Drysdale River Expedition – Kimberley 3

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Drysdale River Expedition 1985In 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 to the Kimberley they asked me to go along. Their friends Andrew Kikeros and Vic Challis became our support team.The Drysdale is a remote river that flows through the Drysdale River National Park in the far north of the Kimberley and has a variety of conditions, from a sandy river, deep pools, big and small rapids, narrow channels and high waterfalls. To get to the heart of the rugged Kimberley we took my four wheel drive. We had to travel on 2500kms of bitumen road with the final stage of our journey being on 500kms of rough gravel track which was very wet because it was the end of the wet season. While John and Tarquin chose plastic river kayaks, some of the first ever made, I chose to make 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

This short story starts after already spending several frustrating days on a very low river. Unfortunately the wet season hadn’t been as wet as we had hoped and we soon realised that we were several weeks too late. However because we chose to drive in we had to make sure the roads were open.

The river started off being very shallow and sandy. We did a lot of dragging

Pandanas palms and paperbark trees lined the banks, islands of foliage that dotted throughout the wide river created a maze and many dead end channels. We moved through, looking for openings to glide our boats between the islands. Many channels were shallow necessitating our exit from our kayaks. It was tedious work and only short distances were covered before we had to drag our kayaks over greenery or rocks. Our very slow pace was only helped when the river narrowed and shallow races developed. We continued to weave through mazes of small islands trying to keep to the narrow, shallow moving current. Small crocs mingled among the weed, some less than a metre away.

The river and river banks were dotted with dingoes, goannas, crocodiles, snakes, fruit bats and a mass of birdlife. We had seen several Johnson crocodiles every day 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 by them very close and surprise them. We even watched as a crocodile stalked a cormorant and within a few seconds the croc snapped and took the bird in its mouth and then laid in the shallows with it firmly grasped between in jaws.
As I dragged my kayak down some small rapids, a five foot croc surprised me as it was under my feet in a rock cavity. With it seemingly frozen next to me I took the opportunity to shoot some movie film, before it shot off in a desperate bid to find deeper water.

As we picked our way through the vegetation of yet another portage 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.

This was one of the only sections that we were able to paddle down the tiny rapids

As John and I took interest in the snake, Tarquin was also fraternising with nature a little futher! A croc had just attacked the bow of his kayak as he sat waiting for us under a tree. At first we didn’t believe him as we didn’t think a fresh water croc would attack, but after Tarquin showed us its teeth marks, that had penetrated the plastic, it was a reminder to us that large fresh water crocs do become aggressive. Tarquin was still shaken when we joined forces.

Within minutes we came up against a long set of dry rapids choked with big boulders that made us have to portage, paddle and then portage again. There was little water in the Drysdale River and what water there was it 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. Good team work was essential as a fall could mean dire consequences. Because we carried them fully laden our shoulders were soon sore from the continual weight.

Every few hundred metres we had to portage

Our problems soon started to escalate. John’s quality, plastic kayak developed a small hole under the seat, after 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 many dry rapids, some up to 600 metres long. Crocodiles and birds vacated small islands as we passed. Paperbark trees and palms leaned precariously towards the north and lilies grew in clusters among the shallow water. When the river narrowed to nothing we had to paddle through narrow pandanas palm alleys avoiding their spikes and continual barriers of spider webs. It was unsettling later to feel the spiders and insects crawling down our legs.

The river diverted into a pandanas palm alley. John coming through

Tarquin with me following

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. 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?

You can just see a yellow speck of a kayak at the start of the dry rapid and my kayak near the waters edge

With only five days and 100 kilometres before our rendezvous 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 to walk out to Carson River Station which would roughly take us four days.

We climbed the cliffs to see if we could see a way through

We camped beside the Drysdale River for our last time. I fished to have something tasty for dinner. I soon hooked something really big and as I pulled in the line I was surprised with my catch. A three foot crocodile had tangled itself in my line. John grabbed it 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.

Johnson crocodile

As we wouldn’t have time to continue with our paddle and make our rendezvous we decided to drag our kayaks 12 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 and once we met up with our support team we would drive back for the kayaks. It sounded easy.

By 10.30am we were packed and ready for the long haul of carrying and dragging our kayaks through the scrub. The heat was intense as we carried our kayaks over the broken rocky country, but after a few kilometres it flattened and we were able to drag them, which was much easier.

Within minutes we had stretched arms and aching muscles and were forced to rest every few minutes. As the terrain changed in character and the temperature increased, severe agony seemed to be the only words to describe our walk.

John & Tarquin having a rest as we drag the kayaks overland

By late afternoon we arrived at the Carson Escarpment and what a view we had. We could see the Carson River below and views of the cliffs for kilometres. The cliffs were too rugged and steep to carry our kayaks to the valley below so we had no choice but to leave them on top of the escarpment and come back for them later.

We clambered down a steep gully carrying essentials for 5 days. Our progress was slow and painful, as we scrambled over slippery boulders and brushed against colonies of green ants that attacked us in their thousands. The gulley was soon dark as a thick canopy of luxuriant trees blocked out the light so we made camp next to a waterhole.

Morning brought a new day and it wasn’t long before we left the gully behind and 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. It was a tough days walk but at the end of the day the setting sun created magnificent reflections on the steep cliffs that ran for kilometres in a straight line. As we made camp near the river on our second night off the Drysdale River, sweat had soaked our clothes and mosquitoes swarms viciously attacked us as we dried our garments around the fire.

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. The heat and extreme physical exertion caused John to develop severe cramps right through his entire body. I had never seen anything like it. His whole body was cramping and it looked so painful. Getting cramps wasn’t new to John, he used to get them when he played state football for South Fremantle and Swan Districts.

Leaving the kayaks behind we walk along the Carson Escarpment on our way to Carson Station

With 80 kilometres to reach Carson Station we decided to detour to the nearer Theda Station because of John’s condition. It was only 30 kilometres away. By the time we approached the station John had lost all his energy, but our problems didn’t stop there, the station, although marked on our maps, was abandoned and apparently it had been abandoned for 12 years and although we had updated maps it was still listed as being there.

At least we knew that Carson River Station was still in operation so the next day I prepared for a 50 kilometre walk leaving John and Tarquin to rest near the river until I returned with our support team. After walking 14 kilometres I saw an Aborigine next to a tree carving his name in it. I couldn’t believe my eyes, here I was in the middle of nowhere and out of the blue I see an Aborigine. At first I thought I was seeing things. It seemed like something out of a movie and when I got closer I recognised the young guy from seeing him at Kalumburu Mission when I visited it on another expedition in 1983.

My luck was in as once a year there is a mustering camp at an old stockyard nearby and it just happened that they had started mustering today. 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.

Later that day Gilbert drove me to the station and saved me having to walk the 35 kilometres. Vic greeted me with some surprise as he was expecting to see us arrive by kayak at Moonlight yard where Andrew was patiently waiting for us to rendezvous.

As luck should have it, mustering staff from Theda Station had found John and Tarquin at the old Theda Station so later we all met up at Boomerang Yards, but before leaving to head home we had to retrieve our kayaks. It was impossible to drive to them as we knew there wasn’t a track, so we hired a helicopter and within 70 minutes Tarquin and the pilot returned with our kayaks tied to the sleds. We headed home and two days later we heard that the helicopter had mechanical problems and crashed, tragically killing the pilot, who had earlier done us a favour.

We used a helicopter to retrieve the kayaks from the Carson Escarpment

We didn’t achieve what we set out to do, but nevertheless it was an interesting expedition and another great experienced. 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 got a good job over east and then worked in the US, but I have lost contact with him so I don’t know what he is doing now. I recently heard he now has a doctorate and lives in Queensland.

I have my own canoe shop and went on to do many more great things!!



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