DAWN PATROL: The Pulbah Raider heads east towards Sydney Harbour Bridge, staying out of the way of the RiverCat in the distance. Picture: Scott Bevan
THROUGH his words, Mark Twain not only created one of the great paddler-adventurers in literature, Huckleberry Finn, he also encouraged everyone else to treat life as an exciting journey.
“So throw off your bowlines,” the writer famously exhorted. “Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
By the end of 2015, I was ready to throw off my bowlines. More to the point, I wanted to throw off my suit and tie. I had decided to throw in my job. After many years of living by deadlines and timetables in my work as a television reporter and presenter, I wanted to go with the flow for a while.
I decided to explore, dream and discover not by sailing away from the safe harbour, as Mark Twain advised, but by paddling around it. I resolved to spend my days kayaking Sydney Harbour.
I wanted to paddle to not just escape time but to find knowledge.
For years, the harbour had been part of my daily routine. Sitting on the train during the commute to work, I’d look down into the yacht-speckled bays along the lower North Shore.
As the train trundled across the Bridge, I’d peer through the girders to the right, to the west, towards Parramatta River. Then I’d look left, to the east, over the shells of the Opera House, across the headlands studded with billions of dollars of real estate to the distant Macquarie Lighthouse that gleamed like a white exclamation mark, noting where the continent ended and the overwhelming immensity of the sea began.
And every day, no matter the weather, as I looked around before slipping into the rail tunnel under the CBD, I would think how beautiful the harbour looked. Which is what everyone thinks when they see Sydney Harbour. And you don’t even have to be in Sydney to see the harbour.
The mere mention of the words “Sydney Harbour” brings to the mind’s eye images of the Bridge, the Opera House, sails on the water, fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The harbour is how people all over the world see not just Sydney but Australia, whether they have ever been to the city or not. The harbour is one reason why the rest of the globe thinks this country is spectacular.
Scott Bevan and his kayak at Bradleys Head on the harbour’s northern shore. Picture: Scott Bevan
Yet one day, around the time I’d decided to resign from my job, I was struck with the realisation that I didn’t know that much about the harbour.
I surprised myself withthat thought. After all, I had done more than just look at the harbour from a train. I had engaged with it to some extent. I had walked along its shores, and I had regularly paddled on it.
I would often kayak alone on Middle Harbour, marvelling at how somewhere so stunning could be so close to the centre of a city of more than four million souls. I would also paddle with two dear friends, George Ellis and Bruce Beresford, on the main harbour west of the Bridge.
We jokingly called ourselves the Gentleman Kayakers’ Club. We weren’t exactly vigorous kayakers. We’d spend more time talking, laughing, and solving our, and the world’s, problems. Yet just by being out there, we were solving those problems, at least for an hour or two, as though the water simply washed them away.
So I was already grateful for the harbour being in my life. More than being part of my routine, its waters helped grout my friendship with Bruce and George. The least I could do was to get to know the harbour better. And I knew how to do that.
When I had returned to Australia from a posting in Russia in 2010, I wanted to reconnect with where I was from. I paddled down the Hunter River in my kayak, thePulbah Raider, and wrote a book about that journey through my home region.
As a result of that experience, I had learnt that the kayak was more than a vessel for transporting me; it was a vehicle for introducing me to people from all walks of life, and for gently nudging me into new experiences and observations.
So wanting more time for myself, and desiring to learn more about the harbour, I decided to get paddling on Sydney Harbour. From the cockpit of thePulbah Raider, I would connect with where I was at.
A shipwreck carrying a cargo of mangroves in Homebush Bay. Picture: Scott Bevan
I spent the best part of 2016slowly covering as much of the harbour’s 316 kilometres of shoreline as I could, poking into the bays and coves, and criss-crossing its surface.
Seeing Sydney from the harbour flips the perspective of how many people view this place.In this city, just about everyone craves a harbour view, whether it is for a night from a hotel room, or through the windows of a trophy home.
Property buyerscan spend millions of dollarsto secure a glimpse of the harbour.
And yet from my kayak, which cost about $1000, I could gaze at the homes of all those people who collectively would have paid billions of dollars for just a sliver of what I was floating on.
I could also glean a greater sense of how the harbour had shaped the city, physically and with its identity.
Being on the water, I felt connected to Sydney’s history. It allowed me to think aboutthe original harbour people and their lives by, and on, the water, paddling their canoes, or nawi, generation after generation, long before – and after – the British arrived.
Kayaking at the feet of the great sandstone sentinels of North and South heads, I could imagine what it must have been like for Arthur Phillip and those on board the ships of the First Fleet sailing into the harbour, and into the unknown, in 1788. And in their wake came wave after wave of arrivals between the Heads, from the Old World to the new, seeking shelter and opportunity in this land. The sight of somewhere so dramatic, yet so beautiful, as they made their way into the harbour must have offered hope as well ascalmed nerves and sea-churned stomachs.
Itcertainly calmed my nerves when I paddled away from the maw of the sea and felt the soothing embrace of the harbour. Mark Twain wouldn’t have been impressed I didn’t paddle out there, but it’san awesome and slightlyscary experience, riding the swellas you gaze out at the wide blue yonder from between the Heads.
Sitting in my kayak, I could experience almost a timelessness in some bush-fringed and sandstone-edged coves, and I could witness how much human ambition had reshaped other parts of the harbour, with contagions of residential and commercial developments.
Sometimes, in the more remote parts of the harbour, I felt as though this was all mine, it was so quiet. Then when I paddled on Australia Day and at the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Boxing Day, I was but a green speck tossed about in a washing machine, as a flotilla of vessels of all sizes churned up the harbour.
The city and sails at sunset. Picture: Scott Bevan
Yet simply observing was only going to improve my knowledge to a degree. So I would pull up my kayak on the shore, or talk my way onto other vessels, and yarn with those who had established a deep relationship with the harbour. Some had worked on the harbour, such as former Cockatoo Island shipyard workers, or still made their living on or by the water.
Others I met have captured elements of the harbour with paints and brushes, helping ussee themin a different light, such as Ken Done (I spent a night in his famous and much-depicted studio-cabin by the water). I also talked with those who have celebratedthe waterway’s beauty in words and melodies, such asthe singers performingjust metres above the water at the outdoor Opera on Sydney Harbour in Farm Cove.
I spoke with marine scientists and underwater maintenance workers, environmentalists and historians. I sailed on an 18-foot skiff, Britannia, meticulously built by its skipper Ian Smith, I accompanied the environmental services teams who clean up the harbour every day, and I cruised on a huge ship and spoke to its captain about negotiating the port.
I also wantedto see the harbour icons from new angles. To experience the Opera House, I paddled around its base with Mika Utzon Popov, the grandson of the man who designed it, Jørn Utzon. Thanks to Mika’s stories about that building and his grandfather, whenever I see the Opera House now, I gaze at not only an extraordinary architectural statement but something that symbolises love and family.
Through spending time with a wide range of characters connected to the harbour, I learnt about the diverse and complex character of the harbour. After all, the harbour may enrich their lives, but these people all help give the harbour life. They are harbour people.
By kayaking Sydney Harbour, I went some way to reaching what I set out to do. I felt as though I had clawed back some time for myself, which, for someone on the far side of 50, is a wondrous sensation. And I have come to know the harbour better. I will never fully know the harbour, which is why my journey on it, and my relationship with it, will continue in one way or another.
Cover: Simon & Schuster Australia
Yet I did reachone destination in my travels. I wrotea book, which has been recently published, titledThe Harbour. The bookis about more than a city and its harbour; it is astory of how water subtly but surely shapes what we see, and how we see ourselves.
The harbour journey and the writing of the book have also reminded me, as I found on my Hunter paddle, that you don’t need to head over the horizon to have a great adventure.
As long as you’re willing to throw off your bowlines and open yourself to new experiences, there’s always something to learn, somewhere to see, someone to talk with, which allows you to explore, dream, discover, live.
Scott Bevan will be talking about his new book, The Harbour, at a free event at Newcastle Region Library at 6pm on December 14.