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Twenty ways to enjoy the Hawkesbury

Playground, food bowl & romantic getaway....

.....count the reasons why this river region is worth a visit

Just a few metres from the Nepean, the Hawkesbury river begins like a paddling pool, yet over its 120-kilometre course.....

.... it spreads to this: a wide body of water deep enough to welcome large boats and ferries, yachts and smaller craft. Interestingly, the aboriginal name for the Hawkesbury is Deerubbin, which is believed to mean 'wide, deep water'. How correct these people were.

So when is a river not a river? When it is what geographers call 'a drowned valley'. In effect that defines the Hawkesbury 'river' that extends as a lengthy 'estuary' from the South Tasman Sea, 120-kilometres to the east of its source.

The headwaters rise far away in the south, on the western side of the escarpment near Wollongong.

But this beautiful waterway is so much more than that. Recently we took a two-day midweek break to see why people get dreamy when they talk about this area, right on Sydney's back doorstep.

And far from finding one reason, we discovered TWENTY ways to enjoy it. You'll almost certainly discover more - so make sure you leave a comment (at the end of this page) and share your findings!

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#1 Smell the flowers

This is what a getaway break is all about. Windyridge nursery and public garden is located at Mount Wilson, high up in the Blue Mountains, off the Bells Line of Road.

The road's strange name comes from the fact that this was originally a traditional Aboriginal pathway, shown to Archibald Bell, Jr. The route was later surveyed and marked, then became known as Bell's Line.

The extensive garden is the brainchild and labour of love of two extremely talented and green-fingered people, Rodger and Wai Davidson. The grounds rival many you would find in large towns or a city.

It is well worth taking a few hours to absorb the tranquility. As if these beautiful surroundings are not enough incentive to make a visit, with true country hospitality, visitors are also offered a complimentary cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit or piece of cake.

Windyridge is 60 kilometres, or a twisting hour's drive, to the beginning of the Hawkesbury river near Richmond. Including it here is not cheating, though, as the fertile and productive area bordering this road is part of the well-known Hawkesbury Harvest food trail - see below....

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#2 Taste the local produce

This trail is very familiar to us as in 1999 Gordon and I researched the entire country and produced a book called the Australian Regional Food GuideIt was a fascinating project and allowed us to meet the people behind the food that many take for granted. 

At the time we explored this food trail which was then only newly established. It has grown and expanded in the years since, and it is well worth picking up a brochure, or checking online to see what will be open when you plan to visit.

Nearby Bilpin is where some of Australia's best apples are grown - and you can sample them in many places along Bells Line of Road - either whole to crunch as you go, as juice, or maybe as a filling for an orchard-fresh apple pie.

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Now, WATCH THIS VIDEO to get preview of what is on offer....

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#3 Explore the water

There are so many ways to actually enjoy 'messing about in boats' on the Hawkesbury - here Fantasea, at the ocean end of the river, takes passengers from Palm Beach in Sydney's north to Ettalong, on the Central Coast. Not only is it quicker - the crossing is about 25 minutes by ferry and would take up to two hours by road - but it is a lovely relaxing trip. 

(Image: Google Maps)

The route passes the distinctive Lion Island which marks the point where the Hawkesbury reaches the sea.

Another option for a water trip is to take the Pacific Highway and drop in at tiny Brooklyn to join the Riverboat Postman. Originally established to assist residents on remote islands and headlands by delivering mail and groceries which they could not easily get for themselves, this fun and useful three- to four-hour trip is the last of its kind in Australia. It operates from Brooklyn to Spencer, daily, on weekdays.

And of course if you own a boat - of any size - or have friends that do, then the river becomes your very own playground.

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#4 Dabble in history

In cities, it is often easy to forget that this continent has been inhabited by local peoples for many thousands of years. Somehow it is easier to realise this in bushland that would have been so familiar to them.

A couple of hundred metres away from this point, just west of Richmond, a carefully planned park marks the birthplace of the Hawkesbury river (see top of this page).

Richmond has its own history too, as one of Governor Macquarie's five historic towns, established around 1811.

Richmond Park, constructed in 1811 is just one of many heritage sites in the town, and it is worth a stroll down the main street....

...as even the local cafes follow the retro theme.

To the north, at Wilberforce, you can step right in to the past at this recreated pioneer village with original buildings relocated on the site.

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#5 Visit a mall

Although there's no glitzy superstore in the area, at weekends this pedestrian mall in historic Windsor...

...comes alive with stalls and shoppers. 

On the weekday we visited, the shop-lined stretch was much quieter....

..... with a homespun feel to it...

...and an occasional splash of bohemian chic.

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#6 Discover the river's dark side

On display in the mall was this reminder that the river sometimes throws a tantrum and delivers dangerous floods. 

Once you realise this, you will begin to notice levee banks and markers all around these towns. Flooding is to be taken seriously. You can see how high this bridge near Windsor is, and yet the marker shows at least two metres more which would be reached in a big flood.

Here, on a dry and sunny autumn day, the water is low, but that marker is a warning of where waters can rise to if it rains too heavily and that now-placid river becomes swollen with floodwaters. Find out more about previous floods....

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#7 Enjoy a good lunch

There are plenty of places to eat in the towns on the Hawkesbury - cafes, pubs, restaurants, takeaways - and we found this cafe in a strip mall in Pitt Town, just north of Windsor. Yes, it is another of Governor Macquarie's five historic towns - Richmond, Windsor, Castlereagh, Wilberforce and Pitt Town - but there is nothing old-fashioned about the food we enjoyed at Vintage Pantryas you can see.

This food would sit well on any trendy-suburb menu.

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#8 Have a drink

Pubs are not in short supply in these parts, and you can pick and choose according to what you prefer. If you like a shot of history with your beer (or your glass of wine) you can't do better than this 185-year-old hotel in Pitt Town. Renamed now as the Bird in Hand Inn it began as the Maid of Australia Inn.

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#9 Get active

With the abundance of bushland and parks and reserves in this area, it is hard not to get your exercise while just simply sightseeing.

Cycle, ride horses, kayak on the river or follow one of the many planned walks which are well-signposted, like the Great River Walk.

Who knows one of your ancestors (or mine!) could well have been likely to be assigned the building of the Great North Road that stretches over 260 kilometres from Sydney to the Hunter Valley.

Even if you are travelling by car, just north of the Wisemans Ferry river crossing you can take a short hike into the bush and marvel at the convict-built huge stone culverts and rock walls. All made between 1825 and 1836 with nothing more that picks and shovels and bare hands.

Spare a moment to consider how it must have been, forced to labour in rugged terrain in inhospitable new land, often in rain or either freezing or terribly hot conditions.

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#10 Go to church

Most people might imagine that Australia's oldest church would be found in The Rocks area of Sydney. They are (partly) right. The first church was built there, but the oldest surviving church and school is here on the Hawkesbury river, built by 15 pioneer families in 1809.

This must have been a thriving community over two centuries ago, and for decades more, as many are buried in the graveyard. It is fascinating to wander, as we did, around the graves reading the headstones and making connections between families - getting a small glimpse of what life might have been like.

One interesting stone pays tribute to someone who affected the country's pastoral industry. After all, where would the cattle farmers be without their trusty dogs? Blue Heelers are keen and independent and are especially able to work a herd of cattle, often by nipping at them.

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#11 Explore the upper reaches

The width of the winding Hawkesbury river and the dense and often mountainous terrain of the country through which it passes, has made ferries like these indispensible. There are five at various points and all operate frequently and are free of charge.

Today, much of the river passes through lush farmland ideal for raising crops and keeping stock, seen here from Hawkin's Lookout near Wisemans Ferry. The soil is particularly fertile as it is alluvial, meaning that when the river floods as it does frequently, nutrients are added to the land.

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#12 Visit a river outpost

The main town for the area, Wiseman's Ferry, was settled in 1827.

Across the road is the original Post Office which was opened in 1857 and is still operating. There are two ferry crossings in the town which is the jumping-off point for places across the river such as St Albans and Spencer.

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#13 Get creative

Wisemans Ferry has a population of around 200, but it seems many of them are talented and creative. If you visit the Ferry Artists showroom in the Wisemans Ferry Centre, you will be convinced of that.

If you think you could become bored far away from the city, you only need to speak to someone like Neil Collier (above) who was on roster at the gallery the day we visited. He is one of the Ferry Artists and specialises in quality and innovative woodwork. The gallery works as a cooperative and displays and sells a wide range of creations ranging from jewellery to glassware, ceramics and paintings - and of course woodwork.

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#14 Meet a wise man

Mr and Mrs Wiseman, this man's parents, must have been delighted that they had thought of the ideal name for their baby when they called him Solomon.

Some lapse in judgement may have caused him to be transported as a convict, but Governor Macquarie saw promise in him and he received a land grant in the area in 1817. Ten years later he established a ferry service on the Hawkesbury River to transport produce and provisions to convicts building the Great North Road.

Ultimately known not as a 'wise man', he was referred to as King of the Hawkesbury, and this main street statue commemorates him.

An innovative and energetic member of the fledgling community, his various business projects enabled him to build this home, which now is the Wisemans Inn Hotel at the top of the main street.

Inside, several rooms have been turned into a fascinating museum, Cobham Hall, filled with the original home's furniture and personal household bits and pieces that evoke what it might have been like to live here almost 200 years ago.

The view from the window gives an idea of how far up the hill the home had been built, no doubt so it could remain well clear of rising floodwaters.

Solomon Wiseman and his wife Jane now lie in this grave in the nearby cemetery on Singleton Road. Some say Jane's ghost still appears in the inn from time to time.

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#15 stay in style

In Governor Macquarie's room at the Wisemans Inn Hotel hotel you enter another era, luxurious, but old-style, complete with bathroom across the corridor. Down the main road there is also a modern motel, Retreat at Wisemans.

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#16 Pause and remember

In the local cemetery many pioneers lie at rest, oblivious to the sparkling Hawkesbury river within sight. Life would have been hard here in the early days, and many early deaths are recorded. 

Heading north to St Albans, a remote early outpost with its own courthouse and lockup. This route was also a back way to the fledgling Hunter Valley in its early days of wine production. To visit Sydney would have been a long journey either by road with horses, or on the river.

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#17 Stop for lunch

The small town of St Albans (pop. 300) serves now mainly as a centre for surrounding farms. The Settlers Arms Inn was built in 1836 and became a stopover for Cobb and Co. stagecoaches travelling between Sydney and Newcastle in the nineteenth century.

The inn offers four double rooms as accommodation, and dining has well and truly kept up with the times. Just look at this menu!

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#18 Get a surprise

You may not have realised that, at the confluence of the Hawkesbury river and Mangrove creek....

....the tiny riverfront town of Spencer is officially the Hub of the Universe.

Better still, the 'hub of the hub' - the Spencer Village Store is right across the road from the sign, so you can't possibly miss it. 

If you want to dine out, rather than on the veranda, then the waterside Dunkirk Hotel is always open, and you may meet a friendly local or two to have a yarn with.

Or you could pass the time of day with a local pelican or two!

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#19 Indulge

The Spencer Village Store also does especially fine warm-from-the-oven scones with jam and cream, and a good tea or coffee. It make a great excuse to linger longer at the hub of the universe.

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#20 explore a river town

The road from Spencer to the highway passes through beautiful countryside and orchards, leaving rivers far behind. However at Brooklyn, the Hawkesbury river has reached maturity, becoming a wide and sedate river.

Now massive bridges are needed to cross it and take the heavy road traffic bound for Newcastle in the north or Sydney to the south. Further downstream, a similarly strong railway bridge crosses the river (see above).

Brooklyn's marina is packed with craft, large and small, and it is from there that the River Postman leaves for its weekday mail-run.

Nearby, close to cafes and seafood takeaways, this mossy obelisk records the naming of this river after an English baron and his small town in the Cotswolds, 228 years ago. Funnily enough, the river itself won't have changed much at all in those years, but its shores and the craft it carries surely have. 

We have shared just twenty reasons to be charmed by this region - yet, there are many more. The important thing is to go there and discover its secrets for yourself.

 

Please make a comment to let everyone know what you have discovered.

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More information: Hawkesbury Tourism

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Text & images: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

This trip was taken independently.

 
 

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