Remembering the Past Australia

A Trip on the Hawkesbury, 1880

First published in The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, January 17, 1880

A Trip on the Hawkesbury

From Sydney to Windsor by water means— first, a sea trip of less than twenty miles from Port Jackson to Broken Bay, and then a river trip of about 100 miles on the Hawkesbury, terminating at the old-fashioned town of Windsor. It is needless to say that the pleasure lies in the hundred-mile and not in the shorter journey. A very short ocean-voyage satisfies all but the most inveterate salts. Six years ago Anthony Trollope asked who had ever heard of the Hawkesbury, and remarked that since the river was “altogether unknown” in Sydney, it was hardly surprising that it had not been much talked about in England. Had it been known in Sydney, he asserted, it would have been talked about in England. And yet he compared this “unknown” river with the Rhine and the Mississippi (of which two continents are so proud) and vestured to print the criticism that the Hawkesbury excelled both its competitors in sustained beauty.

Certainly it cannot be said in 1880 that this splendid river is altogether unknown in Sydney. Thanks to the strain of laudation in which it has uniformly been written up of late years, it is generally known in Australia that New South Wales can boast of such an enviable possession. Yet, whatever vain talk has been indulged about the Hawkesbury River, very few metropolitans have taken the trouble to visit it. In accounting for this strange and not creditable disinclination, it has been customary to pass the sarcasm that the Hawkesbury is too near Sydney to be deservedly appreciated. If this stretch of matchless continuous scenery (accepting Trollope’s dictum) were in Tasmania, it might have become better known to the dwellers in New South Wales. It should be remembered, also, that as a resort of pleasure and health-seekers it has yet to attain conventional popularity. Because people love their neighbours as themselves they do what their neighbours do, and go where their neighbours go. The numerous holidays which lighten the year’s toil in this colony are chiefly devoted to the mere repetition of familiar festivities. Only an insignificant and unconventional minority bothers itself during leisure days to explore places which are not rushed by crowds. This is partly the explanation of the fact that the Hawkesbury scenery, while highly prized by the few, is practically unknown to the many.

The name of the river, instead of being associated with the thought of an unexcelled beauty, is generally linked to memories of devastating floods. Not to have seen this noble river is hardly creditable to colonists who cross the ocean to admire the scenery of European countries. Certainly our English and Continental visitors would find time and money well spent if they were to do the Hawkesbury.

No doubt the over-luxurious shrink from the supposed difficulties to be encountered in getting to the Hawkesbury. The discomfort and danger of the short sea trip have been absurdly exaggerated; and it is forgotten that the rough water may be altogether avoided, either by taking the train to Windsor and voyaging thence to Broken Bay and back again, or by taking a short land journey of about a dozen miles from Manly Beach to Pittwater. There is even a third way of dodging the bit of blue water from North Head to Barrenjoey; for Cowan Creek, which is a beautiful miniature of the larger stream, and in itself well worthy of exploration, is navigable by skiffs up to within a few miles of the Lane Cove Road. For years past a small fleet of boats has been kept at the head of the Cowan by such of the fruit-growers as appreciate scenery and are fond of fishing.

The reaches on this stream are short, and have the appearance of a succession of charming lakes, locked in by high and wooded hills. And those who would enter into the experience of solitude should float down this silent valley. There is no human sound in it. The ear of the excursionist, super-sensitive amidst such surroundings, is smitten by nothing save occasional bird-notes, or the mournful chant of the winds in the tree clad ranges, which look as if they were built up to guard these waters from desecration. But, to go back to the sea trip, let it be remembered that it lasts only a couple of hours if accomplished in a steamer, and not much longer in a sailing craft, if favoured with anything like a fair wind; nor is it attended with any danger in ordinary weather, except to inexperienced seamen, who, however, can capsize a boat as easily on a breeze-ruffled river as on the more boisterous ocean.

If excursionists have only two or three days at disposal, or if there are ladies in the party, a steamer is indispensable. Cabin room and speed must then be considered. But if half a dozen gentlemen have a week or ten days to spare, then a sailing craft is much to be preferred. It is a luxury to loiter on such a river. Are not city folk always in a most consuming hurry? Does anything, either on land or water, go fast enough to satisfy us? Now it is no unimportant thing to beat down this torturing sense of slowness, this feverish passion for swifter pace, occasionally. Voyagers on such a river should, if possible, give themselves plenty of time, and then banish the feeling of hurry. Why should they lose a sunset? Why should they not explore some of the tributaries? Why should they not tarry when some new vista of loveliness bursts upon the vision? Why should they not, above all, climb some of the bold bluffs and headlands, and feast the eye on distant fragments of the river, glowing under the flood of sunlight like burnished silver, and again like molten gold? The very object of such a journey is to get saturated, so to speak, with this divine poetry of form, and sound, and colour.

Our engraving (below) depicts come of the experiences of a numerous party of gentlemen who chartered a steamer during the Christmas holidays, and enjoyed themselves immensely.

Not very long ago the Hawkesbury trip was difficult and expensive, but now, by means of the excursions organized under the auspices of Mr Jeanneret and Mr Maddock, the trip may be made easily and at comparatively small cost. Previously these public excursions were too hurried and laborious, but now lovers of the beautiful may enjoy the expedition without the fatigue consequent on an unbroken journey. People who do not object to fourteen miles of ocean can go direct from Sydney by steamer; but those who wish to avoid the “heaving billows” can take the early boat to Manly Beach and start by coach, so as to catch the river boat at Pittwater — a southerly arm of Broken Bay — into which, as our readers know, the Hawkesbury disembogues. Or, if they wish to make the journey still more easy, they can take the evening boat to Manly, remain at one of the hotels all night, and breakfast comfortably before starting on the overland journey to the river.

The coaches take a course along one of the streets parallel with the ocean beach and pass over the bridges which span the lagoon at the northern end. From this point to the Hawkesbury, with the exception of a few small portions here and there, the road is fairly good. It has recently been very much improved. For the most part it passes through ordinary bush scenery; but in two or three places very pretty glimpses of the ocean are obtained, as for instance at Long Beef, and the Deewy lagoon, as well as at Narrabeen, where there is presented to the view an impressive landscape. The last few hundred yards of the land journey are through the bush. The track is narrow and tortuous, and the trees are ornamented with wild vines. There are, too, some treacherous stumps, but the drivers are skilful, handling their horses with as much freedom as that with which a ready writer uses his pen — and so, after a short run, the vehicles emerge safely from the bush at a cleared space, just below which lies the little river boat ready to start. She steams past Pittwater, and before noon reaches Broken Bay, where Mount Elliot, like a lion couchant, guards the entrance. After this the scenery becomes grand in the extreme. The “eternal hills” which keep the river in its course, rise from its waters with magnificent bearing. The sombre and mellow-toned rocks, the foliage — the rugged grandeur of the hills and the lake like placidity of the water in which they are mirrored appeal to the mind with indescribable force. For the forty miles which intervene between Pittwater and Wiseman’s Ferry the river is like a continuous chain of lakes, the scenery being varied only in contour and detail; and yet it would be as incorrect to say that when one of these lakes has been seen all have been, as it would to say that with one turn of a kaleidoscope you can measure all its forms and graceful combinations. The whole river is a majestic “song without words” the rippling of the water and the sighing of the wind through the trees are as the “Lydian airs:” —

“Married to immortal verse”

and the lakes, which seem to strive to excel each other in loveliness, are as sweet

“— notes, with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out.”

From Pittwater to Wiseman’s Ferry there is little to attract attention save the beauty of the landscape. There are, however, some evidences of industry. As for instance, at Porto Bay, Government officers are surveying a site for a bridge to cross the river. A little way beyond Mullet Island some one is boring for coal. Little homesteads in cosy nooks also appear. Then there are fishing boats, and, notably, a little steamer, which is also fitted up for piscatorial purposes, and useful for bringing to Sydney fish caught by local fishermen.

Wiseman’s Ferry, which contains an excellent hotel kept by Mr Jones, is reached at about 5 o’clock, and here the party rest for the night. At half-past 6 on the following morning, while the dew is on the grass and the mist rolls about the hill-tops, the party, after enjoying a well cooked and well served breakfast, resume their voyage, and as mile after mile is traversed new phases of scenery present themselves. The mountains have receded, and between them and the river are low rich banks, which, having been “tickled with a hoe,” are “laughing” harvests. There are orangeries and corn patches — melon and pumpkin beds — cattle, pigs, and poultry — and children, in “rude abundance.” About three miles from Sackville Beach is a blacks’ settlement, where are several men, women, and light complexioned children. It is not very pleasing to think that their condition presents the best results obtained by aborigines after so many years of British settlement. But we pass on to “Church-hill” (Sackville Reach), where the voyage ends. From this point to Windsor the river has been of late considerably “barred.” The remainder of the journey is by coach or buggy (according to arrangement), through Wilberforce and some of the most fertile land in the colony. One has only to glance over the vast area under cultivation — the splendid corn crop and the lucerne — to understand the interest which is taken by the people of the district in the price of produce. From Windsor to Sydney by train occupies about two hours. Taking the trip all through it may be said that it would be almost impossible to arrange for an excursion which in so short a time would present to an intelligent mind and a cultivated taste so much enjoyment and food for reflection. The Hawkesbury “natives” of European descent appear to be as much attached to the soil as the Swiss are to their native mountains, and as to the river, their admiration of it is fairly expressed in the following lines on “The Hawkesbury,” by a fair young poetess who dwells within Bight of its beauty: —

Oh, how sweet as evening closes, ere the shades of darkness fall,
When all nature’s hushed to stillness, and a quiet reigns o’er all
To behold how fair and tranquil flow thy waters fresh and free!
Noble river! thou art dearer than all other streams to me.

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