Travel

In a year of turmoil both global and personal, carefree life on a meandering river proves the perfect balm. By Rachael Mogan McIntosh.

Seeking a safe harbour

The author at the helm of the Odyssey.
Credit: Supplied

The evening light is fading on the Hawkesbury and my husband and I are starting to panic. We’re under strict instruction to moor our rented houseboat before the sun sets and things are not going well. Keith’s job is to point the boat at a buoy and motor slowly alongside while I stand at the prow with a giant stick, ready to hook the buoy-rope, pull it aboard and tie up. I make contact, thread my hook through the mossy loop and draw the heavy rope into the air. Victory!

No! Failure! The boat keeps going, pulling my pole into the river as I watch in horror. It’s the first day of our longed-for boating holiday and everything is falling apart. Keith runs on deck. “Should I swim for it?” I ask wildly. Three children watch, eyes wide. “Just steer,” Keith suggests, before untying our little dinghy and rowing after the pole, now floating some distance away. “Not into the rocks!” he shouts over his shoulder. I mutter incantations to the gods under my breath. Keith makes it back, brandishing the pole, and we start again, motoring around the bay in loops as the sky darkens. It’s a close-run thing, but by torchlight, we eventually moor the bastard. It’s a 2020-type success, which is to say, we scrambled, we survived, but the adrenaline spike required may have shaved a year or two off our lives.

In the morning, we wake to a bucolic paradise. The water sparkles, the air smells like eucalyptus and the surround-sound insulation of the looming escarpment seems to absorb all our stress. We are immediately, clinically relaxed.

These five days on the Odyssey are a much-anticipated break from the everyday. Life is busy, with work and kids and Covid-19 and Trump. Recently, my mum has developed some strange health symptoms that have required much of my attention. Stress has become a rolling boil of white noise in my mind, but on the river my worries settle into a gentle simmer. There’s no signal out here. I delete WhatsApp from my phone, just to be sure.

Over the next few days, the hours slip away as we tootle around the Hawkesbury bays, looking for moorings. Keith and I sit on the rooftop; downstairs, the children play cards and eat pistachios and bicker in short, sharp bursts. They loll about reading books, casually entwined like puppies, luxuriantly bored. We motor past the World War II-era concrete bunkers on the hillside, the 1934 wreck of the HMAS Parramatta, and little villages accessible only by boat that have us dreaming of a waterside retirement.

Being on the Hawkesbury feels like living inside a Streeton painting. Cormorants buzz the boat to swoop over and cluster on the listing masts of a piratically ramshackle fishing boat, while below, fat orange and yellow jellyfish bob lazily through our wake. Encircling us is that monumental, epic escarpment with its trees in their 40 shades of green: emerald, olive, acid, avocado. Shadows flicker with the wind as trunks grow stubbornly, resiliently straight out of sheer cliff faces, their branches reaching out like wizened fingers. The Hawkesbury bush is vital and brash and lush; incredibly beautiful. I think of thousands of years of Indigenous culture, of desperate colonial settlers scrabbling a living, and of the bloodshed that followed when the two encountered each other. Their stories feel suspended here.

The Odyssey is not a fancy vessel. She is solid and warm and inviting, with wooden handles that ask to be stroked, but the beds are terrible and the shower is unspeakable. We’re not worried. We’d prefer to ferment in our inner layers like Jacobeans than stand naked under a weak spray in a Portaloo that, despite its top note of disinfectant, seems to retain the essence of poo in its beige surfaces. We employ that ancient solution of the “whore’s bath” instead.

As our stores run down, meals become eccentric. Only a single burner works on the stove, and I’m reminded of Katharine Whitehorn’s 1961 classic of London life, Cooking in a Bedsitter.

“Cooking a decent meal in a bedsitter is not just a matter of finding something that can be cooked over a single gas-ring,” says Whitehorn. “It is a problem of finding somewhere to put down the fork while you take the lid off the saucepan, and then finding somewhere else to put the lid. It is finding a place to keep the butter where it will not get mixed up with your razor or your hairpins ... It is cooking at floor level, in a hurry, with nowhere to put the salad but the washing-up bowl, which in any case is full of socks.”

These few days on the boat, like days in lockdown, eschew normal time. They extend and stretch, having cast off the transitional minutes of travel and commuting and – guilty as charged, Your Honour – personal hygiene. We read and play Bananagrams and have two naps a day, like babies. Keith and I become boat-mooring champions. I am so chill that I even agree to a game of Magic: The Gathering with the 12-year-old, something I rarely do because the rules are migrainous.

“I cast Trumpeting Gnarr,” says my son, “by tapping my Simic Growth Chamber and Soaring Seacliff and Bonder’s Ornament, and mutating it onto Otrimi, the Ever-Playful with Predatory Impetus. And then I tap Endless Sands, two Forests and a Jungle Hollow to cast Cazur, Ruthless Stalker, which is partnered with Ukkima, Stalking Shadow, which I now put into my hand.

“Your turn!”

On our last night, there is a storm. Thunder and rain batter the boat but we are safe and warm in the Odyssey’s teak embrace. It is delightful. But then, the worst happens. We break the toilet. Was it that last meal, the one that contained chickpeas and baked beans, with the last of the spinach? The togetherness has become a little much, gastrointestinally. I am feeling the strong need for a hot bath and some social distancing. And perhaps everybody could wear a mask. Fore and aft.

When we return home, after a final day spent tossing about in the Pittwater wash, I am delighted to reacquaint myself with my toilet, my bath and my bed, but I’m dizzy for three days. I make the mistake of googling my symptoms and feel like I’m in an episode of Kath & Kim when I find that mal de débarquement is described as often happening to “middle-aged women after a cruise”.

I am relieved when the vertigo eases, but I have returned home to a world in crisis. Mum’s illness grows teeth, her symptoms becoming stranger and more inexplicable until she is eventually hospitalised and then diagnosed with a life-altering illness. Our relationship shifts, suddenly and painfully: I have become the parent, and she, the child. Mum’s paranoia merges with the end-of-empire energy of the Trump administration. Exhausted and frazzled, I watch Trump announce he has won the election from a hospital TV as my mother frets about plotting nurses, all of it taking place within the everyday strangeness of a masked pandemic world. Meanwhile, I begin a new job in suicide prevention, just for the laughs. Keeping my balls in the air takes all the hard-won resilience of middle age.

I don’t dream of Paris or London these days. I dream of a giant, slow-moving mint-green goanna on the beach, and lines of low, swift rubber dinghies full of army commandos making their way across the river while a comedy daughter shouts, “Mum! Where’s the cocaine?” I dream of steering with my toes as I search lazily for a mooring, my jumper covered in rope moss and toothpaste. I dream of lamb chops and eggplant paired with fresh-mint mojitos on the rooftop barbecue, and I dream of the teen tucked in an elfin bed, eating cashews and reading The Martian while the smalls play hide and seek.

The kids need nurturing and so does the dog and, most of all, my own frightened mother. I lean on Keith, my safe mooring, and I dream of being tucked into the wide-hipped embrace of the Odyssey, the enveloping forest and the depths below creating a security blanket that holds me close while the river rocks me to sleep. The vast permanence of the Hawkesbury brings me comfort: this, too, shall pass. Our houseboat holiday was exactly what I needed in this moment.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Seeking a safe harbour".

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Rachael Mogan McIntosh is a crisis counsellor, ethics teacher, writer and mother of three.