Monday, May 16, 2016

Sydney to Broken Bay (Pittwater)
7/5/16 – 12/5/16

( Blog readers please note - by left clicking on  photos you will see them full size and a photo gallery below. The same applies for previous blog posts..see blog archives below.)

Having left Brian and Maree on Urchin, we retired to our on-board accommodation in the expectation of a sparkling morning for leaving Sydney Harbor rounding North Head, and, with the forecast being fine for the morning before an afternoon nor-aster, enjoying a “tourist sail” up Sydney’s northern beaches, to compliment the voyage we had enjoyed immensely up the southern beaches from Port Hacking. We thought that in the morning, with an alarm set, we would see ferries busying their way across the Heads, in the golden light of dawn. How wrong we were.
Dawn farewell to Urchin

Peering out the cockpit at first light was to look upon the world as through one was seeing it through one of Grandma’s frosted sherry glasses.  Spring Cove was obscured by a bronze haze with visibility down to a hundred metres or so. It was a smoky pea-souper, with the hint of burnt eucalypt in the air. The day before, environmental authorities had advised that up to 40 “fuel reduction” fires were to be lit in the Blue Mountains, but with the cool of the evening, the smoky air had slithered down from the hills and over the city like a carpet snake, oozing down the valley of the Parramatta, to where it now squatted, over Sydney. It was a classic temperature inversion, and it might take hours to clear. Yuk.

Hazy vista beyond North Head

Hoping for better out to sea and to the north, we hoisted anchor and made our way out of the harbour and around North Head. Abeam of Manly Beach, we knew it was there because of our chart plotter, but, not a glimpse of the land could we see. Luckily we could set a course parallel to the coast and monitor our progress on our instrumentation. The great northern beaches including Freshwater, Curl Curl, Dee Why, Long Reef and Collaroy passed by unseen although off Long Reef, we were able to see an airborne view of this potential hazard courtesy of a function on our chart plotter. The C-Map program has thousands of aerial views of Australia’s coastline and its islands in its system, and to access these we merely have to click on one of the camera icons and the view of that spot from aloft is there to be enjoyed. The practical value of this function is enormous, particularly when approaching an unfamiliar coastline. At night on watch, we often take ourselves on a “tour” of relevant sections of the coast, sometimes to prepare for what is to come, and sometimes, purely for entertainment. Now, off Long Reef, a click of the cursor has us seeing from above, on a clear day, that which lay unseen, only a mile away.

Image of Long Reef on the Chart Plotter

Off Narrabeen Beach, the air at last cleared and we emerged into a bright and sunny day with a cloud of boot-polish brown obscuring the horizon and disappearing astern. The evening news that night made much of the blanket of “smog” that had frustrated tourists viewing the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House, and had been a genuine irritant to those managing chest conditions.  With Bungan Head ahead, Warriewood, Mona Vale and Bungan Head beaches were passed before we reached it and, then, we made for Newport, Bilgola, Avalon, Whale, and Palm Beaches, before the exclusive northern suburbs gave way to the prominent buttress that is Barrenjoey Head.

There is a coastline here!

Coastal beach shacks near Palm beach

Broken Bay opens up once Barrenjoey Head is cleared, and it is the gateway to a remarkable set of waterways that are diverse, divine and impossible to ignore. Immediately to port once Barrenjoey is rounded, is the famous marine playground of Pittwater, a five mile finger of boat-mania, with a thicket of masts, like a Sumatran bamboo forest.  We had been into Pittwater in 2010 and at the Prince Alfred Yacht Club, and the Royal Motor Boat Club, we had ooooh and aaah’ed enough for twenty voyages (see our blog –, posts May and November). Whereas we cruise the coast on a budget, it was apparent that in Pittwater money rules the waves. Having stocked our larder, we had no need to divert to the south, and besides, we could ill afford to make an error and hit anything in Pittwater.

Barrenjoey Head

On the northern side of Broken Bay, Lion Island, crouches like an Egyptian hieroglyph, and watches over the entrance to Brisbane Water. Here the marked channel leads to the broad bay that is the actual Brisbane Water, ending on the shores of Gosford, miles away.

By heading west and into Broken Bay, the wide entrance to the Hawkesbury River opens to the north-west where entrance for cruising yachts is soon thwarted by the Sydney-Newcastle railway bridge, although power craft make the waters above the bridge their own and they are able to ply the waters of this system for almost 70nm, reaching as far as Sydney’s western suburb of Windsor. This is a watery playground in its own right, complete with marinas, designated jetties and courtesy moorings: and enough towns, shops, pubs tourist attractions and waterside facilities to last a lifetime; without ever feeling an ocean swell. 

As we burbled our way into broken Bay we eschewed all of these, heading for the unremarkably named Cowan Creek, which fingers its way deep into New South Wales’ second oldest reserve, the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National park. Since briefly entering this waterway in 2010, we had Cowan Creek listed as one of our “must see” destinations this time around. Cowan Creek bears many similarities to its famous neighbour to the south, Sydney Harbour, and is a drowned river valley, of recent geologic standing, just like Sydney. Unlike Sydney, whilst Cowan Creek and its offshoots, Coal and Candle, and Smith Creeks, are immensely popular waterways that can be navigated for miles, the uplands and spurs between, being part of the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, are natural bushland and forest, and not part of suburbia. These waterways carry the name ‘creek’, but their dimensions, and everything else about them make them unlike any other creek we have ever seen. Like South West Arm in Port Hacking, but on a grander scale, once you round the entrance into Cowan Creek, the frenetic world just over the horizon is left behind, and the surrounds are much as they have been for an eternity.

View back to Barrenjoey  from Fishermans Beach

In response to the popularity of Cowan Creek and its offshoots, National Park authorities have installed courtesy moorings in 14 of the bays and coves, so that visiting there can be an easy steam between moorings of preference, according to the wind and fancy. The first bays off Cowan Creek, the joint America Bay and Refuge Bay inlet lie before the National Park zone, and because of its proximity to Pittwater, its all-round shelter, and that it has a plethora of moorings as thick as hundreds and thousands on a tot’s cup-cake, it is impossibly popular. This was our sole Cowan Creek visitation in 2010, and we must have been there in mid-week, for now it was crammed with boats and we quickly voted to move on upstream, where to be on a boat was less like being at the Royal Show.  We selected Fisherman’s Beach on the northern shore of the creek for lunch and later shifted to the lee of Little Shark Rock Point, where we felt we could gain excellent shelter from a predicted northerly, and take the chance to go ashore and explore.

Little Shark Rock Point

Beaches are few in this region owing to its steep-sided topography, but at this point, a small patch of sand emerged, periodically, at low tide, enough for us to haul up our duck while ashore. From the beach, a challenging clamber across jagged and oyster clad rocks along the shoreline was possible, but going far was out of the question. Taking what appeared to be a path of sorts heading up and away from the cove, soon had us in thickets of scrub under towering eucalypts, where a machete might have been handy and every gap in the foliage had golden orb spiders dangling malevolently from intricate webs. Not seeing one of these webs and having it tangle on your face alongside a cranky arachnid would be enough to bring on a phobia. To head deeper into the forest was out of the question and we returned, defeated, to the beach. It was not hard to understand why the first settlers of Sydney were thwarted in their attempts to blaze a trail across the Blue Mountains, and it was not until 1813 that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth finally got there by following the ridges and not the valleys, into the unknown.

Successful landing on low tide at Little Shark Rock Point

Back on the beach we noted that our footprints of only minutes earlier had been crossed by a creature of sorts, and given its drag and claw markings, we suspected that our progress up the beach had been monitored as it were, and sure enough, not far away there it was, a black Goanna, lying as still as a stick with flickering tongue and bead-like eyes. It eyed us curiously and we left it in peace, content in the autumnal sun. Aloft, a juvenile Sea Eagle wheeled effortlessly before alighting on a tree on the point, eyeing speculatively the shoals of fry flitting in the cove, oblivious to the fine line that they were drawing between swimmer and dinner. It was hard to comprehend that earlier the same day we were in suburban Manly.
Wonderful wildlife

Given the beauty of the forest all about, we yearned to explore a walking trail in the area, but realised that many of the trails into the Chase from suburbs to the south made their way along the ridges far above but did not wend their way down as far as the water. Given our experience, we could understand why. Weekends attract hordes of craft into these waterways; gleaming motor cruisers, sleek yachts, fishing runabouts sprouting rods like antlers, houseboats like eskies afloat, and the odd jet ski, as irritating as a blowfly around a carved joint. For those on a mooring the palatial motor cruisers - we are like many sailors and dub them “stink boats” - are the worst, growling their way past like a highway b-double, furrowing the water like a mallee plough and leaving us to dance and heave in their wake. We were happy to see the end of the weekend, and we suspect that the sea eagles were happy too.

The return of tranquillity saw us embark on our own exploration of the waterways. Out at sea, there were strong wind warnings for nearby waters, but here in Cowan Creek the winds passed harmlessly overhead with only the scudding clouds giving hint to the difference between the outside world and the peace for us deep in the forest. There are three marinas in these waterways, Akuna Bay on Coal and Candle Creek, Cottage Point where this creek meets Cowan Creek, and Bobbin Head, located as far down Cowan Creek as it is possible for boats to go. In between, yellow courtesy moorings strategically dot the waters, and we opted to see how much of this remarkable system of bays and inlets we could take in whilst we were there.
Cottage Point and all the boats moored at the Royal Motor Yacht Club

Many years ago we sashayed through Sydney on holidays and apart from traversing the Bridge, checking out the Opera House and catching the Manly ferry, we took a self- guided drive up into Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, out of innocent curiosity and our clear preference for wilderness over suburbia. Entering the Park, the road took us down into a valley where to our utter astonishment we came upon a marina complete with svelte cruisers, an up-market café and a multi-layered storage shed for runabouts, all snuggling into a cove deep in the bush. It was hard to comprehend that here, miles from anywhere, was an offshoot of the sea complete with tides, fish, and water that was salt to the taste. To us this was boating for the rich and famous, aeons away from the tinny we had at home, and a place that we were certain, we would never enter from out at sea. This marina was Akuna Bay, and now, although we were neither rich nor famous, we planned to make our way down Coal and Candle Creek to Akuna Bay, in Calista, just because we could.

Calista (centre )in the crowded Akuna Bay Marina

On approach this time to Akuna Bay Marina, although seeming as delicious as our memories told us, we were seeing the facility through different eyes, via those in on board a cruising yacht and not as visitors by road. What we saw this time, in spite of the welcoming entreaties of management over the phone, was a cramped marina where the bow-thrusters often seen on motor cruisers (this is a small propeller inserted into a horizontal tunnel below the waterline in the bow, giving “push” to port or starboard when docking) would be invaluable, but for us to get into a visiting “pen” deep in Row B would require careful piloting and docking by our crew. Not quite close your eyes and breathe in, but close. Ashore, and with a stabilising cappuccino under our belts, in spite of ticking the “getting there” box, Akuna Bay was just not a place where we wanted to stay. Give us a forested bay over the glitz, the gold shoes and canapés any day. Yes, our revisit to Akuna Bay would be a brief one, and now came the hard part, getting back out of the marina in a boat that was reluctant to reverse in the direction that we desired. We felt like a porcupine trying to back out of a burrow.

On our way to Akuna Bay, we had noted, off Yeoman’s Bay, a further offshoot called Castle Lagoon that was cosy and as close to idyllic as any place one could imagine. Yes, there were two other boats in this secluded spot, but we could easily understand why this haven was a local favourite. A hurricane could rage hereabouts and one could lay in tranquillity in Castle Lagoon. We noted that although the rules for moorings state that only 24hour stays are permitted, in Castle lagoon, the other boats there made rules of their own, probably knowing that intervention by National Parks officials was less than likely.  Yes, Castle Lagoon lived up to its billing and for an extra treat we had a cove – side sunset that held us in the cockpit until the last rays receded in the west. It was spectacular.

Stunning sunset at Castle Lagoon

In the new day we resolved to follow Cowan Creek as far as we could go, as far as the Bobbin Head Marina. Close by was the Cottage Point Marina with a lower-key appearance compared with Akuna Bay, and with a fleet of boats tethered to Marina moorings bobbing in the stream out from the jetty. Landing here did not grip our imagination, so we continued, upstream, on our way.  Along the way we spied numerous mooring locations of great beauty, but we thought it time that we got off the boat seeking a closer look at the local environment. Many cruisers would be happy to pick up a mooring and spend the day relaxing, fishing or imbibing it would seem, but we weary of just looking at places; we want to experience them too.

One of the many mooring areas enroute to Bobbin Head

On arrival at Bobbin Head, although there were far too many expensive motor cruisers to count, there was a distinctly different feel to the place that for some reason we warmed to. For one, just across the bridge over Cockle Creek, at the National Park Information Centre, we discovered that a loop walking track originating at Bobbin Head was literally waiting for us to don our walkers and head off into the wilderness. Great!

The Bobbin Head – Sphinx Memorial – Bobbin Head track of about 12km was just the ticket, offering a fascinating shoreline tramp amongst the mangroves, followed by a climb through the forest to the Sphinx, before a ridge-top return to Bobbin Head where elevated views of the Park were a panoramic delight. The Sphinx is a post - World War One memorial, a scaled down version of Egypt’s famous monument, carved from stone by an ex-digger who in spite of lungs that had been scarred by gassing on the Western Front, completed this remarkable sculpture in the 1920’s. The Sphinx was truly a noble memorial to this awful time in our history, and seeing it was well worth the effort that it took to get there.

Wonderful forest walks

Back at Bobbin Head, our original intention was to head out to one of the anchorages we had spotted on our way down Cowan Creek, but the views of the waterways on our bushwalk, lined with mangroves and sandstone cliffs, had been so enticing that we resolved to stay another night and via our inflatable kayaks, to explore the area more fully. There were other benefits too, including the opportunity to launder both some clothes and the crew, and to take a longer look at some of the fine vessels that called Bobbin Creek home. On one of the fingers we spotted a cruising yacht of exquisite beauty, a Cabo Rico 38’ called Resolution. With her sleek lines, classy timberwork and immaculate presentation she was as beautiful a yacht as we had seen. There were many motor cruisers at Bobbin Head that would have been far more expensive to purchase, but for sheer class, and appeal to the crew of Calista, Resolution had our attention.

Beautiful Cabo Rico 38 "Resolution"

At Bobbin Head, the last outpost of Cowan Creek, the creek divides into Cockle Creek and Cowan Creek proper. With kayaks inflated, we resolved to follow both waterways as far as we could go. They were superb. At once our Kayaks took us away from all trace of humanity, and we glided over the ever diminishing creeks until they disappeared into streams trickling over moss-clad boulders. Fish dashed hither and yon, including on one sand bar a flathead as large as I have ever seen. Flooding tidal waters from a distant sea slid amongst the mangrove shoots, drawing crabs from their holes, whilst above, canyon walls of stone presented ochre coloured caverns, and all about, ferns and sturdy forest giants lorded overhead. No motorised craft are allowed on these waters and we were transported back to a landscape that has been much like this for centuries. It was hard to comprehend that just beyond the ridge-tops beetling above us, were the bustling suburbs of Sydney. This was a fabulous experience, a genuine highlight of our time in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.

Exploring Cockle Creek on our kayaks

Our track out of Cowan Creek left but one tributary of the main stream to explore. This is the mildly-termed Smith’s Creek, which duplicates the grandeur of Cowan Creek, and is especially attractive in the Twilight Inlet and Spirit Cove portions of the waterway.
Returning to Cowan Creek, with shadows lengthening, we thought to select a northerly aspect cove and pick up a final mooring, but a closer inspection of our chart showed that across the mouth of the Hawkesbury lay Little Patonga Beach, and if we hastened, we could drop anchor there before darkness fell. From there we could easily make our way seaward at first light on the 40 miles at sea to Swansea, to cross the bar into Lake Macquarie. As we settled on our chain and dinner was on the make, we reflected on our days in the Cowan Creek waterways. We found them visually stunning and just perfect for those who love boating but without the challenges of the open sea. For us, though, the open sea beckoned, and in the dawn of the new day, we would set a course out of Broken Bay, turning beyond Box Head to the North in weather that was forecast to be near-perfect for the purpose.

Our extensive exploration of Cowan Creek recorded on our Chart Plotter!

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