|Drysdale River Expedition
In 1985 John Mustard and Tarquin Bowers, who were studying recreation at University had to organise an outdoor expedition as part of their university studies. Many other students planned their expeditions closer to home and some overseas but John and Tarquin decided to do the first descent of the Drysdale River which was situated in the Kimberley wilderness area. Having already completed two, 3 month expeditions around the Kimberley coast they asked me to go along. Their friends Andrew Kikeros and Vic Challis became our support team.
The Team – Me, Tarquin, Andrew, John and Vic
The Drysdale is a remote river that flows through the Drysdale River National Park in the Kimberley region. Not a lot is known about this National Park as it is rarely visited, rarely promoted and difficult to access. The river itself has a variety of conditions, from a sandy river bed, narrow channels, deep pools and in the wet season big and small rapids and high waterfalls.
To get to the heart of the rugged Kimberley we took my four wheel drive which was loaded with 3 kayaks, 4 spare wheels, 6 jerry cans, food, clothes, equipment for 4 weeks and 5 people. We had to travel 2500kms on a bitumen road with the final stage of our journey being 500kms on a rough gravel track, the Gibb River Road, which was very wet because it was the end of the wet season. While John and Tarquin chose to paddle plastic river kayaks, some of the first ever made, I chose to build a very strong kevlar river kayak with hatches and bulkheads.
The Team near the Drysdale River Crossing on the Kalumburu Road:
John Mustard, Vic Challis, Andrew Kikeros & Tarquin Bowers
Upon reaching the river at the Drysdale River Crossing, near the Drysdale River Station it was a pitiful sight. The water trickling over the crossing was only fed by springs upstream so it looked as if our journey was going to be extremely tough. This year the wet season had been very dismal and although we had to wait for the track north to dry up, before driving along it, we had lost any chance of paddling on good water.
By mid-afternoon on May 12th 1985 the epic journey started. Our support crew, Vic and Andrew, who were going to meet us downstream near Carson River Station on May 25th, the first place they were able to get to the river, wished us luck as we paddled into territory that no other known canoeist had been through.
Our kayaks loaded with 18 days of supplies sat low in the water and were hard to control. The deep pool, downstream of the Drysdale River Crossing allowed us to make good speed but 400 metres later we struggled to get over our first rocky rapids leaving coloured marks of our kayak hulls on the rocks. In the matter of minutes our joy went to despair and we soon realised our 320km journey to the end of the river with dozens of rapids and waterfalls was going to be tougher than we imagined. We expected to be paddling down every rapid making good time.
Pandanas palms, paperbark and gum trees lined the sandy banks. Sand bars soon intersected the river creating pool after pool and causing us to get out of our kayaks and drag them. Further along islands of foliage dotted the wide river creating a maze and many dead end channels. We moved on, looking for openings to glide our boats through the islands and channels which were too shallow forcing us to exit our kayaks. It was tedious work with only short distances covered before we had to drag our kayaks over greenery, rocks or sand. Our very slow pace was only helped when the river narrowed and shallow races developed giving us just enough water to float down. Small crocs mingled among the weed, some less than a metre away. In the first two hours we had only paddled 4kms.
The river started off being very shallow and sandy. We did a lot of dragging
As the light faded and the birds chattered stronger we camped on a sandy island surrounded by stagnant pools of water and debris from the last flood. We caught a few fish and settled to eating a basic meal around a campfire and listening to the mysterious sounds of the night life under a clear sky full of dazzling stars. This was the life.
By 9.00am we were ready to leave. A narrow flow of water meandered through a forest of paperbarks and pandanas palms. Further downstream the flow widened forcing us to walk our kayaks over the shallows.
Cattle and large bulls shared our path, most galloping away but a few just stood their ground which was at times a concern. Despite the poor wet season the cattle looked healthy and well fed, their coats looking as if they had been oiled and well groomed.
As the jungle of trees diminished once again the river became sandy and shallow. Time out of the kayak well exceeded time in it. Our arms were stretched as we pulled the kayaks over the sand bars but were rested in the deeper pools. We soon discovered that sitting in the seat and dangling our legs over the kayak in the short pools was much better than getting into the kayak properly. Our cockpits were quite small and quite difficult to enter easily.
When we reached the confluence of the Gibb River it was disappointing to see no water flowing out of it. From here the river became extra rocky, so there were more portaging, more dragging and very slow progress. Eventually the dry rapids that sometimes took hours to clear turned into long dry rock sections with water just trickling through the rocks.
As the day slid by, dingoes and goannas raced from the river bank and owls roosted in the trees, not even flinching at our presence. To add insult to our already tired and battered bodies we found long wiry red worms in the flesh of the fish we had caught at the end of the day. The sight of the worms turned our stomachs knowing that we had already eaten several, but that didn’t deter us from devouring the non-polluted meat.
I used a hammock to sleep in some nights
A goanna suns itself on a rock
The day started with a long portage over rock, in fact it was more like a waterfall. A large goanna lizard with flicking tongue was sunning itself on a rock as we splashed by. We rejoiced when we entered a long pool but another dry waterfall stood in our way so we lifted the kayaks full of gear taking one at a time.
The river and river banks were still dotted with dingoes, goannas, crocodiles, fruit bats and a mass of birdlife. We had seen several Johnson crocodiles but an increase in rocky islands attracted more of them to sun bake. The sun seemed to make them docile which allowed us to creep close and surprise them. We got more than we bargained for when a crocodile guarding a narrow channel of pandanas palms was startled by Tarquin as he entered it. It swiftly jumped over rocks and then gave John a fright as it brushed his kayak and then smashed into his paddle before submerging and swimming out into a pool. At least I managed to get it all on film.
Carrying kayaks across the rocks
The pandanas palms were black with chattering fruit bats hanging in the trees. The foul smell encouraged us not to linger and find fresh air again. Once out in the open there was a short paddle to another pandanas palm alley. Leaving it John spotted a crocodile stalking a cormorant. Within seconds the croc snapped and took the cormorant firmly in its jaws and then lay in the shallows allowing us to paddle around it. We left the croc to his lunch, paddled a few more short pools before being stopped by another long dry boulder rapid resulting in another tiring portage. Our lunch here consisted of nuts, dried fruit and a little jerky, not a lot to keep our energy levels up, but it did. It’s surprising how little food we really needed to consume to keep us going.
Beautiful lilies that were in bloom when we camped in the afternoon had their petals closed in the morning but the beauty of a long pool had us excited as we made some good paddling progress, however before we thought our fortunes had changed the river became shallow again and it was back to walking. Another long pool lifted our spirits which helped us to paddle more than 12 kms for an entire day which was the best we had done so far.
The pool suddenly stopped leaving only sand ahead. It was hard to believe where all the water had disappeared to. We just lost a wide river. We walked in all directions trying to find water. Eventually we came across a narrow stretch of stagnant water hidden amongst a forest of pandanas palms which on further inspection was the only channel we could find. We came to realise that water was filtering through the roots of the palms and into the channel.
The task of carrying our kayaks 150 metres up and down the slimy, muddy banks of disused gullies through the thick palms and deep mud was a major exercise. We were hot and sweaty and once in the channel the spikes from the thick palms were best avoided which was pretty hard to do when the channel narrowed to nothing. At times when the prickly palms blocked the way but allowed water to filter through their roots and stems, we had to portage.
The channel was a gruesome place, full of stagnant water, slime, frogs and spider webs that strung across the trees entangling around my head and body. I became the lead paddler for a while which meant I collected all the spider webs and cleared it for the others. As a goanna lizard shuffled through the fallen palm leaves I wondered what other creature was going to appear in this forbidden jungle.
The river diverted into a pandanas palm alley. John coming through
Tarquin with me following
It was slow work pushing over and through the dark canopy of palms with spiders and frogs falling into my lap, on my legs and into the kayak. Once I got used to all the spiders tickling my legs the dread of paddling through the palms soon became quite exciting. We started jumping logs, weaving in and around the palms like a slalom paddler and feeling the fun of the jungle. We were soon covered with creepy crawlies, branches, dry debris, spider webs and frogs that hitch hiked on our PFDs and kayaks. After several hundred metres and when we were back out in the open we had lunch and cleared our cockpits of all the debris.
The river channel – all the waterflows through here
A frog hitch hikes
Once back in the water we scored a pool several kilometres long which brought the day’s kilometres to the best yet – 18kms. Our enthusiasm to keep going that evening was dampened when we came to another long rocky rapid. After making camp and walking downstream to check the route Tarquin had caught 4 fish by the time I returned.
We were in high spirits when we came across another long pool but our joy didn’t last long as difficult rock rapids stood in our way. This was followed by another long pool dotted with rocky outcrops and several crocs sunning themselves. I was able to creep up and film them with my 16mm movie camera. Another pool, another rock rapid and another surprise! As I dragged my kayak down some tiny rapids, a five foot croc lay virtually under my feet in a rock cavity. With it seemingly frozen I took the opportunity to shoot some movie film, before it shot off in a desperate bid to find deeper water.
This was one of the only sections that we were able to paddle down the tiny rapids
With the excitement behind us we paddled another long pool, passing Damper Creek. The afternoon brought more rocky sections, shallow sections and pools and by night fall we made camp 300 metres past Banjo Creek. It was another good day – 18kms.
We left an excellent campsite at 8.30am and managed to paddle 5 ½kms our longest paddle so far before having to portage over 500 metres of large boulders and trees. As we picked our way through the vegetation we were halted by the sight of a green tree snake slithering along the branches. Supported by its powerful tail it moved from bush to bush, weaving its way higher into the leaves.
As John and I took interest in the snake, Tarquin took to the water and paddled off in the distance. When we caught up with him he too had been fraternising with nature! A croc had just attacked the bow of his kayak as he sat waiting for us under a tree. He said he couldn’t believe the size of it and how the croc closed its jaws around the bow of his kayak.
At first we didn’t believe Tarquin as we didn’t think a fresh water croc would attack a kayak, but after he showed us its teeth marks, which had penetrated the plastic it was a reminder to us that large fresh water crocs do become aggressive. Tarquin seemed quite shaken when we joined forces.
Within minutes we came up against another long set of dry rapids choked with big boulders that made us have to portage, paddle and then portage again. The little water that was in the river just fed between and underneath the boulders. On short portages we just dragged the kayaks, but when they were long we had no choice but to carry them on our shoulders over the uneven piles of boulders which wasn’t easy. Good team work was essential as a fall could mean dire consequences and because we carried them fully laden our shoulders were soon sore from the continual weight.
To drag or to carry
To carry is pretty hard work and one slip can be disastrous
Other problems started to escalate. John’s plastic kayak had developed a small hole under the seat which was the result of hours of continual dragging over the boulders, so at our evening camp site we tried our hand at plastic welding, which didn’t really work!
The morning brought more portages over dry waterfalls and dry rapids, some up to 600 metres long. The river then narrowed to nothing through pandanas palm alleys and widened again. Paperbark trees and palms leaned precariously towards the north and lilies grew in clusters among the shallow water. Crocodiles and birds vacated small islands as we passed.
You can just see a yellow speck of a kayak at the start of the dry rapid and my kayak near the waters edge at the bottom
We weaved in and around islands taking in the majestic views until finally the wide shallow river came to an end. Boulders over a metre high stood across our path. A scouting trip downstream brought disastrous news, the river ahead became one long section of boulders with intermittent small pools of water.
Our situation was grim. We had time constraints as Tarquin and John had to get back to university so we had now no chance of reaching the end in the time we had left. How do you paddle a river without water! We couldn’t strap our kayaks on our backs like rucksacks and walk out or could we?
Every few hundred metres we had to portage
Imagine what the rapids would be like if there was lots of water
We were in and out of our kayaks
With only five days and over 100 kilometres to paddle to our rendezvous point with our support team at Midnight Yard near Carson Station, we had an impossible task before us. We had only averaged 12 kilometres a day and now our maps indicated worse terrain ahead. With time against us and not wanting to concern our support team with being days late, we decided that the best thing to do was to admit defeat and walk out to Carson River Station which would roughly take us four days.
So with that decision made we camped beside the Drysdale River for our last time. I fished to have something tasty for dinner and within minutes I had hooked something really big and as I pulled it in I was surprised with my catch. A three foot crocodile had tangled itself in my line. John grabbed the croc at the back of the neck and tail, while I untangled the mess of line. It started to whine and bark like a dog so John started tickling it on its soft leathery body and it seemed to settle down. That evening we counted 13 pairs of red eyes surrounding our campsite.
A Johnson crocodile
A good sized Johnson Crocodile watching us as we move around camp
We awoke to see an invasion of fresh crocodile tracks on our beach. Luckily we camped a little away from it so at least we didn’t get crocodiles in our beds. After a large breakfast of muesli we paddled down to the large, long section of dry rocky rapids to have one last check of the river ahead, to convince ourselves we were doing the right thing and take some film. It was a sad sight, I walked down the centre of the river not getting a drop of water on my feet. The large black rocks leaned downstream for hundreds of metres and it was these stone barriers that had encouraged us to cancel the first known kayak trip down the length of the Drysdale River.
The portages were getting really serious
To get a better view we climbed a ridge that overlooked the river rounding the next bend. From here we could see nothing but rock in the river and the scrub country that we would be dragging our boats across if we decided to walk out. The river or the walk route didn’t look too inviting. Further northwards the hills were a lot higher and the ground looked even rockier so walking across country to the escarpment from this point was going to be easier than going any further.
As I descended the ridge with sweat running down my face I reflected of the days gone by. It had been an incredible journey of nothing but hard work, more carrying than paddling and the taste of pleasure and of pain, but we take away the comradery, the wildlife and the experiences, so although we didn’t achieve our goal we had learnt a lot about ourselves. (That which does not kill us makes us stronger.) I returned to my kayak sipping water knowing this was goodbye to the river.
We climbed the cliffs to see if we could see a way through
Walking across country wasn’t going to be easy as it meant that we had to drag and carry our kayaks about 10 kilometres overland to the edge of the Carson Escarpment. Here we would leave our kayaks and then walk along a track that would lead us to the Carson River homestead, meet our support team and drive back for the kayaks to pick them up. It sounded easy.
By 10.30am we were packed and ready for the long haul of carrying and dragging our kayaks through the scrub. Tarquin and John made a simple timber and rope harness so to enable them to drag and carry their kayaks together. The first section was rocky so our kayaks and gear had to be carried. This was exceptionally tiring and not only did I have water, food and gear, I also had a heavy 16mm camera and two still cameras to carry. The heat was intense as we moved over the broken rocky country, but after a few kilometres it flattened and we were able to drag them, which was much easier. After 4kms we stopped for lunch in a creek bed. The stagnant water didn’t entice us to drink any as it was full of cattle urine and poo but the bird and wildlife certainly appreciated it.
John & Tarquin having a rest as we drag the kayaks overland
Tarquin and John dragged their kayaks like cart horses pulling a trailer. I just pulled mine from the hand loop and I soon had stretched arms and aching muscles so resting every so often was welcome. The heat and strain had John suffering the worst as his excess sweating created severe cramps throughout his whole body. It was hard to believe the agony he was going through. As the terrain changed in character and the temperature increased, severe agony seemed to be the only words to describe our walk as well.
By late afternoon we arrived at the edge of the Carson Escarpment and what a view we had. We could see the Carson River below, wilderness as far as the eye could see and views of the cliffs for kilometres. The cliffs were too rugged and steep to carry our kayaks to the valley below in our tired state so we had no choice but to leave them on top of the escarpment under some very large overhanging rocks and come back for them later.
It was hard to believe that we had dragged and carried our kayaks through the scrub for over 9kms.
We reach the edge of the Carson Escarpment
Leaving the kayaks behind we climb down from the Carson Escarpment to the valley below and start our trek to the Carson Station
We left our money, films and other gear with the kayaks and clambered down a steep gully carrying only the essentials for 5 days. Our progress was slow and painful, as we scrambled over slippery boulders, brushed against cobwebs and colonies of green ants that attacked us in their hundreds. The gulley was soon dark as a thick canopy of luxuriant trees blocked out the light however we were able to reach the flats and tall grasses and made camp next to a waterhole of the Carson River. Our clothes were soaking with sweat as it had been a hard day so a good rinse in the waterhole and a fire to dry them out had them smelling good again. We sat on the rock watching the rice cook and fighting off the mosquitoes.
Morning brought a new day and a large goanna lizard, with tongue flicking moved slowly across our rock platform in no particular hurry. Within minutes of leaving camp we were pacing at times through shoulder high grass next to the Carson River. The track that was marked on our map and that we were hoping to walk along wasn’t there. It had probably been there many years ago but it wasn’t there now so the walking was a lot harder than we had expected. The extreme heat and physical exercise started punishing John again with violent cramps paralysing his whole body. I couldn’t imagine what pain he was going through. We stopped and broke an oxo cube into some water with the idea of replacing some of his body salts that he would have lost. Getting cramps wasn’t new to John though, apparently he used to get them when he played state football for South Fremantle and Swan Districts.
A goanna passes by
Wild horses galloped ahead
As we moved on towards the Carson River Station, following the river, pushing through tall grasses and straddling washed out gullies, beside the beauty of the Carson Escarpment, wild horses galloped ahead with tails and manes flying high in the air.
It was a tough days’ walk, only 17kms, but at the end of the day the setting sun created magnificent reflections on the steep cliffs of the escarpment that ran for kilometres in a straight line. As we made camp next to the river near Face Point on our second night off the Drysdale River, our sweaty soaked clothes were washed again and dried around the fire. The sun setting on the cliffs was stunning, the evening was still and calm and the night with the stars beaming was brilliant but the mosquitoes viciously attacking us ruined such a glorious evening.
The Carson River follows the escarpment
I awoke to a very faint vehicle sound reflecting off the cliffs but John and Tarquin thought I was hearing things.
With Carson Station being 80 kilometres away and because of John’s condition we decided to detour to the nearer Theda Station which was only 30kms and to call Andrew and Vic from there. By the time we reached the station John had lost all his energy, but our problems didn’t stop there, the station, although marked on our map was abandoned. Apparently it had been abandoned for 12 years, although we had updated maps that still had it listed. Old machinery, broken down buildings, old fence lines and rusty water tanks were the only signs of a station ever being there.
Our plans were changed once again. At least we knew that Carson River Station was still in operation so I prepared myself for a 50 kilometre walk which would take place the following day leaving John and Tarquin to rest near the river at Old Theda until I returned with our support team.
Starting early in the morning I was making good time and after walking 14 kilometres I saw an Aborigine next to a tree carving his name in it. It was like a hallucination, I couldn’t believe my eyes, here I was in the middle of nowhere and out of the blue I see an Aborigine. It seemed like something out of a movie and when I got closer I recognised the young guy because I had met him at Kalumburu Mission when I visited it on another expedition in 1983.
He said he was part of a mustering camp that happens once a year at the old Boomerang stockyard nearby and it just happened that they had started mustering there today so my luck was in. Here I met Gilbert, the manager of Carson Station and he told me that Andrew was waiting for us at Moonlight Yard on the Drysdale River and Vic was at the homestead doing some welding for him.
So later that day Gilbert drove me to the station which saved me having to walk the 35 kilometres. Vic greeted me with some surprise as he was expecting to see me arrive by kayak at Moonlight yard where Andrew was waiting for us to rendezvous. Today was rendezvous day.
Vic and I drove to Moonlight Yard to collect Andrew who had been waiting for two days and as luck should have it at the same time a graded driver from Theda Station maintaining the track to a cattle yard had found John and Tarquin at the old Theda Station so later Andrew and I drove to the new Theda Station to pick them up. They were tucking into large hunks of meat when we found them. John though decided to stay at Theda and try to get a lift back to Broome and return to Perth earlier to catch up with his studies.
That left Tarquin, Andrew and myself to do the long drive back to Carson Station and then to Boomerang Yard where two helicopters, although one broke down, were mustering cattle. When the helicopter was free we were able to hire it to collect our kayaks as it was the only way to recover them. With there being no track it was impossible to drive and too hard to walk. Tarquin jumped in and the pilot took off and within 70 minutes the chopper returned with our kayaks tied to the sleds.
We use a helicopter to retrieve the kayaks from the Carson Escarpment and is about to land with our kayaks on board
We untie the kayaks
After a day checking out parts of the Drysdale River we headed to Kalumburu and old Pago Mission for a visit and to say hello to people I had met there in 83. The following day it was a long drive back to Derby and then Broome where I dropped off Tarquin, Vic and Andrew to fly home leaving me to do the long 2300km drive back to Perth.
When I arrived home there was sad news, the helicopter that retrieved our kayaks had mechanical problems and crashed, tragically killing the pilot.
We didn’t achieve what we set out to do, but nevertheless it was an interesting expedition and another great experience. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned but you can still have fun and learn a lot so giving things a go is more important.
John finished his studies and eventually became a partner and manager at the Mainpeak Outdoor Store.
Tarquin worked for Sport & Recreation, Westrek and then got a job over east before moving to the US and Canada to work.