It’s 7 o’clock on a midwinter Sunday morning. It’s five degrees C. And I’m about to go canoeing.
The thought that I may be slightly mad has passed through my mind. A key motivation for hauling myself out of bed before sunrise was to try to get a better look at the whistling kite that hurtled past me into the distance last time I put the kayak in at Mooney Mooney. And as I’m standing in my innovative Milan-style long-johns and wetsuit combination, what do I spy, perched in a dead tree right above the car park, but a whistling kite, defrosting in the first light. Tempting get that pic and hightail it back to bed.
But no, Bar Island is calling me. I’m heading back to the spot where I first decided, on a boatie camping trip just up the river at Back Beaches, that my mental health demanded the purchase of a cheap canoe. And halfway across the river, when the first rays of the morning sun hit me, I feel truly blessed.
Bearing in mind my favourite quote from Antonio Gramsci (“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”), I started out my jaunt by heading across to Olga Bay. Last time I was there, a magnificent white bellied sea eagle swooped through the golden afternoon sunshine and snatched a fish from the briny right in front of the boat.
Unfortunately, convinced that the Hawkesbury was going to sweep me out to sea, at the time I had my head down, as I blasted my way across the river. The David Attenborough moment passed while I was fumbling around in the dank reaches of the canoe for my much abused camera.
Needless to say, the sea eagle didn’t do a repeat performance, though that Australian darter that I pursued heartlessly from perch to desperate perch up the Wyong River last weekend had an unpleasant surprise on that therapeutic holiday to a little hire cottage on Milson’s Passage that the doctor ordered.
Bar Island greeted me with the green flash of (what I think was) a sacred kingfisher watching from the mangroves as I clambered awkwardly (camera-less, of course) over the slippery rocks to the shore.
To be honest, I found it a gloomy place, weighed down by history and hemmed in by trees. They’re important trees – casuarina glauca for the glossy black cockatoos and red ash which, according to the informative signs, feeds the copper jewel butterfly. Perhaps I’ve been living with a Scotsman too long. I have started to share his culture’s love of denuded landscapes and the sweeping views created by sheep, deer and industrialisation. We’ve dubbed the accompanying fear of excessive greenery “wood psychosis”. There was a bit of wood psychosis going on in Bar Island this weekend.
And then there’s visible colonial history of the place. St John’s Church was built on Bar Island in the 1870s, and the grave stones of some of the sixty or so European settlers who are known to have been buried there remain, along with reminders of the troubled history of the Hawkesbury as a brutal contact zone. “A difficult time” as the plaque commemorated Sarah “Granny” Lewis carefully puts it.
The best spot to be on Bar Island on a chilly winter morning was, not coincidentally, the wooden seat near the midden on the northern tip of the island. The midden’s metres deep, accrued over thousands of years of shared oyster eating by Darug, Darkinjung and Guringai people, whose country meets here.
And not far away, the resident kite and her nest, were also basking in sunlight. RB has been working here, on and off, for three years, and the nest has been there for at least that long, renovated and extended each season. The kite wasn’t moving, despite the clumsy paddling and clicking camera. It’s her island now, and she knows it.
I thought I was smart, timing my trip upstream with a rising tide. I wasn’t feeling quite so clever heading downriver again as I tried to take a racing line across an sharp S bend, with the current and the tide battling it out all round me.
First I ploughed exceedingly slowly, on that perfectly still day, through a stretch of strange standing waves. And then I found myself swirling through a sequence of weird vortices, that churned up silt and the occasional jelly blubber. I read Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans a while ago. She concludes, to put it bluntly, that we should enjoy fish while they last, as the jellyfish, floating around in the oceans since the pre-Cambrian, are on their way back with a vengeance, thanks to acidified, over-fertilised and over-fished oceans (not to mention climate change).
Since then I see every jellyfish as a portent of doom. Given this slightly apocalyptic worldview, after about an hour and a half trying to escape this turbid hellhole (okay, it was about ten minutes) I began to worry that one of those whirlpools were going to suck me down into the bowels of the river, just the icefloes in this extremely spooky youtube find.
Needless to say, I survived The Whirlpool of Death. In marked contrast to many of the people who went to live at Peat Island, which I paddled past on the last leg of my route home. Built to detox alcoholics early in the twentieth century, the site was used for over ninety years mainly as an asylum for people with mental illnesses or learning difficulties. From all reports it was a horrifying place where inmates were caged, neglected and sexually abused.
The last residents, treated somewhat less brutally than those who came before, left in 2010, and the site is now padlocked and empty, awaiting redevelopment into a 250 berth marina and suite of five storey apartment blocks. Because there’s nothing that says “high density living” and “brownfield site” like a place with national parks on all four sides.
I spotted one last whistling kite – in fact, a whistling kite actually whistling – in the Norfolk Pines on the island. And in the distance, somewhere out of view, the elusive sea eagles, honking away like a pair of castrati ducks. I know it’s sentimental in the light of these grim tales of the river, but I hope the birds are still there when the jet skiiers come to stay.