The slap of disturbed wash against the wharf steps and the quiet chug of the approaching Riverboat Postman, brings out of their homes the brave few who choose to live an isolated riverside life.
Some walk down the pier barefoot to see what the riverboat mailman has brought – others wait for a fellow islander to pop in for a cuppa and a letter drop.
But this aquatic postie doesn’t just bring with it letters and parcels. There have, in the 116 years since it started, been deliveries of “sly grog” in tough times, fridges, furniture, plants, countless ebay parcels. “And you get a lot of wine,” says Riverboat owner Justin Pigneguy, a local for 40 years. “You always know who’s having a party that weekend.”
Then there are the human deliveries – literally – the pregnant mother whose waters have just broken, the elderly islander who’s had a fall or a heart attack, the snake bite victim, the child going to school or the early morning office worker keen to make the fast train to the city.
Or the nurse using the service to administer life-saving medication to a housebound recipient. At the emergency call the boat stops the route it’s on and heads to the injured person, frequently arriving before the emergency services simply because the skipper knows these waters like the back of his weatherbeaten hand.
The Riverboat Postman is a window on a world of tiny riverside hamlets and close-knit communities whose members rely more intensely on one another than the rest of us.
It’s a window on lives both hampered and enhanced by the intense beauty of the Hawkesbury – its bright sunlit waters on a sunny day, its intimate little coves with just a few houses snuggling up to the foreshore, the only indication of their existence the presence of a few spindly wharves jutting out into the bay.
Three boats of varying sizes make up the fleet of riverboats delivering mail to the communities of 400 residents scattered randomly along 40 kilometres of riverside, from Brooklyn all the way up to Bar Point.
“Life on the river can be tricky,” said Justin, not the skipper but along for the ride today. “So most people tend to be pretty organised – you leave your keys at home on the river 10 kilometres away and it can be a pain.”
Quite literally. Justin tells the story of the 30 year-old girl living 40 minutes into deep bush, who had a stroke. “When her Telstra line went down, her friend texted us and we got there first. We called the ambos and told them to get the rescue helicopter. They tried to say they’d decide what to do when they got there – but I insisted and when they finally got her to hospital, the doctor said another 15 minutes and her condition couldn’t have been reversed. After four decades growing up on the river and owning boats, I’ve seen it all.”
On board today, like every day, are a large group of senior citizens enjoying a day out on the river, fascinated by the commentary from the boat’s silvertongued skipper Randall Ferrington. With 46 years under his sea cap, Randall peppers his commentary with facts and figures – like the fact that the Hawkesbury is 550 kilometres long, that it’s tidal to 140 kilometers all the way to Windsor, that Dangar Island has its own Rural Fire Service, that there are over 128 different plant species and 100 species of moths and butterflies along this winding, ancient river system.
And, says Randall with awe, that the Aborigines around here “must have had a plentiful supply of food and water given how much time they spent producing the thousands of rock paintings and carvings all around the Lower Hawkesbury.”
Once Australia Post delivers the letters and parcels to the dock at Brooklyn where the boat departs, it gets loaded onto the boat, sorted into postal sacks for its various destinations and then deposited on wharves on a designated hook or straight into the hands of the island’s posty.
He’ll then sort the items in his modest wharfside shed before jumping on an electric golf buggy to do the island deliveries. No postal bag on the hook and the River Postman silently glides past.
After Dangar comes Kangaroo Point, then Milson Island, then a detour past the wreck of the Parramatta, Australia’s first war ship. This semisubmerged rusting hulk of a thing only saw brief active service before being stripped of parts and sold for use as prisoner accommodation on the river before running aground during a gale in 1933.
Swishing past these intimate little riverside communities, it’s hard to see how housebuilding could be anything but prohibitively expensive. “Building materials are brought in either by boat, or by chopper – at $60 a minute or $4,000 an hour with a minimum of four hours,” Randall informs me. “And by all accounts, chopper pilots don’t rush things.”
Occasionally dolphins dance beside the boat, and today jellyfish and mudcrabs are lurking in tides high and low. Plovers wade in the shallow waters and sea eagles soar above as we glide under the heritagelisted Peat’s bridge. On the shores wallabies and goannas wander down to the water’s edge to keep an eye on river traffic.
Despite the natural beauty and glorious views, riverside dwellers don’t seem to have lives any calmer than the rest of us. “It’s just as scandalridden around the river as anywhere,” laughs Justin. “Affairs, divorces, gossip, back-stabbing, drug busts. We hear it all as we’re the medium between the upper river and Brooklyn residents.”
Past the spot where the oyster beds used to be – no longer viable because of the mystery bug that ruined the latest Pacific variety. Then onto Bar Point where residents – mostly artists and musicians – take turns to deliver the post to neighbours and end up staying for lunch and even dinner.
At the farthest point on the trip – Marlow Creek – a caravan park over the creek called Greenmans Valley earned its name after a bloke there killed a young mother. When the locals found him they chained him up in the river until the tide came up. “He apparently drowned and after a month his body went green,” says Justin. “They reckon her ghost still lurks there.”
Finally at Milson’s Passage we meet the self-proclaimed “mayor” of the island, retiree John Carrick, who comes down to greet the boat every day, resplendent in his homemade sash and crown, sitting in a bespoke “throne” overseeing all his subjects as they get on and off the boat. It brings another smile to the faces of residents and day trippers.
“He tells all the elderly ladies on the boat that they’re cordially invited to join the breeding programme currently underway at Milson’s Passage but that they’d need passports to be allowed to leave again…. can you imagine the gasps of horror!”
Just another day on the river, delivering mail.