Easter Whitewater Safari
Nymboida and Clarence Rivers
3-7 April 2023
Trip Leader: KEVIN SONGBERG
By KEVIN SONGBERG
Paddlers: Kevin Songberg, Dean Herbert, Jim Campbell, Bron Powell, Brian Soundy, Deb Cunneen and Lisa Harvey (first three days).
Planning the trip
This paddling trip—starting on the Nymboida River and finishing on the Clarence River—has been described by people in the past to be a classic New South Wales river trip with a good range of rapids, beautiful scenery and even a gorge to paddle through. That was more than enough for a trip plan to be developed and a group of us to head north for a week.
This paddle had been on the cards for a while, but thwarted by floods the last couple of years. Even this time round—as with most whitewater trips—it was touch and go as to whether the trip would go ahead. Water levels were too low in the weeks prior, then suddenly too high after a sizeable rain event, but dropped just in time for us to paddle on perfect range water levels. It wasn’t, however, quite as had been portrayed from some people or per the Clarence Canoe and Kayak Trail guide. Read on for the adventures we encountered. Per our plan we started with seven of us in kayaks and solo canoes at Cartmill Park, Nymboida and finished with six at The Gorge Campground, just downstream of the Clarence Gorge.
GETTING THERE (Sunday 2 April)
A long car shuttle (4.5 hours) from Nymboida Camping and Canoeing to The Gorge Campground and back, but the scenic views and subsequent anticipation of the trip made up for it. We had maps, descriptive notes and a good feeling what lay ahead.
DAY ONE (Monday 3 April)
Cartmill Park to just before Buccarumbi: We started in perfect sunshine at Pollocks Bridge (Nymboida River at Nymboida; gauge level of 1.31 metres; 2670 ML/day flow) and through the day only had a short portage of Nymboida Weir, a couple of tree thickets to paddle through—with one tree thicket that was challenging enough to keep us wary, some nice easy small rapids, pleasant scenery, and even rainbows to get us started on a good note. We camped a little short of Buccarumbi due to our start time but had the whole riverbank to ourselves.
DAY TWO (Tuesday 4 April)
Buccarumbi to 2km downstream of Nymboida River NPWS Campground: We were glad we camped just upstream of Buccarumbi because there were a few 4WD camp setups at the bridge area. Our first rapid of note was M&M Muncher which we all managed to do okay. The name did give some trepidation when approaching the lead-in to the main section. The other rapids were small and easy, and again we had nice wilderness scenery for the day. On arriving at the pre-booked NPWS campground, we quickly abandoned our plans to stay there as some people who had just turned up in their 4WDs warned us that there would be a 21st birthday party there that night with more people arriving. We could easily imagine what that would be like to camp next to so we paddled about two kilometres downstream to a perfect campsite with only us.
DAY THREE (Wednesday 5 April)
Nymboida River NPWS Campground to Jackadgery (Mann River Caravan Park): Added to the Nymboida National Park with an excellent feeling of wilderness and scenic nature, this was our day of significant rapids and what turned out to be a quite an effort. With a combination of paddling in rapids and some portaging we managed to get through Cunglebung Falls, Exhibition Falls, Demolition Derby, Bridal Veil Falls and New Zealand Falls.
There was big anticipation on approach to the caravan park, as all trip we had heard stories—which grew with time—from Jim about being banned for life from the caravan park. We all took his side of the story, of course, as it sounded very reasonable and fair. We hatched plans for Jim not to show his face at reception—we would book in for him—and how to keep him under cover. Fortunately, when we arrived and Jim shamelessly showed up, the manager didn’t remember him, so Jim felt redeemed and we all enjoyed hamburger takeaway from the caravan park, topped off by beers and hot showers afterward. Lisa departed the trip here as planned due to other family commitments.
DAY FOUR (Thursday 6 April)
Jackadgery to downstream of Cangai Recreation Reserve: We started the day with a river level of 1.36 metres or 4140 ML/day at Mann River, Jackadgery, with knowledge that this should be an easy day with plenty of time to get to the end and only one rapid that we needed to look at (Cangai Falls). Slightly before we started on yet another nice sunny day we noticed some other people get on the water in a couple of open canoes who soon disappeared. Our start was warm and easy going but we caught up to the people in front at the first wave train as they had capsized and were emptying out at the banks. They said they were fine so we continued on.
We then came across an unexpected rapid, which in the notes was called a twisty Grade 2 rapid. We got out and had a look for what line to take. While walking along the bank, the next thing we knew was that there were capsized canoes coming down and people swimming. It was classic chaos: they were all separated, had no helmets on, not swimming correctly and trying to stand up in the flowing water androcks areas. There was some gear floating including a paddle, and they were struggling to work out what to do as they were washed down between and towards rocks and trees. The people (a family of four) managed by luck to mostly get through okay but one canoe ended up wrapped around rocks. They were able to recover their floating gear and we tried to get the canoe out for the family but couldn’t—it was wedged tight under the water pressure.
With four people and only one canoe left, unsuitable clothing and even a missing shoe, we respectfully made them understand they had to walk out to the road and so gave them maps and direction guidance. They thought they were at least half way down the river to their get-out point yet were only a quarter with no chance of making it before dark. It was fortunate we were there and gave the support to get outof their predicament. There was also no phone reception at this location but we were confident they would get reception once up at the highway. The predicament was not really their fault as they had hired the canoes, been told the trip was easy, and given almost no advice. After leaving them to safely walk out we paddled on with many subsequent discussions about the episode.
Cangai Falls turned out to be what the guide calls a Grade 3—really just a challenging Grade 2. At the level we had it was quite safe with lots of boils for entertainment. Kevin went boils riding for fun while Jim on the other hand showed off his paddling prowess by doing a masterful roll right in the middle of the rapid, rolling up with a quick shake of water off the head (and a ‘what was that all about’ look on his face) and immediately kept paddling.
The rest of the day was uneventful to below Cangai Recreation Reserve which has road access and had too many people there so we camped downstream.
DAY FIVE (Friday 7 April)
Downstream of Cangai to the Gorge Campground: We had an easy pleasant morning with open expansive views, until about two kilometres past the Clarence River junction, where the character of the river changed greatly. Anticipation—and nerves by some of us—was growing about the famed gorge with Rainbow Falls and Willow Tree Falls. As we approached, we could hear the roar of falls and could seewater progressively spilling off to the left of us in small channels. We couldn’t see where the waterfall was though—and a couple of us were a little nervous about going over it.
To add to the anticipation, storm clouds were brewing. We had been joking that the forecast was for rain over the Gorge at 1pm—when we’d be in the Gorge—and that’s pretty much what happened! We managed to find a nice eddy to get out and have a look at the falls—we thought it was the falls—plus an impressive view of the Gorge, but little did we know that this was another waterfall not mentioned in the guide anywhere.
We got back in our boats and managed to paddle down on the right a bit further, then saw another horizon line with spray coming up in a big plume—at which point (needless to say!) we got out. The Guide says in higher water—which is what we had—to portage both Rainbow Falls and Willow Tree Falls (the second set being much further down which we hadn’t seen yet) as one portage of supposedly 600 metres. Being a bit confused here about the first part of inaccurate notes we portaged most of our gear first, but the track was going on and on. There were a few side tracks that veered towards the river but were all dead ends—none of those are listed in the Trail guide adding more to its inaccuracy. So we kept going and going well past 600 metres to more like one kilometre.
Some Easter eggs came out at some point to encourage us on—we could see where Willow Tree Falls were on the map, but we were nowhere near the river at that point as the track deviated far from them, and there seemed to be no through track to put in below Willow Tree Falls as the guide had intimated. We eventually found a steep rock bank-come-cliff-line where we could scramble down to the river and leave our gear.
By this point we had used up a lot of precious time and decided it was way too far to portage the boat, so we went and got the boats, pushed through a storm downpour and portaged around Rainbow Falls only—which is the first set of falls mentioned in the guide. We had avoided this at first due to the long portage over rugged rocks. Now we knew it is the best way and almost gleefully did this compared to the one kilometre portage we’d done with our gear.
We then paddled down to the second set of falls (Willow Tree Falls) and managed to do a portage by a chain effort, lifting our boats near vertically up rocks. After this we paddled down to our gear in near darkness, loaded our boats, and paddled down to the Gorge Campground—finishing in the dark with headlamps, fortunately on flat to slightly flowing water which was easy to navigate. We were glad to see the day’s adventure end and get to our vehicles. The only further hiccup was that the promised hot showers were stone cold.
DAY SIX (Saturday, 8 April)
Post trip paddle up to Clarence Gorge: After our epic finish yesterday Kevin, Bron and Deb decided to paddle back up and look in sunshine what we came through yesterday evening. It was calm easy paddling and a nice walk to see the gorge—a sight well worth seeing.