Murrumbidgee River Canoe Safari
Nanangroe to Gundagai
26-30 January 2021
By ROBERT WALKER / Images ROBERT WALKER, KEVIN SONGBERG, PAUL CAMPBELL, CATHRYN WALKER
What a weekend, the River Canoe Club’s first dedicated canoe journey in many years—Australia Day on the iconic Murrumbidgee River. Twenty people, ten canoes and a kayak, 100km of river, several beginner and novice canoeists, some seasoned expedition canoe families who had clocked over 800km of Murrumbidgee, and a couple of former national and international canoe slalom paddlers who had not seen each other in 35 years. The stand-out feature of this trip was the amazing group of people and how well the group bonded and worked together over the weekend.
Saturday Skills Session
The weekend started with a day of skills practise at Nanangroe before embarking on the river journey. We spent the morning practising some strokes and stroke combinations to achieve eddy turns and ferry glides in our tandem open Canadian canoes. In the afternoon we sorted our gear for the journey and undertook the complex mathematical problem of the car shuttle. This was all sorted with reasonable efficiency and a convoy of cars left Nanangroe for Gundagai River Caravan Park, who offer an excellent service of allowing us to park our cars in their caravan park rather than in the town common and also look after the keys in the office to ensure we did not lose our keys on the way down the river.
DAY ONE: Nanangroe to Jugiong (38km)
The first day tested our skills with some sizeable pressure waves on the first two rapids made a wet ride and one swim from the Caley’s ‘floating fridge’. The pressure waves were larger than normal with over 7,000ML/day flowing down the river—over 4.5 times Sydney’s daily water consumption. A dry line was possible down the right hand side.
At the 7km mark is the first of the long chutes—the river appears to come to an end with all the flow heading off to the right and around a blind corner. In the relatively high flows the group took a conservative approach and got out to scout the river before heading down. On advice from Kevin we took the high right bank to do the scout and it gave an excellent view of the river ahead. The river was clear of dangerous hazards such as trees or deadwood with several large eddies down the sides of the chute. The group practised their eddy turn skills as we controlled our descent of the chute by eddy hopping our way down to allow the group to stay together and scout the upcoming water. We had our second swim crossing a hard eddy line with insufficient edge, the boat was bailed out while the remainder of the group foraged blackberries on the bank.
After another 3km—about the 10km mark—the group reached what would be referred to as ‘the rapid of death’. Similar to the first chute, the river appears to end and the flow disappears down a chute to the right. We again attempted to scout from the high right bank, however our efforts were thwarted by a series of barbed wire fences. We changed banks to the lower left bank. The first part of the chute was similar to the first. However as the river made a sharp left around a blind corner the group’s collective blood pressure rose. The river was a complicated array of fallen trees which would have required a complicated and precise combination of moves to avoid losing a canoe in the log jam. The high water level of over 7,000 ML/day made the flow much faster through the trees than experienced on previous trips. The more we looked the more it became obvious this section was above the collective capability of the group in heavily ladened canoes. Options were considered of some paddlers walk down and some of the more experienced paddling pairs paddle down the canoes—or do we just find a portage route? We continued to scout downstream to check we had see the worst of it. In the process we found our solution. The high water levels had created an overflow channel around the left hand side of the island just enough to float a canoe with a small drop at the bottom to add some excitement without the risk of losing a canoe or worse. The group’s collective blood pressure dropped and the mood lightened with the collective relief. Some groups chose to paddle the chute and others lined their boats down the shallow drop.
Our concerns were confirmed as we joined the main flow—a kayak on the far bank that had been broken in half shows the potential consequences of not taking the time to scout. This overflow chute would also provide a short portage route in lower water and is recommended for all but experienced white water canoe paddling teams as the tree hazards in the main flow have high consequences.
The group had travelled 10km of our 32km day and it was now after lunch we had the other three-quarters of the distance to go in half the time. It was a tough day to get to Jugiong, especially for the new paddling teams due to the physical and nervous energy consumed in negotiating the rapids of the day. The remaining three-quarters of the trip did not have any rapids of the same difficulty and is characterised by gravel races all the way to Jugiong, where we had a 6pm booking at the Jugiong Motor Inn for dinner. The group pulled into Jugiong at 5.30pm after a hard day paddling in 40+ degrees, there were a few swim stops along the way. After a rushed set up and some showers at the Jugiong pool a refreshed group had a well earned meal and several beers.
DAY TWO: Jugiong to Sandy Falls (42km)
The group was up early and ready to go for the 8am briefing despite the night before. The section from Jugiong to Sandy Falls is similar to the last half of the previous section—mainly fast-flowing river and gravel races. The high water levels of over 7,000 ML/day meant the canoes moved along at between 8-12km/h. We were eating up the kilometres, with regular rest stops for a drink, food and a swim to cool off from the 40+ degrees a welcome break, and we still made good time. Turns out Peter C is an avid bird-watcher the binoculars, bird field guide and encyclopaedic knowledge of birds gave it away. Peter’s knowledge added another dimension to the trip as we cruised our way down the red gum and casuarina lined river with flocks of galahs, corellas and cockatoos with the occasional family of white breasted sea eagles. The count at the end of the trip was over 50 different species with one genetic ‘mutation’ of a pink corella in a flock of white.
Another pro-tip from our Canberra contingent with many kilometres of Murrumbidgee experience is the value of the rockmelon as a morning tea snack. These robust fruits with an integral waterproof skin make for a great snack on a hot day and are easily packed into a canoe. Some further excitement for the trip when Cathryn spotted four sheep stranded in the water. They were half-submerged in the cold water with a steep bank above them and could not get out of the water. Quick action from Paul and Wilma got them to bank between Paul pulling from the bank and Robert lifting from the below the sheep were lifted from the river. The first of which was too weak to stand for a minute before regaining its strength. There were several dead sheep spotted over the trip who have either slipped in or been caught out by the changes in river level. There were four less lost sheep thanks to the efforts of the group.
The group made excellent progress with the high flows to the point we were going to get to the campsite unnecessarily early. We took the opportunity to stop at a play wave a few kilometres from the campsite and practise some more river skills, surfing a wave in the river caused by a submerged rock. Some of the more experienced and some of the keen beginners had a go at ferry-gliding and surfing a stopper in the river. The groups arrived at camp with plenty of time to set up and have dinner before dark. Again the Canberra contingent showed their experience of many kilometres of Murrumbidgee touring with an amazing meal with enough leftovers to supplement the meagre rations the rest of us had brought along. The combination of a couple of 70L eskies plus a couple of others in the group and a last minute purchase of ice at Jugiong meant again after a great meal a few cold beers and gin and tonics were consumed. The cloud configuration resulted in the most disappointing sunset I have experienced at Sandy Falls—however the sunrise on the Tuesday made up for the evening before.
DAY THREE: Sandy Falls to Gundagai (32km)
Again the group rose early and were ready to go for the home straight. The last day into Gundagai is similar to the previous day for the first 6-7km and then the Tumut River joins. At the confluence there is a visible change in colour of the river and also temperature. The Tumut is clearer and colder due to its shorter length and higher flow. After the confluence the river volume increased and so did the velocity. The river has no difficult features in this section with only an S bend near the racecourse in Gundagai to keep you on your toes. The groups stayed together well in the fast-flowing water. A brief rest stop as the group tired after three days and almost 100km of paddling before the pull-out point at Gundagai Common adjacent to the Gundagai River Caravan Park where we had left our cars. Twenty exhausted paddlers safely negotiated 100km of arguably the most interesting open canoeable section of the Lower Murrumbidgee and arrived at Gundagai around 12.30pm. The trailer was loaded with canoes, group photos were taken before farewells and the long drive back to Sydney, Canberra and the Central Coast.
This section of river has some good moving water challenges for open Canadian canoes and some great scenery including many iconic river red gums. This trip was particularly special due to a very positive group dynamic. The people made this trip.
Peter Caley and Polly Logmans write:
After moving to Canberra, we had the idea of canoeing from Canberra to the Coorong, and after discovering some of our friends (Simon and Sonya) were also keen and familiar with western New South Wales we started out on the “Lowbidgee” in 2012. Around Australia Day each year we paddle about 100-130km over typically 4-5 days. The starting/stopping points were Narranderra, Darlington Point, Carrathool, Hay, Maude, Redbank Weir, Balranald and Robinvale (on the Murray). Each year the river got slower (“Slowbidgee”) as we headed downstream, the remoteness got greater, and our loads got heavier (nothing spared). But the upper reaches remained for us to do, and our skills were lacking.
When going for lunch at Jugiong on 23 January, Polly took a photo of a BBQ plate fixed to a red gum by the river. I wondered if that linked to the canoe trail, and googled “Jugiong canoe campsite”. On the first page one of the hits was “Murrumbidgee Multiday Canoe Trip – Australia Day Weekend…” This was just what we were looking for—the right kind of paddling, the correct (upcoming) weekend, and quite possibly the right sort of people! There was even a very organised-looking interface with a box for contacting the Organiser—we decided to see whether we could tag along. Then things got complicated ‘cos when the organiser dutifully responded, our friends were in the room and demanded to know what we were up to—they ended up coming too!
The skills day at Nanangroe was great, and the unloaded 17 foot canoe performed well enough. Then on to the real deal the next day. We had packed light—reduced beer rations, no camp oven, no BBQ hotplate, only one rockmelon per day—morning tea only—and no emergency large wine cask. We didn’t have much freeboard, but more than usual. On to the first rapid, we had scouting advice to track to the right of the haystacks. This didn’t quite happen, and we ploughed into the first haystack. If the bow lifted at all it wasn’t noticeable (the onboard “fridge” was propelling us torpedo-like). We’d taken on enough water that we ploughed into the second haystack General Belgrano style—it was time for us and the canoe to have a swim. Thanks to Paul and Wilma (I luv eddies) and Dean (I hate wind) for helping rescue, and thanks to the excellent practical skills session the previous day nothing was too much of a surprise (being in the moving water, the canoe full of water weighing a ton…). So, 800km x 4 canoes on the Lowbidgee without a capsize, and here we were one kilometre into the Midbidgee and in the drink! In truth it was great to find the limits of our canoe setup with such a supportive group around us.
The other incident of note was when taking the “chicken shoot” option instead of the “rapid of death”, we hit a rock so hard it pushed a barrel into the yoke breaking it in two! Should’ve roped it thru—that’s the thing about life, by the time you finish, you nearly know enough to start.
Birding highlights included large flocks of ducks—mainly wood ducks and a few Pacific black ducks—and a family of white-bellied sea eagles with a massive nest in a casuarina on the true left bank about half-way between Nanangroe and Jugiong. Flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos and little corellas were almost constant companions—including the amazing pink corella just before Gundagai—and kookaburras were a reliable alarm clock. A peregrine falcon flew over the dinner table at the Jugiong Motor Inn. Between everyone’s collective spotting efforts we got to 52 species.
We had a great time, enjoying the moving water and everyone’s company. We’ve never paddled 42km in a day before, and probably never will again —unless we do this section again which is highly likely. We’re very appreciative of the River Canoe Club for being so welcoming and will be joining—if only for a couple of trips per year—it seems like good value and great people to be in contact with.
“ Hey Paul, can you believe what they’ve fitted in those 2 canoes !! “
“Goodness me, Peter n Polly know their birds”
“Duncan nailed the -Take it wide- rope swing!”
“Paul, you can’t sit inside with the A/C all night. The crowd is outside.”
What an awesome weekend we had. Thank you to everyone for making it just that and to my introverted extrovert of a brother-in-law for inviting us along.Paul and Wilma Campbell
A big thank you and shout out to our amazing leaders, Cathryn and Robert. You sure did put a great trip together. We will be back again!!!
The format of the weekend was fantastic, having a solid opportunity on the Saturday to really refresh and hone some boat skills before starting the journey on day 2 – with everybody being much more ready to going with more skills and confidence.
On the saturday evening by the river, there was a lovely celebration of old times – with Paul celebrating the return of a slalom paddling helmet from some 37 years earlier.
Everybody on the trip was amazing, with the most fabulous bunch of people. All in good spirits and more than anything there to look out for each other. No attitudes, no ego – it was really the common good, the love of adventure and paddling that brought everybody together. So great to catch up with so many new people too.
The club’s radios definitely assisted with communications – a great asset to have.
As always, we loved some of the stories that Erica shared with us from over the years in a way that only Erica can recount from our diverse and fascinating life experiences.
A simple equipment learning from the trip was the importance of having more sponges/one for each boat as an effective bailing/dewatering device. Similarly some simple plastic scoops. We had some but many more would have been good.
Many more fun adventures ahead 🙂Simon W
Duncan C and Fran B write:
What an introduction to paddling a Canadian, that moving water skilling up was so much fun. Those canoes can actually do amazing moves if the paddlers can hold it together.
I so much enjoyed the banter between crews and the spontaneous water fights that helped quell the 40 degree heat. These people have amazing stories to tell, trips of the past and some to be planned.
The rope swing over the river was a hoot—at first we were dragging bums in the river then we got inventive and between us raised the bar so to speak then added the bank run and got huge height before letting go and splashing into the river. Lots of swinging and laughter followed as we all showed our rope swing style.
We have now checked out upriver from our starting point and it looks exciting with lots of long rapids. Oh when do we go back.
Dean Herbert writes:
I had a really, really, excellent four days canoeing.
Saturday was good to refresh all the skills and to experience the river at a higher level than the December session. Friday and Saturday night, a great time to get to meet new friends.
Sunday, Nanangroe to Jugiong, good in the morning with a few fun rapids, but a headwind in the afternoon, paddling solo with the high bow-stern of the Prospector made things a bit of a struggle. I managed to keep up and I think everyone was spent by the time we made camp on Saturday night. Some tasty pub grub for dinner and a few beers with Jimmy (Oops, I mean James) helped to replace the lost energy.
I was fearing my enemy the wind on Monday for the paddle from Jugiong to Sandy Falls, but it turned out to be a fine day with no real headwinds. Even though it was hot weather it was cool enough on the river. Great group of people with casual conversation, a good river flow really helped us to power along and enjoy the scenery along the river.
Monday night I was not really looking forward to my freeze-dried meal, when Peter and Polly with the floating fridge offered up a tasty Mexican feed with corn chips and sour cream, yum. After dinner some good conversation and infomercial from Kevin and Rob about handy camping gear. I was relieved the hardest part of the paddle was probably over so I finished off my emergency supply of Jack Daniels. Jimmy (sorry James) was complaining the next morning that someone was snoring, but I didn’t hear a thing!
Tuesday, Sandy Falls to Gundagai, there was a bit of a headwind early on but it soon died off, then we met the Tumut River and the flow increased for a good run into Gundagai.
Really great to see canoe back in the River Canoe Club, trips like this are what I was hoping for when I bought my Wenonah Prospector 15 eight years ago. Special thanks to Rob for organising a great trip, Kevin for making me feel safer and everyone else for the great company. Looking forward to the next one!