Only six miles from care

It is incredible, thinks John Tylor, that you can be only six miles from suburbia but in a whole different world.

When I retired from work my wife and I thought we would be able to settle into the grey nomads’ life of chucking it all in and sailing off into the sunset. That was the plan, but then along came three granddaughters and the now familiar call to provide babysitting services. Not that we do not love them, but it does limit the amount of time available to enjoy the cruising life I had dreamed of during the more tedious days before retirement.

So, where do we go when we want to pretend we are really retired and free as a seagull? The short answer is Bantry Bay located at the northern end of Sydney’s Middle Harbour two hours from our mooring in Lane Cove River. For thousands of years, the Guringai/Gai-Mariagal Aboriginal people enjoyed the extraordinary beauty and value of this region.

The land fed and protected them with the people taking fish and shellfish from its many shallow protected waters. Then, over 220 years ago, the most radical change they had ever experienced occurred. The arrival of white settlement introduced a range of exotic diseases to which they had no immunity and, with logging, lime burning, fishing and oyster catching on an industrial scale, as time went by urban encroachment and the accompanying harassment led to the complete destruction of their social and physical structures; their downfall was now complete.

While the original inhabitants left no permanent buildings behind, there was still plenty of evidence in the form of middens, carvings and paintings throughout the area to show their occupancy over thousands of years. Governor Phillip reported in 1790 while describing Sydney: “…About the north-west part of this harbour there is a tribe which is mentioned as being very powerful, either from their numbers or the abilities of their chief. They are recorded as being a very powerful people and by far the most numerous. They were also the most robust and muscular…” Unfortunately, due to the indifference of succeeding generations of settlers, much evidence of this rich culture has been irreparably damaged.

Some more history

Bantry Bay is named after Bantry Bay in County Cork Ireland; in fact many of the streets in the surrounding suburbs are also named after Irish locations. In the latter part of the 1800’s, the area was recognised as a place for Sydneysiders to escape their congested city and in 1879 it was set aside for public recreation. Ironically, before this time the area was feared because of its remoteness and deemed to be unattractive because of its ruggedness. By the start of the 1900’s however, Bantry Bay had turned into a popular retreat complete with dance hall, picnic ground, a dining room and several summer houses.

Operated by John Dunbar Nelson of the Balmain New Ferry Company, the area was promoted as a “secluded, scenic and romantic retreat” for visitors. The original buildings have all since disappeared. Unfortunately this seclusion was to soon spell its end as a pleasure destination when, in 1906, it was chosen as the site for a government-operated explosives magazine.

The land was cheap and isolated and it was believed the U-shape of the valley would help contain and divert any accidental explosions; it was also close to the existing floating magazine in Powder Hulk Bay about one mile downstream on the eastern shore. Construction accelerated after the outbreak of World War I and by 1915 the site was ready to store up to 50 tonnes of explosives.

World War Two saw the storage magazines fully occupied, but by the end of the war the need reduced, site maintenance was becoming expensive and so by early 1973 the magazine really started winding down. By September 1973 the last stocks were removed and the site closed on 31st May 1974. Today the place is still off limits to all as the buildings are not considered safe and the soil is contaminated with industrial chemicals: lead, arsenic, chromium and copper.

Despite these restrictions, the bay retains the beauty that the early residents’ recognised. Modern visitors can continue to enjoy its remoteness despite being only six nautical miles as the seagull flies from the busy city.

Map showing the main features of Middle Harbour. More details are on AUS 200and Cruising the NSW coast by A. Lucas.

Even with a population of around 4.6 million people on its doorstep, this area surprisingly retains its peace and sense of isolation. Getting there is relatively simple, turn into Middle Harbour which is easy to find as it is directly opposite Sydney Heads. This can be a boisterous ride if there is a good sea running, but keep away from the rocks on either side and persuade your guests that the pain is only temporary. The water calms as you pass Hunters Bay to your left allowing them to enjoy the view of Balmoral Beach.

It was on the headland near Edwards Beach that the Star Amphitheatre was built around 1923-24 by the Order of the Star of the East, an offshoot of the international Theosophical Society. According to local scuttlebutt (and, why should the truth spoil a good story) they built it to observe the second coming of the Messiah who was to enter Sydney by walking through the heads. The building was demolished in 1951 being replaced by a block of units.

The depth can appear deceptively shallow, 2.5 metres, on the way to the Spit Bridge but as you pass Clontarf it drops rapidly to more than 20 metres. Here also history was made when Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh was shot by an Irish separatist Henry O’Farrell in 1868. Although the prince and a bystander, who was also shot, were not fatally injured the huge public outcry and the politics of the day saw O’Farrell executed for the offence despite his considerable mental illness.

You will approach a low bridge just after the marina to your left; remember that this bridge carries a huge volume of traffic, roughly 130,000 motorists and bus commuters, daily to and from the northern suburbs and effectively blocks the entrance to Middle Harbour. With a clearance of just over five metres at high tide you need to plan your arrival if you want to avoid a potentially long wait.

Two courtesy moorings are available to hang off until the next scheduled bridge opening but you may need to chase off the inevitable fishing dinghies and runabouts. The water depth varies in the vicinity of the bridge, but is too deep for anchoring to be a practical option. Tides can be relatively strong so if you decide to circulate, leave time to turn if you find you are downstream of the bridge. Do not stray too far from the bridge either; the operator does not like keeping traffic held up any longer than necessary.

Traffic lights control the flow of water traffic; a red light means wait, a green light means proceed with caution; forget the Colregs, we have been cut off by aggressive boaters before, so I now wait for the Alpha males to get away then we follow the line closely. Generally downstream boats have right of way.After you pass through the bridge, the marina on the port side is available for fuel. Here is also a convenient place to meet or lose crew as buses stop along the Spit Road on the city side  of the bridge.

As you reach the end of the short channel turn right, Bantry Bay is now directly in front of you in the distance to the north, but do not hurry, before you get there you have some lovely places to visit along the way.

One of the beautiful federation cottages in Sugarloaf Bay. Pic – Pic – John Tylor

The bay immediately to your left is Sailors Bay bordered by the suburbs Castlecrag and Northbridge. There is not much to see in here so have a look and move on north. Sugarloaf Bay is the next you will encounter on the western side of the channel. There are four public moorings on the western side of this bay, but in here the water is shallow enough to anchor, especially the upper reaches of North Arm; there is a shallow sand bar at the end so take it slow.

This is also a delightful place to spend a couple of lost days and there is always shelter in any wind direction. Be warned however, in strong southerly winds even the southern side of the bay can become frisky as the wind can reflect off the hills and circulate around the bay. We experienced 70 knots of southerly one night but, while the wind hit us from every direction and kept me awake for a few hours, the holding was good and we suffered no damage.

Near the southern shore two prefabricated weatherboard Hudson Homes in the Federation style were erected on the foreshore of Sugarloaf Bay in the Yachtville Estate at Castlecrag in 1904. Known as the waterfront cottages, these buildings are listed as heritage items by both Willoughby Council and the National Trust.

As you progress further, just before Bantry Bay, you will pass Middle Harbour; this runs west all the way past the Roseville Bridge. While the Bridge is 17 metres high, the pipe crossing just before here limits progress for anyone with a mast above 11 metres HWS. We anchor between the bridge and Echo Point just west of the marina on the edge of the stream.

On your way past, heed the shallow water marks just before the marina. The Roseville Bridge Marina has a restaurant, fuel and public toilets but no pump out. A good quality concrete ramp in constant use is on the northern shore but there is little interruption from the boats that roar off in their hurry to be… somewhere.

This is a good place to launch your trailer sailor; we launched our Noelex 25 from here frequently in the past; it is also a good place to meet visitors with a large well maintained car park. The depth at the wharf is probably not adequate for a deep draft vessel but it is a short easy trip in the dinghy.

A quiet dinghy or canoe ride upstream is a very pleasant way of spending an afternoon. The trip takes you through the Garrigal National Park past lovely wooded shores. To stretch the legs, a track runs along the southern side of the waterway under the Roseville Bridge. This is also a delightful walk even on the hottest of days as it is mostly under the shelter of trees and ferns.

A boat with a sail up on a mooring with dinghy out the back.
A general view of the Bay showing a yacht on one of the public moorings. Pic – John Tylor

Finally, after heading back east towards the main waterway and just before the main channel, you will find Flat Rock on your port side, a small but beautiful anchorage protected from north easterlies next to a tiny beach. A walking track passes this too.

The next turn left finally takes you to Bantry Bay. There are eight public moorings here but be early as they fill up rapidly, especially on long weekends and holidays. During the off-peak season and most weekdays, they are generally not so busy. Warm winter days are extremely pleasant here, but afternoon ends early when the sun sets behind the hills.

Still, arrive early and observe the rules; no more than one vessel and maximum time of 24 hours per mooring. At the northern end of the bay the water shoals so approach slowly, you can anchor near here if all the moorings are taken. This is as close as you can get to wilderness so close to the city.

In its heyday, the area on the east side of the bay boasted a lot more buildings than we see today. A picnic area was established for the harried citizens with terracing for the swings and merry-go-rounds, summer houses and shady nooks; with dancing and dining pavilions to entertain them at the end of their sixpenny ferry ride. Near the wharf the slipway and windlass remains are still visible but the piers are the only reminder that a dance hall had existed.

Today, the old bands of an earlier era unfortunately remain just a distant memory. The closest we can get is to put on an appropriate CD and settle back and try to imagine the elegant party goers of a hundred years ago.

Extensive logging in the area removed many of the tall trees with bullock trains bringing the logs to the wharf for transport to Sydney by barge. The remnants of this track exist just above the water line running to the south of the dance hall. We can land at the well maintained wharf and enjoy the views. A track runs from here to the top of the hill past sporting grounds to the Wakehurst Parkway. There is nothing much here but there are Aboriginal carvings and paintings reportedly in this area. So far I have been unable to find any evidence.

Another track also runs from here around the bay a few metres above the water line and this is a very worthwhile walk. Many plants and little wild creatures live here and if you are quiet it is often possible to surprise some of these especially early in the day. The waters teem with fish and, of course, sharks. Although I have not seen any myself I have resisted the temptation to confirm their presence and swim at any time, but especially early morning and late afternoon.

Jetty, boat shed, tress in background.
The jetty allows access to the toilets and tracks around the eastern side of the Bay. Pic – John Tylor

A local fisherman told me he has regularly had a fish bitten off his line which he attributes to a shark. The last recorded attack on a person occurred on January 28 1963 when Marcia Hathaway, a well-known Sydney actress, was fatally mauled. She was attacked while standing in murky water only 30 inches deep and 20 feet from the shore in the northern arm of Sugarloaf Bay not far from Bantry Bay.

Prior to that attack six others had been recorded and now that the harbour waters are cleaner I see no reason to suggest that there will be fewer of these large creatures occupying the sheltered waters here.

Many of the buildings from the bay’s time as an explosives store remain along the western shore. This was an ideal site for storing munitions during the two world wars: the entrance to the bay could be protected by booms; the fortifications and gun emplacements on Middle Head providing protection against an attempted raid by sea.

The narrowness of the bay and the steep hills round it provided additional protection from attack by air and if the enemy ever discovered its purpose they would have provided more of a challenge to shelling from the sea. There is a small concrete shed at the northern end of the buildings which may have been used as a shelter in case of attack.

The hillside along the western shore line was excavated to allow each building to be recessed into the solid rock providing protection to adjoining magazines in case of an explosion. It was hoped that if an explosion did occur the blast would be directed up and out and that the whole site would not go up. The stone from these excavations was used to fill along the foreshore in front of the buildings. A small gauge tram track was built to allow easy movement of the many boxes of explosives between the buildings and the wharf.

If you have limited time to really get away to cruise or would just like to pretend you are exploring the wilds, this is the perfect get away. The whole area is protected and gives you a chance to practice if you are contemplating that big trip. It is remote enough to enjoy its beauty while still remaining in close contact with the city if you do have to return to the urban mayhem urgently.

John is a retired electrical engineer who lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. He and his wife Patsy cruise the east coast of Australia when they can, but he is currently upgrading their venerable Duncanson 35 yacht Ard Righ. John has repaired the electrics on many yachts and gains his inspiration from these experiences as well as from the many upgrades to his own boat.

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