Take me to the river

Overnight pad­dle on the Hawkes­bury River

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words and pho­tos by Gemma and Paul Chilton

IT HAD BEEN on the to-do list for months. Ever since first spot­ting one of those nifty foot-ped­alled kayaks with a sail on Syd­ney’s Pittwa­ter, my hus­band and I were keen to give one a go.

Now, fi­nally, the day had come when we’d man­aged to se­cure an overnight loan of a Ho­bie Mi­rage Tan­dem Is­land two-per­son pedal- and sail-pow­ered kayak, and we were about test it out on a week­end ad­ven­ture. And so we im­me­di­ately sym­pa­thised with the pang of envy we sensed in the voice of a cu­ri­ous car­a­van­ner who si­dled up to us in Mooney Mooney carpark on the Hawkes­bury River, clutch­ing his morn­ing cof­fee and watch­ing on, ask­ing the odd ques­tion as we off­loaded our prized ves­sel from the roof racks and started snap­ping into place the seats, the out­rig­gers and the sail.

We rolled her down to shore and launched onto the still early morn­ing wa­ters, head­ing west in the di­rec­tion of our planned camp­site in Mar­ra­marra Na­tional Park – the hull loaded with camp­ing gear, wa­ter and food. There wasn’t a breath of wind, so we kept the sail furled and stuck with pedalling, con­ve­niently leav­ing hands free to snap pho­tos, sip from our drink bot­tles, and trail fin­gers through the cool green wa­ter. We stuck to the river’s edge, drift­ing past man­groves, be­neath walls of sand­stone and gnarly eu­ca­lypts, the odd sea ea­gle cir­cling above or watch­ing on re­gally from a high branch. Around us, fish bel­lyflopped while cor­morants deep-dived, then dried their wings like laun­dry on pro­trud­ing tree roots at the tide­line.

After a cou­ple of hours we found a small sandy beach for lunch and steered in its di­rec­tion – only to get a rude sur­prise at a sud­den clunk and scrape as we re­alised we’d ped­alled over the rem­nants of an aban­doned oys­ter farm. So that’s what those white poles were sig­nalling. It was still high tide so we man­aged to get out of our predica­ment fairly com­fort­ably with well-timed re­trac­tion of the rud­der and kick­ing our ped­als apart, us­ing the mo­men­tum to drift over the rust­ing in­fra­struc­ture and fi­nally onto shore.

The tide had started to drop after lunch, but by now we were more clued up and chose a bet­ter route on­wards to what we’d planned to be our camp­site for the evening.

We landed at Gen­tle­man’s Halt Camp­site at a bend in the river in the early af­ter­noon. But we soon learnt we weren’t the first to ar­rive. There wasn’t a soul around but the place was not only packed with bivvy tents and a com­mu­nal camp set-up but – sadly – the de­tri­tus of the large group that we as­sumed was out on the river for the af­ter­noon, made up most no­tably of piles of beer bot­tles. It didn’t bode well for our en­vi­sioned peace­ful evening un­der the stars.

Ever since first spot­ting one of those nifty footpedalled kayaks with a sail on Syd­ney’s Pittwa­ter, my hus­band and I were keen to give one a go.

We loaded up an on­line map and pin­pointed what looked like an­other camp­site, and made the call to head in its di­rec­tion while we still had enough day­light. By now the wind had picked up which of­fered the chance to fill the sail – and boy did that make a dif­fer­ence. We picked up im­pres­sive speed, skim­ming across the wa­ter at up to six knots, one out­rig­ger raised high, the other slic­ing through the chop. We’d make our Plan B camp­site in no time.

But the in­ter­net had lied to us. We per­haps shouldn’t have changed plans at the last minute on such a whim, be­cause ap­par­ently ‘camp’ in this case meant a heav­ily se­cured and ex­clu­sive pri­vate school camp. So we made an­other call, to head back in the di­rec­tion of our orig­i­nal start­ing point at Mooney Mooney, but keep an eye out for an al­ter­na­tive camp­site on the way (the prospect of hav­ing to re­turn to the car al­ready was dis­ap­point­ing, given the gear neatly stowed away be­neath us and our ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated plans for a proper week­end ad­ven­ture, not just a longer-than-an­tic­i­pated day trip, with a long drive home).

Hap­pily, we did find a spot to spend the night – a se- cluded lit­tle sandy beach, pro­tected from the wind. We drifted to­wards shal­low wa­ters, re­tracted the rud­der, lifted the ped­als, furled the sail and were ea­ger to stretch our legs and backs and set up camp.

One con­fes­sion – the small beach we called home for the night may not have been the most of­fi­cial place to set up camp, but we as­suaged our guilt by tak­ing away any ad­di­tional rub­bish we en­coun­tered (a sad in­evitabil­ity, it seems) and by be­ing as dis­creet as pos­si­ble, with the plan to set off first thing in the morn­ing any­way.

We had made it just on dusk, and watched the sun set mag­nif­i­cently over the wa­ter and the Hawkes­bury es­carp­ment be­fore us. Our bright yel­low boat waited on the sand like a trusty steed. We had ahead of us a short pad­dle back to the carpark the next morn­ing – but there were just a cou­ple more sur­prises in or­der.

Ad­mit­tedly, the first was about as zen as sur­prises get. We’d just fin­ished our por­ridge and cof­fee when a smil­ing man wear­ing all black ap­peared and asked if we’d be on our way soon, with­out ex­plic­itly men­tion­ing that we

The Ho­bie Mi­rage Tan­dem Is­land is truly push­ing the def­i­ni­tions en­joy­ment out on the wa­ter on small craft, be­ing nei­ther pure sail­boat nor pad­dle pow­ered.

weren’t ex­actly in an of­fi­cial camp­site. We as­sured him we would, and packed in a rush, mov­ing our things fur­ther down the beach be­cause, as he’d warned, about 30 oth­ers turned up for a morn­ing yoga class right where mo­ments be­fore our tent and kayak had been tak­ing up what we now re­alised was a big por­tion of the avail­able space.

Re­duced to a whis­per while they down­ward-dogged and sun-saluted nearby, we fin­ished pack­ing and set adrift, un­furl­ing the sail straight away to pick up a morn­ing breeze. It felt great to be back on the wa­ter – sim­i­lar to the feel­ing of lift­ing a pack onto your back on a mul­ti­day hike, or rolling away on a fully packed bike on a long-haul bike tour.

The sec­ond sur­prise came when, sail­ing swiftly across the river on our way home, we no­ticed a po­lice boat head­ing straight for us. Oh no… just where had we set up camp last night?

In­stead, the jovial cops let us know that a wa­ter ski­ing race was about to make its way up the river and we had to ei­ther beach our­selves for the next cou­ple of hours while they passed through, or make our way back to the car in the next 15 min­utes. With a few words of en­cour­age­ment from the wa­ter po­lice, seem­ingly amused at our novel ves­sel, we kicked off our own race against time, sail­ing close to the wind and pedalling madly through tacks as we made our way back to base – just in time. We’d just beached the kayak at Mooney Mooney when the first stream­lined speed boats start­ing slic­ing past at unimag­in­able speeds, trail­ing their con­tes­tants whose main achieve­ment, it seemed to me, was to cling on for dear life.

Hap­pily windswept and with thor­oughly worked-out glutes, we watched the speed­boats fly by like fighter jets for a lit­tle while then packed up our bor­rowed kayak-come­sail boat, qui­etly im­pressed and maybe even a lit­tle smug be­fore these mighty feats of engi­neer­ing and power.

Ar­riv­ing by wa­ter al­lows you to set up camp in some pretty spec­tac­u­lar spots, such as this se­cluded beach, watch­ing the sun set over the Hawkes­bury.

Clock­wise from top left Easy re­trac­tion of the rud­der and pad­dles makes for easy beach­ing – and sail­ing over aban­doned oys­ter farms; the Ho­bie comes with am­ple stowage space for a night or two camp­ing; You won’t need to rent a moor­ing – at 84kg and 2.9m the whole craft can be fit­ted onto ap­pro­pri­ately rated roof racks.

The dol­drums aren’t a prob­lem with back-up pedal power – but when the wind does pick up, the out­rig­ger set-up is great for sta­bil­ity.

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