Travel: Australia - Silky waters run deep

Sharks lurk on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. Yet gliding along its length on a houseboat is far from an alarming experience
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"ALCOHOL AND boats don't mix," warned a sign in the galley of the houseboat that we had hired on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. Not true, I mused, sipping a cold beer in the shade of the upper deck, watching the river glide by.

When steering a 20-tonne boat, though, it is best to keep a clear head. You court derision from the crew of other vessels - and risk running aground on a sandbank - if you weave a wobbly course from side to side. With a little practice and a steady hand, though, such pitfalls can be avoided. The most inexperienced landlubbers quickly acquire the necessary skills.

A few days on the Hawkesbury, a 90-minute drive from Sydney, are a welcome break from the bustle of the city. The river wends majestically inland from its estuary at Broken Bay, passing mangrove-lined shores backed by high sandstone cliffs. There are sandy beaches where you can stop for a picnic and sheltered coves in which to anchor for the night.

We picked up our 10-berther at Wisemans Ferry, a picturesque village that was once a busy port, where the river makes a broad sweep through bush-covered hills. Tom McQuillan, from the hire company, came on board to show us the ropes. Then he was off, jumping in his dinghy and, with a cheery wave, leaving us to it.

The beauty of chartering a boat, we soon discovered, is that you feel like a free spirit. Fancy a swim? Just drop anchor and dive overboard. Fed with up with one enchanting spot? No problem; start up the engines and move on to another.

The Hawkesbury - part salty, part fresh water - is a bather's delight, although the current can be strong, and sharks are occasionally sighted in the lower reaches. If you tire of swimming in the silky waters, there are plenty of other things to do. You can explore the river's narrow creeks and inlets in a dinghy, or fish for bream, snapper and mullet. You can contemplate the pelicans, coots and other birdlife at close quarters. Or you can simply sit back, lulled by the rhythmic motion of the boat, and watch the ever-changing scenery unfold before you.

The Hawkesbury is an easy river to navigate, although mishaps do occur. Most emergency calls to charter companies come from crews marooned in the shallows (they are given the bad news that the only remedy is to stay put and wait for the next high tide to lift them off). Incredibly, there have been instances of hire boats losing their way on the river and heading out into the Pacific Ocean. One couple telephoned from Sydney Harbour to say that they had only realised they were off course when they saw a distinctively shaped bridge up ahead.

The Hawkesbury Valley was discovered by the first New South Wales settlers, who were searching for fertile land to grow crops for the colony. The river, a main route for shipping produce to Sydney, flows past churches and farmsteads built in those pioneering days. Historic buildings include the Wisemans Ferry Inn, which dates from 1821.

If you hanker for a break on terra firma, you can explore the villages situated at intervals along both banks. There are also restaurants on shore, for when the galley gets claustrophobic. At Spencer, a tiny settlement consisting of a general store and a few houses, a sign on the jetty reads: "Welcome to Spencer, hub of the universe." The place, as indicated in the tongue-in-cheek greeting, has few tourist attractions to detain the visitor. At the general store, though, you can stock up on vital supplies of food, ice and fishing bait.

On the river itself, a sense of community prevails. The crew of another houseboat warned us off spending the night in a spot where they had drifted alarmingly after their anchor slipped. A couple on a passing cabin cruiser lent us salt and pepper, defusing a domestic crisis.

This being Australia, our houseboat came equipped with a barbecue. The first evening, we dropped anchor at a scenic bend and feasted on chargrilled prawns, cod, chicken and chorizo, washed down with wine from the Hunter Valley, north of the Hawkesbury. As night fell, the river turned inky black and the gum trees cast dark reflections. The silence was broken only by the demented cackling of a kookaburra. I fell asleep fanned by a gentle breeze and awoke to the sight of sunlight dappling off the water.