By Richard Lutz in Australia.
It really shouldn’t be called Wiseman’s Ferry. There are actually two ferries to get across the looping Hawksbury River.
But for some reason, the elders have kept it a singular ‘ferry’ for this small town sitting on the end of a finger of land caught by the big slow curve of this river about 3 hours north of Sydney.
It is hot today in Wiseman’s Ferry. The temperature reaches 40C. We slowly walk to one of the two ferries, the one that gets us east across the tidal waters that surge up from a distant Tasman Sea.
It is a minuscule ride, five minutes at most. And then back again.
The open ended craft takes about 20 cars plus foot passengers-like us. It runs 24 hours a day. It never stops.
‘So, what happens if you are at the helm at say 4AM on a Tuesday night? Does a car flash the high beams or ring a bell to get you?’ I ask.
‘We’re awake.’ the pilot says. ‘But if we’re watching a video, we might get an angry call.’
Once across the Hawksbury, in the sharp sun and the fierce heat, we take the convicts’ road up the steep hill that overshadows the ferry, the town and the river.
It was built with prison labour more than a century and a half ago; the men in chains cracking and blasting the sandstone rock and laying the bed of the rudimentary road that would offer access to the fertile Hunter Valley, now well known for its wine.
We automatically head for the frequent shadows of the gum trees as the road ascends. It is hot. The cicada crickets grind out a sharp dry sound, the sound of electricity. It is constant and follows us up the convicts’ trail which is littered and beaten with the history of pain, fatigue and misery.
We arrive at a viewpoint. Below, the fertile valley is whipped by a hot wind and riven by both the Hawksbury and its tributary, the Macdonald. Both flow blue and shimmering and, in the wind, they are slivers of chopped glass in the green of the bottom land.
The Hawksbury loops like an oxbow and the high sandstone cliffs sit high above the banks. Speedboats whizz up and down the curved water. Quiet river homes peek from the wooded shores.
Later, we return to our hotel in the town, named after a freed prisoner, Solomon Wiseman from Kent,who saw money in owning a ferry, or two, to connect the rude convict road.
A quartet of firemen, called fieries around here, sit slumped against a brick wall. They are exhausted and smokey. They each clutch a can of beer. They were too tired to talk, even to each other.
The fires and threat of fires are everywhere. I say hi and then add:’Thanks.’
‘Good on ya.’ one says as he stretches a leg in the heat. Then he takes another thirsty gulp of cold beer.