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Mail run opens Hawkesbury River ‘secrets’

By Evelyn A. Opilas
Photos: Evelyn A. Opilas
January 21, 2018


“Join us for a light-hearted look at the magnificent Hawkesbury… as we deliver… the mail and other daily essentials…”, the brochure invited, and being drawn, I take opportunities to join The Riverboat Postman as it plies its route and in the process also unfolds the river’s ‘secrets’ to the many similarly hooked.

So enticed that within the span of one week in early January, I boarded The Riverboat Postman twice, waking up at 5:30am to catch the train to Strathfield to connect with the Newcastle line, only to find on those two occasions that ongoing track work meant I had to go to Epping and catch a bus to Berowra for the Newcastle service that will get me to Hawkesbury River station to catch the boat – yes, also on days when the heavens decided to open up.

Did I mind? Of course not, for the three-hour-and-a-bit mail run ticked the boxes that made one do the unusual willingly, knowingly, consciously – fun, adventure, sense of pride.

Fun, because the day provided a diversion from one’s daily routine; adventure because of serendipitous moments that could arise; sense of pride because one has contributed to another person’s fun and adventure, ergo, pleasant memories.

In fact there seems to be something about water transport that stop many individuals from going on a boat – “I’ll get dizzy.”; “I’ll get sick.”; “I can’t swim.” – so I get thrilled when family or friends agree to ‘sail’ with me.

“Try cruising the Hawkesbury,” I pitched to my friend, classmate and frequent Sydney visitor Philippine Daily Inquirer food columnist Norma Olizon-Chikiamco, over lunch of kare-kare, softshell crab adobo, baby crispy pata at Makati’s Milky Way – and its well-known halo-halo for dessert too.

“It’ll give you another flavour of Sydney,” I encouraged, aware of my fellow journo’s passion for delightful culinary experiences.

That was in December, before I returned to Sydney from a most profound pilgrimage to The Holy Land via Manila.

A couple-of-weeks-and-a-bit later, there we were on The Riverboat Postman with Norma’s husband Toti, who heads the Foundation for Economic Freedom, daughters Pia, who oversees editorial content for an animation firm in Los Angeles, and Lisa, a curator with the National Gallery of Singapore, and her brother Vic Olizon, who works with Ausgrid, relaxing, enjoying the views, and listening to onboard commentary that assured us “at least 95 per cent of what you hear it true”.

(By the way, should you happen to be in Singapore between now and 11 Mar 2018, Lisa curated the Juan Luna exhibit of “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna”, a part of “Century of Light”, an exhibition at the NGS of major works by masters including Saleh, Luna, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cezanne, with Luna’s ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ on show to the public for the very first time.)

With mail to the seven island stops – Dangar and Milson Islands, Kangaroo Point, Bar Point, Marlow Creek, Fisherman’s Point and Milson’s Passage – tucked safely on board the catamaran Zarapito, The Riverboat Postman, the last remaining mail boat in Australia delivering snail mail, set sail at 10am, our departure delayed by other boats at the marina, providentially perhaps, because our skipper Russell returned to the wharf to collect several members of a family who had bookings but had arrived late.

Why complain? By then we were munching on lovely ANZAC biscuits and sipping hot coffee or tea, keeping us warm from the inclement conditions outside of our boat.

“The sun will be out soon,” we comforted each other, looking for any breaks in the sky as we sailed away and became privy to ‘secrets’ about the Hawkesbury River only locals could share, be they natural, historical or designed.

The secrets of Mother Nature abound – amazing sandstone formations dating thousands of years, sturdy mangroves protecting the river’s ecosystems, shrieking native birds flying hide-and-seek among the eucalyptus trees.

There are also secrets of the historical kind, for example, the wreckage of Australia’s first warship, the destroyer HMAS Parramatta, lying derelict on a mud bank north of Milson Island.

Milson Island, first settled over 100 years ago and accessible only by boat or ferry, had been used as a mental hospital, a jail, and presently as sports and recreation centre of the NSW Office of Sports. The anecdotes of nocturnal shenanigans, police arrests and the prohibited adventures in town seem to give the island its well-earned charm.

As for secrets by design, what could surpass the Republic of Milsons Passage and its self-proclaimed king John Carrick, who appeared on the dock on my visit six days later to get his eagerly awaited mail, informing guests he could be interviewed yet seemed to be more interested in the conversation between the local historian and our MV Emily Melvey skipper Justin?

Others obliged; I took photos instead of this colourful character and his domain, having returned with family members to help niece Michelle celebrate a birthday on board The Riverboat Postman and to give the rest a glimpse of the homes, hamlets and hideaways that punctuate the Hawkesbury.

We tuck into the Ploughman-style lunch of ham, cheese, salad greens, cucumber, carrots, pickled onions, and a freshly-baked Turkish bread roll served with butter, chutneys, condiments as the mail run headed back to shore to drop anchor, the Hawkesbury’s ‘secrets’ no more.

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