Ten Best Paddles [65]

By John Colquhoun

Pat and John Colquhoun took up kayaking in their 50’s, around 1996.

Kayak choice took quite a time and entailed many hired kayaks. We decided early on that a double was required, as ETD and ETA were then the same for both paddlers. Pat sits in front and dictates the paddle pace, while John steers.

The kayak of choice was a Dusky Bay, the main criterion was “bottom” comfort. Within 12 months we were hooked on this wonderful pastime and had one Hawkesbury Classic under our belts.

Our Hawkesbury training started with an exploration of the Hawkesbury River and all its tributaries, yes, all the navigable water from the Richmond Bridge to Brisbane Water. The great part of this is that we did not seem to be training but exploring, wondering what we would find around the next bend. We saw fantastic reflections, wonderful sand stone cliffs and felt the magic of isolation.

We then “lucked” into a group of paddlers known as the “Thursday night mob” who paddled from Roseville Bridge to Balmoral and return every Thursday, summer and winter. We then found the difference between exploration paddling and paddling with a purpose. I am delighted to say 10 years on we are still firm friends with the team and paddle with them on Thursday nights, and on Sunday mornings mostly from Balmoral beach in and around the beautiful Sydney Harbour. We occasionally venture through the Heads looking for whales, or to Shelly beach or Bondi, and also in Pittwater or from Appletree Bay near Bobbin Head.

Below are our best ten paddles; the reason for sharing ours is that we hope we might start a fad and hear from all of you, by way of additional articles. We have, after a number of Hawkesbury Classics, tossed in that towel but are on the lookout for new challenges, less taxing than 12 something hours on the river in the middle of the night. We also recognise that crossing Bass Strait or paddling to New Zealand is definitely not on our agenda.

1. Nepean Expressway Bridge Penrith to the South.

There is a launching ramp, so access is easy and while it is a water ski area, continue on in to the gorge and once past the ski area, enjoy the high cliffs and the peace. This was one our first paddles and seemed a long way up to the Warragamba wall tributary. You can see the wall but can’t get anywhere near it. We would recommend a summer paddle, as the shade is wonderful but it would be cold in winter.

Half a day: easy, beautiful

2. Tallowa Dam, Kangaroo Valley.

Put in at the dam wall, there is a launching ramp but the gate is locked so there is a bit of a carry. Paddle southwest along the Shoalhaven arm to Fossickers Flat about two hours with full kayaks of camping gear. We have done this three times and are always stunned with the grandeur of the sandstone cliffs, particularly in the afternoon with the setting sun reflecting. Fossickers Flat is a sandy landing with good grassy areas to put your tent, nil facilities except solitude. Water level varies depending on how much Sydney is drawing, up stream from here is a series of rapids and pools and while we did try it on one occasion would not recommend it for fibreglass kayaks like ours. The great advantage of camping here is you only need to take drinking water as you can wash/wash up in plentiful supply.

The northern arm towards the Kangaroo Valley settlement is quite different, with flooded valleys, many with trees standing in the water, and so has a different feel. This area is more populated with hire canoes/kayaks, and while we have not paddled right up to the bridge we think it would be possible.

Easy: longer depending on how far you choose to go. Great first camping spot.

3. Balmoral Beach to Shelly Beach

Our day paddles have to have either a good landing spot for coffee that we have taken with us, or a coffee shop that will accept paddlers in their “gear”.

To paddle through Sydney Harbour Heads is an experience in itself: turning left in the early morning light with the sun on the cliffs of North Head is something special. Rounding the northern part of the headland, Manly Beach opens and you see Fairy Bower (a renowned surfing spot) on your left. Reasonable width should be given and Shelly Beach is tucked in behind, one of the few North West-facing beaches on the NSW coast. The landing is onto sand with few waves. Coffee and breakfast is available. For the more intrepid, a wave can be caught on the “Bower” however remember that you are on rock and a mistake could be costly.

Easy: UNLESS the weather and sea conditions make this a DON’T go.

4. Best Coffee/Breakfast in Sydney Harbour: Parsley Bay

Depart from any convenient launching spot on the harbour (for us Balmoral Beach), paddle early on a Sunday and you have the harbour to yourself, well almost! While destination is Parsley Bay, depending on the length of paddle you want, try going around Bradley’s Head to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge: it’s like having a magnet attached, and you just have to paddle up and under the Bridge. Back then to Parsley Bay, we have found this to be the best value on the harbour, it is the beach next south from Watson’s Bay (there is a swim barrier which can be crossed at either end, watch out for swimmers!)

Easy: unless you set yourself an ambitious distance. Watch out for the ferries and any other commercial traffic particularly when crossing the Western Channel.

5. Pittwater, Clareville Beach to Pearl Beach

Again a breakfast paddle, you have an opportunity to see the best of Pittwater as you paddle North past Barrenjoey on your right, then you can decide which side to take Lion Island, we normally choose the eastern side going and the western side returning. There is a bombora on the northeastern side of the Island which should be given a wide berth if a sea is rolling. Pearl beach is the first beach on your left, the landing area is tight up on the southern end, watch out for the shore break. Coffee/ breakfast is just a short walk across the sand.

Easy: but weather dependant, it’s a long way back in a Southerly.

6. North Island New Zealand

This for us was our first guided paddle. Accommodation was part of the package and was basic, but fun. The paddle was a real adventure we went places we would not have considered by ourselves, we were in and out of sea caves and into rock channels that could only be found if you knew where to look. We were lucky to be the only customers and we chose a double kayak, this made it more difficult getting into and out of tight spots, but on the transits our guide had to tell us to slow down, as we were here on holidays (one of the downsides of paddling with Mirage paddlers on Thursday nights!). The second day we paddled to Whangapoa Harbour and did some fishing, a great part of a great Island.

Easy: could be frustrating if you were with a bunch of non paddlers.

7. The Hawkesbury Classic, October each year

It’s a fundraiser, remember that!!! The buzz you get from the training, the anticipation and the run up to the start on Saturday afternoon makes it all worthwhile. The added bonus is how wonderful the road bridge looks at Brooklyn. The “in between” is as hard as you choose to make it.

Your first choice is which class you elect to enter, the FUN class is “Brooklyn or bust” and has a huge variety of craft that enter. The advantage of this start is that you go first, and are in company with people who are doing the paddle for the experience. Most of the way you will be in sight of other boats and have the faster boats passing you.

The other starts are divided into roughly similar craft from recreational sea kayaks to Olympic craft paddled by Olympians. Things here take on a whole different view, this is still a fundraiser but there is not as much FUN, serious paddlers looking to do their personal bests or beat some one else. A great buzz to see your name in the book after the race however.

Best advice is to get yourself into a group of similar minded people which will make the whole experience worthwhile.


8. Lismore to Ballina, “Paddle for Life”

Again a fund raiser held in April each year a well organised charity paddle over three days, approximately the same distance as the Hawkesbury but with two overnight camping spots. Additionally there are organised compulsory stops for lunch. They have definitely left the FUN in paddling We started with bird watching binoculars around our neck on Day 1, but soon found we were with a group of paddlers of similar craft and ability, so there was no stopping to look at birds. By the end we started to have mini-competitions, but that just added to the fun.

Medium: 100+ kilometres is still a long way

9. Palm Beach to Shelly Beach (Called the 20 beaches Race)

This is an annual event run by the Surf Lifesaving movement. It is principally for surf skis but there are an increasing number of sea kayaks that enter. We have competed a number of times, breaking out through the surf at Palm Beach is quite a way to start the day! Safety is paramount to the whole paddle and you are shepherded along the way by rubber ducks. If you can’t keep up, you are forced to retire, HOWEVER what a sight to see 20 of the best beaches anywhere from the sea side. The race can be started from either end, depending on the prevailing wind, and you should remember that south of Long Reef you are a long way out.

Medium/Hard: weather dependent

10. Port Stephens – West

We have had several paddles here, we camped at Koala Shores and spent most of our time west of Soldiers Point. To see the size of this waterway from a kayak is breathtaking, but without a map it’s easy to go the wrong way. However the good thing about kayaks is that mud banks don’t hold the same threat as if you are in a boat. The paddle to Karuah is interesting with two ways to go, and if you are into oysters, a great place to stop. The oyster shed next to the baths on the east side sells them if they are about. Unfortunately Moffats Oyster Barn has closed, it was a great spot for lunch. On the northern side there are little communities which are signposted on the Highway, but which you never call into. You can also paddle quite a distance south of the caravan park and if you have an interest in wading birds, there are plenty. Don’t forget to look up in and around the caravan park where you are likely to see koalas. East of Soldiers Point is different but that’s another story!!

Easy: depending on how far you want to paddle, however the chop can be difficult if there is a strong wind.

Of course there are more – Myall Lakes, Lakes Entrance, Noosa River etc etc. What we want to hear are your thoughts of what we should be doing.