The Blackwood River Descent~ The Longest River in the South West
For years I have been paddling parts of the Blackwood River and for years I have thought about paddling the entire length but other trips further a field always took priority. However a short quiet period in the shop and the fact that the river was flowing nicely due to winter rains, it became apparent that it was the right time to give it a go.
The Blackwood River officially starts 25 kilometres downstream of the small town of Moodiarrup, where the Arthur and the Balgarup Rivers meet. But I wanted to start further upstream, as far up as I could go, just as long as my kayak would float. I envisaged that spot would be near the tiny community of Duranillian about 15 kilometres upstream of Moodiarrup. So on one Sunday morning in September 05 we headed there. If I got in at Duranillian the trip would be 460kms long, which I reckoned would take me 7 days and be very close to Augusta just in time to meet my wife Jenny there, for a long weekend holiday.
Alaine was my support crew for the day. The idea was for Alaine to drop me off at one point, wait a little further downstream to make sure there was enough water in the river and then when I was sure that the river was going to be do-able, she would head home. Simple!
On the way to Moodiarrup I checked the Arthur River (the main Blackwood tributary) as we crossed it on the Albany Highway, near the Arthur River Township but it didn’t look promising so we drove a little further along the Arthur River – Darken Road to meet it again. Here 10kms from the Arthur River Township there seemed to be enough water for me to start my challenge. By starting here though it would increase the total distance to nearly 500kms and make it impossible for me to reach my goal by Saturday, but miracles could happen.
We walked along the riverbank and within 20 metres there was a tree blocking the river and causing a high build up of white foam. Not a good omen. Beyond this first obstacle the water flowed freely between trees for a short time, then another blockage. I was trying to find an excuse why not to go in here. Being killed by Jenny if I didn’t reach Augusta for our long weekend break was one, but was that a big enough excuse! I was looking for others and although I would have rather liked to start downstream at Moodiarrup because it was easier, it wasn’t why I was here. I was here to paddle the entire river, to start as far upstream as possible without endangering my life by getting tangled in farmers fencing wire. The smaller the stream and the further upstream I started the more likely that farmers would have fencing across the river. The thought of capsizing in a fence line and being held under water by the current and barbed wire strands wasn’t a pleasant one. Probably that was more reason to start further downstream.
Even with that worry, I signalled to Alaine that this was the place to start. We unloaded, I had a bite to eat, I sketched the river from the road map, as I didn’t have a proper map of this area because I hadn’t expected to start there. It was all downhill though, so I couldn’t get lost, could I?
With a radio strapped to my PFD I was away by 12.20pm only to do my first portage 20 metres downstream. It was going to be a long paddle! For the next 3 or 4kms I kept in touch with Alaine on the radio and told her of the fox that leapt fallen tree trunks to scamper across the fields, the logs, trees and snags blocking the river and which were seriously impeding my progress. Don’t expect me at the next checkpoint too soon, I told her! She then faded and I was alone to dodge the fences and the trees.
As well as the normal tea trees that we have in the Avon River, the trees on this river were real trees, big gums, large paperbarks and a mangled mess of logs and debris that had floated downstream with the current and were left to build up so high that some looked like Forts. The river became a maze, a jungle of timber, my eyes scanned all around to find ways through. At times there was no route so portages became necessary to forge on. With every portage I brought a little water into my boat with my booties so my boat slowly filled.
I ducked under, slid over, crashed through and often became wedged only to have to back up and try another route. Like a snake, I paddled from one side of the river to the other searching for gaps that would help me go forward. I cringed when my only route was to paddle back upstream to escape a blockage.
At this point there seemed to be only one thing in my favour apart from my determination and that was the boat. So soon into my trip it was proving to be the best kayak for these conditions. It was manoeuvrable so I could easily skirt around the snags and trees, the sloping bow allowed me to run up the logs and jump them. The stability was an asset as I slid and bumped from one hidden snag to another but I was still able to feel confident and in control. The rudder helped me steer the kayak in and out of places you would not normally go and when my head was down trying to squeeze under the bushes the rudder control was a real bonus.
The Gecko has a relatively large cockpit which allowed me, after each portage to sit my bum in the seat and bring my legs in later, emptying my booties of water at the same time. This method of boat entry was quick and stable. The Gecko also had good knee bracing which allowed me to lean the boat right on its edge to achieve amazing turning ability. I was just wrapped in the boat and it was these reasons why I chose it to do this trip.
Just when I thought that I would never reach Augusta due to my slow pace I came out of the jungle into a long pool and was able to get moving, sighting a canoe left to drift with the current and a beautiful rock hillside that would have been a perfect place to camp.
The pool gave me a lift in kilometres and spirit but it was short lived, I entered another jungle far worse than my last one. I was in and out of the boat like a yo-yo, snaking around trees and jumping dams of branches more like the work of beavers. I heard Alaine on the radio, she sounded close but it took me a long time to get out of the trees. I was wet and completely covered with bark, twigs, leaves and spiders.
Alaine was waiting at that first bridge and she commented that I looked worse than someone that had been pulled through a hedge backwards. I was wet from walking in the water and falling up to my waist into deeper water as I dragged my kayak over the debris. Alaine had made some hot tea, but I was more interested in working out how I was going to reach the next road crossing by dark.
Within minutes I had drank a cup of tea, gobbled some food and emptied my boat of water, debris and spiders and then soon skirted around a barb wire fence that was right across the river and waved goodbye. I will see you at the next bridge. I was immediately engulfed in another section of snags but within 30 minutes I was out and into a pool, thank god! My relief was short lived as I prepared for another exciting time amongst a watery forest of trees that resembled scenes in the Lord of the Rings. Any time now I could see a tree limb pick me up and extend me into the next pool. I looked into the water only to see the creature Gollum, it scared me, then I realised it was my own reflection! The swamp was quiet and eerie, laced with cobwebs and huge trees, that I’m sure were moving just to be in my way.
With speed I squeezed through two trees, one a large paper bark which had its bark hanging low like huge shawls. On clearing them I hit a submerged stump that threw me sideways and almost capsized me. A high brace saved me from swimming but it came at a high price, I had strained my arm.
Snags, pools, trees and more snags but at 4.50pm I arrived at my next bridge elated and happy to see Alaine. My imagination had run riot though, it was a bush that I had seen, and not Alaine. There was a cold wind, a swarm of mosquitoes, and darkness was close but no Alaine, this was not a good sign.
I changed into some drier clothes and walked to a road T junction about a kilometre away hoping to see her driving up and down trying to find me. When she wasn’t there, I reflected back to her puzzled look when I showed her the map, maybe she’s lost or could she be broken down. I stood there at the T junction just quietly thinking that my first day wasn’t going very well at all!
Then, a glimmer of hope, Alaine’s voice crackled on the radio. I didn’t think that I would long to hear her voice but I was happy. I could only hear every third word though, but she said something about a Ford, which was only a few kilometres downstream. Then as she moved from the ford our radios came into range and we could communicate better. Like the Lone Ranger she came galloping along the main road to rescue me.
By the time we had found each other it was dark, so we quickly dumped all my gear on the ground so Alaine could start her long drive home. What I had or didn’t have on the ground I would have to carry on my journey or do without. It was a relief to be alone, no more rendezvous points, no more waiting until reaching Augusta, I felt myself relax.
The night had been cool and thankfully it was a fine morning but when I started packing I found a few items that I didn’t really need. In the haste and confusion of Alaine throwing my gear on the ground the evening before, I found an extra tube of sunscreen, an extra beanie, an extra cag and two thermals that I could have done without. Because she didn’t want to see me go hungry Alaine left a tub of potato salad, a dry muffin and a tasteless fruit cake. With eight days of food already packed away I just couldn’t stomach any more food.
So in my 4.3 metre Gecko kayak, I had 10 days of food, a big warm sleeping bag, a sleeping sheet, a tent, a stove, fuel, a sleeping mat, sand shoes, heaps of clothes (too many), 10 litres of water, repair kit, first aid kit, throw rope, 6 laminated large maps, two cameras and film, a satellite phone, a mobile phone, towel, a deck bag, spare paddle, sandals and a lightweight camper’s chair. I never thought I could get so much gear into a small boat.
I wore two thermals, a thermal bottom, neoprene shorts, sometimes the cag, a Kokatat PFD, a Blue Vision neoprene spray deck with a breathable nylon trunk (for comfort) booties and a helmet. Surprising how many times I hit my head on tree branches, no wonder I have gone a bit loopy.
Leaving my first campsite the day’s paddle began by heading straight into a section of thick trees, just another reminder that my task was not going to be easy to achieve. By the time I reached Duranillian my first community, I had been on the water and paddling seven hours from Sunday afternoon and Monday morning with little progress, however a long pool gave me the faith that things may just get a little better. The river had been full of wildlife so far and paddling this pool was no exception, with hundreds of ducks, pelicans, a strange looking musk duck, fresh water turtles, kingfishers and parrots flying over-head. It was more like a waterbird park than the river. Yellow canola fields gave a little colour to the dominant pasture lands. Back in the thick trees a wedge tail eagle was perched in its nest at the summit of one of the biggest trees in the river.
Roos were numerous on the shores and at one time I saw at least twenty five hopping along the river bank in single file. What a beautiful sight. I couldn’t help but go, “Oh ah isn’t that nice” when I saw a roo standing on the bank with a Joey poking from her pouch and watching me paddle by. The wildlife was exceptional in this area and a bird spotters dream. I now know where to come when I’m eighty and my big expeditions are too much for me and I just want to paddle for relaxation and do some bird watching.
My journey continued to be slowed by the thick trees, portages and ford crossings that needed walking for safety reasons. The current didn’t yet have a punch to it to be a big threat to my safety but later that day, around 3.15pm the Arthur joined up with the Balgarup River and the river finally became the Blackwood with a bit more water flow.
In the next pool two black swans took off leaving their cygnet to fend for itself. Ducks continued to leap frog in front of me and trying to protect their young by pretending to be hurt and flapping along the river as if they had a broken wing.
At the pools end the trees hadn’t got any thinner and to make matters worse the water that fed from the Balgarup River had hastened the current, good for my speed but I had less reaction time to clear the trees. As my day was coming to an end I passed through a marshy area where the current was swift, the trees thinner and my ride certainly better. I found a great campsite on the right side of the river, on green grass, in a small clearing near some beautiful grass trees.
I cooked tea with the sound of wandering sheep baaing in the distance. Apart from the sheep the night was still, the swift current a few metres away made a beautiful sound as it swept between the trees. Somewhere in the distance, a bird was hooting serving as another reminder that I was in the country surrounded by wildlife and twinkling stars.
At 7.54pm the tip of the full moon rose on the horizon lighting up the sky. The cloud and the moon’s light created horizontal bars in the east. It was a beautiful sight and a stunning finish to another, but at times, frustrating day.
By 8.15pm I was snug in my tent writing my diary and preparing to sleep on a ¾ length, very thin self inflating mattress. Believe or not I was in my element.
I camped in a grass clearing in the hope that the morning sun would shine through and dry my tent. At first light it was working, but then the clouds moved over and it started to rain just before I was packing up.
I’d had a great run and clear passage through the tea tree section the previous evening and I was expecting more of the same but my luck had run out, the next two sections of trees were thick, real thick, causing me to get out and walk at times. I dodged a few trees and found a dead cow with legs high in the air changing the clean air into something extremely foul. I was pleased that I wasn’t held up at this point, the smell was overbearing. I entered another pool and found it lined with beautiful grass trees and canola fields. There was an attractive spot near a crop of boulders on the right side of the river and I just couldn’t help but take the opportunity to stop and enjoy the surroundings for a few moments. Sometimes the beauty of nature just grabs you and you have to take a moment to enjoy it.
By 1.00pm I approached a ford, it looked harmless, there was about 50 millimetres of water running over the concrete slab. Boulders lined each side of the banks making it hard to get out but it looked safe enough to beach on the concrete and then get out. I approached the concrete crossing slowly and carefully, readying to beach my self on the concrete road. My bow hit the concrete and stopped. The kayak then refused to climb onto the slab due to its heavy weight. Within a split second the current had pushed the kayak sideways, capsized me and before I could think how great my life had been, I was dragged inside the culvert and completely helpless. The culvert was dark and full of water, I sensed no air pockets, I remember thinking, “what if there’s bars fixed to the end of the pipe, I could end up like grated cheese”. I had been sucked out of the kayak, like a crumb being sucked down a plug hole without any awareness of it happening.
Although I could have been experiencing a near death experience I was calm, my journey, sliding through the pipe into the abyss felt surreal. There was no sense of panic, I just let myself go, and thinking if death was near it was quite a nice feeling. Suddenly I shot out of the tube into daylight, bumped over a cluster of rocks and into a pool that washed me downstream with the current. It was like taking a ride on one of the water slides at Adventure World, and I didn’t have to pay! Now I knew what novices went through after each capsize, and it really didn’t feel good. It had been a long time since I had capsized in white water so it took me by surprise and after that experience, I hope it never happens to me again for another 15 years.
My paddled floated by me, I swam after it, retrieved it and made my way to the shore. I walked back towards the ford with slightly grazed shins to see that my nice little kayak was being sucked against the concrete wall. Only the bow was above water. I made several attempts to move it but it was heavy and stuck solid. I tried dragging it out with my rope but it didn’t move an inch. I found a long steel bar along the track and tried prying it off but it obviously felt happier being where it was. For a brief moment I thought I would have to use my satellite phone to call for a tow truck but as luck should have it three guys in a four-wheel drive came along. With a little help of a thick rope and a powerful engine the kayak had no option but to come free.
I was grateful for the help, but embarrassed, it was a strange feeling asking for help when it’s usually me helping others.
I looked at the ford and it was hard to believe that such an innocent road crossing could turn into such a drama. I wasted no time in carrying my gear across the road and onto a sand bar on the downstream side and packed my things away to carry on again.
With energy revitalised by the dunking and the adrenalin rush I pushed on, paddling pool after pool, tree section after tree section some so choked I had to portage and others were free and fast. As the day was drawing to an end the river become wider and the trees become thinner, farms, some big some small became a focus point.
The weather turned sour and heavy rain followed me into Boyup Brook. I stopped at the town campsite, pulled my kayak up the steep bank and searched for the camp manager. She and two other friends were in the office and although I was dripping wet, she invited me in. She said I could camp anywhere except under the big tree as the storm was settling in but as the rain poured she felt sorry for me so suggested that I sleep in the big shed that she called the camp kitchen. I know I should have erected my tent in the heavy rain like a true camper but the invite of a drier place was too much to resist. A hot shower was most welcome and a chance to dry my gear was really appreciated.
The morning bird chorus which was led by Kookaburras, was absolutely amazing, it seemed that every bird on the planet was trying to tell me it was time to get out of my sleeping bag. It was one of those experiences you cherish when on holiday but pleased that it doesn’t happen outside your bedroom window every morning. It worked! I was out of my sleeping bag by 5.50 a.m. (a rarity on these winter mornings). My gear was scattered all over the place in an attempt to dry it but most things were still damp.
I left the camp in the morning drizzle paddling in familiar territory as I had done this section before but it really didn’t spoil the beauty of the trip. My diary said, farm house on left, power lines crossing river, tea trees very tricky, portage Terry’s Crossing, stock yard left, trees quite clear, small clay rapids, several Roos, gents toilet and so on. I was now in the territory of where the Blackwood Marathon, a race that includes, running, kayaking, swimming, horse riding and cycling takes place. Once upon-a-time in the early years of the race I used to compete, but it’s been a few years since my last one.
About a kilometre from Jays Bridge, where the race stops for lunch, I kept clear of a culvert which was pretty dangerous in the current water conditions and dragged my kayak around it before paddling further to the bridge. It’s here the swimmers take over from the kayakers for a near kilometre swim and then the bib is given to a horse rider who gallops off through the paddocks to the cyclist who is waiting to take the team home along some extremely hilly terrain. The running leg is first, starting in Boyup Brook which has a killer hill not long after you take off. I have done the running, cycling and kayaking legs, but that was when I was a little fitter, my current running and cycling fitness would not carry me through at the moment.
The next set of tea trees was very thick and a life jacket was tangled high in the trees, some poor soul must have come to grief in higher water conditions. In my log I noted, farm house, 28 parrots, ducks, small rapid, trees, fast current, cormorant, frogs, tractor working, stunning grass trees, beautiful red gums, bridge etc. In one set of trees a canoe was pinned broadside, another unlucky paddler. By 3.00pm I was approaching Winnejup Falls, a very difficult rapid. The hills on the approach were striking and beautiful grass trees grew on the green grassy sides.
Smaller rapids started to appear so I paddled carefully to a left hand corner where we had the start of the 2003 Australian Rapid Whitewater Sprints. I approached a pretty big drop that I knew about and paddled to the shore on the right side and dragged my kayak over the dry rocks to avoid it.
I was soon back in my boat to paddle down towards the two main drops. Both ways were extreme and suicidal, so I beached in a pool between the two big drops, a little closer to the rapid on the left side. The drop was several metres high which meant I had to drag my boat once again over 20 metres of dry rock and down to the bottom of the rapid where I got back in. I was extremely impressed with this rapid but it was too dangerous to paddle alone, especially with a loaded kayak. I could just see this rapid catching out social paddlers who run the river and don’t know it’s there. Trust me if you ever come up to this rapid, walk it, it’s not a rapid to be messed with.
I left the falls with the memories of the great time when I paddled them in the National Titles. (See my story of the 2003 Rapid Sprint Championships on my web site.) The river was relatively clear for the next 3 hours paddling so I was able to make some good progress and arrived at the ‘Three Acre Rapid’ just before 6.00pm. This rapid was not as dangerous as Winnejup Falls but it still needed respect, so again I portaged. I knew it to be a beautiful place so I had pushed on to be there by nightfall to camp. I don’t usually like to camp close to the noise of a big rapid but today I had worked extremely hard so I expected to sleep through anything.
Soon after I had erected my tent I realised it was under a big rotting tree branch which looked a bit dubious. With a stormy night ahead of me I thought it sensible to move the tent a couple of metres away just in case. In the last year there have been a number of people killed by falling tree branches and I didn’t fancy being another.
I climbed the hill behind my tent and was treated to spectacular views of the rapid and my camp. I was only 13 kilometres from Bridgetown and my mobile phone worked so it was time to let Jenny know that I would now not reach Augusta on Friday night due to starting further upstream than I had planned. I was thinking of ways to tell her, so she didn’t get angry. But it appears I didn’t explain it very well, she was a little on the furious side, to put it mildly – she wasn’t happy Jan! Thirty minutes later, when she had calmed she called me back and accepted a change of plans.
As I cooked my delicious tea of instant noodles and pasta the eyes of some animal was scouring the area and creeping close to my camp. I climbed the hill behind, sat on a rock, looked down towards the raging rapid and into the stormy night and enjoyed the fact that I could eat and slurp my noodles without being told to eat quietly. Life was good.
By 8.20am I had portaged the rapid area and was ready to move away. This last part of the river heading into Bridgetown had now quickened as the current became lively, although there were still some slower pool areas that were home for pelicans and cormorants. Stunning houses started appearing as I neared the town. A couple on their morning walk looked down towards me from the high banks and I’m sure they were a little jealous of me being on the water. I stopped at the caravan park to collect some water before stopping again near the town bridge to pack away my deck bag. Ahead of me were 9 kilometres of rapids, some close to grade 3. The water at the bridge was lower than when we held the State Wild Water Championships three weeks earlier but that was going to do little to the dampen the ferocity of the rapids.
I was entering the most dangerous section on-route, however I had paddled these rapids many, many times before so I was pretty confident, yet cautious. There were four big rapids that were going to be trouble. The first big one was the ‘Haystack Rapid’ which had a big rock smack in the centre of the main chute. In high water it is covered and creates a huge standing wave, but today the rock was showing and waiting for an unexpected kayaker to come along. A tremendous amount of water was being funnelled down the drop to where the big rock was waiting like a magnet. Hitting it or hitting the big haystack it creates is the cause of many capsizes. I was fortunate to be able to avoid it and have a safe run down.
One big one down, three to go. I approached the next rapid ‘Divider’ expecting a rough ride but it turned out being calmer than usual, and my passage to avoid the trees and log at the bottom of the rapid was easier. I was on a roll, but still treading carefully with my heavily laden boat. There was no way that I wanted to get pinned sideways against a rock. Two down, two to go.
I paused at ‘Photographs Rapid’ wondering if to run it like I usually did in racing, or was there a calmer route today? As I peered over the rim there appeared not, so I went for it readying to bounce high and low like a bungy cord out of control. I came out of it wet from the huge amount of water that poured over my deck as I penetrated the huge waves. Three down only one big one left.
With so much at risk, the joy, the thrill that I usually get from paddling these rapids was just not the same today. Today there was only one reason for me to paddle these rapids and that was to be able to complete the entire river, so the sooner I was in safer waters the better.
I approached the last big rapid that I thought may give me trouble. A few rocks and several big holes at the bottom were waiting like a pack of vultures readying to strike. I slipped beyond the rim of the rapid, edged between boulders, slightly glancing one and right into the waiting holes. The boat bounced like an out of control rocking horse, the water spraying over my head as if been blasted by a fireman’s hose. The cold water took my breath away as I hit the flatter waters.
My main fears were now behind me, all the rapids ahead were more manageable but I couldn’t relax, the easiest of rapids are often the ones that catch you out, I had experienced that two days ago! With care I rode out another four rapids before reaching the end of the Wild Water Course, but my safety was still not guaranteed, there were still a few smaller rapids further downstream waiting for me to make a mistake. Within 10 minutes I had run all the rapids and felt a sense of relief, from now on paddling was going to be safer. Or was it!
I had cleared all rapids by 10.40am and began a more relaxed paddle. I knew that there were no major obstructions for at least 25 kilometres. A little further on the river began to meander like a huge clover leaf going nowhere except in near circles. A fifteen kilometre stretch ended up being only 5 kilometres in a straight line. Here I came across a plantation on the left side of the river which had been devastated and blackened with fire. In contrast there were at times pockets of colour with red, purple and yellow flowers carpeting the riverbanks. To add a little more beauty to the devastated landscape, grass trees were scattered on river hill sides looking truly magnificent. In one area attempts had been made to grow tree seedlings along the riverbank with plastic bags placed around them to protect them in the sapling stage but sadly this hadn’t been totally successful. Erosion had swept many away leaving the plastic to float and litter the area. All along this clover leaf section I was passing both beauty and destruction.
I passed a house and cottage that I recognised. It was in 1985 – 89 I worked for Anglicare as a leader taking troubled youth on 24 day outdoor programs of cycling, backpacking, canoeing and abseiling. It was here in the cottage that we stopped for a couple of days to rest up and do a little work on the farm. It was a very interesting job but frustrating at times when the teenagers played up.
The river was littered with fallen trees and the surrounding land was farmland. There were ghostly burnt plantations and one hillside was completely devoid of trees. It was a pitiful sight, why was the hill completely clear, could it be possible that it was being prepared for another new pine plantation? Geese roamed free at Maranup Bridge where I pulled over to change films. Beyond the bridge more plantations had been stripped leaving rows of dead trees running down the hillsides with what appeared to be newly sown pines randomly spread between all the debris. There seemed to be no system in the sowing. The clearings were a depressing sight and it made me think of the devastating effect mankind has on the world.
I continued paddling and looking on at the changing scenery. I passed by an enormous house with a smaller chalet close to it, I’m sure some wealthy folks lived there and for a fleeting moment I was envious of their wealth. A few small farms were sandwiched between forest plantations and virgin bush, out here they live a quiet existence. Away from the farms and amongst the forest there was the odd European tree in blossom and though stunning they looked out of place out here. Most disturbing of all were the patches of blackberries that smothered the natural forest river bank like razor wire around a prison.
Haunting calls from a mystery bird echoed along the river valley. The forest was still and cool. I could feel the cold creep in and the rain fall in spasms leaving mist to rise through the trees. The forest stillness, the moss smothering tree branches and creepers strangling healthy trees gave me a feeling of being in a Tasmanian rain forest. Then there was laughter as two kookaburras on a high branch chuckled in unison. The forest’s mood changed from corner to corner.
By 5.30pm I found a picturesque campsite about 1km from Wrights Bridge but the warmth had already left the day and as the cold descended around me, I began to shiver. The rain poured and I worried that all my gear and tent would get saturated but as the dismal evening turned towards dark the rain began to ease. I set up my camp and cooked my pasta. I enjoyed the fresh night air before snuggling up in my sleeping bag.
The kookaburras were in an animated mood as the morning light shone through the nylon fly and somewhere in the forest a woodpecker or something similar was pecking at the trees like a jackhammer chipping concrete. I laid back and listened. By 6.00am I was ready to enjoy another day and because I was behind schedule I needed to leave early to ensure I reached Darranup Bridge, by nightfall to meet Jenny. I would be dead meat if I didn’t and it was 80 kilometres away so I had no time to waste. To save a few minutes I skipped my hot drink and was a way by 7.20am, an hour earlier than usual.
I moved under Wrights Bridge where the main road from Balinup to Nannup started following the river. This road is one of the most scenic drives around the south-west and must be driven at least once in your lifetime.
Civilisation started to creep in as houses, chalets, farms and the odd dilapidated bridge began to appear more often. Blue wrens twittered in the bushes, black cockatoos squawked and flew overhead, cows grazed on beautiful grassy hillsides and goats and donkeys in one property were at the rivers edge. At times logs blocked the whole river and became hazardous especially when the current was running swiftly. At one tree blockage I was caught out and nearly capsized, my boat was pushed under a fallen tree as I tried to get through a very small gap. Luckily I was able to hang on and pull myself through it. At times the river was choked with tea trees and I found another canoe hanging high in one section of trees.
By 11.45am I had arrived in Nannup, a small timber town that is now reliant on tourism. I stopped next to the camp ground, which looked absolutely beautiful. I had a quick word with one of the power dingy competitors who was competing in the weekend’s race from Bridgetown to Augusta. He and his daughter had apparently won their division in the recent Avon Descent.
I slipped out of Nannup paddling under a footbridge and by some old bridge pylons. The timber mill on the left hand side and a few houses on the outskirts were my last remnants of a settlement before I would reach the town of Augusta. As I moved back into the forest there were several small acre properties, some with beautiful looking homes and others that were still virgin bush.
I had little time to waste, it was 12.30pm when I left Nannup and I had to reach Darradup Bridge 46 kilometres away before nightfall where Jenny was waiting. I pushed on, probably at a faster speed than when I raced the Avon Descent and by 5.00pm when I passed an old bridge and Jalbarragup ford crossing, I was still 7 kilometres away. Luckily the current quickened when I headed south down a long narrow straight. Here I raced away with the current and with the water swirling and pushing me from side to side, I was enjoying every minute of it. There were no rapids or logs on this section the river so I made good time.
Just before reaching the bridge I saw another canoe stuck broadside in a section of tea trees. It was another hire canoe. Seeing all the canoes stuck in trees didn’t give me confidence to hire my shop boats out.
I approached the bridge and saw Jenny’s car parked. I had reached it several minutes ahead of schedule so I should be in her good books. She was walking over the bridge on her exercise routine so she was there to see me try to climb up the steep slippery bank from the water to the road above. It was not easy task and the deep mud on the waters edge smelled more foul than a pigsty. It took time but I managed to carry my gear and drag my kayak up the bank to the road before dark. Tonight I didn’t have to camp, I loaded the kayak on the car and drove away along the Brockman Highway to Karradale where a cosy chalet was waiting.
We left the chalet early and Jenny dropped me off at Darradup Bridge before going on to spend the day at Margaret River. I launched my Gecko kayak at 8.26am and just downstream of the bridge I came across a pretty hazardous (for novices) tea tree section, though further on the river was quite free of dangers.
A number of bush blocks, some with houses lined the river for the first few kilometres but it didn’t take long to pass them by and enter the forest properly. From that point I didn’t see another house until the end of the day. I had canoed this section of the river many times before and it felt a little like coming home. In the latter half of the 1980s, when I worked with unemployed youth, youth at risk and school groups I spent a lot of time on this river. In those days I slept in a tent as much as I did in a house and I loved it.
I could feel the day’s journey was going to be hard because the current had eased and the river had widened and developed into a big long pool with the occasional tea tree section. There was even a lack of birds and wildlife, although some kilometres later as I approached a bush track called Punch Road, I sighted a number of cormorants ahead. They soon took to wing and flew along the river in front of me and then perched on tree branches 500 metres ahead and waited. When I got close they lifted again and flew forward once more. Time and time again they flew ahead getting further away from the original place that I had first spotted them. At the end of the day and 35 kilometres later, they were still flying in front of me.
Apart from the cormorants the forest was quiet. I paddled on passing familiar territory and noticing new trees that had fallen after a recent storm. I moved under Sues Road Bridge to find the once thriving picnic area deserted. I remembered when you could camp in the area near the river and it was perfect. It was a great spot where everyone could enjoy the outdoors and the river, then new regulations came into effect, the campsite was moved away from the river and a gate was put across the entrance. Now to get a canoe to the river you have to carry it at least 30 metres.
When I stopped to take a leak it was a cheerless sight that greeted me. It was a public holiday weekend and not one person was enjoying the picnic area, sadly all the tables were falling into disrepair and decay because of lack of use. Like many areas around the state, CALM seem to have gone a little overboard with their regulations. Surely there must be a balance between protection and enjoyment? I understand that we need to protect certain areas but in a few more years we won’t be able to enjoy the bush at all because all roads into wilderness areas will be locked. Future generations will not have the same memories of enjoying the freedom of the bush as we have.
I left with a flagging spirit, what’s happening to life as we know it? I think that I have lived in the best time, it appears that our way of life is deteriorating rapidly. If it’s not terrorists or global warming or bird flu, it’s rules, regulations, qualifications and more qualifications. And just when you think that you have enough qualifications to do a simple job, another is introduced. From now on, just to work in the outdoors or to take someone on outdoor camp, leaders will have to have that many qualifications it will be impossible to keep up in renewing them.
I moved on chasing the flock of cormorants which had now grown to about 20 and left my frustrations behind. A commotion of splashing and more splashing started in the middle of the river and after the cormorants whom had been sitting on dead branches of fallen trees took flight, the splashing continued. As I closed in I could see it was a musk duck. The funny looking duck was kicking its feet making the splash and lifting its tail whilst at the same time whistling. The duck repeated this over and over again without missing a beat, wow what co-ordination and it wasn’t afraid by my close presence. It was an incredible and fascinating sight, I hadn’t seen a musk duck do this before. Was it a mating ritual, if it was I could see no other duck around for it to impress, maybe it fancied me, a lot of females do, but was this a female? I got very close, in fact within an arms length and the duck just kept splashing, lifting its tail and whistling. I followed it very closely for several minutes before I had to make tracks.
Nearing a bush track called Possy Road, the current became much faster and I passed over a number of small flooded rapids. In lower water these rapids add a little excitement to the journey and they’re also good rapids for training. A little further I caught up with another musk duck, it too was displaying the unusual behaviour.
When I reached the ford at North Road a very swift current was moving over it. There was no good spot to get out, although at a pinch it would have been the safest on the right hand side. About 10 steel posts were dangerously positioned right across the river, lining the road edges. It wasn’t a friendly crossing for a novice paddler, hitting them broadside could result in dire consequences. I passed between them and floated over the ford and then landed on the right side of the river for a short break.
I left at 4.19 p.m. from here I only had 11 kilometres to go to Warner Glen Bridge where I would meet Jenny. I couldn’t believe how dumb the cormorants were, they were still flying ahead and they had the opportunity several times to turn back when I passed them on wider stretches of the river. I suppose I have that hold on people, they just don’t like leaving me!
Luckily for me there was still a little movement on this last stretch of river which helped me to reach the bridge before nightfall. Jenny was on the bridge waiting, but I paddled on to Chapman Pool about 500 metres further to be picked up there which was a much easier take out point. We returned to the chalet.
The next morning Jenny drove me back to Chapman Pool and by 8.00am I was in the water ready to tackle the slowest section of the river and the last part of my journey. The morning was peaceful, reflections of the majestic trees lining the river were sharp and clear on the calm water. The forest soon gave way to pasture lands with a buffer of trees along the shores only allowing me glimpses of the green fields behind them. Farms and houses became more frequent and within 1 hour 40 minutes and 14 kilometres on, I was passing the Alexandra Bridge camping ground and a little further the bridge itself.
The area now became a part of the Scott River National Park so the green fields ceased and the open woodland of jarrah, marri, acacia, grass trees and a variety of other native trees, treated me to some beautiful scenery. I was really captivated by the large variety of plants and trees. It appeared that the sandier soils and the openness of the forest allowed the sun to penetrate and establish a variety of different species. I was at home here.
I scanned the banks for flat camping spots not because I wanted to stop but because I love having images in my mind of places I could camp if I ever came back this way. The river had widened and there was definitely no current to help me head downstream. Coming in from the left bank there were a couple of tiny inlets which looked as if they were worth exploring but sadly I didn’t have the time. I turned a corner and found a sandy beach only as wide as a vehicle, which must have been cut out by a bulldozer at the end of a 4 x 4 track. Beside it, the banks were higher with virgin bush. It was the perfect spot to take a break. There was a clearing and turn-a-round point for vehicles using the narrow 4 x 4 track which came out of the forest. A National Park sign and a high table in a small clearing on the right, possibly used to cut up fish were the only signs of man’s presence. No one had been there recently.
It was a great little hide-a-way with huge towering trees, a clearing for several tents and this lovely little secluded beach giving access to launch a kayak or go for a swim. I took the opportunity to have a break, I ate left over pasta from the previous night’s meal, this was a pick-me-up as I was becoming a little lethargic and sleepy whilst paddling.
I had only paddled a short distance when civilisation began creeping in. There was a fisherman motoring by in his dingy, buoys, some it seemed used by house boats others informing of dangers ahead, power lines and a couple of houses. However I had soon passed them by and was back in the forest with blossoming yellow bushes. A hire canoe with a male sitting in the front fishing and a female paddling in the back meandered along the shoreline towards me. We exchanged pleasantries as a power boat sped by us towing two children on tubes. The guy asked me where the fish were. He was doing what every man dreams of, relaxing by fishing as his partner paddled the canoe.
At last, at 12.10pm I spotted boats leaving from the Molloy Island Caravan Park which meant I only had 12 kilometres to go. I moved by the point where the ferry crossed over to Molloy Island. Molloy Island is unique in Western Australia, it is one of a very few natural islands that has a community of homes on it.
As I moved beyond the southern tip of the island, the inlet opened up and the wind started to whip up the water. Several dingies were spread across the water with fisherman dangling their lines, and as far as the eye could see, pelicans dotted the shallows.
As two lines of channel markers created a narrow pathway to guide boats into Augusta I noticed the current had returned and I was being whisked downstream. As the tide was going out it began exposing sandbars giving the waterbirds an opportunity to feed. The birds harvested the sandbars with haste in the knowledge that the tide would soon turn and feeding time would cease. I kept within the markers to take advantage of the deep water and the current. A tourist boat met me with a band of waving tourists, I returned the wave as the boat headed upstream.
My journey was nearly over, it wasn’t as long as the 4000km Mississippi River or as remote as the 3300 km Yukon River but the Blackwood River is Western Australia’s longest river in the south-west and it was a 500km challenge that was varied, enjoyable and at times risky. If you have a little bit of adventuring in your blood, if you have that yearning to see what’s around the next corner, this is a challenge that is within the boundaries of everyone that can paddle a kayak. To paddle the Blackwood from the start to finish can be the start of a new world for you, just do it but take a few friends.
Augusta was within my grasp and since the last time that I had paddled along this stretch the town had grown somewhat. The town hills were now crammed with new houses. Despite that, Augusta is still a sleepy town and not yet spoiled. A few boats were moving in and out of the boat ramp and jetties, but it was a red inflatable, driven by a lunatic driver going up, down and around that became my main focus.
At last I passed the Colour Patch fish & chips shop and the last parking area before the river mouth. Jenny’s car was there but she was no where to be seen. I carried on towards the river mouth with the swift current pushing me on. It had been a long time since I paddled to the mouth and I was surprised how far it was from the Colour Patch Store.
Near the end of the sand spit I met Jenny walking back towards her car. After seeing me she turned and followed me back towards the mouth but had no chance of keeping up with me on foot due to the speed of water. There were a few small fishing boats near and at the river mouth. They struggled to motor against the current when heading upstream, a reminder that I was going to have problems on my return. One dingy was going up and down in front of the breakers, he only needed his motor to fail and he would have been washed out through them to the open sea.
I rounded the end of the sand spit and out of the river mouth and pulled up to the beach. It had been 8 days since starting my trip on the upper Arthur River and now it was finished. Jenny took some photos and I headed back to the Colour Patch and the car park against the swift current. This time Jenny could walk faster than I could paddle. When I reached there I loaded the Gecko kayak onto the car, changed in dry clothes and we went into the restaurant for a delicious, big plate of fish & chips, apparently this was last fish shop before reaching the Antarctic.
This had been a short trip, some of my rivers have taken over 40 days to complete but it was still enjoyable and memorable and now I had to think about my next one.
Did I say Antarctic……now there’s an idea……………..