Plunging down the switchbacks of Berowra Waters Road with a canoe strapped on top as a weekend dawn breaks is a hair raising experience, for a newbie driver like me anyway. At any moment, heavy breathing MAMILs (Middle Aged Males In Lycra according to our friend Bruce Ashley, author of Bike It! Sydney and Cycling around Canberra) might suddenly loom out of the fog in the middle of the not-quite-two-lane road.
They’ve swooped down through Galston Gorge, across the only bridge, passed swiftly through Arcadian horsey country, and after a moment of quietly gazing out at the marina as they cross the ferry, they’re battling the steep 200 metres ascent up to the ridge. It would seem rather cruel if, after all that effort, my kayak shot off the roof in an emergency stop and impaled them before they got that well-earned coffee.
Scary as this drive is, it’s not quite as nerveracking as coming back from the Hawkesbury up the Old Pacific Highway on a misty morning – a journey that is begging to be made into a terrifying but addictive computer game called something like “Drive of Doom” or “Death Dodgems”.
Peering through the billowing mist round the hairpin bends, you hope you’ll spot the scattered packs of labouring MAMILs in time to slide right, all the while praying that a mob of motorbikes doesn’t choose that moment to come roaring up from behind to wipe themselves out on your rear window. Or that an oncoming vehicle doesn’t take the next tight corner wide and smash into you headlong. The reward if you win a game is obvious: a triumphant stop high above the clouds at “Pie in the Sky“, a place where the lambs lie down with the lions, or at least, the road cyclists eat pies with the bikies.
But not this weekend. Not a single specimen of the MAMIL, keystone species in our local ecosystem, to be seen. What’s going on around here?
Eventually, as I hauled the kayak off the car and wrestled it into the water, I worked it out. The MAMILs have been up all night watching the Tour de France. At two o’clock in the morning they were gripped as Mark “The Manx Missile” Cavendish floated past Andre “The Gorilla” Greipel to claim his first stage win in two years, his twenty sixth stage in the Tour. And they’re still curled up in bed, knees bent under the covers, dreaming they’re Australia’s next Cadell Evans. Middle aged, but still contenders.
The river was very very quiet too. In February this year, I ventured for the first time into the brackish winding creeks that feed Calabash Bay. It was fish paradise. Despite my complete indifference to fish as a meal, pet or leisure pursuit, the sheer numbers of tiny transparent spratlings leaping from the water and darting between the mangrove roots was eye opening.
Even nearly twenty years ago, just after the high point of algae blooms and floating maritime corpses in Berowra Creek, research into estuary processes discovered twenty nine species of fish up and down the water. Marra Marra Creek, in the lower reaches, with its saltmarshes and long stretch of mangroves, was the richest, but even upstream there were flathead and flounder, gobies and mullet and perchlets, silver biddies and pacific blue eye.
But this weekend, nothing. I went to see the fish and it was out.
One azure kingfisher was so weak with hunger it sat exhausted on a waterside twig in full view long enough for me to take a numerous terrible blurry photographs. If I keep going out in these lean times, I may finally get the chance to take a sharp, closeup shot of an emaciated glinting blue bird spiralling slowly downriver on its back.
Despite my glass-half-empty-and-probably-tainted-with-nuclear-fallout tendencies, I’m pretty sure the lack of visible fish is a natural thing, part of the cycle of life. Most of the inhabitants of the creek spawn in spring and summer, so the tiddlers of the summertime shallows are no doubt happily traversing deeper waters now, invisible and unknowable to those who drift involuntarily into unconsciousness at the mere mention of rod, bait or tackle.
There must have been a few fish around, I guess, along with the amphipods, the isopods, the molluscs and the worms. I saw a few blokes slumped gloomily in tinnies, a handful of great cormorants and the contractual obligation pair of white faced heron in every cove and mudflat.
My ship building neighbour rates his sequence of ancient clapped out Mercedes according to the number of cows featured in the interior trim (“a two cow Merc”, “a four cow Merc” etc). I’m thinking I should start rating my canoeing trips similarly, according to the number of white-faced herons I see during the day. This Saturday was, by my calculation, at least a nine-heron day, and that’s not giving myself extra points for seeing the birds in pairs, hedgehog like in their full breeding regalia.
But all in all, there still plenty of solitude to be found out there in the mist. I’m not sure, but I may have discovered a new form of white-water canoeing. It may not be high-octane, but it’s got to be higher energy than watching Gabriel Gate on late night TV. I think I like it.