Planet-wide, Sydney’s superb harbour is recognised as a jewel in the crown of recreational boating. But close by lie other waterways that are at least as spectacular and enjoyable. To the south are Botany Bay, the Georges River and Port Hacking, while to the north are Broken Bay, Pittwater, Brisbane Waters, the Hawkesbury River and both Berowra and Cowan Creeks.
For the latter two, the term ‘creek’ is misleading as it has a connotation of a small, shallow rivulet, whereas both these waterways are broad, mostly very deep, and with steep rugged cliffs that create fjord-like panoramas. Perhaps partly to correct that somewhat misleading term, Cowan Creek is also known as Cowan Waters.
Kuringai Chase National Park surrounds the area and, apart from a very few private settlements, the shorelines are entirely comprised of untouched natural bushlands. There are few roads or tracks, and the absence of any significant intrusion by man has allowed a healthy population of native birds and animals to flourish. Wallabies, sugar gliders, long-nosed bandicoots and ring-tailed possums are just some of the wildlife that is prevalent.
Incidentally, there are several ways that Kuringai is spelt, including Ku-ring-gai and KuringGai; for simplicity we’ll use Kuringai here, although the national park is officially Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
Access to Cowan Waters from the sea is easy in even the largest pleasure boat, with a wide passage past Pittwater’s Barrenjoey Headland, topped by its distinctive lighthouse at the end of Sydney’s northern stretch of golden beaches. Cruising west past majestic Lion Island and continuing south-west, with the mouth of the Hawkesbury to starboard, leads into the tranquil setting of Cowan Waters.
From landward, entry points are through Akuna Bay or via Bobbin Head; both have truly spectacular road approaches with excellent boat ramps to hand. National Park fees are payable, but they represent good value when taking into account the superb waterways and marvellous natural scenery, all of which are only 45 minutes drive from the heart of Sydney’s CBD.
Countless bays and inlets run off the main stream of Cowan Creek and it would take a lifetime to explore them all. Public moorings have been laid in a number of the bays so it is often possible to enjoy boating without even the need to drop and retrieve your anchor.
Bobbin Head is the inland navigable extremity of Cowan Waters and is reached along Bobbin Head Road through North Turramurra. Even without a boat, this is a wonderland and features excellent picnic grounds, an historic building with a kiosk and National Parks office, a playground for the kids, sheltered waters for kayaks and canoes, walks through mangrove-filled nature treasure-troves, and the full-facility, award-winning Empire Marina.
HOME OF HALVORSEN
Populated by huge cruisers, but also home-base for a vast variety of other recreational craft, the marina has been built around what was for decades the home of famous Halvorsen boats. There used to be a massive hire fleet of cruisers and dayboats lined up along the waterfront. Many classic Halvorsen cruisers still ply these waterways in private ownership, either as restored hire boats or as the even more magnificent custom-built boats dating back to the 1930s that were crafted to the desires of fortunate owners.
We were most fortunate on our Cowan Waters cruise for this feature to be entertained aboard two such classic Halvorsens. Our hosts were Jeff and Lynn Walton aboard their 32ft flybridge cruiser Jasmin. This lovely wooden boat was constructed in 1962 at the Halvorsen yard on the Parramatta River at Ryde. It is a one-off design by Harvey Halvorsen (Jeff still has the original plans) that was built for the well-known Sydney Holden dealer WT Coggins.
Keeping us company were Bruce and Diane Woodward with their superb 43ft Sinabada that was launched down the Halvorsen slipways in 1964. There’s a coincidental Holden synergy between these two cruisers as Sinabada was built for Sir Frederick Sutton of the Sutton’s Holden organisation. We’ll have more on the fabulous Halvorsen story in a future issue.
Just north of, and downstream from Bobbin Head, is Appletree Bay, with more extensive grassed picnic grounds, a large carpark and one of the best boat ramps you’ll find anywhere. Wide enough for three or even four boats to launch or retrieve, the ramp has an excellent surface and runs into a sheltered bay full of moored boats. A floating jetty makes boarding and unloading safe and easy.
A little further north, but on the opposite eastern shore, is Houseboat Bay, which is so-named because the Kuringai Chase Trust kept its houseboat there and used it for meetings.
A small section of stonework and steps can still be seen at the waterfront, and just above those the houseboat’s caretaker lived in a cottage, while around the point was another cottage for a park ranger. Directly opposite was Woodnutt’s boatshed that had a slipway (remnants of the rails can still be seen), hire boats and cabins. Before the roads were built, people would walk down from Mt Kuringai station (quite a hike) to enjoy the waterside setting and the fishing.
Continuing north and downriver, there are Winson, Lords and Waratah Bays to port and Cotton Tree plus Chain and Anchor Bays to starboard. Most of the area has been Aboriginal home territory for countless millennia; evidence of their culture is widespread, including a large cave they used opposite Waratah Bay.
Chain and Anchor Bay received its name from the remnants of an anchor and chain that can still be seen in the south-western corner just off the sandbar. The anchor used to moor a long-gone river steamer that was used as a house boat, most likely by Edward Windybank, who had hire boats and other holiday attractions in Waratah Bay.
Cowan Creek then curves to the east, while running off it toward the south-east is Smiths Creek, with two bays to starboard before its tail-end sweeps almost due south into Spirit Cove. The bays and the cove provide sheltered anchorages in a serene setting.
Running almost parallel to Smiths Creek a bit to the north is Coal and Candle Creek – the name thought to be a derivation of Colin Campbell, who was a pioneer in the area. This is another pristine waterway that winds past the picnic grounds at Illawong Bay and up to Akuna Bay, where a full-facility marina village discretely nestles almost entirely out of sight until you are right on top of it. The marina has a dry-stack storage facility and there’s an excellent ramp plus plenty of parking.
Illawong and Akuna Bays can be reached by car down the winding, but very scenic, and verbally unwieldy, Liberator General San Martin Drive from Terrey Hills. The unusual name of this road came about when the NSW Government decided to use it in 1950 as a gesture of friendship towards Argentina, where General San Martin had been a military hero in the early 1800s. Despite much local opposition to the naming, it replaced the earlier and more logical, if unofficial, Coal and Candle Creek Road.
Between Smiths and Coal and Candle Creeks is a peninsula along which runs Cottage Point Road, with stunning views down onto both waterways. At the end of the peninsula is Cottage Point, which is the sole area within the national park that has a number of private residences along its shores. Originally these could be reached only by boat and comprised fishing and weekend holiday shacks. In more recent times, a fully sealed road was built and many of the homes around the Point are now very contemporary, although nearly all have been constructed to blend in with the bush.
A Marine Rescue base is positioned right on the Point along with an upmarket restaurant to which clients often fly in by seaplane. Also, there is the famous Cottage Point Kiosk, which is very popular for breakfasts and lunches that can be enjoyed from a patio right by the water, or from a small balcony that gives a fabulous outlook over the many boats moored in the bay. A small jetty is handy if you arrive by boat.
Dominating Cottage Point, though, is the Kuringai Motor Yacht Club; this is rather unique and very special in that there are no bars or poker machines, just a converted cottage as a clubhouse, glorious grounds for barbecues and picnics and the most spectacular 270-degree views out over the boating-friendly waterways. The KMYC is famous for its relaxed approach to being a true family-oriented boating club (see A focus on the family).
Across Cowan Creek almost due west of Cottage Point is Looking Glass Bay, while continuing north and turning south-east finds Yeomans Bay and the smaller, but magical Castle Lagoon. Further north still, but this time out to the west, is quite a long arm into Jerusalem Bay with the diminutive Pinta Bay to port and the even smaller Sylvena Cove to starboard.
While all these bays are simply delightful with generally calm waters and soaring tree-covered sandstone cliffs, the top of Jerusalem Bay is especially glorious with a large sandstone bluff offering wonderful colours if you’re lucky enough to see the sun bringing them to life. A sandbar creates shallow waters that are perfect for youngsters of all ages to play and swim around.
In this bay around the 1960s there were holiday cabins, hire boats and a boatshed run by John Waters. He operated a ferry called Neptune, which was a Halvorsen-built craft that had been a Qantas tender for flying boats. Waters would run Neptune from Jerusalem Bay to Brooklyn on a Friday night and pick up people and supplies to stay in the cabins over the weekend; then about 3pm on the Sunday they’d take the ferry back to Brooklyn so the guests could catch the train home. Waters built a road down to Jerusalem Bay from Cowan at great personal cost; the road is long gone, but there’s still a usable walking track.
Returning out of Jerusalem Bay and turning north-east we find Fishermans Beach to port and the larger and more popular Halletts Beach to starboard. These make a change from the generally oyster-encrusted rocky shorelines and are great spots to go ashore for a stroll and picnic.
Around the point past Halletts Beach are the twin inlets of Refuge and America Bays dotted with numerous private moorings and a few public ones. Offering sheltered anchorage, they are favourite spots that result in quite crowded conditions on long weekends. Through the week, though, especially out of holiday times, they are near-deserted and are excellent spots to stay overnight. There’s a small beach at the head of Refuge Bay and a waterfall that is quite spectacular after recent rains. Boat crews use it as a shower – but be warned that the drops can arrive with stinging force and are usually quite chilly! It’s always refreshing and invigorating, though.
If you have not yet enjoyed these waters, they are well worth a visit or cruise. It’s best by boat and if you don’t have your own, you can hire craft from Bobbin Head and Akuna Bay, or catch a ferry from Palm Beach on Pittwater. However, even just driving through the National Park affords wonderful views of the waters and bushland.
Definitely worthy of a prominent spot on any Australian boating bucket-list.
A focus on the family
Established in 1945 by a group of boating enthusiasts, the Kuring-gai Motor Yacht Club initially was based at the marina in Bobbin Head. Then the club moved its base to Halletts Beach before managing to purchase a property in a prime location at the tip of Cottage Point. The founders and their successors industriously and energetically volunteered their services to progressively develop an excellent slipway, waterfront facility with fuel and water, and a charming converted-cottage clubhouse.
Club Commodore Philip Alchin explains: “It’s very much a family club – we don’t have poker machines or bars, and no restaurant onsite. The current committee acknowledge the family club environment and atmosphere. It’s more of a real boating club and because we don’t have the facilities that other clubs do, we rely on our social activities.
“As well as official functions, such as our Opening Day in September, we have a number of cruises through the year to Berowra Waters or similar, or we go to Patonga Pub for an afternoon,” says Alchin.
“We raft up in Refuge Bay at Christmas time and we do an Easter cruise up to Colo. Our current membership is about 260 in total, with about 170 boat-owning members. We have 83 moorings in the bay for members – the waiting list is becoming shorter at present.”
For more information, go to: kmyc.com.au.
Park with a past
The geology of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park dates back 220 million years to a time when giant rivers deposited sands that were eventually compacted into sandstone. The ice ages that occurred between 10,000 and 1 million years ago drew much of the planet’s water into the polar ice caps and the resulting lower sea levels made it possible for rivers to erode deeper into coastal landforms producing steep-sided clefts.
As the ice ages came to an end, waters thawed out of the polar caps to raise sea levels that then flooded into the clefts, forming rivers and creeks. In Cowan Creek, the waters are deep, plunging straight down to 10 fathoms or more in an underwater continuation of the high, often almost sheer, escarpments that form the shoreline. Exposed areas of the sandstone strata show weathered patterns of striking colour to contrast against the typically Australian bush that thrives in the nutrients washed down from the higher clifftops.
After countless generations of Aborigines had inhabited the area, from about the late 1880s it became popular with the ‘new settlers’. Boatbuilder Edward Windybank established himself in Waratah Bay in 1887 and set up a holiday ‘resort’ with cabins, hire boats and various forms of entertainment.
Not long after, in 1894, naturalist Eccleston du Faur worked hard to get Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park established and was the managing trustee for a decade. In 1901 he helped fund the road down to Bobbin Head, initially from Turramurra, and in 1903 that became a loop up the other side to Mt Colah. Eccleston du Faur remained involved with the Ku-ring-gai Chase Trust until he died in 1915.
Bobbin Head was developed through the 1930s to ‘50s with various shelters and buildings, including the beautiful Bobbin Inn, which today is the park’s visitor centre.
In 1967, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service was created, assuming responsibility for managing Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park with a focus on nature conservation. A koala sanctuary was built in the 1950s that is now the Kalkari Visitor Centre on the Mt Colah entrance road.
For more information, go to: nationalparks.nsw.gov.au and search for ‘Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park’.