Upper Macquarie River Easter Safari
Freemantle Road Bridge to Long Point
2-6 April 2021
By ROBERT WALKER / Images BRON POWELL, JIM CAMPBELL and ELIZABETH WALKER
Easter 2021 was to be a RCC Safari with a difference—rather than the usual whitewater creek boat adventure, this year it was to be a canoe expedition. Open Canadian canoes were once the craft of choice for River Canoe Club. The skills and techniques for negotiating a multi-day whitewater trip in an open canoe are quite different to a creek boat—would we be able to do it?
We had an excellent group of RCC Paddlers sign up for this crazy idea: Kevin S (K1), Mark B (C2), Rachael B (C2), Jim C (C1), Dean H (C1), Deb C (C2), Bron P (C2), Cathryn W (C2), Elizabeth W (C2), Amelia W (C2) and Robert W (C2). The trip was also joined by a parallel Sydney University outing, including the Svec family in two double creek boats.
After two months of extreme weather events on the New South Wales east coast, the river levels were jumping between too-high to way-too-high for the original plan to paddle the Nymboida, Mann and Clarence Rivers over eight days. Plans B, C and D were all prepared including the Turon, Macquarie and Snowy Rivers in the weeks prior to the trip. Australia’s weather does not do anything by half—seems to jump between being on fire to raging floods.
A teleconference with the team brought everyone together on the Tuesday before the trip to make a call: which river can and should we do?
There was much discussion on the current levels and what they were likely to be in a week’s time. As the extreme weather had now passed all the rivers bar the Nymboida, Mann and Clarence levels were falling fast. There was a very real possibility that there might not be enough water by Easter.
The team decided on an abridged trip on the Upper Macquarie over four days from Freemantle Road Bridge to Long Point, with the river levels expected to drop to less than 1.2m before we got there. It would be a rocky ride down the river. The float plan and risk assessment was updated to match the new plan.
The trip was about to start. All that was left to do was pick up the Club trailer and finalise the packing and get to Freemantle Road Bridge by 11am Easter Friday. The Macquarie River is only about three hours drive from Sydney, however by an interesting quirk of Australia’s geography it flows for over 3000km before it reaches the sea south of Adelaide via the Barwon, Darling and Murray Rivers.
By mid-morning at the Freemantle Road Bridge, the party was down to eleven people after a few last minute cancellations but boosted again to fifteen as the trip was joined by a parallel Sydney University trip with Jiri, Cat and their two boys. The car shuttle to Dixons Long Point was 90 minutes each way (Dean H had managed to take the Thursday off to scout the road and pullout point)—the backup being the access through Hill End.
Heads were put together to undertake the complicated mathematical conundrum of calculating the number of how many car seats were required at the pullout point, and would there be enough seats and drivers to get the shuttle drivers back to the put-in point while taking into account which car had a beer fridge in the back to be strategically located at the pullout point. We agreed on an answer which turned out to be correct.
Shortly after 3pm, the shuttle party had returned to Freemantle Road Bridge with daylight to spare. The group decided to make the most of the daylight savings and get to make some K’s before camping the night. This deviation from the plan added some risk as we paddled to find an unknown campsite with a few hours left of daylight. The maps were consulted and a bend in the river about 8km downstream was made the target for the night’s camp. The maps which Kevin S had prepared were light laminated which proved to be an excellent way to protect the maps from water while making them easily available for reference.
The river levels had dropped as expected in our group teleconference—the level was just below 1.2m as we set off, which was below the Good level recommended in the Waterways Guide. The result was some rocky boney rapids and races with some tight chutes. Some of the drops proved to be a challenge for the new paddling teams still getting to know their boats and paddle partners. After some thrills and spills the group found a large open area only about 4km from the put-in, about half our target distance—a sign of things to come. Tents were erected and a fire lit. The trip was underway.
The next morning brought a heavy dew followed by a thick fog which made for a cold, damp packup. The experience of the river the previous afternoon with tight manoeuvering through the rocky rapids would need some quick moves from the paddling teams.
The morning kicked off in the pool below the campsite, with Kevin S giving everyone some instruction in paddling C2. The group refreshed their sweep strokes, draw strokes and how to put them together as a team. This got the paddling pairs something to practise and common terms to use when communicating. As the fog lifted the group headed on towards Killongbutta through a series of rocky races which made for some pleasant paddling.
One rapid along the way was too rocky to run in the fully loaded open canoe—to do so would have risked damaging a canoe or injuring one of the team. A 16 foot open canoe is much more prone to damage such as being wrapped on a rock or log if it is swamped in a rapid. As the canoes were our transport for the next four days we needed to treat them with care.
The group took this opportunity to apply a technique of lining canoes down rapids too risky to paddle. A lining technique is quicker than a full portage as the equipment can stay in the boat. The paddlers use ropes to lower the boats down the rapid in a leapfrog fashion. In a large group like ours a chain of paddlers down the bank can be used to pass all the boats down the rapid. A long rope such as a throw bag was a great addition, as it allowed the canoe to be floated further with each step. This method would be used many times over the next few days. It proved to be much quicker than portaging, especially as there were not any portage trails, only rocky river banks and loose rocks.
We reached the low level bridge at Killongbutta Farm—after this point the rapids changed from races to sharper drops and ledges. We spent as much time lining as paddling for the remainder of the day. We passed the Killongbutta homestead on the river left and several sites along the river bank with tents of families camping.
After a solid day of paddling and lining we found a large beach on the river right, out of sight of the Easter campers over the river and just as the gorge section began. It had been another big day with a considerable amount of pulling and pushing canoes between short paddles. Tents were set up, fire lit, toilet dug, swims had in the river with a rocky cliff face on the far bank made for a spectacular scene.
Started with a visit from the Easter Bunny and a light mist on what would be our most difficult day. We had camped the night before on a pool between two rapids, exhausted we had all just got on with making camp.
The first task of the morning was to scout the rapid below the camp. The rapid was too large, steep and rocky to be run by the Canadian canoes. The rapid had several sections which would need to be negotiated to get safely to the pool below. The route to line the boats needed to be inspected, as the right bank seemed the obvious route—however at the bottom of the drop, the water funnelled through a chute below a large rock.
The plan was implemented, the landowner—who had co-opted his neighbour who had a more comfortable 4WD—met the evacuation party a short walk along the vehicle track at about the same time a call from the homestead to the satellite phone confirmed the ambulance had arrived. In the meantime the group worked as a team to identify the least effort and safest means of moving the equipment and canoes down the rock face of The Forge rapid. The evacuation party returned minus the patient to assist with the last few canoes.
The whole party regrouped on the beach below the Forge to repack boats to get underway. Exhausted from the days’ exertion and stress from the incident, camp was made 100m below the Forge. The distance travelled was less than 4km in the day due to the amount of lining and a Grade 5 portage. Food, fire and bed.
MONDAY (5 April)
We started what was originally planned to be Day Three of the trip at where we should have been on the morning of Day Two. We were essentially a day behind schedule. Some in the group had work to get to on Wednesday.
The group in the morning briefing discussed how this would be handled. We should be through the worst of the rapids, the remainder of the day should have been easier going that the previous day, and each day ahead the rapids would become easier. It was agreed we would make as much distance as we could while not rushing and risking further injury. This would involve making the most of the pools where the canoes could make a good pace, while still spending the time and lining rapids where necessary.
There were still some long challenging rapids which needed to be lined by the canoes. As we got further downstream there was a noticeable increase in the amount of algae on the rocks. We passed the gauge at Yarracoona and the junction of the Winburndale Rivulet on the way to Bruinbun. There were some reasonably long pools with several long rapids with tree and rock hazards in the low water.
The group made good time but called it a day at the Amy Anderson Reserve, on sight of a toilet block. It is the first of the public reserves at Bruinbun where the Bridle Track joins the river. The road access to the reserve meant there was little wood for cooking dinner with a large group of caravaners camped on the reserve—although hardly noticeable from our camp by the river. The steep bank opposite made for a pretty scene, with goats showing off their climbing skills.
TUESDAY (6 April)
The morning started with the rapid immediately downstream of the Amy Anderson Reserve. This rapid was once used as a slalom course and was an enjoyable rapid with a clear line down the left. A campsite at the top and road access for several kilometers downstream means this location would be worth a visit for future whitewater training.
We had started on what should be our last day but still had two days worth of paddling as per the original plan. Our pullout point was 32km away past the junction with the Turon River, so the plan was to get to the pullout by the end of the day. The plan was the same as the day before—to make the most of the pools to gain distance while not taking any additional risk with the rapids. We would re-assess once we got to lunch or the Turon junction and if necessary use the satellite phone so those who needed to be at work the next day could inform who they needed to.
There were several large, long rapids which needed to be lined before morning tea—however, we were still making good time to the Turon junction and were expecting to reach it by lunchtime. The Bridle Track could be seen from the river. It’s an impressive drystone wall style construction clinging to the cliffs around Monaghans Bluff—the Bridle Track is closed at this point due to a landslide cutting away a chunk of the road.
Once the Turon River joined the Macquarie, the volume in the river increased and the river opened up a little. All rapids were runnable, and we scouted several. There were a couple of swims that slowed us a little. This section was by far the most enjoyable of the four days, the river being much more suited to Open Canadian canoes than the previous three days. We continued to make good time completing the remaining 21km in the next four hours to have us finishing at Dixon’s Long Point around 5pm on 6 April as originally planned.
The foresight during the car shuttle calculations paid off with Jim’s beer fridge waiting for us at Long Point. The fridge was connected to the battery and set to max, while boats were unloaded. Those returning home to get to work the next day were assisted in packing cars and loading boats and kids into the car for the journey back to civilisation.
The remainder of us set up tents at the now deserted Long Point. We made use of the large amount of driftwood tangled in the trees and finally had time and motivation to bake a damper in a camp oven with flour and golden syrup we had carried down the river with us for the past four days and was a lovely end to a challenging trip.
The Upper Macquarie by canoe in low water is a tough trip and possibly not one that is likely to happen again in open canoes, or perhaps only in plastic/hard wearing boats. The group was challenged by the river and terrain. However the group did not falter and worked tremendously well as a team, supporting each other through the journey and various challenges to finish on time.
Quotes and anecdotes from participants:
“I had my first swim down a rapid. Next time, I will swim with my feet up.” Elizabeth Walker (11)
“My favourite moment was when my daddy fell out of the canoe. It was really funny.” Amelia Walker, 7yo
“It was so special having the Easter Bilby visit us on Easter Sunday. It was as if Basil was there with us in spirit.” Rachael B
“If we were good canoe paddlers, it wouldn’t have been as much fun”. Deb C at the end of the trip, after her and Bron’s epic submarining, best swim down a rapid ever (better than lining, they say), Deb’s catapult out of the canoe and miraculous landing back in the canoe, and notable confusion over left and right when going down rapids…