Whitewater Spring Safari
Snowy, Thredbo, Swamp Plain and Goobagandra Rivers
By MARK BRACKENREG
The year 2020 kept throwing us curveballs that made planning hard. With the Victorian border closed, the usual pilgrimage to the Mitta Mitta was off the cards. So it was a matter of hoping for some well-timed rain, or paddling snow melt rivers in our home state.
There was plenty of interest should the rain gods oblige and allow us to paddle moderate grade rivers, but only a handful of more hardy souls were prepared to brave the colder snow melt waters.
Rick Fitzgerald had a nasty scare with his health and was unable to continue as convenor of the safari, so handed over the reins to muggins. As the departure time grew closer, the long range forecast didn’t look hopeful for rain, so a dozen or so that were up for a moderate grade trip pulled out, leaving a group of six. Last minute work commitments for some meant that this number dropped to just three paddlers on the safari—I would guess the smallest number ever. Club historians might know better.
Like many events, the usual format of 2020 Snowy River Extreme Race was abandoned due to COVID-19. However many NSW and ACT paddlers still headed to Island Bend, and it was a hive of activity despite the border closures. If you’re a whitewater paddler and haven’t attended yet, put it in your calendar. The intermediate whitewater isn’t intimidating and it’s worth drinking in the energy, enthusiasm and positive spirits when a large number of boaters get together in one spot.
Looking at the water releases from Munyang over the previous days it seemed like there would be water in the morning until about 10am, then it would be turned off until around 3pm or so in the afternoon. Brian Soundy, Cam Bolding and myself put in at the rafters track just after 9am. The water seemed lower than I remembered—it was certainly much lower that 2019 when the dam was spilling! Perhaps it was just on one turbine? No such luck. The release had been turned off before we got on the river. It was still paddleable, and at least it made for an easy eddy to allow us to scout the waterfall rapid. A nice lazy lunch in the sun gave us time to catch up with Marshall, Kevin and Will from River Canoe Club as well as a bunch of other paddlers we had met over the years. It’s great to be part of the small whitewater community.
By 1.30pm the water was back on, so Brian and I headed back down the rafters track. This was better—both turbines were definitely running, the sun was out and it was a joy to be out on the water. Meanwhile, Cam Wallace had latched on to another team and got in two good runs on the full Munyang section.
With the Island Bend campsite fully booked, we stayed in Jindabyne. The upside was a good meal at an Indian restaurant. Lynn Parker and Erica Soundy joined us for the Safari, to bring some common sense to the group.
The plan was to run the Thredbo from the Village to Ngarigo on each of the next two days. After inspection and a group chat we decided that the traditional run through the pipes was safe at this water level and we headed off through the fifth pipe from the right, a little higher than I paddled it in the past. Shuttle-bunny duty complete, Lynn Parker headed to Thredbo for a coffee. Logistics are so much easier when you paddle to the campsite.
We had an uneventful but enjoyable day. The river level was perfect for our group. Demanding our attention, challenging but not pushing us into the red zone. Not too long after we hit the campsite, a group from Coffs Harbour pulled off the water. They’d been on a weeklong kayaking road rip and had just come from the Goobagandra, which they told was at an excellent level.
Just before we’d left Sydney, the weather forecast had changed, with rain predicted today and tomorrow. Strong wind gusts arrived along with the rain. Luckily the rain was somewhat intermittent and we were able to sit and chat around the fire before it settled in overnight.
We headed back up to Thredbo next morning for another run. The pond above the pipes was looking somewhat different after a night of rain. Time for a group chat. Conclusion—it’s not looking safe for our group of three. Options? We’d planned to paddle the Swamp River the next day. Could we keep driving and do that? We’d come prepared for a morning run on the Thredbo and lunch back at the campsite. We had all our safety gear. Did we have enough time and food? Time—after some calculating, and with Lynn to shuttle us—yes. But no coffee for Lynn yet, that would have to wait until Khancoban, after she dropped us off. Cam Wallace rummaged through his car and unearthed a loaf of bread and a packet of nuts. We were set.
Swamp Plain River
The rain was holding off, and with the water at 1.92m it was going to be a quick trip, all going well. The guidebook told us that the best level was 1.2m to 1.5m, and that higher water could be dangerous in the gorge. So there were some nerves. The boulder sieve in the gorge has been the scene of near misses in the past and is a compulsory portage, so we were a little toey about spotting it in time. My memory of the sieve was vague and not to be trusted.
The paddling was exciting and we took care to eddy hop and get out of the boat to bank scout if we couldn’t get a good view from the water. At one stage it looked like there might possible be a line on the left, but it looked dodgy and we decided to portage on river right. The steep riverbank was broken by many large boulders, but the vegetation wasn’t too thick so we battled our way past in about 45 minutes.
Back on the river, the water remained challenging and good fun. Our only two rolls of the safari happened on the same rapid. A good tongue of water bypassed most of the difficulties, but the hole at the bottom had a punch if you were just a bit off line.
We kept an eagle eye out for the rock sieve. Right up until the gorge ended and the water started easing off. That dodgy looking rapid that we portaged must have been it, just looking different at a higher level than I’d seen it in the past.
Lynn was ready and waiting at the Alpine Way Bridge pull out. Time for us to reflect on our decisions on the 90 minute drive back to the campsite. We were happy with our judgement in not paddling the Thredbo at that height, and with our on river scouting and decision to portage.
Again we had enough breaks in the rain to be able to enjoy time around the campfire, and ponder what to do with the next few days. The Thredbo was going to be too high for another run. The Eucumbene might be OK but none of us had paddled it before, and we were unsure about the water level. We’d been told that the Goobagandra was unexpectedly good at its level a few days ago, so decision made.
A quick phone call on the drive to Tumut and we had a campsite at the Thomas Boyd tack head booked. And having the picnic shelters in the rain would be handy. We set up camp then headed up to Macs Crossing to a pull out on Walls Creek Road. The water level of 1.48m put it smack in the middle of what the guidebook describes as a good level. The Goob hasn’t run too often over the past few years, so it was good to be able to appreciate another uneventful, but enjoyable afternoon’s paddling.
The next morning we headed up for another run from Macs Crossing down to the campsite. The rain had stopped, so by lunch time gear had started to dry out, ready for packing up and the drive home. The river level had risen to 1.92m, giving us great level to finish on, with a number of play spots with surfing waves.
The new normal in a COVID-19 world has seen many changes. Perhaps we saw a few records for a safari. The smallest paddling group ever? Just three paddlers, Brian Soundy, Cam Wallace and myself. Least rolls? Only two (both on the same rapid). No swims. Surely that hasn’t happened before. And for Brian, something he hopes to repeat—the first River Canoe Club trip in a long time when his doctoring skills haven’t been put to use.
But the essentials remain the same. Good times on the water with a group looking out for each other, a shared passion for whitewater journeys and good company around the campfire.
My thanks to Rick for his early organisation, Cam, Brian and Erica for the laughs and good times both on and off the water. And special thanks to Lynn for yet another trip together and for stepping up as shuttle bunny. Basil would be proud.