Our 2011 Fitzroy River packrafting trip
I used to visit northern and western Australia regularly to update a guide book (right) and years ago, before I knew about packrafts, I had an idea to float down part of the Lennard River in the western Kimberley (see map below). At that time I figured the easiest way would be to use a truck inner tube, a lilo or just a pfd. My IK would have been too heavy to lug in from the Gibb River Road.
Now I’ve discovered packrafting and northwestern Australia – particularly the Kimberley – has taken on a whole new potential as a venue for possible packrafting adventures. As I got to know the area fairly well, here’s my take on packrafting possibilities in the Australian northwest, even though I’ve only packrafted on the Fitzroy in the Kimberley. If this page gives you any ideas, it would be great to hear how you get on.
One thing that soon crops up is access and permission, the same story as in England, but possibly worse, with no ‘Right to Roam’ as we have here on uncultivated land. Western Australia (WA) is made up of crown land of which a third is vacant or unallocated (‘UCL’; mostly the arid deserts of the interior). Another third is leased to pastoralists, 10% is Aboriginal land (including remote, ‘closed’ communities) and a bit less is put aside as conservation areas.
The first thing you want to do is work out whose land your river crosses and if it matters. This online resource leads to maps including pastoral boundaries, like the Kimberley map below.
After that you need to track down contact details for the property owners or managers, unless it’s a national park or conservation area. The White Pages online ‘telephone book’ will be handy. In that case in WA it’s the DEC (formerly CALM). They ought to be the least difficult to cough up a response from, because civilian access to wholesome outdoor recreation is partly their job. It has to be said too, that last time I asked, the few paddlers who’ve done the far northern rivers weren’t so forthcoming with information.
One kayaker expressed his surprise at how suspicious and hostile Kimberley station managers were to initial requests to paddle across their land. Knowing what little I do of the area, that response doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s a hard-won life up there, far from the southern, latte-swilling masses. These are tough, independent people who may have little interest in enabling your hare-brained caper across their land. In my limited experience you’ll have a particularly hard time with those stations off the Gibb River Road that have resisted ‘selling out’ by offering a few basic tourist facilities. Take it as a sign; if they aren’t trying to supplement their income by playing the tourist card, they’re unlike to go for your plan.
Though they may be less suspicious and more worldly, managers of former stations that are now conservation parks may in turn be concerned that you’ll inadvertently trample over the nest of a rare finch. So if you do make contact with a property manager (who may be the owner too), do so tactfully, have a bomb-proof plan that puts little or no obligation on them (unless they invite it), expect to pay a little and follow their advice about the country they know well – even if it’s just to piss off! They have little to gain from your antics, but all the hassle when something goes wrong and you get head-butted by a feral bull, not least due to the liability insurance issue which these days seems to cripple any initiative in Australia (photo, left). On the positive side they might be interested to hear about what you find on your travels, as it’s unlikely they’ll get to the places you can visit that often.
A day’s drive north of Perth, the long pools strung out along the Murchison River gorge inland from Kalbarri on the Indian Ocean might be a good place to start. The paddling will be broken up because, like all rivers mentioned here, they only actually flow once in a blue moon or in the Wet.
One problem: following the Murchison from the western boundary of the national park (see map, left) back to the sea (a distance of about 65km from the Loop) involves crossing Murchison House station land, but contact the guy there (see below) with your plans and you should be OK.
Kalbarri itself is a small resort town and most of the canoeing tours out of there take place either up the estuary close to town, or in the Kalbarri national park (NP), between Z Bend (80km upriver) and the Loop, 65km upriver from Kalbarri. You’ll need to be prepared to hike with your packraft up to half that distance back to town. Otherwise, I imagine you can day paddle in the national park the 15km from Z Bend to the start of the Loop (see map above) without any permission hassles.
Beyond the Loop, if you have the permission to paddle/walk to the sea, you’re on your own and depending on recent rains it could be a long walk before you get to any paddleworthy pools. About 18km upstream from Kalbarri you’ll pass Murchison House station homestead (they do accommodation). From here you’re close to the tidal reach of the river and once in town can even enjoy a little surfing off the beach. followed by a nice seafood platter at Finlays.
All in all I reckon you’d want to allocate about four days to do the full 80kms from Z Bend to the sea. You’ll spend a night in the park starting at Z, so you’ll need a permit from the DEC office in town where they may ask other questions. Otherwise start for the sea on the downstream side of the Loop and you’ll be out of the park in a few hours – no NP overnight permit needed.
One of my favourite areas in WA are the gorges of the Hamersley Ranges, the best being in Karijini NP. In the early 90s Dave Doust introduced me to the area including Miracle Mile canyoneering adventure here – described by FHM as one of the ‘100 things a Man Must Do before he Dies‘.
In 2005 I finally got round to filming the Mile with a couple of mates; a version ended up of Nat Geo Channel; not sure what the park authorities would make of that. As a packrafting adventure, Karijini without a vehicle gets a little complicated, but as a place to explore it’s very much worth the detour from the main highways. You really have to walk right into the amazing banded chasms of Hamersley, Hancock or Weano gorges to appreciate the park’s amazing geology, while a visit to Fortesque or Dales gorges are a great place for a splash about. Despite what the maps might show, the rivers and not continuous and lead nowhere useful, even in flood.
Down in the main Four Gorges area (where my film was shot) is where few venture, but where you want to get to. The rangers discourage this and it’s important to know that once down at Junction Pool having come down Hancock Gorge, the only easy way out is back the way you came (not so easy at one point), or paddling and walking 20km onwards down Red and Wittenoom gorges to Wittenoom townsite itself, or perhaps clambering out of Joffre. Going right through to Wittenoom passes right through the remains of the old asbestos mine with its tailings which made Wittenoom so notorious (it’s all quite a saga; ask Google).
As you can see from the still above, all a packraft will do is stop you getting too chilled on the long pool sections, but I still think it’s well worth the trek from the main car park down amazing Hancock (tricky moves or small jumps required), into Junction Pool and along Red and Wittenoom Gorges all the way to Wittenoom townsite.
With a bit of exploring from Junction Pool up Joffre as far as you can get, it will be an easy and fun two days, on top of another day or two checking out the usual park sites including the look-outs, Fortesque as well as Knox Gorge (left and above) past warning signs as far as the irreversible Knox Slide and Jump (see the vid below). Weano you can descend all the way past more warning signs to the dry waterfall looking out onto on the main gorge and even find a way down from there, but the rangers will take a dim view of this, even though as you can see in my vid it’s actually quite straightforward if you know the moves. The important thing is I was shown the way many years ago. There may still be faint yellow marker dots, but stray from the route and you may attempt something you oughtn’t and fail. Most years tourists die by falling or drowning in Karijini NP, though of course these are usually ill-prepared or unlucky people, not hardcore packrafting adventurers who know what they are taking on!
About the size of Poland, the Kimberley is a barely tamed region of tablelands, tropical woodland and savannah, and big seasonal rivers with gorges and lovely waterfalls. Marginal million-acre cattle stations (ranches) have increasingly become tracts of Aboriginal land or remote wildlife conservation ventures, and on some sheltered cliff faces you’ may find ancient rock art, including the enigmatic Windjana and Bradshaw figures, evidence of the world’s longest surviving culture dating back here at least 40,000 years. The Kimberley is such a relentlessly tough environment that unlike in the rest of WA, they haven’t managed to dig up all the resources and sell them to China yet. Some hope that will never happen and the natural environment of this wildest corner of Australia will be conserved.
Packrafting out here is a step up from goofing about in Karijini or Kalbarri. On top of the enervating climate, the usual access issues are more complicated as outlined above. Due to the wet season the Gibb River Road (GRR, mostly dirt) is closed at least from December to April or so. Apart from remote offshore pearling operations, one Aboriginal community and a couple of isolated, fly-in luxury getaways, the ragged northern coastline is populated chiefly by man-eating saltwater crocs and swept by ten-metre tides.
Horizontal Falls (pictured left) is a phenomenon created by these big tides and looks just as amazing on Google with the tide coming in. A few years ago one boat tipped over while going through the torrent and a woman drowned. Now that’s not allowed on tours. Other professional thrill seekers aren’t deterred.
So, much as you might like the idea of a ‘source-to-sea’ expedition in the Kimberley, the Timor Sea is not a place to arrive at without a good plan unless you want to end up like the character in Tim Winton’s great book, Dirt Music or even these guys. Apart from the one settlement of Kalumburu (accessible by dirt road off the GRR), there’s no easy way out short of calling in a seaplane or helicopter.
The Kimberley is like Alaska or northern Canada in this regard; bush planes are the best way to get in and out using station air strips. Even in the Dry the time saved not driving in is worthwhile, as we found on the Fitzroy. Choppers are also used to muster cattle and for scenic flights, so collections can be arranged at a price. As with a light plane, it all depends where the chopper is based. In Fitzroy Crossing a Cessna flight covering 100km/25-minutes cost us $500, a chopper was quoted at $900.
The Kimberley is always hot and humid towards the coast and inland, very hot and quite humid. Depending on where you are the ‘least hot’ time is July at around 30°C (86°F) by day, but as that’s only a few degrees cooler and maybe half as humid as the height of Wet, it’s not something to get excited about. All it means is in the Dry land access is less waterlogged, the wildlife is dispersed and the insects are less of a torment.
As the climate data on the right suggests, the northwest corner experiences intense rains from January to March at which times you’d think the rivers in this sector would be hard to handle, but even in Kalumburu, the only settlement on the north coast and very close to the wettest area on that map, it only rains on average every other day during the Wet (Jan–March).
Far inland, Fitzroy Crossing gets half the volume of rain and only 10 rain days a month during the height of the Wet, so in fact the Wet here is nowhere near as monsoonal as it can be in Darwin, which means there’s no dependable daily respite of an afternoon storm. Cyclones or just a ‘tropical low’ can change all that of course, and tend to occur at the start and end of the Wet. Even Kununurra can get cut off by a cyclone as late as May, as this informative page on east Kimberley climate reveals. Wild fires are common at the end of the Dry when everything’s parched (they’re often localised and are visible on Google sat map imagery). This would be the lest good time to try packrafting in the Kimberley, unless you’re on a fat river which probably means it’s near the coast which brings up other issues.
Some Kimberley Rivers
With a packraft’s lack of speed, limited payload and fragility when harnessed to a pack and thrown off a waterfall, I imagine your range will be limited unless you can hunt and fish. In my opinion the crux of planning a multi-day packrafting adventure in the Kimberley is to plan for an accessible put-in and take-out, unless you’re going to arrange for an expensive chopper or seaplane. At the very least that means starting or ending within walking distance of the Gibb River Road (GRR) or the Kalumburu Road branching off the GRR to the north coast (or at a pinch the Mitchell Plateau Road where in the high tourist season a passing tourist might pick you up).
Unless you’ve done it all, plan small for your first packrafting trip to the Kimberley as we did. Choose a river that’s easy to get to and get off before it gets to the coast. Once you have a feel for the experience you can then send a press release to all sponsors informing them you’re planning an unsupported 1000-km packrafting epic from Fitzroy to Kalumburu. (Interestingly the Fitzroy, Durack, Ord and Chamberlain rivers all show their sources to be close to the 1000-metere peak of Mt Wells (983m, 3225′) in the southeastern Kimberley.)
Crocodiles in the Kimberley
You’ll find plenty on the web about crocs in northern Australia: the short version is there are two types easily found in the Kimberley: one is pretty harmless, the other is not.
Johnston or freshwater crocodiles (‘freshies’ – left in the Fitzroy river) grow up to 3m (10’), have narrow snouts with neat rows of spiky teeth and are considered harmless to man. We once came across some kids in Arnhemland who’d caught a freshie bigger than they were with just a bit of string! The guide finished it off with his big-ass knife (picture below).
Estuarine, or saltwater crocodiles (‘salties’) can inhabit both salt- and fresh water, and at up to 6m and 1000kg, are the world’s biggest reptiles, little changed from their dinosaur ancestors. Aggressive and territorial, unlike freshies they have broad, powerful snouts and a gnarled jawline with short, fat teeth. That’s the easiest way to spot the difference and it’s something you want to be able to do in the northern Kimberley. Spotting a freshie is fun. Spotting a saltie, or even just fresh claw prints on a muddy river bank is chilling.
The big problem is that some Kimberley trip reports (including the Fitzroy video below) talk up the saltie menace, or film close encounters with harmless freshies to help spice up their yarn while hoping you won’t know the difference.
In any Kimberley river as far south as the Fitzroy, you can expect to encounter freshies, but you shouldn’t be unduly terrified. We packrafted past them and elsewhere I’ve swum in rivers and waterholes where they’re found. Very rarely they might take a bite if they feel threatened, but leave them well alone and they won’t drag you into the water and spin you in a ‘death roll’ like a saltie.
In the Kimberley most consider the last big waterfall before the tidal reach (such as King Edward Falls, Solea Falls or the Pentacost causeway on the GRR) to be the upstream saltwater croc boundary, although it’s said they can walk cross-country for over 20kms and certainly the Wet season extends their reach inland. The closer you get to the Kimberley coast’s tidal waters the more likely you’ll encounter salties. Don’t packraft in tidal waters if you can help it and think twice about paddling in rivers which are known to harbour saltwater crocs. A light nip out of a regular plastic canoe or kayak may not be a drama, but the same in a loaded inflatable might quite rightly induce panic. Unless you know better, it’s better to play it safe and not packraft along rivers where salties are known to exist. The small ‘footprint’ of a packraft won’t intimidate them and anyway, they’ve been known to jump out of the water and grab people from bigger boats. If you need to get to the coast for a pick up, take to the hills; that’s what a packraft is for! In the Kimberley there are croc farms in Broome and Wyndham where you can have a closer look, and even eat one in the form of a burger.
Easy Kimberley rivers
Easier rivers in the Kimberley are few and include the Ord river from below the Argyle Lake dam to what they call the Diversion dam on Highway 1, just out of Kununurra. It’s about 60km or a three-day trip. Access at the big dam is easy – a road goes up from town so you can get a lift from one of the self-guiding canoe outfitters in Kununurra. I’ve canoed it once or twice – no waterfalls, no portaging and possibly no freshies too. As you draw into Kununurra at dusk on the last day, thousands of bats take to the wing; it’s quite a site. Here’s a good link showing where the river goes. Problem is, at packraft speeds this part of the Ord would be a bit tame; an IK would be more fun.
Below the Diversion dam close to town you’re in the Ord River Irrigation Scheme where access may be restricted (I say this because if it was OK, they’d be running tourist canoes here too). Then, once you’re get much past Ivanhoe Crossing, a ford over the Ord 10km north of Kununurra, there’s technically a chance of a saltie swimming upriver from Cambridge Gulf, close to Wyndham. I’ve done barra fishing tours down here, and where there are barramundi there may be salties.
The far upper Ord beyond Lake Argyle would be a very remote run. It starts at the turn off on Highway 1 to the Bungles (as packrafting guru Roman Dial describes) and circles right under the NP through the baking desert to feed Lake Argyle, but only during a good Wet. Rocking up at the remote south end of Lake Argyle after a few parched days without a motor boat to meet you (easily arranged) is not so ideal. Not least because access back to Highway 1, 40km to the west along tracks, passes through the Argyle Diamond Mine from whom you’d want permission for sure. So all in all, the wild part of the upper Ord is a long shot in a packraft.
I have to say that since I’ve researched Kimberley rivers for this page, the Lennard River (Google map link) looks less exciting than it did. There are many wilder and probably more scenic rivers, but this 70-km stage from Lennard River Gorge (top red cross on the map and a few kms from the GRR) to the touristy Windjana Gorge NP had easy access at both ends from the Gibb River Road and so is good for starters. All you need is the station’s permission which may be hard coming and not be worth the effort.
The start at the gorge waterfall is pretty impressive (bottom of this page). Last time I explored the gorge in the 1990s we walked along the top cliffs downstream for a couple of miles to a point where we jumped off and swam back up. It was the biggest jump I’ve ever done, probably 50 or 60 feet and the guy with me landed badly and did his knee in. I also recall some kind of a sump (a ‘u-bend’, common in caving) heading back via the very narrow main gorge, and which would be tricky with an inflatable. Downstream from our jump, who knows, but the gorge soon opens out into Napier Downs station land. The station homestead is miles away on the north side of the GRR, and it’s highly doubtful anyone would see you passing, it’s all just Kimberley savannah with clear evidence of cattle, but trespassing is bad form. As you can see from Google Maps, the river won’t flow all the way to Windjana Gorge anyway in the Dry, but you can also see the obvious short cut to take around a big bend.
Windjana Gorge is a national park based around an impressive gorge that’s inhabited by freshies – you’re bound to see them upstream too. Paddling down into the Gorge from the back end would displease the park rangers, so you’d need to be discreet and also be sure you don’t disturb any crocs’ nests if it’s that time of year. Getting permission from the park is a much better way of going about it. From the gorge campsite you could continue down the Lennard another 20km until it reaches the GRR and from there hitch down to Derby for a pie and a pint.
Lennard could be a good little adventure if you can get round the permissions. Otherwise, just take a short paddle from Lennard Gorge up to 8km downstream just before Napier Downs lands, then walk or paddle back. That would be a fun packboating day or overnight that needs no signed affidavits from the Pope.
The Chamberlain River looks like it runs along a fault line or boundary between two rock types, from the watershed near Mount Wells (the source of many east Kimberley rivers) straight NNE to El Questro (ELQ, an upmarket dude station) before going on to join the Pentacost which the GRR soon crosses via a causeway. This often-pictured 4WD crossing with the Cockburn ranges in the background (right) is regarded as the crocodile boundary. Downstream of here there will be salties; a few years ago a couple camped by the Pentacost north of the causeway (a place I’ve checked out myself on occasion) had a croc take a bite out of their tent early one morning. Heed the advice: don’t camp near the water’s edge in saltie areas, even though now I think about it, I’ve done so myself with tours out at Shady Camp on the Mary River in the Territory where the crocs are as thick as log jams.
A good stage might be for little-known Kachana station (horse or plane access only) 90kms down to ELQ or another 20 on to the Gibb. Knowing what I do of the place, somehow I feel ELQ might not go for it and alas the guy at Kachana tells me there are saltwater crocs right up his gorge, which would a worry. Short version: Chamberlain too risky in a packraft.
King Edward River
Soon after the turn-off from Kalumburu Road up the Mitchell Falls track there’s easy access onto the King Edward which runs for a couple of hundred kilometres all the way to Kalumburu, the only settlement on the Kimberley coast; an aboriginal community with restricted access. The only packraft trip I know of in the Kimberley was in 2010 by the self-styled remoteriverman who knew the region well on foot and took out before King Edward Falls (the ‘croc barrier’) to walk east to Theda station back on the Kalumburu Road. He may have got his idea from some guys who in 2007 went all the way to Kalumburu in kayaks and some came back with rafts in 2009.
At 800-odd kilometres, the Fitzroy is the longest river in the Kimberley, reaching the sea at King Sound in Derby, the shire town of the west Kimberley. With a catchment area adding up to a quarter of the Kimberley, after a good set of storms it can become the largest volume river in the country, running at over 30,000 cfs at Fitzroy Crossing.
South of Fitzroy Crossing town on Highway 1 the river braids out onto a baking hot flood plane (a bit like the Ord after the Bungles). Ten miles wide in flood (check out this NASA photo and compare it to Google maps), it would be pretty dull in a packboat and involve travelling past possibly ‘closed’ Aboriginal communities. Upstream from Fitzroy Crossing is much more like it.
In early 2010 the central part of the Fitzroy was run by a rafting and kayaking expedition, some of who’d done the King Edward a year earlier (see above). They flew into Mt Barnett airstrip on the GRR then paddled down the Hann to meet the Fitzroy near Sir John Gorge and on down to Fitzroy Crossing in just over three weeks.
That was an epic achievement by hardcore paddlers looking for (but not finding) big water and actually conducted in a disappointingly dry Wet. Several members have published blogs and photos (see below), giving a vivid idea of what paddling in a Kimberley river in a Wet could be like. Having now been there, I see from the photos and film that the Fitzroy was barely 3 metres higher than levels we found it at the end of the 2011 dry season. Even then, it’s clear they found some thought-provoking white water in the Leopold Ranges – none of which I could recognise.
Once you cut away the bull citing ‘million cfs flows’ and the threat of salties, many reports here and on the King Edward a year earlier talk of being tired after just a 20-km day in a raft, as well as losing 10% of their body weight: that’s what the Wet season climate does to you. As mentioned, they also complained about a lack of rain and the river dropping before their eyes in February – proving the Kimberley Wet is no guarantee of big water, although the following season (2010-11) was the biggest Wet ever. When the river is big and tearing through half-drowned woodland, it might well get too much for a little packraft, but at least you can walk out and you certainly ought not die of thirst. Their pictures also reveal the beautiful Wet season landscapes and galleries of ancient rock art sites few have ever seen.
Mornington Wilderness Camp is a former station turned wildlife sanctuary, about 90kms south of the GRR and close to Sir John Gorge and Dimond Gorge on the upper reaches of the Fitzroy.
You can fly in from Fitzroy Crossing by plane or helicopter, get to the river nearby and follow it south to Fitzroy Crossing. That’s what we did in 2011. Permission to do this is required from Mornington as well as Leopold- and Fossil Downs stations on the way to Fitzroy Crossing which passes through Geicke Gorge National Park where more paddling restrictions must be navigated.
In September 2011 we packrafted the 130 kilometres of the Fitzroy over 6 days from Mornington to Fitzroy Crossing. Pictures above and right.
The Drysdale is another obvious Kimberley river with easy access off the Kalumburu Road or a flight into Drysdale River station. Here’s an account of a guy who canoed down as far as Carson River Station, just after Solea Falls (picture) which can be considered the croc boundary. Like others, he found paddling through the high water among the serrated pandanus palms quite nasty. You’ll need permission to get out via the Carson River station track that runs the 10km between the Drysdale and Carson rivers just east of the station homestead.
Don’t get too excited about the designation of ‘Drysdale River National Park‘ and other similar conservation areas in the Kimberley or WA in general. As a place it’s no more special than anywhere else and is merely a way of excluding pastoral and mining activity or slowing down Aboriginal land claims, while showing that the state has set aside the requisite acreage of pristine bush for conservation. Ring-fenced and with no vehicular access, there are no ranger stations, picnic sites or any visitor facilities whatsoever, though permission from the DEC ought to be a formality once they’re certain you have arrangements to get off the river.
- Kimberley Australia Travel Guide. Excellent informative website by a Kimberley enthusiast.
Although it’s only a pdf now, Kimberley Coast (left) by Len Zeil is pretty good.
Dirt Music, fiction by acclaimed WA writer Tim Winton. A great read with a climax in the Kimberley. There’s a CD and there ought to be a film.
Last Horse Standing by Mike Keenan. Epic survival yarn set around the croc-infested Walcott Inlet in the early 70s when an ambitious cleanskin mustering venture goes wrong. He has another book about the Fitzroy River called Wild Horses Don’t Swim which came across as comparatively indulgent and lacking direction, though it proved Fitzroy had been rafted back in the late 90s.
Around that time there were plans to dam the Fitzroy like the Ord to make an intensive irrigation area to match Kununurra. Most hope that’ll not happen and part of the 2010 rafting/kayak expedition mentioned above was given over to highlighting these issues – and it wasn’t necessarily a token ‘seen-to-be-green’ gesture either.
Came across this book on the left while in a Broome bookshop recently: Swimming with Crocodiles, set partly on the Prince Regent river. Have to say quick flick through didn’t convince me it was worth buying. Read some amazon reviews here, including one by the author’s mate featured in the book.
Important note: For a huge and barely occupied country, Australia is pretty locked up and regulated; not least WA where business interests come first. So if you get up there, do the right thing.