After years of denial, I have finally accepted that I’m a map hoarder.
Though my other half has long been known by the moniker “Map Man”, it’s me that whiles my evenings away at the Lands and Property Information’s map shop, and I’m the one who takes our topographic maps on most of their little outings on the water, snug inside their “Hercules” double zip-lock plastic bags. There have been some unfortunate errors – we have a few maps of dull little patches of agricultural wasteland with a bit of barely navigable waterway in one corner. But despite the ridiculously small slices of this wide brown land that can fit on any given 1:25000 map, they really are quite useful things.
Although possibly less useful – without a compass – in a white out.
Fog and mist are picturesque, right? “In…mist, the picturesque artist can celebrate obscurity, lack of clarity, indistinctness, that which is veiled… the picturesque tourist is prepared to spend days in fog” (Murray, 2004, 874). Or possibly, not so much prepared to spend days there as trapped there for indefinitely unable to find their way out, as you can see from the baroque twists and turns captured on my phone’s GPS on my last jaunt to Stingray Bay. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to fish it out of its dry bag and consult it for directions!
I often laugh at the giant directional signs you see on the waters edge of the Hawkebury – they really look like they belong by a freeway, not a pristine riverside – but if it hadn’t been for a bloody great sign looming up through the fog, I might still have been floating aimlessly around Cowan Creek days later.
I was quite keen, back in April, leaving the boat ramp at Appletree Bay on a high and rising tide, to check out Stingray Bay. It’s a decent step – about sixteen ks, slightly more if you decide to do baffled pirouettes mid-stream – but not an epic yomp. A trip up Smith’s Creek is a good one to do when the tide rising steadily rather than on the turn, since you can go with the flow on at least half the journey, and ride the current on last leg home.
I’d had a pit stop there at Stingray Bay before, on my way further up Smith’s Creek. The Hawkesbury in these parts is a steep-sided sandstone gorge, flooded these last six thousand years with bottle green water, so this is a rare spot where you can get out of a canoe to stretch your legs. You will most likely standing in knee deep water but that’s not so bad, unless you happen to step on the eponymous sting rays. We worry more about sharks, but apparently after blue bottles, stingrays – most likely round these parts the common stingaree – cause the most injuries to beachgoers in Sydney.
They’re not aggressive animals. Richard Wylie, a marine biologist from Monash University, described them as “wonderfully inquisitive and gentle marine animals“. Stingrays give birth to live young and in Yolgnu communities in the far north, stingrays – specifically the mangrove whipray or Gawangalkmirri – were seen as devoted parents, the sort we humans should aspire to be. And while I feel might fret about an encounter with a ray, indigenous communities have long seen them not as a threat but as an important and delicious food source.
But if you do happen to frighten stingrays – for instance, stomping on them while they’re hiding in the sand – you can get a sting from the toxin-bearing barb on their tail. Apparently it hurts like hell. Immersing your feet in hot water denatures the toxin and takes the pain away, apparently, although a lot of people need pieces of barb removed from their wound and sometimes stitches and antibiotics too.
I’ve never stepped on a ray, though I have seen them, just once, in the shallows of Calabash Bay in Berowra Creek. But just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there. If you walk around in shallow estuarine waters, it’s best to have footwear and shuffle rather than stride. Fortunately, my bum is usually so numb by the time I stumble out of my kayak that shuffling around stirring up the sand with my protective booties is not so much safety measure as a physical necessity.
I paddled straight over the sting-ray shallows, though, back in April, past yachts barely stirring in the morning mist and moody cormorants staring out at the post-apocalyptic blankness.
Even at half tide, you can skim safely above the seagrass and on up the creek. There’s a deep swimming hole, and above it, two tiny waterfalls tumbling into a bowl of rocks. Despite my morbid fear of breaking my precious and ancient wooden boat, I even managed to clamber out onto the rocks for a comfort break and a look around. It’s a really lovely spot – a great place to come for a picnic and a splash around in warmer weather.
And not a bad place to hang out if you’re a baby fish either. There may not have been any stingrays, but there were certainly plenty of little fishlings when I visited again, in very different weather, last weekend. So very many fishies, swirling away from the paddle like living iron filings toyed with by slightly sadistic magnet… yet so surprisingly difficult for a bumbling amateur to photograph.
Stingray Bay certainly looks different (if possibly less picturesque) when you can actually see it.
And the journey there and back again’s not too hard on the eyes either. Except when you’re paddling straight into the morning sun.
The cormorants, the escarpment and the sun-touched tree tops might have been perfectly visible and, thanks to months with virtually no rain, the clear green water might have offered a vertiginous view of sandstone slabs sliding into the depths, but not all the mysteries of Cowan Creek were revealed to me on my paddle back to Apple Tree Bay.
Was it that persistent dive-bombing tern that plunked so heavily into the water behind me, leaving only a ripple by the time I spun around to see? Did some underwater creature make that line of bubbles I paddled through on the way past Waratah Bay? Could it have been dolphins? Or more worryingly, a bullshark? Maybe it’s better not to know.
But not while you’re navigating!
Emma Macevoy (2004) “Picturesque” from Murray, Christopher ed The Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era 1760-1850, Vol 2, Taylor and Francis