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We book months in advance and juggle timelines and magazine deadlines so the planets align and simply pray for good weather. Packing is a full day and a half affair. There is a 3 page spreadsheet, formulated over the preceding weeks in the hope of adverting some sort of disaster like forgetting teddy.

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O by John Featherstone

ver the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to travel widely across this great country pursuing my dreams, visiting some remote locations, meeting an incredible diversity of people and of course capturing some fantastic fish. They have all been BIG adventures but I have come to realise that every part of your life should be a BIG Adventure. Work, play, relationships and of course the greatest adventure I think I have embarked upon is having a family. I had been really keen to get away for some “adventuring� with that family, because as romantic as being the editor of Spearfishing Downunder may seem it is blood hard work 90% of the time. Also I really wanted my children to learn that life is truly what you want to make of it and if you want it to be one big adventure then, why the hell not? So the location was simple - Sandon River. A mere 1.5 hour drive from home, an important criteria if you are taking young children (3, 6, & 8) on a road trip not used to travelling. Also it is a place that is very close to my heart as I spent a lot of time there in

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my early twenties.

THEN

Back in my mid-twenties I would simply check the weather Thursday, pack up the Hilux ute and tinnie and head off Thursday arvo for a long weekend on my own. Plenty of people, my parents included, used think it odd that I would want to go off camping by myself for the weekend, but to be honest I loved the solitude. It was a time in my life, mid-twenties, when I was wondering what the hell am I going to do with my life and it was important to have time to quietly escape and think about it. I took the essentials, dive gear, fishing rod, crab pot, guitar, Jaffle Iron, Fry Pan, Bacon, Eggs, Sausages, a few Fruit and Veg, Coffee, Milk, Beer, Rum, Coke and Ice. It took me about an hour and I was on the road. The 4x4 Hilux had a canvas canopy on the back that I used to sleep in. The CD player (very flash back then) was playing my favourite tunes from the ‘Stones, Clash and Jimi Hendrix, and for a 20 something year old, man it was heaven!

NOW

We book months in advance and juggle timelines and magazine deadlines so the planets align and simply pray for good weather. Packing is a full day and a half affair. There is a 3 page spreadsheet, formulated over the preceding weeks in the hope of adverting some sort of disaster like forgetting teddy. It’s akin to herding sea gulls and my only grace is that someday, way, way into the future, I know they (my children) will appreciate the effort as I do now appreciate the effort my parents went to. The shopping bill comes to something like $600 and I wonder how the hell can one small group be so damn expensive. We have to take two 4x4s.The Nissan Navara, with the Zodiac in tow and a my Landcrusier Ute are both full to the brim with bikes, fishing rods, firewood, bedding, 3 x eskies FULL of food and supplies for the week. I could go on, but those of you with young children know what the hell I am talking about right now.

THEN

I would setup camp in no time and get the fire cranking and proceed to get good and proper drunk! A small tradition I had with myself on the first night camping out. I’d roll happily into my swag under the canopy in the back of the ute and listen to the waves from the beach and watch the moon ripple on the ocean then quietly drift off into oblivion! The next morning I would remember why I shouldn’t drink rum, but back then a morning swim in the river would wash away the hangover and I’d just soak up the sun.

NOW

Well camping with 3 young children is, in my humble opinion, downright foolish so we opt for the “upmarket” version of camping which is a house on the Southern side of the river. Access is via the beach at Minnie Waters and of course with all the well laid

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plans, formulated weeks out there is not one single chance of me getting there at low tide when I should. Fortunately the beach is pretty forgiving and despite me having to snatch Pam out of the soft sand in the Navara towing the Zodiac on one occasion we make it off beach before the tide claims us. The unpacking goes smoothly but understandable the kids are keen to go adventuring. Sandon Village comprises of just 35 houses, is quiet with little traffic and those who are driving are aware of the children’s paradise that it is. We lay down some simple but important ground rules about the river and keeping the noise level to a dull roar as they tear off on their bikes as Pam and I unpack.

THEN

The tide rules your day at Sandon River. First thing to check is the visibility in the river on the high tide. I would spear some nice Whiting and Flathead in the river, but even back then I used to leave the big Flathead (lizards) as they were the big breeding females. There was always plenty of fish and I loved getting a feed of fresh Whiting from the river. The river has been closed to spearing for 8 years now, since the revision to the Solitary Island Marine Park back in 2002. Banning spearing in the estuaries in the Marine Park is, in my opinion, one of the greatest injustices bestowed upon spearfishers. It is perfectly legal to fish in the estuaries and swim as well, so where is the equality? Additionally the beach hauling of Mullet still occurs some 200m away on Sandon Beach - disgraceful!

NOW

We settle in as the kids return keen to get wet!

Autumn is undoubtably the pick of the seasons for Northern NSW and the water is at its warmest. The tide has come in and the water in the river looks wonderfully inviting. We drift up the bank snorkelling for a couple of hundred metres with the incoming tide, jump out and run back down to drift up again the simple things! Ironically the fish stock in the water on our most recent trip seemed to be sadly lacking compared to my youth, and it certainly isn’t the fault of spearfishers who haven’t been allowed in the River since 2002!

THEN

Once you have been at Sandon River for a couple of days you seem to get “in tune” with the River and the changing of tides. The high tide would signal a spear in the river or a jaunt off the rock shelf out past the mouth of the river in search of Lobster and Abalone. Again, back in the day the bag limit was 5 Lobster and 10 Abalone (now 2 only of each). I never even got close to a bag limit, perhaps two or three if I wanted company, but generally I’d get my 1x lobster and 3 Ab’s that constituted a great feed. Regardless of the conditions (well almost) I would swim out wider if I need to get away from the swell or work in close if it was a little calmer. The low tide was time to pump a few yabbies or perhaps do some worming down on the beach. No self respecting Whiting (or Mulloway for that matter) can resist a fresh beach worm. I would get enough bait so I could have a fish into the early evening.

NOW

Spearfishing was definitely on the cards as my son is super keen. However there is s stiff SE blowing


Sam having a crack at underwater photography!

10 out of 10!

Trashing Machine

Back in the Day! Couple of Nice Eastern Lobster and a small Maori Cod

The Simply Things! Drifting up the river as high tide approaches

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Faster daddy, faster!

and his safety is my only consideration. I would normally just go anyway but leaving Pam with all the children wasn’t the idea of the holiday so I would forgo the spearing until the conditions hopefully improved. Somehow I was struggling to get into the rhythm of the river with everything going on with the family, more than once I reflect on the simplicity of the single life. I was thinking about getting a few yabbies on the low tide, but by the time I had made lunch, cleaned up, put sunscreen on three children, found swimmers, floaties, goggles, towels, etc. It seemed like the tide had passed. I quickly learned that the best option was just to chill-out and if I got a plan enacted great, otherwise just have a chuckle to myself about the contrast of “now” and “then”.

THEN

The old tinnie was a piece of work! The engine was an old 9.9HP and it’d get up on the plane.....

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Comfy little red boat!


A long way from the Office!

eventually. It took some convincing to get going especially on cold winter mornings. I’d pull and pull and some mornings give up until it warmed up. It was noisy and smelly but hey, it did the job, just. The kill switch was a button whereby the rubber cover would fall off when you weren’t looking and of course you’d stick your wet salty finger directly into the kill switch and give yourself 20,000 Volts on a regular basis. I used to keep a bailing bucket handy and keep my foot over the hole in the bottom when my makeshift repairs would fail.

Sensational little engines - the E-Tec 50HP

NOW

We’d never set out to create a “river boat” but the Zodiac Pro 9 Man was as happy inside the river as it was outside in a 25kt NE’er. Sensational! It crossed the shallow tidal sand flats up the river in just 50cm of water if you trimmed the engine up and as far as the kids were concerned it was “the best fun ever” cuttin’ donuts in the river. The more I use this boat the more it impresses me. It is a very good ocean boat and handles the swell and chop very well. With its 5 separate air chambers and it would have to go SERIOUSLY wrong to sink it, a great safety feature. It is easy to forget the heritage of Zodiac when driving from A to B, but and with 50 Evinrude horses pushing it along it was a “fully sick”, water going, rally car! You can turn it full lock at 50km/h and just hang on, it was so much fun and the squeals coming out of the kids was worth the price of admission. You’d only need to touch the key and the 50HP Evinrude E-Tec engine would come to life. It was whisper quiet and the 45L fuel tank was like some magical Sexy!

A small crab - returned to the water, just needed to show Mum that we actaully caught something

Camping? Perhaps not!

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Not a big fish, but with everything else going on it was great to slip out and get a great feed of fresh Spanish Mackerel

container that seemed to simply stay full! The economy out of those small HP engines is exceptional. I do love my technology and little doubt Evinrude has pumped their E-Tec engines with plenty of it. For me it was great just not to have to worry about reliability especially when I have very important cargo on board. All good!

The Present

The days were filled with crabbing, swimming, fishing, boating, worming, biking and just about every cool thing a kid can do. These trips are about making memories and I genuinely hope that my children will look back on these holidays and many more like them with the fondness I look back on my childhood with. Although the swell was up I did manage to slip out for a spear for half a day with a couple of good friends who dropped in for a day visit AND I shot a Mackerel! Not a big fish, but it just seemed so sweet. I would have loved to have got Sam out for a spearfish but it was just too rough outside. Life is no longer about “me”! Those trips of solitude seem a distant memory. The solitude has been obliterated by three beautiful, happy (mostly), healthy children and a terrific wife. My life has been exponentially enriched by them all, so although I knew that solitude was the last thing I would find, taking the children to Sandon River, I wanted them to share such a special place with them. The reality

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Good friends Jen and Leon, on our way for a spear off shore.

is that those special places in Australia can be found EVERYWHERE and even though I have travelled extensively I feel like I have just scratched the surface. Every stage of life should be an adventure.

Different times in one’s life certainly bring about different adventures. Would I swap the chaos of the present for the simplicity of the past? Not in a lifetime. The photos tell the story and the smiles on everyone’s faces say it all.



Sandon River