Venice on the Cooks River
Cooks River Night Paddle
17 May 2023
By PHILIPA TLASKAL
When you can’t afford to glide the waterways of Venice in a gondola after the eleventh interest rate rise in a year, there is always a night kayak on the Cooks River.
Seven of us shed our business clothes for the seven kilometres of the Cooks River Paddle Trail to Ewen Park. We get changed in the gloriously Indigenously-painted Clubhouse, where you can start your nocturnal exploration of the Cooks River for a $20 month trial membership. That’s a lot cheaper than the price of one ‘Moonlight Paddle’ on Sydney Harbour that a commercial company offered during the recent Vivid festival.
On work days, getting out on the water at cocktail hour makes a paddle a weekday treat for 9-5 grinders like me.
The water is as slick as an oily martini as we slip into the high tide that levels up to the banks and makes entry easy, with the helping hand of a few mates. My new head torch has settings from As Bright As A Train Headlight through to Roxanne Red Light as fellow kayaker Tuan chuckles, motioning me to turn it down. He is on the water in a new two-seater kayak with his uni student daughter Claire.
“We are in Venice!” he says cheerily, telling us tales of a recent holiday with every anecdote ending with a tummy rumbling description of a standout Venetian meal. There is a light breeze and a full moon as we set out upstream, and our headlamps blink eerily.
(Like Venice, don’t look too closely at what is in the water. My paddle meets a kid’s potty, and soccer balls bob up from the four football fields whose floodlights illuminate the river to almost day-time brightness. At least Cooks River doesn’t smell as bad as the Venetian waterways, despite being dubbed ‘the sickest urban river’ in Australia by adventurer Beau Miles.)
Our leader suggests one of the monthly Cooks River cleanups run by the Mullets sub-group who salvage at least a ton of rubbish over the year. Now I am beguiled by the Cooks night-time mystery as seductive as any masked Venetian, and I’m willing to do anything to please her.
We slide in soft silence. Night herons, egrets and spoonbills are bedding down for the night in the mangroves, whilst the bats take off under the planes which make the waters shiver underneath us.
There is so much light that I dim and finally turn off my headlight, but I’m told by the leader that I need it in case of capsize, so they can find me in the tangle of branches and rubbish that float like grotty icebergs under the surface.
Lit-up bikes skim the edges of the cyclepaths rimming the river. Ghostly pelicans persist in their hunt, their bills fluoro white as they drift, suspicious of our presence endangering their night-time catch. The tide is so high, we bend our heads to clear under a stone bridge hung with stranded debris and plastic bags.
Checking back for the other kayakers, lights bobbing in the shadows behind me, I feel like I’m searching for seductive Daisy’s light in The Great Gatsby—‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’…
Gatsby’s fabled green light finally appears as we make it to Ewen Park. Here there is a wharf for berthing kayaks, and it has been festooned with lights like a Venetian ‘ponte’. We drift, entranced in its glow, a crowd-free light show to rival Vivid in its sparkling enchantment which transforms our faces into glowing, golden masks, worthy of Carnivale.
A pit-stop is made for a broken rudder, and a local wanders down to have a look with his tottering old dog. We circle back, with the soft night breeze colder now, chilly on the knees and feet, if you don’t have a neoprene skirt closing the opening of your boat.
Leaving the strange warmth of the river’s embrace, and hosing my kayak down, I have gone out stressed, come back calm. Sometimes there is wine on the balcony, Italian-style, but tonight I decide to drift home to a hot bath and an early bed-time to dream of gondolas.
Did you know?
Backed by a band of passionate and powerful supporters, the Cooks River is slowly coming back to life after decades of abuse. On 19 June, the Sydney Morning Herald published a fantastic visual story journaling the chequered history and brighter future for the river.