24 June 2022

After 15-plus years, a vintage river boat is cruising up Molonglo River again

| James Coleman
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Molonglo River

Molonglo River. Photo: James Coleman.

The waters have only been disturbed by ducks and the odd kayak for more than 15 years; now a gondola will be charting a course up Canberra’s picturesque Molonglo River several times a week.

“It’s an amazing part of the lake – it’s untouched and it offers some of the best river landscapes in Canberra,” self-named ‘Portland Bill’ says.

Portland Bill has lived in the ACT for more than 30 years, and has been behind the wheel of “basically all of the leisure-type vessels that have been on Lake Burley Griffin”.

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“I worked as a casual skipper – there’s not really enough demand in Canberra to occupy someone full-time,” he says.

From this weekend, Bill and his vintage pleasure craft – dubbed ‘Cygnet’ – will offer one-hour round trips from the Kingston Foreshore up the Molonglo as far as the Monaro Highway bridge.

“It has been close to two decades since the last cruises ventured up here,” he says.

“This is ever since the little company that operated it, Canberra Lake Cruises, expanded and went for the more lucrative sightseeing parts on the other side of the lake.”


Cruises of the Molonglo River come courtesy of ‘Cygnet’. Photo: Portland Bill.

Bill felt it was a missed opportunity, however.

“I felt there was still a niche there for this type of nature observation on board a tranquil cruise, basically a good opportunity to take the kids out and spot some wildlife,” he says.

“It would be generations of people in Canberra now that have never been up there.”

The Molonglo River courses along Morshead Drive with Duntroon on one side and the Jerrabomberra Wetlands on the other, before emptying into Lake Burley Griffin near the Boat House.

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It’s a river rich with history.

Europeans gave it the name of Limestone River when they first stumbled across it but, as settlements sprung up along its course, it soon earned a reputation for its abundance of native fish. It became ‘Fish River’.

Since then, it has flooded and washed away parts of the Queanbeyan cemetery a number of times. And no sooner was the trestle bridge constructed to carry Walter Burley Griffin’s railway plans into the new city in 1921 than another flood washed away its legs. The rails were left sagging into the water for nearly 20 years.

Transmitter and pistol parts were dragged from the river in 1954, during the height of the Cold War. Police knew the Canberra Soviet Embassy had a high-range transmitter, so were quick to lay blame at the feet of the Russians. Turns out the transmitter was of the “type that could be found in any home”.

Molonglo River

Molonglo River. Photo: James Coleman.

Today the river is mostly scenic.

“Oftentimes, when taxi drivers take people from the airport they go up Morshead Drive to get a bit of a glimpse,” Bill says.

“It’s just a magnificently beautiful part of the river, and basically undisturbed for hundreds of years.”

At this stage, the cruise will go only as far as the Monaro Highway overpass.

The boat itself was originally built in Sydney as a steam-powered pinnace. Only wind or electric-powered vessels are allowed on Lake Burley Griffin, so Bill says the steam engine has been replaced with an electric motor.

“It will be a silent electric drive, with a large propeller to minimise the disturbance of the water. We’ll just be gliding along peacefully.”

The front portion of the boat is covered and the back half enclosed in a cabin. It also comes with its own captain and guide.

“Me,” Bill says.

“The boat can be operated from either in among the guests or from the back, behind the cabin. So I can shut up and let the guests chat amongst themselves too.”

At the moment, it’s just the one boat, limited to a maximum of 10 guests. A booking website is yet to come, but Bill says his phone has been ringing hot with interest.

“We’re hoping to set sail for the first time this weekend.”

The cost is $25 per person for the one-hour cruise. Private charters are also available, with or without historical commentary, at $150 for one hour, $250 for two hours, and $350 for three hours. These are available at almost any time. For enquires or to book, phone Bill on 0404 837 652.

“If you’re a young bloke looking to propose to your girlfriend, this is your moment.”

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A jetty at Pialligo nurseries would be great

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