Wandering the Swan River

Originally published by the West Australian newspaper and on http://www.waterwanderers.com.au

Chris Parry and family enjoy a wander along the river on a kayaking tour.

As I paddled my way up the Swan River in a Water Wanderers kayak, I was reminded of a career a long time ago, singing and serving on the wine cruise boats that made their way up to Mulberry Farm and other Swan Valley destinations.

Leonie Cockman from the Water Wanderers has an easier job than I did when I worked on the river. She doesn’t have to put on a cabaret act while making sure sozzled people don’t jump overboard. She also provides a better lunch than the cheese cubes sweating on yellow serviettes in cane baskets that I used to serve.

My Water Wanderers tour of Ascot Waters started out as a Fathers’ Day prize and Leonie offered to take the whole family on the water. A late change in the line-up saw my brother Jamie step in and he was partnered with Tom, while my kayak partner was Matilda.

After a briefing on the correct paddling technique, we forgot everything Leonie taught us and launched the kayaks at Adachi Park in Maylands, setting off up river. Both kayaks were sea-going and equipped with rudders controlled by the paddler at the back. I quickly got the hang of lining up Jamie and Tom amidships and calling out to Matilda, “Ramming speed!” Tom would holler in horror and then berate his Uncle Jamie for not avoiding the collision. I was happy to then withdraw our bow, paddle away and leave my brother to deal with my son’s protestations.

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Ramming speed! Picture: Chris Parry

While not strictly encouraging this behaviour, Leonie was laughing, which is all the encouragement I need. She was in her own kayak and would skim around us, pointing out the features of the riverbank and cautioning us when craft bigger than ours — and they were all bigger — came cruising past.

Paddling along the Swan River. Picture: Chris Parry

We threaded our way through the moored array of boats at the Maylands Amateur Boatbuilding Yard, which is just 4km from the centre of Perth and provides a place for boat builders to plane and hammer their days away, dreaming of tight hulls and firm decks.

WA has a great history of boatbuilding and it was an important indicator of the early success of our colony that boatbuilding was been established on the Swan River, utilising local timbers.

Just a little way up the river is Tranby House, one of the colony’s oldest surviving buildings and the site of one its first farms. Built in 1839, it was the third house to be built on what was known as Peninsula Farm.

These days, Tranby House and Peninsula Tea Gardens cater to weddings and events, and are open for high tea every day of the week, serving tea in Royal Albert china.

As we continued upriver, we stayed close to the banks to make sure we got a good look at the birdlife along the way, including eastern great egrets, white-faced heron, pelicans and black swans.

Being in a kayak provided a real sense of being part of the environment around us. I felt I was more observant and was hearing more than I ever had on any of the motorised adventures I’ve had on the river.

Paddling along the Swan River. Picture: Chris Parry

As we paddled into Bayswater waters, Leonie pointed out the bat boxes attached to the shoreline trees in the Baigup Wetland.

Designed to attract bats looking for a home, this project aims to reduce mosquito populations. One bat may consume over 1000 mosquitoes in an evening and they are considered an effective and ecological alternative to chemical spraying to reduce mosquito numbers on the river.

Just before the Garratt Road Bridge, we crossed to the other side of the river and made our way through the wetlands to find a suitable landing for our sturdy craft. Leonie pulled out chairs and baskets from the kayaks’ storage holes and very quickly we’d set up a picnic camp.

From one basket, Leonie produced bottles filled with homemade lemonade. The sprig of mint within each bottle was a touch of genius, although as it was treated with great suspicion by my six year old lad. “A stick with leaves is in my drink!”

Leonie had made an absolute feast for our group and we each had a favourite. For Jamie, it was the vegetable quiche. For Matilda, it was the banana jam with coconut sprinkled on top, and for me, it was the homemade bread. Tom devoured a glass jar with peanut, caramel and pretzel chocolate cheesecake in hypnotic silence, save for the sound of the little metal spoon scraping the inside of the jar.

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After lunch, we returned our craft to the water and made our way through the wetlands before emerging back into the river proper, where we hit the sort of wind I can imagine drove the early Dutch sailors crashing into our shores. Paddles dug deep and fortitude dug deeper. I realised that as I dug my paddle into the water I was pushing my feet forward on the rudder pedals, causing the rudder to shift to the left and then to the right with each desperate paddle thrust. This caused us to lurch to port then lurch to starboard, unsettling Matilda, who was convinced we were about to be introduced to Davy Jones somewhere deep below — or, at the very least, fall among the big, brown jellyfish that surrounded our pitching vessel.

It was a short trial by wind — perhaps 500m, maybe a bit less. As our kayaks ground on the shore we’d departed from just hours earlier, we unzipped our life jackets and dropped our paddles with relief and regret. Relief to be off the water, away from the wind, and regret to be off the water, away from our adventure.

The Water Wanderers operate throughout the year and have a range of different river tours available, including a spectacular sunset tour. The Ascot Waters tour is available Wednesdays and Saturdays. No experience is necessary and, as Tom and Jamie proved, age is no barrier. Now how’s that for getting in a dig at an older brother?

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See waterwanderers.com.au.

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