.
For much of the town’s history its fortunes have been inextricably linked to both coal mining and electricity generation.
In June the Government announced it would invest an additional $547 million in a Collie Transition Package, including a new $200 million Industrial Transition Fund to attract major projects and new industries to the town. These could include opportunities in battery and wind turbine manufacturing, hydrogen, green cement and minerals processing.
WA Government investment has also created more than 100km of high-quality mountain bike trails in the area, facilitated a striking 40-piece “mural trail” that winds its way through Collie’s streets and culminates in a giant 8000 square-meter painting at nearby Wellington Dam, and delivered more than $5.7 million of infrastructure and amenities around Lake Kepwari itself.
One of the local business owners whose offerings fit with a ‘new Collie’ is Simone Fraser, who said outside perceptions of the town were changing noticeably for the better.
Fraser’s business Traaverse launched in 2019 and focusses on outdoor adventuring, so the timing of Collie’s emergence as a tourism destination could hardly have been better.
“Lake Kepwari has added another option for recreational experiences to be had around Collie – either stand-up paddleboarding or kayak hire or a place to visit on a tour of Collie,” Fraser said.
“One thing I am finding when I am talking to clients is that I am able to offer them somewhere else to visit if they are hiring and doing their own thing or are in the area for a couple of days. I’m often asking ‘have you heard of Lake Kepwari?’ and there are plenty who haven’t.
“Clients are totally amazed by the lake’s sheer size and facilities, impressed with the location and the surrounds being immersed in nature.
“The lake is a great way to spend a lazy day, getting around on a hire item, watching skiing and people in general, or camping.
“It’s also perfect for day use as you can have large groups and there is plenty of space.”
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