Take me to the river
Overnight paddle on the Hawkesbury River
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.