Car Ferries of the Hawkesbury
From the late 19th century onwards, many river and harbour crossings were operated as vehicle ferries, most of which were really punts (running on guide ropes). Most have long since between replaced by bridges, with Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ryde Bridge, Tom Uglys Bridge and Peats Ferry Bridge all completed between 1929 and 1945. But upstream from Broken Bay, the Hawkesbury/Nepean River and its tributary Berowra Creek are where you'll find almost half (6 out of 14) of the remaining car ferries in NSW. (All NSW car ferries are listed on the RMS website, except for the ones that they do not own - Lower Portland, two toll ferries on the Hastings River at Port Macquarie,and the daytime-only toll ferry in Myall Lakes National Park at Bombah Point.) Car ferries seem to live long lives (the original Ulmarra ferry was retired in 2011 at the age of 112 years) and they survive in places where replacing them with a bridge is just too difficult or expensive.
Until recent years, you were welcome to get out of your car and wander around the car ferries while under way. Sadly, since 9/11 it is no longer permitted, but you can still get close to the same experience by travelling as a foot passenger. All car ferries have a small passenger cabin, but you will have to follow the ferry master's directions for when to get on and off.
All of the Hawkesbury River car ferries are useful to reach interesting places You do need a car for these journeys; as there is very little public bus access to any of the Hawkesbury's car ferries.
Each ferry stops for a few hours, on a weekday, during the first week of each month, for re-fuelling and minor servicing. Check the days at Hawkesbury Ferry Timetables. Both that site and RMS state that Wisemans doesn't stop for servicing, but both are wrong - it does.
A traditional Sunday outing for many decades was driving to Dural to buy your peaches and nectarines in summer from the roadside orchard stalls, then returning home via the Berowra ferry. Today, Dural itself is increasingly suburban and there are fewer stalls left, but there's still some, and more further out around Galston and Glenorie. There is now more than just summer fruit available, with strawberries and vegetables also sold at some grower stalls.
Driving northwards from Galston past Fagan Park and Vision Valley will get you to the Berowra Waters car ferry and the nearby Fish Cafe at the Marina. Thankfully, the steep and narrow climb on the eastern side of the ferry has recently been widened - a little bit.
The ferry service at Wisemans is the oldest in Australia, started in 1827 by ex-convict Solomon Wiseman, when the area had become Sydney's most important food soiurce and the Great North Road was being built (by convicts) via the river crossing here as the main road between Sydney and Newcastle. He eventually built a substantial home (Cobham Hall), since converted to the Wisemans Ferry Inn, the most popular place to eat & drink in town. If you've brought your own food, there are picnic grounds right at the ferry, with a snack food shop adjacent.
On the other side of the river is Devines Hill, the best preserved remains (and with the most impressive stonework) of the Great North Road. There is a car park at the start of the Devines Hill track, 500m west of the ferry (on Settlers Road), but it only takes about two cars (with room for perhaps three on the other side of the road). So at busy times such as weekends, it might be better to park on the Sydney side and travel across on the ferry as a foot passenger in its small cabin. Devines Hill and nearby Finch's Line are World Heritage Listed, one of only four listed convict sites in NSW (the others are all in Sydney).
There is an iPhone and Android app for the Great North Road, which it's worth downloaded before you go. For Devines Hill, use the Wilkwalks brochure, which advises that it's about 2 hours return. It's also possible to do a circuit walk, returning via the original route of Finch's line, but at present this means walking back to the ferry along the busy main road (not a great idea on weekends). Another walking option is Devines Hill and Shepherds Gully, best done with two cars, to leave one at each end.
The Great North Road did not last for long The route had very limited food or water for your horse, and steamships had already solved the problem of getting to Newcastle before it was completed. And despite two years work building the Devines Hill section, within months the locals had found a much easier route via Shepherds Gully just on the other side of the same ridge - some say that Sir Thomas Mitchell was infamous for that kind of mistake once he'd made his mind up.
Two ferries are available for the crossing at Wisemans, and RMS says that both are used during daytime on weekends and public holidays.
The Webbs Creek ferry is also located at Wisemans Ferry township (turn left at the bottom of the hill). The reason for two different ferry services is that the Webbs Creek service is above the Macdonald River junction, the Wisemans ferry is below, and there is no way to cross the Macdonald below the St Albans bridge, far upstream..
The best drive trip is to use the two ferry services to do a round trip to the village of St Albans. Take Wisemans Ferry across, turn left onto Settlers Road, and follow it along the Macdonald River to St Albans village. There are two alternatives for lunch here, the Fickle Wombat and the pub, the Settlers Arms (which dates from 1836). If you brought your own food, the picnic ground is opposite the Settlers Arms, above the river. If you want to stay the night, the pub has accommodation, or there is the Court House. To return, cross the bridge at St Albans and drive back to the Webbs Creek ferry.
The Lower Portland ferry is owned and run by the local councils. The service was nearly lost in 2012 when the old ferry failed its inspection. Finally, a newly refurbished and bigger ferry replaced it in July 2013.
The Lower Portland ferry crosses just above the river's junction with the Colo River. There are surpisingly few good places to watch or photograph car ferries from, but the footpath of the Colo River bridge is one. The car ferry can be used for a round trip with either the Sackville ferry (sealed road) or Webbs Creek ferry (dirt road). The way to the ferry isn't well signposted, so you will need to point your GPS to Lower Portland Ferry (or use a map).
Travelling on the Lower Portland ferry is like going back in time to what the car ferries used to be. The boom gates are still hand operated, and the ferry's ramps are still wood - all the other car ferries on the Hawkesbury were long ago converted to remote controlled gates and steel ramps. It's much quieter than the other ferries, which seem to run continuously with a queue always waiting. Even on weekends, the Lower Portland ferry can be spotted moored on one side, waiting for the next car to turn up.
(Note that this ferry will not run from mid August to mid October 2016, see this notice.)
Australia's oldest surviving church is Ebenezer Uniting Church, built in 1809. Located in open farmland, and frequently used for filming, most Australians have seen it on television or in the movies. The small church itself is open at most times, and the parish also operates tea rooms in the neighbouring schoolmaster's house, open daily, but only from 10am to 3pm. They sell coffee, tea and scones - very nice indeed - but not lunch. The shop is also the very best place to find the river's local history books for sale.
The church's own website suggests driving there via Windsor, but a nicer way to get there is that it's located only about five minutes from the Sackville Ferry. To reach the ferry, take Old Northern Road towards Wisemans Ferry, then turn off at Wisemans Ferry Road, and turn again at Sackville Ferry Road. Once across the Sackville Ferry, drive past the Tizzana Road turn-off, then about 3km to the other end of Tizzana Road. Turn left here, then right on Coromandel Road, and you're soon at the church. (You can also take the longer route around the loop of Tizzana Road, past the Tizzana Winery. It may not be as old as Ebenezer Church, but it does date from 1887, and they do cellar door tastings on weekends. This part of Tizzana Road is dirt.)
If arriving or returning home via Windsor and it's a Sunday, then it's worth including the nearby Australiana Pioneer Village at Wilberforce. Closed for ten years (except for regular use for television) after the deaths of its founders, it re-opened (Sundays only) in 2011, now run by volunteers. There are currently 23 nineteenth-century local buildings on the site.
This page was last modified on Sun Jul 31, 2016
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