Oura Beach to Coolamon
By ANDY SINGH
What makes a great trip? Military planners apply an ‘art’ and ‘design’ approach to operational planning—the design is the what of achievement, while art is the how and why.
From a design perspective, the recent Murrumbidgee expedition is impressive—part of a ten year plan to conquer the Murray River. Comprising a float plan including 10% of all adult Club members, with training involving another 10% of Club members. Covering 226km across five days of unsupported paddling. This Club expedition is ambitious, adventurous and inclusive.
Design includes COVID safety and evacuation plans, a shuttle plan, a transport plan, a risk management plan, a repair plan, a helicopter landing plan, an enjoyment plan, a fleet plan, an equipment plan, a communications plan and health plan. We also have food and water management plans. Design enables twelve paddlers to stand at Oura Beach Reserve, ready to launch. Design however, rarely survives first contact with the river, and does not guarantee a great trip.
I am paddling down the river—nowhere else I would want to be. I am paddling 37 strokes per 100 meters. I am a little quicker in my cadence, maybe I am doing 40, but I made a deal with Liz to agree to 37. Each 100 meters I am doing 37 strokes, each kilometre I am paddling 370 strokes, each with a high hand, deep plunge and drive of the leg—hand, hip and heel—and so it goes on, 5550 strokes for every 15 kilometres, up to 20,000 strokes on the longest day. It is an addictive rhythm—the mind and body surrenders to this task at hand. As Dee says, this is what we are here to do—and so we go on.
The day builds on our addiction to this rhythm of the paddle. Each day designed around four sessions of 15km. The addiction is seen on Rob’s face when we stop at 57km one afternoon—he wants to hit 60km—seven hours of paddling and he is still craving more.
My strokes per minute are more than just passage. They provide the beat of an orchestral symphony which starts to build. The longer we paddle, environmental elements bind together from individual cacophony into an orchestral collective. The current, the banks, the trees, the birds, the reeds, the wind, the light weave into a sensory whole. As I paddle, 37 strokes per 100 meters, I become acutely attuned to slight changes in rhythm, pitch and time, in flow, light and texture. I am reading this changing environment, I am listening and feeling—it is drawing me forward, I am feasting on anticipation of its unfolding movements. I am open to its possibilities—it takes me into its grasp and holds me across the day.
Nature is not the only unfolding symphony across this journey. With a short first day stopping in Wagga Wagga, it’s not until the second day when the group really get into the trip. One boat breaks an hour out of Wagga Wagga. The repair is made in true bush style within 30 minutes as our hands, tools, spare parts all come together to turn setback into success. By 2pm we find ourselves at the designed end of the day, a recognised Reserve campsite, with one token camper van, but generally devoid of appeal. After paddling 40 kilometres over six hours, fully absorbed in the harmony of this river, this is the equivalent of finding a parking ticket on your car after an enjoyable day out. All paddlers attend a democratic meeting, the alternatives laid out—either wait out the afternoon here and camp overnight, or get back into the kayaks, and paddle on for another 15 kilometres or so, with no guarantee of any better campsite than the one before us. Do we throw away the plan? Do we seek comfort in our sensory-addicted kayak seats and take a chance with the unknown?
It is moments like these, when an operation teeters between the competing tensions of design and art. Would we be ambitious and audacious, or would we seek the immediacy of rest and compliance with design? We have a unanimous decision. We get back into our kayaks and paddle another glorious 17 kilometres and come across a far better camp site.
Day Three comes and again we indulge ourselves in sensory overload, all to the beat of 37 strokes per 100 meters. Now the group is really working as one. Radios keep the fleet within a safe distance. Many hands help boats down muddy embankments. Fingers are taped by friends. Again, we push the pace and by afternoon tea we reach our designed day three campsite. Again, it is desolate Crown Land. Democratic decisions come to play, and again the dice roll. We paddle another 15 kms and the time for finding a campsite is upon us. As the lead boat, I pull aside the front group onto a narrow beach, which may just offer enough space for our campsite. It is touch and go. The sand quickly turns to mud, and more boats are now arriving around the river bend. I can feel the collective expectation of a high-quality campsite. I spot a narrow path leading up and over the bank leading into woodlands. I take a chance and follow the path. High over the riverbank, where the shady gums stand, I find a platform of lush green grass, caught between the forest and a deep drop back into the river—it is exactly the campsite dreams are made of—soft grass, spaced trees, expensive water views. For the second day, we follow art over design, and enjoy rich rewards.
Enthusiasm on previous days, effectively erodes many of the kilometres designed for Day Four. Luck again plays our way. By morning tea, we have a seriously injured paddler—Gavin damages his back and our first aid response swings into action, led by Dee. Instead of 40 kilometres, we only have 20 kilometres to Berembed Weir, our Day Four campsite. There are times on a trip when the only thing standing between progress on Plan A and the retreat to Plan B is the courage of one individual. Gavin is obviously in pain—call it determination, call it stubbornness, call it stupidity, but Gavin gives it a go. Over the next 20 kilometres he is never alone, the group comes around him, he never gives up. We reach the weir. Here we tackle a kilometre-long portage. I see many hands on many kayaks, many paddlers walking that kilometre back and forth, over and over again. It makes for an exhausting afternoon, but when it’s all over, we have all kayaks downriver of the weir, we have Gavin in a safe location with road access, and we have our wine.
Now at this point, I need to make an admission. Like many males, I suffer from ‘repacking the boot syndrome’ where every piece of equipment faces an inquisition before it enters my kayak. I have brought a Philip K Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle. By the end Day Four, I am remonstrating with this novel—it fails to achieve a single purpose during the trip, it is grifting.
As we prepare to depart for the fifth day of paddling, Gavin is unable to proceed. Unlike a lame horse, we decide not to put him out of his misery. We say goodbye and promise to rescue him at the end of the day. Now my grifter becomes my gift. I hand my novel to Gavin—he will not be alone this day. I make a mental note to always bring a book on an expedition.
Twenty-four hours later, we are in Coolaman at the Cheese and Bread Café. We remember how we finish the trip, the packing of the trailer, the showers, the celebrations at the Lazy Lizard, the dash to rescue Gavin. Our breakfast takes a long time, but no one is complaining. People are lingering. They are keen not to call a close on this trip. We have become comfortable with each other. We have, like the natural symphony of the river, blended together. Finally, the long drive home beckons, goodbyes are said, thanks are on offer and acceptances made, commitments given for next year.
This story is not about how plans deploy successfully, but how plans deftly shelved can allow for new stories to emerge. This is where the art of the journey lays, the art of expeditionary kayaking, of journeys not included on float plans, this is where great trips begin.