Six days on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales
Have you ever thought about a boating trip on the Hawkesbury River in NSW? Maybe you’ve considered hiring a houseboat or camping on your own boat? Perhaps you’re lucky enough to have just bought a boat (and if you are really lucky, a mooring) on Pittwater or Sydney Harbour and want to go exploring? Well we took some time off to do a recce on the river to get some ideas about what you can do. Here is our Hawkesbury River itinerary…
The first thing you need to know is that the Hawkesbury River is navigable for over 100 kilometres and has a staggering 1100 kilometres of foreshore fringe! You could cruise and explore these waters for weeks and still not see it all. The river region includes several major tributaries such as Cowan Creek, Coal and Candle Creek, Smiths Creek and Berowra Creek and much of is surrounded by national parks which makes it truly remarkable considering it is only forty kilometres or so from Australia’s largest city, Sydney.
You can actually cruise your boat along the Hawkesbury River from the Pacific Ocean at Broken Bay to Windsor which is approximately 120 km inland! As usual when you take your boat somewhere new, you have a limited amount of available time (unless you are lucky enough to be retired or have won lotto). You want to make the most of it but where do you go? There is definitely too much of the Hawkesbury region to see all at once.
Without doubt, the best advice we could give you is to go and buy a little book titled ‘Cruising Guide Hawkesbury River, Cowan, Broken Bay and Pittwater’ written by John and Jocelyn Powell. This is a very detailed guide and provides comprehensive information about the Hawkesbury region including important navigation info and interesting historical pieces. For the price of $30 it is a bargain.
The two most popular places to commence your Hawkesbury River experience are the Pittwater or the small town of Brooklyn. The Pittwater is a stretch of water that, like the Hawkesbury River, opens into Broken Bay and the open ocean. (See map) The problem with accessing the Hawkesbury River from the Pittwater is that there is a stretch of open water that needs to be negotiated and this can be dangerous at times with wind, swell and tides making the water very rough.
We decided to base ourselves at Brooklyn which seems to be the centre of a lot of the houseboat trade on the Hawkesbury River. Brooklyn is about 58 km from the Sydney CBD and can be easily accessed via the M1 Motorway. It is a small village spread out along about two and a half km of the river’s edge. There is a very good boat ramp in Brooklyn known as the Parsley Bay Boat Ramp. This ramp is three lane and well protected by breakwaters. It also has a large car park and good facilities such as water, toilets, fish cleaning table, etc. (refer to the Parsely Bay boat ramp report in the ‘Boat Ramps’ page of this website).
Parsley Bay Boat Ramp
We didn’t launch until mid afternoon, so didn’t have a lot of time to explore. The priority was to find a nice anchorage for the night as the wind was going to pick up overnight. We motored around into the Sandbrook Inlet on which the town of Brooklyn sits. This is a very sheltered inlet which is about 2 km long and 200 metres wide. Brooklyn lies to the south and Long Island to the North and due to the fact that the inlet is blocked at its eastern end by a breakwater which has a rail line on it, the inlet is well protected from wind driven chop from all directions.
It is however just about chock a block with moorings and the shore is full of commercial operators offering houseboat charters leaving little room for anchoring. Ultimately we decided to ‘borrow’ an empty mooring for the night, intending to leave early in the morning thinking it would be easy to leave if asked. If you want to tie your boat up to a jetty here and walk to an onshore restaurant, forget it, there is no such thing at this location although if you had a boat with a tender, you could leave it on shore and take a short walk into the small village of Brooklyn which has several eating options.
So for us, night one was spent in calm water, watching a magnificent sunset colour the sky and boats around us in a stunning light pink colour.
Bright blue skies greeted us the next morning as we left Sandbrook Inlet and motored over to the Brooklyn Marina which is at the foot of town, hoping to find a visitor’s berth so we could go exploring. No such luck at the Marina which had a couple of temporary berths which were both occupied. There is a little public jetty in the Marina area but several ferries and water taxis regularly use it so you can’t leave your boat there especially unattended.
We found an empty pontoon on the eastern end of the Brooklyn baths at this location and this was only a short walk into the lovely little town of Brooklyn which has several cafes, two restaurants (one being at the Marina), a general store (also at the Marina) and a Hotel. This pontoon is small and a regular spot for fisherman, so the chances of finding it empty are pretty small.
If you wanted to explore Brooklyn, my advice would be to take your boat into the Parsley Bay boat ramp area where you can tie up against one of the two small pontoons within the breakwater. Beware though, that one of these is also regularly used by the local water taxis. It is about a five minute walk into Brooklyn from this location. It is unfortunate that there are virtually no public berthing facilities here as it is a nice little place to visit.
After speaking to a local about the best places to cruise to, we headed east and into Cowan Creek, then Jerusalem Bay where we found a free mooring to hang off in a quiet little bay called Pinta Bay. This was our first exposure to the true beauty and serenity of the Hawkesbury river system which is basically a drowned valley full of spectacular sandstone cliffs and gorges, extensive waterways, secluded bays and national park. Our little anchorage this night, was once again, well protected and there were only two other boats present.
Now a word about moorings in the Hawkesbury River. There are numerous fixed moorings dotted throughout the river system and they are of many colours. If you find a pink one, it will be a courtesy mooring and anyone can tie up to it for the night so it is a case of first in first dressed. All of the other mooring bouys you will see actually belong to private individuals, boat clubs or commercial operators. Now if you are a newbie and used to following rules, you will not tie up to these moorings thinking that it would be the wrong thing to do. WRONG! It is generally accepted etiquette that you can tie up to a private mooring as long as the owner is not using it. If the owner comes along, obviously you would be polite and move on.
This etiquette even applies to the western side of the Pittwater where many fixed moorings are situated beside the Kuring Gai Chase National Park. Most of these moorings are owned by Boat Clubs. NOTE, however, this rule does not apply to the eastern side of the Pittwater or in fact most if not all other waterways in NSW.
After a very peaceful night’s sleep we set off on a mission to find a hotel/café where we could watch the AFL Grand Final; Richmond V Adelaide. We first tried Cottage Point where there is a café and boat club, but no luck, we couldn’t get an onshore berth there. We also tried the Cottage Point Inn Restaurant which we were hoping was more of an inn than a restaurant. There was room on the jetty but only if you were there for a fine dining experience, this is definitely not a simple Inn. Not long after we saw a seaplane arrive and pull up at the Inn with some guests who were there for the fine dining experience.
We then moved onto the Akuna Bay Marina in Coal and Candle Creek and found a café with a T.V. but the only channel that didn’t work was the one we needed, channel 7! To make matters worse we had tied up in a pen which was badly fendered and despite major efforts to fender properly, managed to scratch the boat on the side of a concrete pontoon – not happy!
So no luck with the Grand Final which clearly is not much of a priority in NSW. Then off to find an evening mooring. It is the Labour Day long weekend in Sydney and even though the weather is not fantastic, there are a lot of boats on the river. After passing five suitable anchorages which were full with boats, we finally decided to drop the anchor at the southern end of Smiths Creek where the 4 free moorings were all taken up. In fact, after choosing a suitable location to anchor and settling in, I counted 17 boats moored at this location. What must it be like in summer I wonder?
Our route and overnight stops in Cowan Creek
Great spot for an overnight despite some noisy neighbours who apparently thought the only thing missing from a pristine national park was their choice of amplified music. People forget how well sound travels on water.
Caught a good flathead on dusk on a plastic (lure) so pretty happy, perfect for tomorrow night’s dinner. The Hawkesbury River system is renown for the large flathead that can be caught in the system. This includes fish over one metre in length! Be aware though, that if you catch a fish that big, it is probably a female breeder and should be let go to keep the fishery healthy. In fact you are only allowed to keep one flathead over 70 cm and there is a bag limit of 10 flathead. The minimum legal limit is 36 cm.
The next day we decided to check out Bobbin Head which was the home of the classic Halvorsen cruisers from the 1945 until about 2003 There are many examples of these beautiful old cruisers in the Hawkesbury and I wanted to see if there was anything left of the original boat hire fleet and maintenance area. Boatbuilder Lars Halvorsen started making timber cruising boats from the late 1920’s and during the 1960’s the Halvorsen hire fleet was said to be the largest fleet of private boats in the world. Sadly there is nothing left there to indicate what Bobbin Head was like in the heyday of the Halvorsen era. There is now a Marina at that location which is nice but not what I was looking for.
There is no doubt that the Hawkesbury River is the home of the Halvorsen cruisers although they can be find right throughout Australia. The owners of these boats proudly look after them and it is rare to find one in poor condition these days.
Lars Halvorsen was a Norweigian boatbuilder who came to Sydney in late 1924 and set up a boat building business which included building boats for the Navy during the Second World War.
We needed to reprovision the fuel, gas and wine supply so we headed over to Cottage Point to see what was available there but as was the case the previous day, there was no room to tie up to the public jetty there so we returned to Brooklyn where were able to tie up to the fuel wharf at the Marina whilst we reprovisioned at the general store there.
Then after some minor first aid to a bare foot that stubbed itself into a nail on the wharf, (note to self – wear shoes on timber jetties!), we thought we would overnight in the nearby Porto Bay but discovered at low tide it is very shallow, less than 1 metre. A more astute skipper would’ve taken note of all the oyster pens on either side of the bank indicating shallow water.
So where to next? After consulting my trusty cruising guide book we motored upstream in the Hawkesbury to explore the Berowra Creek, which like Cowan Creek is much more than a creek, and found a beautiful overnight berth in a little cove named Halfmoon Bay.
Caught a nice flathead which we let go and then a couple of little baitfish, small trevally I think. Decided to put one out as a live bait in the hope of catching something big. Within seconds of throwing the live bait out, a sea eagle appeared and watched from a nearby tree as the bait settled under the water. These magnificent birds are pretty common along the Hawkesbury and their regular high pitched calling will forever remind me of the Hawkesbury.
The Hawkesbury is renown as a great location for big jewfish (mulloway). Halfway through dinner, the live bait did its work and line peeled off the reel as a whale of fish took the bait. I exploded into action and set about trying to land what must (in my mind) have been a huge jewfish! Sadly for me, but happily for the fish, I tightened the drag just a bit too much and as the fish took off underneath the boat, the line snapped. The most frustrating part of this event was that I didn’t get to see what it was…
The next day we made our way further up Berowra Creek to have a look at the little village of Berowra Waters. There are a few small villages dotted along the Hawkesbury River and Berowra Waters is one of them. It occurs to me that there must be a group of Sydney house builders that have become experts at building houses as close to the water as possible in some very difficult terrain. We look at a few shacks on the water and dream about what it must be like to live in such a beautiful location.
There are quite a few boats moored in the river here and at the Berowra Waters Marina. After four nights in the boat, we thought a shower might be nice and asked at the Marina whether we could pay for a shower. The staff were terrific and even though they were extremely busy, they unlocked the showers for us to use for free. There is also a nice little cafe in the marina with seating that overlooks the water, ideal for breakfast or lunch.
The weather was perfect and we decided it was time to make our way upstream to the little township of Wisemans Ferry. I’d heard that the pub was well worth visiting and the idea of a pub meal was pretty appealing.
For some unknown reason I pictured the town and the pub as being on the river with a jetty right out the front of it. As a result we motored right on by the township not even noticing it, despite the fact that there are two big ferries crossing the river at the township. You would think the presence of ferries would be a good clue as to the location of a place named Wisemans Ferry!
Be careful not to cross over the ferry cables which stretch from one side of the river to the other, until after the ferry has docked on either side.
After backtracking some distance to that location, we found the township but had a great deal of difficulty finding a wharf to tie the boat up to so we could walk into town. The public jetty is very small with lots of fisherman on it and even though they offered to move, it would have been difficult to tie up to considering the current in the river is very tidal and strong. In fact the Hawkesbury River is said to be the longest river affected by tides in the Southern hemisphere.
Luckily for us, Simon Mac.Quillan, the owner of Ables Houseboat Company directed us to a small rickety unused jetty beside the houseboat company for a temporary stay.
After walking into town, which took a whole five minutes, and a quick beer and chardy at the pub, we decided a night on dry land would be nice, so I went back to Able houseboats to speak to the owner Tom Mc.Quillan about rafting our boat up alongside the houseboats for the night. Tom and his wife could not have been more helpful and found us a nice and secure spot alongside the houseboats. This was the perfect solution as the winds were expected to get up to 20 knots overnight and with the strong tide, the little jetty would not have been very secure.
As a result we got to spend the night in a great room at the Wisemans Ferry Inn Hotel which is historical trust and said by many to be haunted by two ghosts, one being Mr. Wiseman’s wife and the other a convict labourer who drowned whilst trying to escape from Wiseman. It is said he drowned trying to swim the river wearing shackles and chains.
A story from Windsor and Richmond Gazette 27 January 1928 entitled “SHADOWY FORMS AT WISEMAN’S” describes the ghostly goings on;
“Several ghosts including women spectres who hurried through the echoing stone rooms and along draughty corridors in trailing gowns, and scared residents swear that they heard the swish, swish of- silken dresses as a woman ran to look over the balcony. Sometimes the rustle was accompanied by a scraping of feet and a faint gasping cry like the coughing of a woman with asthma. The story of the shadowy form that rose from the old vault in the neglected garden and hurried towards the old house is history. Those who tell it argue that the spirit was that of Wiseman’s first wife, and whose nocturnal visits were an attempt to draw public attention to treasure hidden in her bedroom. Several years after the ghost was last seen a box of sovereigns was found under the floor of the old room.”
Unfortunately, (or fortunately), we didn’t see or hear any ghosts and enjoyed the comfort of a less cramped bed than the one on the boat. The hotel is part of a tourist route known as the Convict Trail which is a road built by convict labour often working in irons between the years 1826 and 1836. It was built to connect Sydney with Newcastle and the Upper Hunter Valley in NSW. The pub has a small museum upstairs which is open on weekends and public holidays or at special request.
Wisemans Ferry Hotel built in 1827
The café in town opens early and makes a decent coffee so once fortified we headed back to the boat for a chat with Simon and Tom Mc.Quillan about the Able Houseboat Company. Tom was fascinating to listen to as he described his flood experiences over 40 years. During one flood, the Wisemans Ferry broke loose from its cable and tore off down the centre of the river very fortunately narrowly missing the houseboats. Looking at the size of the steel ferry, I wondered what would have happened had it ploughed into the nearby houseboat fleet.
We left the jetty at Wisemans Ferry in a hurry as the tide was receeding and we were at risk of being stranded on the mud. Being in a rush, I did something I never do, that is let go of the lines before starting the engine, and of course, the engine didn’t start, first time in the entire week! We then got carried by the tide into the back of the houseboat fleet. Despite being so far from the ocean, the tidal current here is very strong. Lesson learned? Never untie your boat until the engine is going!
We had a very relaxing motor downstream taking in some of the stunning scenery on our last day on the river. On the way we passed several small commercial prawn boats tied up beside the banks of the river. If you are fortunate enough to plan your trip to the Hawkesbury River, consider making it when the prawns are running which usually occurs during the new moon (no moon) between late September to April. You can easily catch a good feed of fresh rawns to add to your dinner. Be aware of the NSW fishery rules though because some areas of the river are out of bounds for any type of netting other than a landing net. Cowan Creek and all its tributaries is one such example of this ban.
Finally, you could spend weeks, even months exploring the Hawkesbury River and its tributaries. It is a remarkable waterway considering how close it is to the most populated city of Australia. The water is clean, the fishing can be very good and the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. Dont just think about visiting it in summer, which can be a very busy time on the waterway, think about visiting in winter when the water can be flat as glass and you will have it nearly all to yourself.
Which way is up? The Hawkesbury River boast the third largest stand of mangroves in New South Wales