A Fun Day on the Riverboat Postman – Prison Stories and Shipwrecks Ahoy

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When I was invited onto the Riverboat Postman for a day out recently, I was expecting a gentle float along the Hawkesbury River watching pretty boats float past, maybe the odd sea eagle to coo at. I wasn’t expecting tales of prison breaks, spooky abandoned buildings and shipwrecks….

But it seems that just like the gentle rippling Hawkesbury river itself, it might look serene around here, but under the surface, not everything is as quiet and peaceful as it seems.

What is The Riverboat Postman?

It’s basically the mail service by ‘sea’.

Running since 1910, the Postman delivers all the letters, bills and online shopping to six islands within a small stretch of the Hawkesbury River about 55 km north of central Sydney.

Each inhabited by just a handful of people, these islands are inaccessible by road. If you want anything – food, clothes, booze, pet food etc – it therefore has to come from the mainland…. either by making the trip to the shops yourself, or, in this age of online ordering, via the once-daily delivery of the Riverboat Postman.

And, non-postal passengers can go along for the ride.

Your Hawkesbury River cruise starts with an easy train ride from Sydney. The Postman’s dock is just a short walk from the Hawkesbury River station that’s a direct route from Sydney’s Central station.

Departure is a prompt 10am and morning tea, which includes the boat’s famous Anzac Biscuits, is served as you leave the harbour.

From this point you can sit back and relax and watch the world float past.

If it’s a bit chilly, the downstairs of the boat has large windows so you can see everything around you from the comfort of your indoor seat, or on a beautiful clear day like the one we had, move to one of the boat’s outdoor decks for a 180 degree view of the stunning scenery the Hawkesbury has to offer.

Where Does The Riverboat Postman Stop?

There ‘s six stops for our Hawkesbury River postman route – Dangar Island, Kangaroo Point, Milson’s Island, Bar :Point, Marlow Creek and Milson’s Passage.

The first to be visited is Dangar Island. This is the largest of the islands that the Postman calls at and home to my friend and fellow blogger Joanne, who is on the boat with me. She’s keenly peering over the edge to see if her parcel is onboard.

As we travel. Skipper Randall keeps up a lively commentary explaining about the islands and their inhabitants. On most islands, it’s one person’s job to come and collect the post which is then stored in post lockers until the residents come to pick it up.

You don’t get off at any of the stops, while the local’s sometimes use the Postman as a way to get between islands, most of the time the only things that leave the boat are a grey plastic box full of letters and a lot of parcels!

By the look of it, there’s a lot of wine buffs on these islands!

What about the Shipwrecks and Prison Breaks?

I’m getting to that bit. But the first time I realised that things might not be quite as twee as I thought out here is where I hear Randall mention the words ‘abandoned asylum.’

Looking to my right, in the far distance, I can see an island overgrown with trees and a large stone chimney.

We’re floating past Peat Island which, back in 1904, was opened as a ‘hospital for the inebriated’ – aka rehab. The idea was that the residents were far enough away from temptation to get well – over time though the hospital changed and by 1911 it became a home for those with mental health problems.

And possibly not the happiest one.

Research reveals that the institution didn’t have the best reputation. Even though many of the residents were young men or children, over 300 people reportedly died on the island, mostly from diseases, but there were also a lot of reports of mistreatment – even up into the 1980s.

Thankfully, by 2010, when the hospital closed, things had changed. The owners were far more compassionate and it was no longer seen as a place of neglect – but it’s dark history lives on and the island is currently closed to the general public.

Right now the only inhabitants are the feral rabbits that have made it home…ironically, before the island was named Peat Island, it was named Rabbit Island for this very reason.

It’s rumoured that the island is to be redeveloped as a resort. Well, it works for Quarantine Station in Manly which has turned it’s tales of sad times into an interesting and peaceful place to stay – perhaps there will be a new ghost tour (like the Q Station one we tried here) to check out?

Invasion of the Jelly Blubbers…

Once outside of Peat Island, my attention is grabbed by the water… partly, because it’s a beautiful greenish blue, but mostly by the fact that’s full of fat red jellyfish!

Known as jelly blubbers these collect in estuaries around the Hawkesbury – and today they are out in their thousands.

Their colour comes from the algae in the water and, while today, they are a rusty red, they can also be white… and further north in the river, where they eat a different type of algae, they can even turn blue.

Unlike some jellyfish in Australia, a sting from a jelly blubber is unlikely to kill you, but it will hurt… suddenly the beautiful blue water doesn’t look quite as inviting.

Next Stop, Shipwrecks

The HMAS Parramatta was a Torpedo Boat Destroyer owned by the Australian Navy. She fought in WW1, and despite her service, was destined to be scrapped – until fate intervened.

On the day in 1934 that she was actually being towed to the scrapyard the rope pulling her along snapped.

She broke free and ended up beached in what’s known as Cascade Gully…. and she proved impossible to move out of it.

It was therefore decided to leave her there. Well, most of her. The bow and stern were both removed and are actually now part of memorials in Garden Island and Parramatta. You can read more about the history here.

The Riverboat Postman will get as near to her as it can… and keep an eye out fit is been raining before your visit as sometimes there’s a pretty waterfall that runs down the rocks behind it after rain.

Milson Island – Aka Prison in Paradise

Now, if you were going to think of a good place to put a prison, an island would be it. I mean it worked for Alcatraz, and Milson Island was where the concept was tried in Sydney.

It wasn’t its first incarnation. It had once been a hospital for those with venereal disease, but, in 1972 the Department of Corrections took over and it became a minimum security prison.

Very minimum as there’s a few tales of the prisoners making a break for it.

The first lot did pretty well. They made it across the water, they made it through the bush to the nearest road, they flagged down a passing car…. only to discover it being driven by an off-duty police officer! They all got sent back to the island…. with extra time.

The next lot of escapees therefore got clever. They used canoes to get to road where a friend was waiting for them with a car. He drive them to Sydney where a fine time was had by all, and then, before daybreak, he brought them back where they paddled back to the island.

However, they left the canoes on the shore which puzzled the guards when they came across them. Why would people have come on to the island in boats rather than escaped from it? A quick inspection of the prisoner’s dorms revealed some muddy footprints on sheets and, the ruse was rumbled!

Today Milson Island is mostly used as an activity camp for schools.

A Serene Snapshot of Island Life

Now, while I’ve focused on some of the more spooky or lurid tales you’ll hear about on the Riverboat Postman, the thing you’ll be most struck by on your day trip is how beautiful it is up here and how quiet and easy it is to get away from it all.

Throughout the route locals jump on and off carrying bags, and, in once case a carrier containing a cat going to visit a nearby island.

Considering how confidently he swanked up the jetty once he was let out, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his first visit…. nor was this island home to the vets.

And just as happens on land, you also see a lot of dogs coming to greet the postman… at Milson’s Passage, particularly, our furry greeters are waiting with tails wagging, excited woofing and lots of turning in circles upon the dock.

At first I think they’ve seen that today’s parcel has come from PetSmart, but then I realise that this the first stop after the delicious Ploughman’s lunch that is served on board and, postie Tom, is handing out bits of leftover ham along with the parcels.

Milson’s Passage, is also where, if you’re lucky, the Mayor will appear to say hi complete with ceremonial robes.

The crew seem to love their job. It must be nice to have a job where pretty much everyone is glad to see you. They can’t even be bringing the gas bill as a lot of the islands don’t have gas!

I also suspect they crew are quite glad to be back on the large boat again. When the day trips on the postman were cancelled during ‘you know what’, they had to deliver the post on a small tin boat …. and apparently that didn’t make delivering the slabs of beer the residents took to ordering during lockdown quite so easy!

After three hours of important deliveries, beautiful views and tall tales you pull back into the harbour. Parcels delivered, dogs happy and a great day had by all.

If you get the chance to go you’ll have a fantastic day out – I haven’t even touched the surface of the stories and fascinating facts that Randall will tell you about the area you’re sailing past; and believe me, those views don’t get old.

How Much is the Riverboat Postman?

An adult ticket is $59. There are concession rates for children and seniors. You can also buy a reduced price ticket for families

This includes your trip and commentary, morning tea and the tasty Ploughman’s lunch below. If you want to make it even more of a special occasion you can buy wine and beer on board to sip as you sail – what’s not to love!

While on board, also pick up a copy of children’s book The Riverboat Postman by Joanne Karcz, which they sell on board. It’s a great gift for any small members of the family.

How to Book the Riverboat Postman

You do need to book trips on the Riverboat Postman in advance so visit their website here.

They sail every weekday – but, not on public holidays. It is the postal service after all and they work the same hours as your local postie does.

If you can only visit at the weekends, you might not be able to do the Riverboat Postman cruise, but you can still do a boat trip. The company offer a slightly different tour on a Sunday, along with a fish and chip lunch.

So, if you can’t make it during the week, or, have already done the Hawkesbury Postman cruise and want to see a different part of the river, then you might want to check out the Sunday on the Hawkesbury river cruise.

What Else is There to Do Nearby

If you’re looking to make a day, or weekend of it, also look into visiting the Broken Bay Pearl Farm, or explore the small town of Brooklyn once you get off the boat.

See more about those two options in this post on what else to do around Brooklyn and Mooney Mooney.

New since I was there last is The Floating Oyster and Wine Barge which does what it says on the tin(ny) and offers delicious plates of local oysters – and other seafood dishes – along with wine, champagne etc.

They sail in the afternoons, or, you can find special sunset cruises on their website.

It’s also possible to get the small local ferry to Dangar Island. I can’t suggest a better blog post to show you round that than this one by Joanne – after all she has lived there for ten years!

Although I’m hoping to head up to Dangar and the Floating Oyster barge soon so keep your eyes peeled for that post, or sign up for our mailng list to keep up with this, and other cool things to do in Sydney, and beyond.

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So, there you have it – our review of the Riverboat Postman and why it’s a great way to spend a day messing about on the river. Let us know if you tried it in the comments.

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Who Writes Differentville?

My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.

My travel articles have been published in titles including The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.

I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.

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