We should have known better than to run the gauntlet that is Sydney traffic heading north out of the city on a Friday evening. All arterial roads were clogged, crawling at a snail’s pace through Sydney’s salubrious North Shore suburbs. Impatient motorists, horns blaring, jockeying to get ahead in what had become almost gridlock. We had left the city at 5pm but not until 730pm did we finally reached our destination – Brooklyn, a sleepy hamlet on the banks of the Hawekesbury River where we were to catch the ferry across to Dangar Island for the weekend. We were 55 kms from the Sydney CBD. Two and a half hours to travel 55kms. Our nerves were frayed, our brains wired, and my patience all but run out. By the time we had parked our car and found the ferry wharf we had missed the 730pm ferry by about two minutes. The next, and last ferry, was still 40 minutes away. This just wasn’t our night. There was nothing for it but to take the water taxi that runs this route and in around 10 minutes it had us docking at Dangar Island just as the sunset was turning the sky a striking shade of crimson.
While technically a suburb of Greater Sydney, it’s hard to imagine somewhere that could be more of a contrast to the city than Dangar Island. Located in the Hawkesbury River atrium it is lushly forested, a cool green oasis with a quiet that is hard to find in this fast-paced and wired world, especially so close to a metropolis. The island has a cafe, a bowling club and a shop – and that’s it. There are no shopping centres, no fancy restaurants, and a delightful absence of cars, the wheelbarrow being the preferred method of hauling your stuff from the wharf.
Stepping off the boat, you immediately feel the gears shift. It’s not just the serenity as the quietude is often interrupted by the buzz-saw sound of speed boats on the river or the metallic rattling of a freight train crossing the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. But there is a tranquility here in the cool, lush forests and gardens that line the footpaths and roads. The lapping of the golden tide on Bradley’s Beach in the early morning. The shrill call of lorikeets and galahs as they dart through the high canopy. The dappled light that plays on the path.
Now I’d love to give you a list of “Things To Do on Dangar Island’ but, frankly, it would be a very short list. And there in lies the true beauty of this place. Other than the 3km or so walking track that takes you on a tour around the island (highly recommended), the most strenuous thing to do here is stroll to the cafe and partake in a freshly cooked muffin. If you’re feeling particularly energetic you could go for a swim or take your chances in a kayak (I have heard stories, mainly involving bull sharks, but we won’t go there) but truly, this place demands you take a load off, pop the cork on your champagne bottle and enjoy the island’s languid pace from the comfort of your sun dappled balcony.
There is certainly a strong sense of community on the island with the Wharf Book Exchange, a community hall that hosts film and plays, and the “Buggy Roster” – a list detailing who’s responsible for running the islands buggy service to assist those who are disabled and can’t walk or who need a little extra help with their loads from the ferry. There’s also a keen sense of the quirky and absurd. Take a stroll and you will see what I mean.
Dangar Island has a rich Indigenous history having been used by the local Dharuk people as a place for fishing and ceremonies. In 1788 it saw its first European visitors when Captain Arthur Phillip used it as a base to explore further up the river. It was then named a less poetic Mullet Island due the abundance of the fish. In 1864 the isolated island was bought by Henry Dangar, renamed Dangar’s Island and now shortened to Dangar Island.
Henry was a man of vision. He understood that sooner or later the railway that ran up the east coast of Australia would have to be bridged at the Hawkesbury River and Dangar Island would be a prime site for the construction works. And so it came to be. In 1886 after 23 years of ownership he leased the land for three years to the Union Bridge Company of New York. The lease was so substantial Henry had finally made a return on this investment. Over 300 hundred workers inhabited the island during the construction of what were for the time ground breaking engineering works. Once completed, the island was restored to its previous sate, a house built for Henry and his family which included The Pavillion which still exists today and is open for visitors. Now owned and restored by historian and author Ann Howard, she will welcome you into The Pavillion and give you a very comprehensive rundown of the island history for the price of one of her books ($15-$25).
Henry Dangar died in 1917 and by 1921 the island was subdivided into residential lots. The island also played a part in the Second World War as the Brooklyn Bridge was considered strategically important in the transport of troops and equipment to the north and also defence against potential Japanese invasion of Sydney via the entrance to the Hawkesbury.
Today the island has around 270 permanent residents, a number that swells to around 400 in the summer and holiday months. Maybe you could consider buying a place here – but you will need a spare million or two. Despite its relative isolation – or perhaps because of it- Sydney’s stratospheric real estate prices have stretched even to these parts.
Getting To Dangar Island
By car – Proceed north along Pacific Highway to Hornsby. Stay on the Pacific Highway through Hornsby, avoiding the F3 Sydney-Newcastle freeway. when you reach the Hawkesbury River, Take Brooklyn Road to Brooklyn. The ferry wharf is on Dangar Road beyond Hawkesbury River railway station.
By rail – take the Central Coast train from Sydney via Hornsby to Hawkesbury River station at Brooklyn (train timetable). Daytime trains pass through Hawkesbury River station in both directions every half hour. The jetty from which the Dangar Island ferry leaves is a short walk from the station.
Click here for the current ferry timetable. The ferry costs $7.30 per adult one-way. If you miss the ferry call Hawkesbury Water Taxi on 0422 300 100. As of 2017, the water taxi costs $30 for two people to Dangar Island.
While Dangar Island is an easy day-trip for anyone in Sydney I highly recommend getting a small group of friends together and booking a holiday house. There is quite a range available through either AirBNB or Stayz. Take your own food and drinks.