By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
(Continuing the story of the Hawkesbury River, we re-publish here an article that featured in the April-May 2009 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine.)
THE last tendrils of fog swirl up to meet the golden rays of a weak winter sun, mirrored on the still surface of the water.
The occasional jumping fish makes a quiet “blip’’ noise. Birds twitter in the trees and skate across the gentle ripples before settling on the surface to float aimlessly with the tide.
This is Ted Books’ favourite time of day to cruise the Windsor section of the Hawkesbury River in his boat, the Montrose. He’s alone.
By mid-morning, the water twinkles in the glaring sun, the river a silver thread pulsing through colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s kingdom with the monotony of routine.
Given the majestic Hawkesbury River has supported his family for five generations, you understand Books’ attachment to it.
As the boat gently bobs along the water, Books’ shares his memories and tells the history of the stretch he knows best _ the strip of water his famous colonial ancestors eventually learned they could not tame.
Ted Books is known for expressing a strong opinion and enjoying a chat. But he’s not known for being an emotional man. A former wrestler and retired excavator, he tends to say his bit in his no-nonsense way and leave it at that.
But aboard the Montrose, I not only see a different side to Books, but the river I have known most of my life.
“Sydney’s salad bowl’’, “Sydney’s playground’’, the Hawkesbury River has supported Australia’s largest city since European settlement.
For the handful of free settlers desperately trying to survive with virtually nothing in a foreign environment, the river was their transport, it watered them, their crops and animals.
In colonial times while chain gangs of convicts were still cutting roads by hand, the Hawkesbury River was the natural highway to Sydney Cove.
In fact, ships including the 101 ton Governor Bligh were actually built on the river. Two of Books’ ancestors _ Captain John Grono and Alexander Books _ had a shipyard at Pitt Town on Canning Reach, the remains of which can still be seen at low tide.
Among the 200 cargo vessel movements on the river each year were tall ships which took three inward tides (about 20 hours) to travel from Brooklyn at the mouth of the river to Windsor.
The 100 ton SS Erringhi was the last of the big ships to trade on the Hawkebsury River between the 1920s and 1937.
“I used to dive off the Windsor bridge and there used to be 30ft of water there,’’ Books says. “We used to dive off the bridge and go with the tide to Pitt Town, about 4 miles by water.’’
The Hawkesbury Nepean River is part of the vast 22,000 sq km Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment, stretching from Goulburn to Lithgow, Moonee Moonee, Pittwater and Singleton.
Its tributaries and creeks begin in the higher land of the Great Dividing Range, others in the highlands to the west of Wollongong and south of Sydney.
The Nepean begins in the Camden Valley near Moss Vale and becomes the Hawkesbury at Yarramundi after being joined by the Wollondilly River, on which Warragamba Dam, Sydney’s main drinking glass, was built in the 1950s.
From the 1870s, a series of dams was built on the Upper Nepean, south east of Camden and its tributaries the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers.
The mighty Hawkesbury Nepean River ends at Juno Point at Broken Bay.
“Sydney would never survive without this river,’’ Books says. “This river is the playground for the city.’’
Every now and again Books stops the boat, points out a landmark, pulls out yet another packet of black and white photographs and tells the story of the place.
“See that place up there? That’s where Thomas Arndell (the first surgeon to the colony, he came out with the First Fleet) settled when he came to the Hawkesbury. His homestead’s still there.
“They built next to the river because it was clean water and there was fish.’’
The oldest church building in Australia is at Ebenezer, built from stone in 1803 by a small band of free settlers. The church used to run a punt across the river to transport people to church.
The water is deepest _ about 90ft _ nearby, opposite Tizzana Winery at Sackville Reach Wharf.
Glancing at the river banks from the boat, it seems not much has changed apart from technology. Irrigation pumps spew water across enormous paddocks of turf, veggies and flowers. The staccato bark of a dog sends drifting ducks into a flurry. The sun’s rays highlight the fur on a lowing cow staring with lazy interest at the boat. The ghostly figures of farm workers can be seen inside a row of greenhouses.
But then Books’ tale of how his dad and his mates used to catch more fish than they could eat up this stretch of the river is broken by the roar of a power boat towing a skier.
Books pauses and waits for silence to return before pointing out another historic property on the hill.
He revs up the engine and the Montrose slips on.
The river remains a great source of seafood: flathead, bream, mullet, hairtail, mullaway, whiting, flounder, tailor, snapper, trevally, blackfish, leatherjackets, kingfish, John Dory, shellfish and prawns.
It is also home to much bird life: shags, cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, sea eagles, pelicans and terns.
And down in the salt water near the river mouth at Brooklyn there are sharks, sea snakes, jellyfish, stingrays and fortescues.
Today, the Hawkebsury, Penrith and Baulkham Hills region along the river generates a whopping $1.86 billion worth of produce (not including the equine industry). Sydney chows through 90 per cent of it.
The vast quantities of fruit, vegetables and turf grown in the Hawkesbury have fed the entire Sydney population and beyond for generations.
The river is also a major tourist attraction used extensively for recreation (the annual Bridge to Bridge boat race attracts thousands). Tourism and recreation reap $2 billion a year, thanks to the river.
Three car ferries and several bridges provide crossings over the waterway.
Crowds of day trippers are drawn to popular swimming, fishing, water skiing and boating spots each weekend.
A startling white glare suddenly burns the retinas of our eyes. Deck chairs blindingly white in the sun, emerald green manicured lawns and landscaped yards, expensive boat sheds. The property listings at the local real estate agents would reveal that river frontages are also becoming private paradises for the wealthy.
But later, in the golden after glow of sunset, the birds and fish replay their evening ritual as the mist settles like a gossamer blanket over the water surface, melding with the gloom of dusk. The river continues to beat its slow rhythm of life just as it always has.