THE HAWKESBURY: Life & Good Times on an Australian River

Calabash Bay Lodge

Calabash Bay Lodge

The Calabash Bay Lodge, an exclusive luxury retreat only 45-minutes drive from Sydney’s CBD, sits on the tranquil riverbanks of Berowra Creek, enclosed by 360 degrees of pristine national park and 200 million-year-old sandstone cliffs. A southern tributary of the Hawkesbury River, “Berowra” means place of many winds, according to the local Aboriginal language at white settlement in 1788. The lodge, which opened last year, is the brainchild of Kim Mathis and Derek Ellis, who fell in love with the area on a visit with friends. After ditching their jobs in the corporate world and spending time at wonderful boutique inns and Bed & Breakfast’s throughout Europe, the couple decided to create an Australian version of the authentic travel experiences they enjoyed in France, Spain, and Italy. With a background in sales, design, and online marketing, they rolled up their sleeves and committed to their Australian bush dream. Shortly after, they found the Calabash Bay Lodge─a private waterfront property on the cusp of three tributaries with uninterrupted views of the surrounding river, cliffs, and bushland.

For thousands of years Aboriginal people lived in complete harmony with the river, from which they drew life and inspiration, as evidenced by a rich collection of rock carvings, cave paintings, and middens (Aboriginal kitchens), which can still be seen today. Hundreds of these sites dot the district. At Berowra, the world’s oldest living amphibian fossil was found. The latest evidence from carbon dating remains, found below Nepean gravel beds, indicate that Aboriginal people have been in the Hawkesbury area for at least 47,000 years. Tragically, many of the Aborigines were killed by white settlers if not by the sword or gunpowder, then by white man’s disease ─smallpox, influenza, and syphilis. Many of the first settlers came to the river for the timber; later the area became a popular rum run for ticket-of-leave (emancipated) convicts. Today, this tranquil backwater is home to artists, writers, poets, and weekend Sydney urbanites who come to escape the pressures and pace of the modern world to enjoy the peace and beauty of life on the river.

Ideal for a romantic escape or weekend getaway, the lodge is a unique and beautiful place to relax and indulge with friends or family. Accessible only by boat, guests can choose to either sail, motor, or fly in by seaplane from Rose Bay in Sydney. A private mooring just off the pontoon awaits guests with their own yacht or motorboat, but the lodge also conveniently supplies a “tinnie” (a 4.5m runabout boat) for exclusive use, which visitors can use to explore the many private beaches and secret inlets along the river. Calabash sleeps up to eight people in four queen bedrooms with three ensuite bathrooms. Guests can spread out across three levels with spacious indoor and outdoor entertaining areas, all with picturesque water views. Mod cons abound, including complimentary wireless internet, LCD flatscreen TV, Foxtel satellite service with movies, a well-curated DVD collection, books, magazines, music, fully-kitted, state-of-the-art kitchen, and the all important Aussie BBQ. Babysitters are readily available for kids, so well-deserving parents can take a romantic sunset cruise or hike through the silent bush.
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Active types will enjoy the fishing, hiking, swimming, and kayaking. At high tide you can zip up into the mangroves in Calabash Bay, sink a few fishing lines, put your feet up, and crack open a few cold ones while you wait for the fish to start biting. At low tide, the bay becomes a great swimming spot to cool off in, though at your own risk as sharks are also known to frequent these waters, but the chances of being snacked on are slim, so don’t get too squeamish about it. Dusk and dawn are ideal times to explore the majestic sandstone and red ochre cliffs by kayak, traveling up the waterway and down adjoining creeks to explore Australia as the Aborigines once did. Mornings are best when the air is cool, the water is flat, and the fish are jumping. Don’t miss the old Aboriginal rock drawings of the upside down fish near Deep Bay and the rock art by the dock when you arrive at the public pontoon on Kirkpatrick Way.

Great bushwalks can be found all around, especially one right behind the lodge. Trek to the old Fretus Hotel built around the time of Australian Federation when the hoteliers thought the new government would fund the building of a road up from neighboring Berrilee. Sadly, this was not to be, but you can walk up the sandstone steps and imagine what it would have been like 100 years ago. The view is spectacular and old graffiti decorates the walls from days gone by. The Great North Walk follows along the ridges over the river towards Jerusalem Bay, but it can be steep and precarious in some parts, such as “Heartbreak Hill,” so it’s not a good one for beginners or the unfit. Be sure to slip, slop, slap on the sunscreen and wear a hat in the harsh Australian sun. Watch out for the brown snakes and to be safe, avoid all spiders. Yoga and meditation prove popular on the lower lawn or pontoon at dawn or dusk when the sun casts its honeyed glow across the sandstone escarpments above the water. Spray on the repellent as the “mozzies” can be ferocious.

Rain or shine, the Calabash Bay Lodge is a special retreat with either plenty or nothing to do. Curl up with a good book in the hammock or lie by the fire and drift off while enjoying the solace of this magical place. Rates: Weekends range from AU$1800-$2200, mid-week (2 night minimum) $600-$700 p/night, weekly $3,800-$5,000, depending on the season. Christmas and January, $1000 p/night. Includes all linen, towels, basic kitchen provisions, complimentary boat transfers, use of runabout boat and final cleaning.

Photos by Kate Ayrton and Daniel Leser

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The award-winning Berowra Waters Inn, just down river, recently reopened under the stewardship of chef Dietmar Sawyere and has become one of Australia’s finest and most romantic dining experiences. The exclusive, waterfront-access only, restaurant was originally designed by Australian architect, Glenn Murcutt. Interestingly, while Murcutt was renovating the Inn, he discovered Aboriginal midden remains near the property, which were radiocarbon dated and found to be as old as 10,000 years old. Today, chef Sawyere creates culinary delights such as chilled vichyssoise soup with fried oyster beignets, smoked ocean trout with avocado purée, grilled scallops with cauliflower mash, bacon, and chili, along with oyster risotto with caviar that melts in the mouth. The restaurant stocks a wide selection of fine wines from boutique Australian vineyards such as the Leeuwin Estate Art Series in the Margaret River in Western Australia, the Mount Mary in the Yarra Valley, and the Bass Philip Village from the now sadly burned Gippsland, Victoria region. If the “tinnie” seems too hard to wrangle after a long and boozy lunch, the Inn will conveniently provide VIP transfers for CBL guests and escort them home to the lodge for a late afternoon siesta. Prices: Four, five or six courses, AU$120, $135, $150 (including matching wines, $165, $190, $220); all cards.
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Peat’s Bite, another secluded water-access only restaurant/Inn, is a leisurely 30-minute boat ride up river and famous for its long relaxed lunches that take up most of the afternoon as guests sit back on the lawn and enjoy the food, wine, live music, and a game of chess or a dip in the pool. Prices: Set price menu AU$120 p/p. Fully licensed.

The Berowra Waters Fish Café in the Marina is famous for their light, crispy-batter fish and chips (just $11), cooked in cholesterol-free cottonseed oil with a salad on the side. You can also BYO wine with the bottleshop right next door, which also carries basic supplies if you run out of essentials like milk, bread, and beer. Prices: AU$11-$17 for main. BYO.

The Hawkesbury River is a world-class oyster farming area, famous for its Oyster leases. Guests should definitely stop by at the village of Brooklyn for a glass of wine and sample a dozen freshly-shucked Sydney Rock oysters at one of the many oyster bars to be found there. Also, to get a flavor of the area, watch a great local indie film, The Oyster Farmer–the tale of a desperate young man who hides away amongst a wonderful community of eccentrics. Think of it as the Hawkesbury River version of California’s Sideways.


Fertility Owl - Colo River by Joshua Yeldham

“Fertility Owl” by Joshua Yeldham

Artist Joshua Yeldham drew inspiration from the Hawkesbury River in his latest body of work named the Motherland, a series of intricate canvases depicting giant owls, ram’s heads, water currents, oyster leases, third eyes, and other mystical images that draw viewers into the artist’s rich, personal narrative as he takes us on an intimate journey upriver. “I’ve always followed isolation and prayer,” says Yeldham, who credits the river for its “metaphors, symbols, and old knowledge,”  in particular the resident owls, for helping he and his wife conceive two children after much difficulty. The distinctive works, which use paint, carving, sculptural, and musical elements, have a strong following among international collectors. The chairman of Sotheby’s predicts that Yeldham will become one of Australia’s major painters, so start collecting now!

Artist Margaret Preston played a significant role in the formulation of Australian modernism. Working as a painter and wood and lino cut printer, she concentrated on indigenous wildflowers and bush in the Berowra waters area where she lived between 1932 and 1939. Preston’s growing recognition of the intrinsic connection between country and art in Aboriginal culture, both informed her work and prompted her ongoing travel around Australia to study sites of Aboriginal rock painting.


The Secret River: The Orange Prize–winning author Kate Grenville recalls her family’s history in an astounding novel about the pioneers of New South Wales. The Secret River is the story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia in 1806. In this new world of convicts and charlatans, Thornhill tries to thrust his family into a position of power and comfort. When he rounds a bend in the Hawkesbury River and sees a gentle slope of land, he becomes determined to make the place his own. But, as uninhabited as the island appears, the native people do not take kindly to Thornhill’s theft of their home. The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world and his slow realization that if he wants to settle there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers. To keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to innocent people.

Salvation Creek: At 44, Susan Duncan appeared to have it all. As an editor of two of Australia’s top selling women’s magazines with a happy marriage, access to Hollywood royalty, and a jetsetting lifestyle covering stories from New York to Greenland, the world was her oyster. But when her beloved husband and brother died within three days of each other, her glittering life shatters. In shock, she zips on her work face and soldiers on, until one morning, eighteen months later, she simply can’t get out of bed. Heartbreaking, funny and searingly honest, Salvation Creek is the story of a woman who finds the courage not only to walk away from a successful career and begin again, but to beat the odds in her own battle for survival as she finds a new life and love in a tiny waterside idyll cut off from the outside world. From the terrifying first step of quitting the job that had always anchored her to abandoning herself to a passionate affair that she knows will break her heart, Duncan never flinches from the truth or loses her wicked sense of humor.  She discovers that sometimes you have to risk everything to find the only thing you need.

Latest posts by Kate Ayrton


  1. […] The Hawkesbury: Life and Good Times On an Australian River … […]

  2. Seb on October 1, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Calabash Bay Lodge has beenrecommended to us several times we are heading out to Asia in Jan 2010 and hope to get over to Australia and the Bay Lodge is on our to do list and will write up our findings.

  3. […] is the original post:  The Hawkesbury: Life and Good Times on an Australian River … Tags: adventure-plus, australian, berowra, berowra-waters, calabash-bay-lodge, experiences, […]

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