You would never guess that I'm an hour from Sydney. Standing on the bridge of Australia's last remaining river post boat, the MV Hawkesbury Explorer, I'm staring out across the water at a cluster of houses that have no electricity, no telephones and no running water. Life here may have changed very little in the last 200 years, but that's just how the residents who live along the Hawkesbury River like it. Scattered among the dense greenery that lines the water's edge, this hotchpotch of clapboard houses was once home to the fishermen, farmers, loggers and salt makers who kept Sydney on its feet when it was a struggling new colony. But while the latter evolved into a thriving international city, the communities along the river remained in a time warp – seemingly oblivious to the outside world.
The post boat is the only link with civilisation. Each morning since 1910 it has set off from Brooklyn Marina in Sydney with cargos of fruit, frozen goods – and, of course, mail. These days it also takes along the odd tourist. Visitors are scarce, so you feel like you've got the place pretty much to yourself.
Having bought my ticket, I take a seat among the crates of Mighty White bread, and we begin to chug our way upriver. It's a bright morning; sunbeams wink on the water as we go past. There's no piped-in commentary to tell you what you're seeing, so I head upstairs to the wheelhouse to have a chat with the skipper. Lenn has been working on the Hawkesbury for a long time. He knows every drop of the 30-mile stretch of water from Brooklyn to Milson Island. "Back when Sydney was a fledgling colony, this river was a vital supply line," he says, in between slurps of tea. "Big cargo ships would come up from the city and anchor off Bar Point, where smaller boats from inland areas like Cowan Creek would unload their farm produce."
The areas upriver were established by Arthur Phillip, Sydney's first Governor, following an expedition in 1780 to discover fertile land that could be used for growing crops. They fed Sydney during its developing years. While we're talking, an old lady shuffles down to the end of her jetty to give us a wave. "That's Jen. She's lived here her whole life," says Lenn. "It doesn't take long before you get to know everyone around here." Further upstream Lenn points out the Blotto Grotto, a renowned drinking hole. It looks like it would more than live up to its name.
As we float our way along the four-hour scheduled route, I'm struck by the simplicity of the place. In contrast to the impersonal city, life on the river is a throwback to a simpler age. "The only time I get stressed is when I have to jump in my car and join the traffic heading back to Sydne," says Lenn.
For the lucky locals, life is gloriously uncomplicated. You wake up in the morning and open your curtains to an uninterrupted view of the river. Time bobs along at an indolent pace, the only interruption being a delivery from the post boat. Dinner can be caught by dangling a fishing rod off the end of your jetty, and if you feel the urge to chew the fat, your neighbours are only a short boat ride away.
Another bonus about living in a national park is the amazing wildlife on your doorstep. "There are three pairs of rare sea eagles living round here," says Lenn. "I see at least one of them most days." There are dolphins as well, which you'll often see mucking about in the water, along with not-so-cute hammerhead sharks. "They're mostly young 'uns up here," continues Lenn. "But I always think that if there's babies, there must be adults too. Some people swim up here, but I never would."
As we glide past Cascade Gully, we come across the wreck of the First World War destroyer HMAS Parramatta, which is grounded on mud flats. The ship played an important part in the Allies' Mediterranean campaign in 1917, but having been laid to rest here in the Seventies, she has now been reduced to a rusting brown hulk by years of Aussie sunshine and salt.
As Lenn waxes lyrical about the Parramatta's colourful past, we make our turn and head back to base. The lush green hillsides on our right are replaced by honey-coloured cliffs, which rise up to meet the electric blue sky. It's here that I spot the eagles cruising overhead, their massive wings hardly moving as they coast past on a thermal, in search of a snack. There can't be many better ways than this to deliver the post.
The 'MV Hawkesbury Explorer' leaves Brooklyn at 9:30am, Mon-Fri, returning at 1:15pm. Trips available from A$45 (£20) for adults, A$25 (£11) for children
By Simon Calder
If you are the sort of person who likes to get on an aeroplane in Britain, sit there for 24 hours and get off at your destination, then your choice of destinations in Australia and New Zealand is strictly limited. Direct flights used to operate to Adelaide, Brisbane, Christchurch and assorted other cities. These days, though, only the largest destinations are served. And you will need to start at Heathrow.
From the leading London airport, Air New Zealand will fly you to Auckland via Hong Kong or Los Angeles. In Australia the main destination from Heathrow is Sydney, served by British Airways,Qantas and Virgin Atlantic via a choice of Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. A pair of Qantas flights go from Heathrow to Melbourne via Singapore or Hong Kong.
Opt to change planes once along the way, and the number of choices multiplies. Code-share partners BA and Qantas combine to offer a range of destinations via Singapore. This airport also provides the chance to fly aboard the new Airbus A380: Singapore Airlines flies the "Super Jumbo" daily from its home base to Sydney; SQ221 is the flight to look for.
Singapore Airlines has frequent links from Heathrow and Manchester, and serves Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland and Christchurch. Malaysia Airlines has a similar offer via Kuala Lumpur. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific also offers a range of Australasian destinations – and is the only carrier to provide a one-stop link from London to the backpackers' favourite of Cairns, Queensland.
Connection possibilities via the Gulf are increasing rapidly. Emirates remains the strongest, with departures from Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle to its hub in Dubai. Here you can connect to non-stop flights to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney; other cities such as Auckland, Christchurch and Brisbane require an extra touchdown. Etihad and Gulf Air are expanding their networks via Abu Dhabi and Bahrain – Manchester to Brisbane on Etihad is the latest possibility. Both airlines may offer lower fares to stimulate business.
Airlines generally allow a stopover at en-route touchdowns either free or for a nominal fee. You could, therefore, have short breaks in a choice of cities on the way there or back – the Air New Zealand fare between Heathrow and Auckland allows you to make a round-the-world trip.
Air New Zealand is also the best bet for some South Pacific island-hopping, though the airline's "Coral Route" is being cut back from the airline's network.
You can book flights online, but a good specialist agent can help you make the most of the options, and also stitch together combinations of airlines to help you create a once-in-a-lifetime, round-the-world itinerary.
Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnz.co.nz)
British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com)
Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com)
Etihad (0870 777 0793; www.etihadairways.com)
Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfair.co.uk)
Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysia-airlines.com)
Qantas (0845 7 747 767; www.qantas.com.au)
Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; www.singaporeair.co.uk)
Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com)