There’s so much more to Sydney than its beaches
Words and photos: Vikki Weston
Founder of She SUPs (www.shesups.com.au)
That was one of my many takeaways after spending 30 days paddling 30 different ‘waterways’ around Sydney as part of the She SUPs Sydney Expedition. I moved to Sydney five and a half years ago from London. I uprooted my life for a complete change of lifestyle, and I certainly got it. Within a matter of months of being in the country, I became hooked on paddling. First, it was kayaking, but then came SUP.
Being on the water helped me process the many downsides of being an ex-pat in a foreign country. Working in a toxic corporate environment (because it’s the only one that will give you a visa), loneliness and being away from family. But it also helped me gain so much too. I gained strength, learnt new skills and found my new identity. Being on the water helped me create a stronger connection to country and Australian culture, build friendships and connect with and learn from Mother Nature. The tides, seasons, currents, it was all new to me on this side of the world, and yet I found paddling to be the ideal teacher and was desperate to learn more.
In 2019 I had an idea. September marks the start of spring and the start of paddle season for many ‘fair-weather’ paddlers (I’m not one of them, but can relate!) On my personal paddle journey so far, I had discovered so many untouched and hidden waterways around Sydney, that only the seasoned kayakers had ever touched. The idea was that I would paddle 30 waterways of Sydney in 30 days, 30 different locations in one month, to inspire more women to hit the water, to discover these beautiful locations and gain the incredible benefits of paddling for themselves.
Well, based on my own experience, I had a hypothesis that there were many unspoken reasons why you don’t see as many female paddlers as males in the media and out on our waterways. And unfortunately, after much research, the statistics showed my hypotheses were correct. While society continues to take steps towards complete gender equality, in many countries and cultures, deeply-rooted discriminatory social norms and stereotypes remain barriers to women pursuing or participating in adventurous activities/outdoor sports. Sydney offers the ideal environment for paddlers of all experience levels and backgrounds; therefore, I had a platform, and I knew I had to do something to change those statistics.
Conducting my primary research I learnt that many women weren’t setting out on paddle adventures as they didn’t know where to go or who to go with. So to solve problem number one, I began to curate the She SUPs Sydney Expedition to highlight the incredible paddling locations on our doorstep, showing how easy it is for anyone (especially a female paddler) to access and enjoy. For problem number two, I founded the She SUPs community, to facilitate a safe and supportive environment where women across the country (and the world), could connect with like-minded women and be empowered through their paddling adventures.
On September 1st, 2019, I paddled my first waterway of 30. Middle Harbour is a place that I’d paddled regularly and is known by many due to the iconic beaches and parks surrounding it; Balmoral, Clontarf and the Spit Bridge that connects Sydney to the Northern Beaches. However, as I’d found time and time again on this journey, paddling this waterway, offered something unique that you can’t get from seeing it on the land. Middle Harbour is often a hive of activity, but on this particular morning, it was relatively calm. As I paddled along, chatting to my friend Emily who’d come along for the ride, she offered me a coffee. Taken aback, I explained that I wanted to paddle a certain distance and didn’t plan on stopping. “No!” she said, “from that guy,” and pointed to a boat ahead of us. We paddled over and met Gary – who we quickly named ‘the coffee boatman’. Gary, the coffee boatman, drives around Sydney’s waterways, bringing barista-style coffees to boats, and now it would seem, paddlers! We attached ourselves to his boat and chatted about the beautiful environment while he crafted two perfect soy flat whites, only in Sydney.
Waterway number 19, was The Hacking River, which meanders its way into Sydney’s Royal National Park. I launched from Swallow Rock at Grays Point and crossed the waterway to bury myself in amongst the safety of the mangroves. While some waterways of Sydney are untouched and feel a million miles away from the rest of the world, this area is well known by locals with jet skis and fishing boats. I quickly picked my path and darted across to the mangroves, avoiding the rowdy teens and looming jet ski wake. As I navigated deeper amongst the mangroves, the jet ski engines became a faint murmur in the distance, and I could once again enjoy the blissful sound of the bird’s chorus over the gentle splashing of my paddle I didn’t know much about this route before I set off, but it turns out I was chasing a waterfall. I could hear it before I could see it. On arrival, this waterfall wasn’t exactly Niagara Falls in its size, but it was a waterfall only accessible by SUP or kayak, meaning I had the place to myself to climb up the rocks and explore.
On day number 25, our hearts raced as we could hear the train approaching. Our iSUPs were still deflating and not yet in their bags. This train was the only one for the next two hours, and it’s no guarantee it would stop. We’d have to be on the platform and waving our arms to flag it down to ensure he’d see us. Yes, this SUP location was relatively remote, and one that I’m sure isn’t tackled by many in the way we did it. But like many things, being so remote meant that it was untouched and utterly magical.
We (I was joined that day by Claudia, a new member of the She SUPs Community) had taken the train from Hawkesbury River Station to Wondabyne and paddled Mullet Creek. Wondabyne is a station you have to request as you board, and pray that the train stops when you want to leave (excessive waving and flapping of arms encouraged). This waterway demonstrated the benefits of iSUPs (inflatable paddleboards), as we boarded the train with our Red Paddle Co bags, and inflated the boards on the jetty. As the name suggests, on the creek, our only company was mullets that occasionally flew out of the water to say hello. We enjoyed the peaceful serenity only occasionally interrupted by the click-clacking of the train passing by. We counted the trains as they passed, “That’s the 13:30,” – knowing that if we missed our return train, we’d have a very long paddle home.
Of course, not all of Sydney’s waterways are tranquil and isolated. Occasionally during the expedition, I needed to paddle two locations in one day to fit all 30 into the 30 days. The inner-city routes led themselves well to this. Paddling from Rozelle Bay Pontoon, I felt the eyes of locals upon me. I gathered this inner-city waterway, more regularly the home of charter boats, ferries and fishing boats arriving or leaving from Sydney Fish Market, was not one frequently visited by SUP boarders. The water was murky, and I refused to let my thoughts drift too far about what may be lurking underneath the surface. I focused my attention on the massive icon cutting across the horizon in front of me, Sydney’s second most famous bridge, Anzac Bridge.
While it was unknown to me when I first arrived in the country, Anzac Bridge is an icon of the Sydney skyline and history. As I paddled along, I couldn’t help but transport myself, via my imagination, to New York City, imagining how small I’d feel paddling the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge. Coming back to reality, a tiny paddler next to this architectural giant, I became aware that I was once again catching the attention of many onlookers. As I paddled closer to shore, a couple of girls were more than happy to take a few tourist snaps for me. I shared my mission, and they agreed to follow my journey via social media – hopefully, two more future paddlers set to hit the water.
Bayview Park Boat Ramp and the water of the Parramatta River around Concord offered a different type of ‘urban’. Maybe only fascinating to me due to my childhood obsession with Willy Wonka and his giant chocolate factory, but this waterway passes alongside a factory building. One thing I love about paddling is the space and time provided to think, to drift in and out of thoughts that you wouldn’t typically give yourself time or space to think about.
Today’s thoughts were factories, production lines, and the thousands of people it takes to make one small product. I still to this day don’t know what that factory makes or does. Still, I’m grateful for it featuring on my journey, encouraging me to acknowledge the value of modern produce and reflect on where our food and products come from.
Woronora River was a waterway that was brand new to me, and I’d never heard of before the expedition, but it’s now become one of my favourites in Sydney. Located in the Sutherland Shire of Sydney, Woronora is home to a scattering of houses, only accessible by boat, and offers a peaceful and protected paddle upstream. On this day, Jane joins me, another new member of the She SUPs community who like many, had only ever paddled at beach locations and popular hire spots.
As we tilted our heads back in awe as eagles circled above, and Jane chatted to the ponies grazing down by the water’s edge I was so glad to see her experiencing the benefits of paddling the lesser-known spots in Sydney. On route, we stopped for a snack. No coffee boats or cafes this time, instead Jane pointed out the edible flora along the water. Now I wouldn’t advise this approach to everyone, but Jane had recently done a course on Sydney’s edible plants and bushtucker, so I felt like I was in safe hands.
I can’t mention the diversity of paddling in Sydney without mentioning the incredible opportunities for mansion spotting and daydreaming of life about what property (or boat) you’d purchase if you won the lottery. Paddling around the eastern suburbs of Sydney, from Rose Bay to Watsons Bay, I passed lawns decorated like art galleries, giant yachts attached to private jetties creating an on-water extension to the mansions before them, and a lifestyle of the rich and famous. These properties had crystal waters glittering in front of them, and an uninterrupted view of Sydney Harbour Bridge but the best thing was – so did I from my paddleboard! Chuck away that lottery ticket, and get yourself a paddleboard!
Royal National Park
Day 29, I’d almost made it and I felt like I was finally going to achieve my mission. I optimistically set out to paddle Cabbage Tree Basin in Sydney’s Royal National Park. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, with the sun low in the sky and being a weekday in the National Park; there was pretty much no one else around. This was a route I had paddled before, so I relaxed into it within seconds, and reflected on the 29 days and waterways that I had just experienced.
As I paddled, I got that weird niggling feeling that someone was watching me. I could feel a pair of eyes on my body, and I cautiously checked behind my shoulder. A stag is poised in the water. I pinched myself, questioning whether this was some hallucination from exhaustion. Still, as I anchored my board in the sand and stopped moving, the stag continued his merry way, tip-toeing across the water and over to the mangroves on the other side.
I watched in amazement as, once on the other side of the basin, the regal stag reared up onto his hind legs and stood there with outstanding balance and ate from the juicy branches above him. I watched for what felt like hours, as he moved from branch to branch, filling himself with what Cabbage Tree Basin had to offer. Eventually, he headed off into the bushes, and my stomach began to growl as I realised it was time for me to head home too.
The last day
Day 30 and I paddled under Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunrise. Not a route for the faint-hearted or inexperienced, but as a kayak guide for a local tourism company, I knew this route like the back of my hand, and was able to pick the perfect time and place before the ferries started their morning commutes. Sydney’s waterways are all so diverse, from harbours to rivers, inner-city islands and outer Sydney National Parks. While I set out on this mission to inspire and encourage others, I was ending the expedition feeling even more inspired myself. I had paddled 30 waterways of Sydney in 30 days, but there was still so much more to explore. Being a paddler in Sydney unlocks a new world that I’m sure many Sydneysiders have never actually experienced. If you’re ever passing through or you live in Sydney, I encourage you to take the path less travelled, jump on that SUP or kayak, and go exploring the diverse paddling environments Sydney has to offer.
Vikki Weston info
It has now been one year since Vikki paddled the She SUPs Sydney Expedition and founded the She SUPs. In the past year, she’s hosted 430 female paddlers on paddles across the state of New South Wales, documented her She SUPs Sydney Expedition Journey into SUP Location Guides for paddlers, and continues her mission to empower women and girls through SUP education. Vikki lowers barriers to entry by designing unique SUP experiences exclusively for women, cultivating a strong supportive network of like-minded women, that inspires each other to hit the water, gaining all of the incredible mental and physical benefits being on the water brings. You can find out more by visiting http://www.shesups.com.au or following @shesups_ on Instagram.