By Angela Welsh
Seventeen miles from the Harbour Bridge, out of reach of Sydney’s ferries, there’s a quiet corner of the city best seen by paddle or by sail.
Between the northern suburbs of Mosman and Seaforth a sand-spit juts out. It lends its name to a less famous bridge, a bascule bridge, that crosses Middle Harbour. It’s not far from the south pylon that we take off each weekend.
Come along and I’ll take you on a tour sometime. We’ll see a flying saucer, hear about a tightrope walker, and further on, beyond the sounds and stories, we’ll paddle under the trees, float on just enough water and be quiet for a while.
Today our crew of eight are all guides at Sydney Harbour Kayaks, meeting up for a two-day training session. We take off a little after 7:00, trace a path through moored boats and around a marina. We pick the four knots sign on the rocky point as our target, and cross the channel.
Ben, all of 18, has been paddling longer than me, and shows me up with his perfect bow rudder, as we wrap around the point into Fisher Bay. A run-down houseboat greets us. It rests on a pontoon of cement, permanently anchored to the harbour floor.
Built as a low-cost form of housing around the time of the Great Depression, this houseboat is one of just four left on Middle Harbour. The fate of these last four depends on maritime services, which can tear them down or extend the lease.
We loop around the bay and continue, until we level up with the Spit Bridge. We wait.
The bridge lifts up. The road falls silent.
Angling up, the street becomes a ramp for a few moments, and then stands vertical. The straight steel edge cuts the sky. We take the far side and paddle beneath the remaining section of bridge. We turn, and watch the line-up of tall ships pass through the gap.
To our right the Seaforth shoreline extends before us. A white dome hovers on the slope. With its curved façade of glass and concrete, it is often referred to as ‘the spaceship’. An architectural landmark in the area, the house was designed and built in the sixties.
We pause to compare our versions of the story. ‘Vendome’ as it’s called, is often thought to be the work of Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect who designed the Opera House. In truth, it was designed by Stan Symonds, a local architect whose style is often described as ‘organic futurist’, in that his buildings promote harmony and a sense of something new.
Past boat sheds, inclinators and grand houses we paddle. Nearing Seaforth Bluff we gather close together again. To our left, looking south, is Long Bay. Here, in the 1870s, a French daredevil, Henri L’Estrange, strung up a tightrope and walked the full width of the bay – 1420ft.
L’Estrange had cashed in on the name Blondin to drum up publicity for the event. By this time, Blondin had already walked across Niagara Falls three times. On the day of the first public performance, 21 chartered steamers left Circular Quay, loaded up with passengers paying two shillings for a ticket.
Back in the present, we stare out at the bay, trying to imagine the rope sagging in the middle and starting to sway as L’Estrange crosses over.
We round the bluff. The wind is still but a breath this morning. Crossing Powder Hulk Bay we tell more of the stories we share on our tours, devise strategies to let these unfold slowly, try not to give everything away at once.
The name of this bay, where we now float, speaks of the munitions boats once moored here. Elsewhere the little enclaves, maybe gunner embankments, hint at Middle Harbour’s military past.
Beyond Pickering Point the buildings drop away and the bushland swallows them up. The tide is ebbing, but we still have time to explore the mangroves.
Crossing to the rocky outcrop at Castle Cove, our lead guide for this tour, Sol, tells us more about the Hawkesbury sandstone, with its orange streaks from iron rich soil leaching through after rainfall.
The sandstone formed over millions of years – 220 million, geologists say – and is made of silica and clay. The cream and orange rocks provide a colourful backdrop to our journey.
Deeper into national park we paddle. Named after the original owners of the land, the Garigal Aboriginal clan of the Ku-Ring-Gai tribe, this bushland area spans almost 5000 acres. The Guringai people have been custodians of the land for thousands of years, and you can still some engravings in the sandstone, shelters and shell middens in the area.
We will visit one of these engravings on the way back. Right now we scour the trees, looking out for the white-bellied sea eagles. We spot one high up, catching thermals off the point. With wings as long as our paddles, the majestic creature glides above us. Its wings are grey, but its head, belly and tail are all white.
Over the past year, we have seen two adults and at least three young, by most accounts. The younger birds are easy to tell apart from their parents as they have brown and grey mottled plumage.
On the tour a month before, my group and I had been lucky enough to see one take off right in front of us from a low branch. While the guides always say we haven’t trained the wildlife to come out on cue, we needed no such disclaimers that day.
Into the mangroves now, we see how far we can go before the water runs out. Foliage covers the sky. We have found our hiding place. Being still for a moment, we listen to the dip of paddle blades, the footsteps of herons foraging among the trees, the occasional call of a whipbird.
Further in we delve. A little light peaks through the leaves. With the tide in between high and low we can see the aerial roots of the mangroves surrounding us.
The path between the trees narrows and we practice tight turns as we decide to double back. We cross Sailors Bay and handrail the shoreline along Northbridge on our way to the Aboriginal engraving Sol wants to show us.
Tomorrow will be more of a challenge. In the morning, a skills and scenarios session awaits us. We will practise our sweep strokes, edging, bow rudder, stern rudder, sculling draw, low brace turn, and more.
We will manoeuvre through a narrow pathway, with two kayaks on either side, forcing us to slip between them. We will limbo under a horizontal beam formed by outstretched paddles. And how about we try that in reverse?
Tomorrow afternoon a risk management and worst case scenarios session is scheduled. Adam, a former combat engineer in the Australian Army will be leading this session. Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong; all as a training exercise. From multiple capsizes to (pretend) medical emergencies, it’s all coming up. And I’m a little nervous.
For now, we can relax, and meander back to home base, reflecting on our tour and the stories worth telling.
Sydney Harbour Kayaks
The Middle Harbour Eco Tour runs every Saturday and Sunday from Sydney Harbour Kayaks at the Spit Bridge, Mosman, from 8:15am to 12:30pm.
Another option on weekends or by arrangement is the two-hour Coffee Tour, a circuit from the Spit Beach to Grotto Point, then to Balmoral Beach and back. Trip routes may vary depending on the wind speed and direction.
Private tours can to be arranged whenever suits you, seven days a week, and can be customised to suit your group (a minimum of six people is required).
Sydney Harbour Kayaks also offers kayak and surf ski hire, group lessons and private tuition, team building programs, kayak and surf ski sales, and on-site kayak storage.
Details can be found at www.sydneyharbourkayaks.com.au