Skirt­ing the city

Ex­plor­ing by kayak of­fers a unique per­spec­tive on Mel­bourne’s metropo­lis, writes Ken­dall Hill

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

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