These days it is relatively easy to catch a ferry from Circular Quay to Parramatta, west of Sydney. The Parramatta River is a significant waterway and acted as a highway between settlements in the early years of European colonisation. The length of time it took to travel in the early years of the colony is estimated at 12 hours; this has now been whittled down to just under an hour.

The first river ferry was the Rose Hill Packet, launched in 1789. Ferry services continued in one form or another through to 1928 when they were discontinued due to silt and shallowing of the river. In 1993 purpose-built catamaran ferries, called RiverCats, reinstated the service which remains popular although the trips are subject to tidal movements.

Recently I took a RiverCat for part of the journey, travelling from Meadowbank to Parramatta. The trip down the river was a revelation. Along the riverbank there were mangroves most of the way as well as sprouting out of an island in the middle of the river. The width of the river narrows quite significantly from Homebush to Rydalmere, then again on the approach to Parramatta. There is still quite a bit of industrial activity along the riverside, and more residential developments are clustering along the foreshore despite the pungent tang of mangroves at low tide.

Historical drawings confirm that the mangroves have expanded since colonisation, filling in areas of open water, rock outcrops and sandy beaches. This is due in part to soil displacement from land clearing and development, which continues to contribute to silt in the river. Industrial pollution over the decades has contributed to contaminated sediments: there is a short documentary on the continuing impact here.

There were flashes of bird life along the way, and as we came closer to Parramatta there were jacaranda trees dotted along the riverbank. In bloom they are one of my favourite trees. There is a video of the entire trip – speeded up with a musical back beat – here.

One of my favourite stories of life in the early colony relates to the river, and the marvellous Flying Pieman. William Francis King carried out many walking-related challenges, including walking from Sydney to Parramatta twice a day for six consecutive days. This remarkable man was able to reach destinations ahead of boats and mail coaches, even when loaded with additional weight as a handicap. There is even a musical medley named for him as well as a bush dance.

Have you taken any trips, real or historical, along a river lately?

[Photo: RiverCat departing Meadowbank Wharf, heading towards Parramatta and passing under the Meadowbank Railway Bridge]