Nick Galvin realises you don't have to roam far from home to pump the adrenalin.
I HAVE a mate who is a mad outdoorsy type. Nothing is high enough, long enough or hard enough for this guy. He's climbed Everest, skied most of the world and most recently returned from a breathtaking mountain-biking expedition to Moab in Utah.
But as well as the grand, expensive, full-on extreme trips that rule his life, he is also the inventor and keen promoter of the "backyard adventure", based on the theory that it's quite possible to have an amazing day running, cycling, hiking, kayaking, swimming or whatever close to home and still be back in time for dinner. It's a beautiful concept - low in cost, high in fun and often using the amazing national parks and bushland we have on our doorstep.
I think of my mate (let's call him Paul Karis, because that's his name) as we glide serenely across the harbour in kayaks on a spanking spring morning, the only noise the rhythmic sound of the paddles hitting water and the occasional grunt of exertion as we paddling newbies realise there's a bit more to this kayaking lark than first appears.
If you think you know Sydney Harbour, try seeing it with your backside approximately on, or a little below, the surface of the water. The change in perspective is total. The ferries tearing past in the distance, along with the occasional privately owned gin palace, are in another world entirely from the intimate realm of the kayak.
There are six of us in three boats. Me, three other twentysomethings and our two guides, Melina Budden and Ian McLeod. Both are expert paddlers - Ian has even represented Australia in canoe water polo (how they get the horses in the boats will remain a mystery) and seems more at home with a paddle in his hand than on dry land.
We're paddling from Little Manly Cove to Forty Baskets Beach, which, for anyone used to paddling, would scarcely count as a warm-up but it's quite far enough, thank you very much, for those of us who are new to the game.
Ian and Melina have given us a thorough, dry-land briefing about how to be both safe and efficient on the water (push the paddle rather than pull, keep your arms straight, twist your torso etc) but just as no military plan survives first contact with the enemy, as soon as we are on the water, it all goes out of my head and I do a fair impression of an out-of-control threshing machine for the first 10 minutes until, under Melina's patient back-seat tuition, I start getting it together.
Forty Baskets heaves into view just in time and we sprawl under the trees on a picnic blanket, hoeing in to gourmet sandwiches and orange juice, fortifying ourselves for the trip back across the harbour.
Earlier, we had gathered at the boat ramp at Little Manly Beach to be met by Melina, Ian and a trailer full of kayaks and mountain bikes. This particular Life's an Adventure tour is dubbed the Manly Tri Adventure and involves a mountain-bike ride, followed by the kayak and, finally, a bush walk. Each leg is five kilometres long, making it easily within reach of all but the most unfit.
The day kicks off with a gentle bike ride around North Head, stopping occasionally to check out the magnificent harbour vistas and chortle at the fact all the buildings on the horizon are full of office workers staring at screens. We have the area all to ourselves and it's hard not to feel like a student who has bunked off school.
Kayaks follow the bikes and then we jump into our cars for a quick trip to the start of the bushwalk, which turns out to be a section of the Manly to The Spit walk. It's a well-loved and well-known route for very good reason - sometimes, just metres from the road among the littoral heath, it's possible to feel a thousand kilometres from the city.
The walk is enlivened by informed commentary from Melina and Ian about the flora and fauna we encounter. Melina and I trade botanical names for native species; or rather, I get them laughably wrong and she gently corrects me (it turns out she was an ecologist in a former life, which seems to me a bit too much like high achieving).
After an enjoyable 90-minute tramp, The Spit comes into view and another of the Life's an Adventure crew is on hand to pick us up in a Troop Carrier and ferry us back to our cars. It's been a hugely enjoyable, low-key day, made all the more pleasant by the fact we did it right under the nose of an unsuspecting city that was hard at work.
In fact, it was a true "backyard adventure". My mate Paul would be impressed.
Life's an Adventure runs a range of activities in and around Sydney. See lifesanadventure.com.au. The Manly Tri Adventure costs $199 ($179 on Mondays).
Other finalists in the adventure category included Broken Hill-based Tri State Safaris (see box) and Glenworth Valley Outdoor Adventures, which offers activities from quad biking and abseiling to horse riding and fishing in 1200 hectares of wilderness in the central coast hinterland.
Adventure Underground leads tours through the Jenolan Caves. TreeTop Adventure Park on the central coast offers more than 100 challenges in the trees of Ourimbah State Forest.
Yuraygir Coastal Walk on the north coast is a four-day, 65-kilometre walk along the spectacular coastline between Angourie and Red Rock.
In the Illawarra region, We Love the Gong organises skydiving, climbing, hang-gliding and more.