New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney can lose their appeal after a few years of oohs and aahs. But Dan found that even his jaded scepticism was ignited by the idea of kayaking across the harbour. Is this the way to unlock the best view in the city?!
This pretty much sums up my response whenever anyone suggests watching Sydney’s annual New Year’s Eve gunpowder blowout. Having viewed more than enough firework displays in my four-and-a-half decades living in frivolous western civilisation, the prospect no longer excites me. No more will ‘oohs’ or ‘aahs’ escape my lungs at the sight of a shower of burning metal salts. I’m more likely to be found camping in the mountains on NYE, watching nature’s own display far from the light pollution of Sydney. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m old. Personally, I blame The Day of the Triffids**.
Add in the ridiculous jam of humanity that coalesces for the event and you can doubly count me out. Insane queues, poor views, zero parking, rip-off entry tickets, alcohol bans – the whole shebang is designed to wring any fun from the experience whatsoever. No, you won’t find me going to the fireworks this year, or any other. No, siree.
Isaac Sparks My Interest
Enter Isaac. As soon as I heard that my workmate was planning to kayak into Sydney Harbour, up to the very bridge itself, at 11:59pm on December 31st, my interest sparked and whirled like a Catherine Wheel. Despite never remotely considering the notion before, I hesitated less than a second before deciding I had to join him. It was a no-brainer. Only afterwards did doubts begin creeping into my mind. Wasn’t there going to be a lot of traffic on the water, party boats and the like? Would we have to dodge drunken Captains hooning up and down with scant regard for our tiny craft? Would our hair ignite from falling chemicals? Was it even legal?
‘A speed limit would be in place to ensure we weren’t capsized in the wake of some cowboy’s gin palace.’
Isaac allayed my fears. Taking to the water under the influence of alcohol is subject to the same restrictions as driving a car – a blood alcohol concentration of over 0.05% is a punishable offence. Anyone in control of a maritime vessel, including a kayak, can be subject to random breath or drug testing. Furthermore, on NYE an exclusion zone is erected and patrolled by Roads & Maritime Services (RMS) officers, assisted by Marine Rescue NSW, to prevent anyone approaching the bridge, the fireworks barges, and other danger areas. Additionally, a 6 knot minimum wash speed limit would be in place to ensure we weren’t capsized in the wake of some cowboy’s gin palace.
According to Drew Jones, Senior Special Aquatic Events Officer at RMS, no-one is against kayakers enjoying the fireworks, but naturally there are safety concerns. The use of lifejackets is a legal requirement and adequate visibility aids are strongly recommended, as is giving way to larger vessels, despite human-powered craft officially having the right of way. He needn’t worry about me; I wouldn’t be playing chicken with a 1000 tonne superyacht!
The New Year’s Eve Put In
10.00pm, Glebe Rowing Club on Blackwattle Bay: the pontoon is a mess of plastic hulls and carelessly strewn paddles, tripping hazards in the dark. Among our craft are stunted white-water kayaks, sleek sea kayaks, a sit-on-top, and my wife and I’s tandem inflatable. The mood is jovial as we attach brightly coloured lights of all designs to our craft. Strings of Christmas lights, glow sticks, head torches – the brighter we are the safer our group of 8 will be. I admit that resisting the temptation to join the carousing taking place all around the city has been a struggle, but one can get drunk anytime; I don’t want to ruin this rare experience with careless intoxication. This is Isaac’s third consecutive NYE on the water and now he just can’t imagine doing anything else.
By 11.00pm we’re underway. The water is flat and the air calm; the storm which threatened to derail our microadventure passed through an hour ago. We paddle north under the harp-like span of ANZAC Bridge and between the struts of the old Glebe Island swing bridge (1903), now disused and cranked permanently open. Small waves lap at its concrete footings as we pass beneath the heritage listed structure and out into Jones Bay, part of Darling Harbour. Pyrmont Waterfront Park to our starboard is quiet, and only a couple of large boats are cruising the waters this far from the Harbour Bridge, but as we plough towards Pirrama Park the buzz of excited spectators vibrates through the night.
Entering The Drop Zone
Soon we are gliding past thousands of expectant faces, many of whom have been waiting all day for the main event, no doubt still wet from the heavy rain that lashed the city earlier in the evening. At prime viewing areas in the Botanical Gardens, fireworks superfans began arriving a full 2 days ahead of the show to secure their favoured spots – madness! We receive waves and shouts of encouragement as we paddle past, the celebratory mood infecting all and sundry.
‘I was pinned to my seat, transfixed by the stare of a thousand huge, blinking eyes, vivid and ephemeral, a jury of giant astronomical beings peering into my very soul.’
Those of our group confident in the solidity of their hulls slalom between the wooden legs of Pirrama Park wharf, their coloured lights illuminating the rows of piles like a disco in an ancient underground cistern. As we continue, a reckless spectator clambers down the outside of the structure, hanging precariously above the water. Surf Lifesavers in RIBs (Rigid inflatable boats) wait below, yelling at him to get back. These volunteers are contracted annually by event organisers The City of Sydney to provide extra layer of safety.
Having hugged the shore up until now, the only sketchy part of the operation is crossing the main flow of traffic, but we pick a large gap and surge forward together towards Peacock Point, there joining another small stream of kayakers. Suddenly, we’re in the thick of it. Pleasure boats are all around, their passengers cheering and wishing us Happy New Year. A line of yellow buoys mark the exclusion zone, patrolled by stern-voiced officers intent on keeping us back. We jockey for position, endeavouring to avoid being sandwiched between manoeuvring craft, their churning propellers a constant danger as they reverse, our bobbing kayaks invisible behind their bulk. Goat Island looms near as the steel arches of the iconic ‘coat hanger’ hove into view.
The Countdown Begins
We shuffle into a row, the patrol boats chug away, 3 … 2 … 1 … and BOOM! The sky explodes…
We’ve all seen fireworks before. In fact many of us will have seen these exact same fireworks, on the exact same night. Suffice it to say that this viewing was unlike any other I have experienced. A full quadrant of my world was abruptly ablaze with glittering comet trails, like an IMAX reel showing the end of the world. The acrid tang of gunpowder conspired with the staccato bursts of popping cartridges to cram all of my senses at once. I was pinned to my seat, transfixed by the stare of a thousand huge, blinking eyes, vivid and ephemeral, a jury of giant astronomical beings peering into my very soul. This display was for me and me alone, and for 12 minutes I was the centre of the universe; nothing else existed. My retinas still haven’t recovered.
** The Day of the Triffids – a seminal novel by John Wyndham about humankind being blinded by bizarre lights-in-the-sky, and then hunted by a species of walking, poisonous plants.