A Weekend Getaway from Sydney, Australia at Hawkesbury River
Peat's Bite is one of many cafes along the Hawkesbury River, NSW. Photo courtesy Tourism Australia

The Hawkesbury River region on the east coast of Australia is a haven for families, an ideal complement to the bustle of big city Sydney. Reaching the area is an easy train ride, and it’s a far better way to get there than the way we are arriving. Driving through the congested suburbs of Sydney, the green open spaces, kangaroos and sweet little villages featured in this vast river area that flows through hills and riverflats feels very far away.

Even though Sydney’s suburbs are pushing at the borders of the Hawkesbury River region, once you turn off the main thoroughfare, the welcome sight of green undulating hills causes a whoosh of relief. We have arrived.

Near & Yet So Far From Sydney

This region was first settled by the indigenous Durag people. Pioneering English families arrived in 1794 to farm the rich fertile soil, then used the Hawkesbury River for transporting goods and people. Its fortunes have risen and fallen, and currently the area contains 17 small towns and villages near five waterways, as well as several National Parks covering more than 70% of the region.

Richmond and Windsor are the main towns to which most visitors flock; historic, pretty places with lovely Old World charm. When we visit, the purple flowers of the jacaranda trees cover the riverside lanes in colorful lilac blossoms. Colonial history is everywhere: From a large waterwheel in the center of Windsor (something to fascinate young ones) to Ebenezer Church, built in 1809 and regarded as Australia’s oldest church. At the pioneer’s graveyard at St. Mathew’s Catholic Church, a walk among the weathered gravestones brings the lives and deaths of early settlers up close and personal.

A drive along the Old Bells Line of Road with its spectacular views across the Sydney Basin, takes us to the lovely village of Kurrajong. This is the sort of place you wander around, browse, and of course, lunch. We find a gem in the Sassafras Creek Café (+61 (0)2 4573 0988) which makes use of the sweeping views to create an alfresco experience involving superb food, an art gallery and craft store.

This arouses our interest in the artists who hide away in the hills and after contacting Hawkesbury Sightseeing Tours (+61 (0)408 751 422), we set off on a drive of discovery. Guide Janice Hart reveals the artistic heart of the region by ‘dropping in’ on artists and craftspeople for a wonderful chance to chat and watch them work. One such artist, Taryn Malzard, works with chalk, creating evocative works in the former ‘Grose Wold Schoolhouse’ built in 1902.

Perhaps the most fascinating meeting is with Chris Woolcock and his wife Viktoria. Chris is a traditional rocking horse maker; surely a rare breed in this modern ‘made-in-China’ age. He and Viktoria create and restore antique rocking horses from as far back as the 1860’s and there is something deeply appealing about hand-made rocking horses that echo simpler, innocent pleasures, long forgotten.

Chris is an endearing ‘bushie’ character. Complete with full beard and battered hat, he is found in a large workshop surrounded by a delightful treasure trove of rocking horses of every description — from sad broken pieces to magnificent shining steeds with luxuriant manes and tails. The kids walk around and gaze in wonder at the horses, then “Whoa!”

Whats that? Not a horse, it’s a hand-carved train set! Down on the floor they go… “Trains go faster than horses, mum.”


A River Runs Through It

A visit to the Hawkesbury River means a cruise on the water itself. At the tiny outpost of Wiseman’s Ferry is the Leisure Lass (+61 (0)412 109 957), a rustic little wooden boat that, like the Tardis, looks tiny from the outside, but has plenty of room once you are inside. We set off, with drivers and hosts Hugh and Kathy Morris, and learn about the old boats lining the banks and the colonial buildings and farms sitting back from the river. It’s a slow life for many along the Hawkesbury and the slowness of the Leisure Lass allows us to absorb the laid-back atmosphere. That is until a wakeboarder whooshes by… Okay, so not everyone lives slowly on the Hawkesbury.

Inspired by the cruise, we decide to explore the river further by hiring a motor cruiser ourselves and spending a few days near the mouth of the Hawkesbury, visiting its offshoots and creeks. With a member of EOS Yacht Charter (+61 (0)2 9979 6188) we learned how to handle the big, comfortable boat and become part of the magical river life. The Hawkesbury has a strong history of water transport from the time when its trade and passenger services were the life-blood of the region, so there is no shortage of boats, moorings and piers to access villages and beaches. This water travel is so easy.

Once, we pass the riverboat Postman delivering mail to people who live along the river but have no access other than water. It’s a poignant sight, as this is Australia’s last riverboat postal service, signifying a wonderfully different lifestyle to most of us.

Cruising on the Hawkesbury means the family can lose itself in the nooks and crannies of the National Parks and find itself ‘away from it all.’ Our few days on the water reveals forest-lined waterways and the odd cottage or riverside community tucked away in the bush. The days pass among peaceful remote anchorages, barbequing fish on the top deck and watching birds dive through the water’s glassy surface, pulling out fish with a smug flourish and a snap of wings.

Even running on to a sandbar in the middle of one little creek became an adventure. Our eldest son helped to back away and navigate back to deeper water: an adventure to be told to wide-eyed friends back home.

To find such a green slow world full of nature, history, characters and true Aussie bush lifestyles so close to the biggest city in Australia is nothing short of astonishing.

Details, Details

Heading to Sydney? The Hawkesbury has too many attractions to miss. Our rural resort retreat is at Sydney’s Championship Resort and Golf Course, the Riverside Oaks Golf Resort (61 (0)2 4560 3200). It actually does have the kangaroos, those green spaces, even some serious laughing from the strange throaty birds called kookaburras.

At Riverside Oaks, we settled into a luxurious three-bedroom house overlooking the golf course, and with a multi-generational group of all ages to cater for, made a variety of plans to play, tour and generally explore towns, attractions and of course, the river for which this region is famous.

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