On the doorstep of Australia’s most populous city, the bucolic Hawkesbury River teases visitors with long-lost prehistoric wonders, a beer-less pub and audacious wildlife.

On the doorstep of Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, the bucolic pleasures of the Hawkesbury River tease visitors with hints of long-lost prehistoric wonders, a pub with no beer and some of the most audacious wildlife to be found anywhere in the world.

The 120km river reaches the Pacific Ocean at Broken Bay, 50km north of Sydney. A journey back upstream charts a meandering course past isolated hamlets and homes reached only by boat, colossal rocky cliffs, seemingly impenetrable bushland and fertile plains that were important both to Australia’s indigenous people and colonial settlers who arrived in the late 18th Century.

“If a dinosaur suddenly stuck his head out of the trees you wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” said Ann Howard, a historian who lives on Dangar Island, a tranquil speck on the lower Hawkesbury River. “You don’t have to go very far up the Hawkesbury before all the houses fall away and you’ve just got these great towering sandstone cliffs. This is a drowned volcanic valley, so the river is very, very deep. As high as the cliffs go up, it is as deep as that in the middle of the river.”

Our adventure began at dawn with the sharp thrust of a trusty motor, aboard a small metal boat along the banks of Popran National Park. We boarded under the railway and road bridges near Mooney Mooney, past the quiet township of Milsons Passage, and sailed toward Spencer, the self-proclaimed ”Hub of the Universe”.

A prawn trawler glided across the murky brown water, but mostly the river was ours. The air was thick with the din of an insect chorus, while the wind arrived in waves through the bush. In ancient times, the Dharug Aboriginal tribe came to this part of the Hawkesbury to fish and perform ceremonies, leaving carvings on the cliff rock that can be seen from the river. 

British settlers arrived in 1788, needing to feed a growing penal settlement to the south at Sydney Cove. The authorities decided that the lush banks further up the Hawkesbury would be perfect for farming, and thus the river became known as "the granary of the colony".  Over the years, the region became an axis of intrigue; with tales of colonial pirates, shipwrecks and escaped convicts.

Today the Hawkesbury River valley is home to those wanting to escape a busy, urban life, as well as legions of tourists. Accommodation is mostly found in rental homes that are ideally perched overlooking the water.

On Dangar Island, located near the mouth of the river where the Hawkesbury meets the Tasman Sea,  there are no cars. Only about 250 people live on the island, and a fleet of wheelbarrows transports essentials delivered at the ferry wharf.

“We have no traffic here, but we can get to an international airport in a couple of hours,” Howard said. “I don’t think there are many places around the world like that.”

Australia is full of a wondrous array of fauna and flora, but travellers must have a very keen eye to spot the shy and sleepy inhabitants of the Hawkesbury. It is rare to see a koala, although rock wallabies and goannas are more obliging. Many species are nocturnal, so be prepared for parades of curious possums looking for food after dark and a magnificent night time symphony of wildlife in the woods. Barbeques stir the interest of kookaburras, large native kingfishers with a maniacal laugh, which sit patiently in the trees before swooping boldly to gobble up any unattended meat. Beware the squadrons of mosquitoes, and breathe easy knowing the suitably shaped logs submerged in the gloom are not, in fact, prowling crocodiles (it is, thankfully, too far from the tropics to see the real thing).

Of course, there are other ominous threats lurking beneath the water. Aggressive bull sharks are known to inhabit sections of the river system and have killed swimmers in other parts of Australia. But Tony Lavidis, who runs Hawkesbury Expeditions and Charters, believes the risks are minimal.

“The last shark attack in this area was probably dated back to the 1920s or ‘30s. Operators do have to say to people you are swimming at your own risk, but it is not really a major issue. I’ve lived in the area for over 30 years and swum in the river and I’ve never even seen a bull shark.”

Safely on dry land at the public wharf at Spencer, a sign welcomed us to the “Hub of the Universe”.  For locals and tourists to the area, the township is a popular meeting spot, where the main attraction is a pub that is actually a picnic table under a big tree with splendid water views.

“There’s a lovely big mangrove tree across the road right next to the wharf,” said Andrew Goodman, owner of the Spencer Village Store. “The story goes that the returned servicemen after the Second World War used to gather together under the tree.”

The picnic table is about the size of a pool table. One end, the locals (who bring their own beer) call the garden bar and the other end they call the beer garden. Beer can be purchased at a general store about 10m away.

“It is world famous for its position and lack of facilities,” Goodman said. Where better to toast the end of a day on the Hawkesbury River?