Saturday, 27 June 2015

R2-ing the Snowy River, Victoria

There is a saying that you should start each New Year the way you intend to continue it. This year, we woke on New Year's Day on the banks of the Snowy River, watching a platypus fish as dawn light cast a pink glow on the surface of the water and mist rose from the river in thin, swirling wisps.  We had slept in the open, no roof or tent. Dew covered our bivvy bags and beside us, moored to the bank, was our raft and our home for the next four days. Ahead lay a day of rapids and gorges and deep cool swimming holes. I could only hope that the following 364 days of this year would turn out so well.

Day 1:

Our idyllic New Year's Day campsite didn't show so much promise the afternoon before, when we pulled in off the river with a kind of "this will do" decision. It had been a longer than expected day paddling. We had started on the river at 10am, casting off from beneath McKillops Bridge as gang gang cockatoos bickered in the forest around the riverside campground. We had five days worth of food on board and our trusty 12 foot whitewater raft to carry us down the iconic Snowy River. It felt a bit surreal to be on such a fabled river, one that appears in so many different ways in our national story – the hydro scheme, the high country horsemen of poetry and movies, canoeing and rafting stories, historic floods and national debate about the health of rivers altered by man. 

But our first night's camp slowly revealed its beauty. We had views downstream of Campbells Knob. There were flowering buttercups along the bank, a sea eagle glided overhead, cicadas called from the bushy regrowth of burnt trees, white butterflies, two black swans and then the platypus fishing not far off the bank. When the stunning New Years Day sunrise colour woke us, we ended up lingering until mid morning in our last minute, "this'll do" camp. 

Snowy River - near the NSW/VIC border

Day 2:

When set off on day two, the river seemed to have a few more narrow channels and races and we scooted along until midday when a long pool, and the day's rising headwind, slowed us down. We R2'd our raft, with both of us sitting in the middle of the boat - me on the right, Caz on the left - and our gear front and back. When we paddles, Caz calls instructions to me and I do as I'm told, so we end up working like a well-tuned set of oars, deftly weaving our way downriver. On the approach to our first grade 3 rapid, known as the Log Jam or Compressor, a head wind forced us both to paddle hard so we could position ourselves on the main tongue before accelerating and crashing through the pressure waves and dropping down the final pour-over.

Tulloch Ard Gorge

The sides of the river were now becoming markedly steeper and rockier and before we knew it we were in Tulloch Ard Gorge and approaching A-Frame Rapid where four kayakers were scouting the line ahead. There is nothing worse than an audience on a tricky section but it made for some good photos so we stood high on the back and watched them run the rapid or portage it (2 of each). This short rapid, its approach, and the narrow pool after it, were the most scenic of the trip. Tulloch Ard Gorge is rugged and rocky with huge smooth potholes worn in the sides of the walls and the boulders that tower out of the water. We kind of then followed the four kayakers down through the next section of serious rapids. At George's Mistake rapid, our most exciting and exacting run of the day, the kayakers were watching us this time. Caz scouted the double drop rapid carefully and chose his line. We executed it with some precise and tricky paddling that earned a thumbs up from our audience.  We also ran Washing Machine (or Dora's Drop), down the middle in a little zig zag run. Gentle Annie, at the end of the day, we played safe and lined our boat down. All day though, the long pools between the whitewater proved to be extremely tiring. A powerful, gusting headwind had picked up early and forced us all to dig deep and at times duck and weave along the lee bank.

The end of day reward, however, was a truly magnificent campsite immediately below Gentle Annie.  We found a large, flat, sandy shelf pressed up against a rock wall with a wattle tree shading the site. Add jewel beetles, buttercups and flowering ti-trees.  We sat on the rocks in the fading light watching the roaring water and the patterns of foam as they twisted and wound their way downstream. 

Day 3:

It is 7:46pm and too hot to think. We are both lying in our underwear under the shade of a water gum, waiting to go for another swim before bed. The rocks are too hot to pick up and the sand is too hot to walk on. Although the day started beautifully enough.

We left Gentle Annie at 8am and the river was still shady and cool and within the first 20 minutes we had met two platypus out for some early morning fishing. There was lovely light and the long pools were glassy smooth and a pleasure to paddle. We rode Nessy Rapid – a great fun wave-train - and passed the limestone cliffs of New Guinea Ridge, covered in hundreds of grass trees. At water level the limestone had been worn into interesting grooves and blades of rock.

By the time we reached Jacksons Crossing though, the heat was becoming stifling. There were dozens of New Year holiday campers lined along the river and all of them made comments about the heat as we passed. Many were bobbing around in the river, others paddling kayaks. Everyone was wilting.

We continued past the campers to the end of the next pool where a side creek cut a chasm between two rocky bluffs and joined the river. Here we filled up with clear, cool water then headed down the next rocky race. Halfway down the flow, we pulled the boat in, tucked ourselves and it beneath the shade of the small, leaning trees and we waited. The rest of the afternoon was a lesson in surviving heat. It reached 42 degrees. Afternoon thunderheads built upstream but didn't even manage to block out the sun. They rained somewhere, a long way away. We swam every 30 minutes. We wet the boat down to keep it cool. Finally, at 6:10pm, the hillside across from us cast its beautiful shadow across our camp. The sun had gone but the heat lingered all night and into the next day.

Day 4:

We had barely left camp and, bang, we were in for our first swim. There were no real rapids, just a couple of rocky runs, but the intense summer heat had us back flipping off the boat at every opportunity. 

Basin Creek Falls, just 15km east of the town of Buchan, was a nice surprise – a cool, crystal clear waterfall set back from the river. It was a short, dusty walk in through tall reeds and grass but we emerged into a green, shady oasis.   A refuge from the scorching sun. About this point on the river, the landscape changed to a forest of thick, textured colour. With so much flatwater paddling on this section, it was a nice distraction to gaze at the tall stringybarks and thick understorey of ti-tree and heath plants.  For most of the paddle we had passed through badly burnt forest that seemed to be struggling  to regenerate, with a carpet of flowering weeds beneath the black burnt sticks of former trees of which only one in ten showed any sign of reshooting. As we approached Buchan, however, jenny wrens flitted along the bank. It was the prettiest forest of the trip and filled with life and colour. 

The Snowy River is not a crazy, wild water river (Tulloch Ard gorge on day two is the only serious section of whitewater). Rather, it is best approached as a wilderness experience. A journey of quiet places taken at a pace that the river dictates. Before we knew it, lunch time on day four, had us eddying out at the Balley Hooley campground where the Buchan River flows into the once mighty Snowy River.

It remained stinking hot as we pulled our trusty raft onto the shore for the last time.  After another swim to cool off, it was time to haul everything up to car park. Some day visitors were just arriving for a swim and carrying an esky full of sparkling, cold drinks. It took all my self-control to not try and bribe them out of their booty. Soon enough, though, we were at the Buchan store, filling a plastic bag with ice as a makeshift esky and shoving in a six pack of beer to chill while we rested on the grass at Buchan Caves  Reserve campground. At 5.30pm it remained 39 degrees celsius but the beers were finally cold and so we drank to the success of our idyllic start to the New Year and raised a toast to the adventures that still lay ahead. 

Gentle Annie rapid

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1 comment:

  1. Nothing like a cold beer at the end of a trip!