Skirting the city
Exploring by kayak offers a unique perspective on Melbourne’s metropolis, writes Kendall Hill
Secret cave: A kayak can go to places not accessible to larger craft T is Sunday morning and here I am at Victoria Harbour, right beneath the Bolte Bridge, stepping into a fetching black neoprene skirt. As you do in Melbourne. ‘‘ Pull it up higher,’’ says Rob Smith, tour operator and budding personal stylist. ‘‘ It needs to be worn unfashionably high.’’
Smith knows a bit about black skirts — also called aprons or spraydecks — because he runs kayak tours around the waterways of central Melbourne.
Once mine is resting snugly over my ribs he hands me a black and yellow padded life vest to wear on top. It is such a wild outfit, I’m tempted to do a Zoolander up the catwalk of North Wharf, but Smith guides me instead into the front of the two-person canoe bobbing beside us. This is where the skirt comes into its own, sealing fast around the lip of the cockpit to keep my street clothes dry below deck.
Before we embark on our threehour city scull, there’s a quick safety demonstration. In the event of the kayak capsizing, Smith explains, I would be upside down and unable to see anything in the peaty murk of the Yarra. To simulate this unlikely occurrence (Smith has never had a kayak capsize in two years of running tours), I must close my eyes and feel around the edge of the skirt until I reach the ripcord. Then I pull it loose to free myself from the vessel. Easy. A gentle nudge off the pontoon and we’re under way.
Victoria Harbour is Melbourne’s newish waterfront precinct, a parcel of developers’ follies that look as if they have been fashioned from Meccano and coloured with crayons. Its focal point is the heritage-listed Central Pier, once a key freight terminal and now poised to become ‘‘ Melbourne’s newest cultural, creative and community destination’’, according to the excitable Docklands overseers.
For now, it’s still wonderfully untouched and we glide straight underneath, paddling slalom between the wood pylons that have anchored it here since 1914. It’s a special place, a secret cave of shadows and light shafts that only kayakers can navigate due to its narrow lanes. Over on the south bank of the harbour the annual Moomba dragonboat races are in full swing, oblivious to us.
Past the pleasure boats of the New Quay marinas we come to Fish Bar, where the tour usually stops for fish and chips on the water (it’s too early for me to eat batter) and to feed the local bream population.
Two weeks ago, beneath this very restaurant, Smith saw his first seal, an event that seems impossible to imagine here in the shadow of skyscrapers. On a normal day the most exotic animals Smith sees are rakalis, native rats with white tails that remind him of little ring-tailed possums, and nankeen night herons.
Despite the dull sky the rowing is all high, wide and handsome, as we say in maritime circles. At the Bolte Bridge we cross the harbour to Port Melbourne and the Yarra proper.
This riverbank is the last legal mooring for live-aboard boats and of the dozens that used to line the waterfront there are now only a few left. They look forlorn and lost beside the new penthouses emerging at the Yarra’s Edge development, with their price tags between $3 million and $11 million.
The pleasure of exploring the metropolis by kayak lies in the unique perspectives it offers on landscapes you thought were familiar.
There’s also a sense that you are entering the city by stealth; the gentle pace is so out of step with the rest of the CBD that hardly anyone notices you. When they do, as when we slide beneath the whalebone ribs of Webb Bridge, they stop to stare and wave.
Smith does evening tours, too, and says it’s fantastic to drift up the river at night, anonymous amid all the lights and action.
Just before the flat wrought-iron arch of Queen’s Bridge is the old turning basin near where John Batman stepped ashore in 1835 and declared: ‘‘ This will be the place for a village.’’
Smith can’t believe there is nothing here to mark the foundation of Melbourne. ‘‘ If we were in the US there would be statues and everything to commemorate it,’’ he says. ‘‘ But it’s not celebrated at all.’’
We are in the heart of the city now, with pleasure boats and river cruises swooshing past and promenading crowds flanking the river.
The tours end often opposite Flinders Street Station at Eureka Tower, Melbourne’s tallest building, where paddlers exchange their fish-eye perspective for a bird’s eye view from the 88th floor Skydeck viewing platform.
But I’m quite happy to keep paddling around down here for a bit, enjoying the peace.
City kayak tours depart WednesdaySunday from Shed 2 at the end of North Wharf and cost $89 ($99 with Eureka Skydeck option). There are also evening tours and full moon tours. www.kayakmelbourne.com.au.