Don’t get excited, we’re talking a few hundred metres of Class 1.1, but that’s as good as it gets around here. We’ve had a lot of rain in the last week, enough to make the only paddleable river – the short Osgaig – worth a poke with a paddle. I was here with the Yak last year at slightly lower levels, so this time was expecting a smoother run in the Solar (now with an improved seat-foot set up), followed immediately by a comparison run in the Alpacka Yak.
Gumotex Solar IK The good thing with the Solar is it’s old, worth next to nothing but tough, so can be dragged like a hardshell with the Yak in the back. I considered jury rigging some thigh straps; it could be done now through the new footrest pipe and around the seat mounts, but looking at the river as I drove up, it wasn’t really worth it. Thigh straps are what makes any deckless boat – air-filled or hard-shelled – much more controllable when things get choppy. Even WW packrafters insist straps are the way to go.
With the skeg off, it’s easy to seal launch off a grassy bank and into the scrum just below the waterfall which looks a bit complicated so was no less inviting this year. As I spilled over the first little step I tried surfing like people do. But the Solar wasn’t especially dynamic or there wasn’t a strong enough recirculation going on to make it feel interesting. So I swung round and set off. Even at full flow, the Osgaig is a shallow, bony river better suited to an injection-molded TNP ‘spaddle’, not 220 quid’s worth of carbon-light Werner Corry which was picking up new scrapes as I jabbed at the water to keep the boat on line. It was really quite effortful with the Solar, at 3m or nearly 10 feet it’s perhaps a bit long for this sort of thing. I hit the one or two rapids full face, kicking up a satisfying splash and remembering that ‘bring it on’ exhilaration when trying an IK and white watering for the very first time on the Salmon River in Idaho all those years ago.
The river branched near the Loch; left looked all froth but too shallow so I swung right but again scrapped and shoved from one bar to the next. I was hoping to make it all the way to Loch Osgaig but up ahead I saw the tree strainer I recalled from last year so, stuck on another rock and by now steaming out of the ears in my heavy drysuit, I stepped out and walked back upriver.
Alpacka Yak Packraft A few minutes later I hopped into the snug Yak, spun round and slipped over the first drop. Spinning back, I tried to surf as I’d just done in the Sunny but it wasn’t happening. I guess the Yak is just too wide, light and too much drag to fight the flow. Off I went downstream, trying to avoid getting snagged while lining up to take the peak of what waves there were. Jammed in the yellow tub, sat lower and with higher sides, it felt much more responsive than the longer Solar and so was less effort to ride. Perhaps part of it was that a good line is less vital; most of the rapids I could have taken backwards and that added up to more fun. So there it is: a tight-fitting packraft is more fun on easy white water than a 3-metre IK. When I got snagged towards the end, I just stepped out, threw the boat ashore, and staggered out over the slimy boulders.
I do like a good storm. On the left today’s coastal forecast for the Minch. You might call it the first big storm of the autumn. Some 250 miles to the north, out on the Faeroes and towards Norway it’s blowing at Force 10 with 40-foot waves, like something out of the Perfect Storm movie before it gets really scary.
What can it be like to paddle a packraft against a wind gusting up to 50mph, I wonder? Is it even possible? Many times I’ve surprised myself how fast an IK can move – 2-3mph – into a headwind of around 25mph. You can’t sustain that all day, but last year I managed to plough along like that for an hour or two when I gave up on the Ningaloo Reef and turned back into the wind. Seeing as gale-force is the only paddling available for the next few days, I rolled up the Alpacka and went to find out. Sorry to disappoint you but heading out to sea alone, even on the beach with the onshore wind felt too risky. I figured there was a good chance of a gust flipping the back-heavy Yak in a kind of ‘frontal bandersnatch’ as it crested a wave. Better to stick to my ‘play-loch’, site of many paddling experiments and where there’s just wind and not much wave to deal with. In the given conditions inflating the Alpacka in the back of the car was effortless; it took just six bagfuls to fill up the boat, instead of the usual ten. Getting my yellow windsock onto the water was less easy, so once I slapped it down I jumped in quick, clipped the raft to myself via the paddle and tried to leave the shore at the downwind end of Loch Raa.
There was no fetch to speak of and using my large-bladed but light Werner Corrywrecken paddle, I jabbed at the water head down, trying to make headway. The waves rushing by gave the impression I was flying but a sideways glance to the shore showed the raft was barely creeping along. And when a gust hit, it didn’t actually move at all despite my huffing and puffing. Even though I’d probably missed the peak of the day’s winds, not surprisingly I’ve never experienced a paddling effort like it. It felt like some sort of horizontal pull-up machine in a gym set on ’10’ and my hands gripped way out on the ends of the shaft to increase the leverage. Soon any ideas about paddling to the far shore, only 700 metres away, were surrendered. From a video’s timeline it seems it took me 8 minutes of flat-out effort to cover 250 metres – just over 1mph with brief rests every couple of minutes.
I felt safe in the Yak; the gust-borne waves weren’t even a foot high and it was actually a good little workout. Once I’d had enough, I swung round and shot back to shore at what turned out to be 4mph, but felt like sitting still while the wind blew past from behind. Interestingly the raft was easy to handle; no weathercocking. Walking the empty Yak to shore, it took off like a kite. Had I not been strung onto that thing it would have been on it’s way to Inverness quicker than the RAF Tornadoes which tear across the skies hereabouts on a fine day.
Chopping down my Sevy pooltoy into a slackraft lost too much buoyancy to take my gross weight, but it works fine for the Mrs who’s about half my weight. So on a very calm, sunny morning – realistically, it’s inshore limits – we took the Sevy out to the Bay for a swim. I’d glued on an extra outer covering of ballistic nylon to save the vulnerable floor, as we had planned to take it down the Escalante river in Utah a couple months back, but it was way too hot for that when we got there and since then, as you may know, much of the US has been suffering a terrible drought.
As often, the first paddle in a short boat like this sees the operator yawing from left to right like a crowd watching a ping pong final. After a while, though the paddling technique adapts to reduce this effect, but even then the boat is still much slower than an Alpacka. This Slackie is only 28″ wide by 56″ long – 2:1 – (my Yak is 88″ x 36″; 2.44:1) and the Mrs found the best trim was sitting in the middle, even if this meant nothing to lean back on and was not sustainable. Next time out we’ll take a fishing buoy or something to lean against, although I do wonder if some sort of trailing skeg – a board sticking out the back rather than an under hull skeg like on an IK– might help subdue the yawing and so direct the effort in a straight line rather than zigzags.
My Alpacka skims along just like it always does; what a great boat it is. Annoyingly the backrest is leaking again from the twist valve base, even though it’s been glued up once. I find you do need that backrest to sit correctly in the boat, so another repair is due. We dipped about, followed the river channel and out to sea and on to the rocks. As the tide turned we headed back up the river, against the flow the slackboat soon slowed to a near stop and it was faster led on its string through the shallows until a tailwind helped blow us back to our shoes, by now stranded some 200m from the water’s edge in just an hour.
A post-sea trail inspection showed that my carefully glued floor was coming away from the Sevy’s PVC hull like damp wallpaper; that may have explained why the boat got so slow coming back. The Evo Stik didn’t take to the hull at all, or if it did, seawater soon dissolved it. At the time I was trying to save on my nice Bostik 1782 which I used elsewhere on the slack boat with no problems. Anyway, it’s not worth wasting any more glue on this boat. And who knows, perhaps the ribbed floor which has been exposed again may help restore some tracking. We’ll see next time. We’ve half a mind to repeat last year’s fabulous Suilven triathlon, but this time in a boat each.
Access One reason I chose the Fitzroy was that it seemed easy and safe by Kimberley river standards. It was easy to get to Mornington; the river covered mostly flat terrain (no abseiling/clambering down waterfalls, etc); and it was easy to get off – either onto station land in an emergency – or at the end where it ran past Fitzroy Crossing.
The Cessna from Broome Air Aviation cost AU$500 (£300), and we were able to leave Jeff’s van at Fitzroy Crossing aerodrome safely. The flight took 25 minutes to Mornington where we were met by a ute and taken to the camp. They charged us around AU$150 each for air strip pick-up and river drop-off, gourmet dinner and breakfast, and camping. Fossil Downs just asked us to call on departure and arrival (as did MWC), Leopold Downs (a small section) were not bothered, and we wangled our way through Geikie Gorge NP, as you read. At the far end it was a 4km walk from the bridge through town to the aerodrome to retrieve the van. All in all, it couldn’t have been easier when you consider what we did, especially at the end of a trip when you can be tired or potentially lame or ailing.
Maps, Navigation and Comms Three 1:100,000 scale maps covered out route and proved to be very accurate, considering the river channels can move around after a Wet. Fitzroy Crossing 4061 Hooper 4062 (left) Lerida 4162
Oddly, 4061 was printed on some kind of blotting paper and fell to pieces under conditions which the other two maps survived with a bit of drying. All maps needed the long-lat grid calibrated by hand along the sides to work with my GPS. They use some other (Australian?) grid which I suppose I could have set the GPS up to read, but I prefer what I’m used to: long-lat.
We both carried a GPS. I had a little Garmin 401 (left) and Jeff a more modern SatNav Nuvi with a good WA map which even depicted the course of the Fitzroy. He could have just about managed without a paper map. My 401 is a splash-proof wrist-mounted GPS, much lighter and less bulky than the 76CSx I normally use. Unfortunately, I suspect the 401 uses old Garmin electronics from the XL12 era that aren’t particularly sophisticated or efficient. The two AAA batteries lasted less than 6 hours (my CSX would have lasted up to 3 days in the heat on its two AAs), so after that I gave up keeping a GPS track and just turned it one to get a location. Because of that, we never really knew exactly how far we travelled. But above all, the 401 is handy and light, so as a quick locator it does the job unobtrusively and while it tracked it managed the splash-prone attachment to my pack without complaint. I sold it later – too basic for my needs.
I had a compass too but didn’t use it much, although my 10-year-old Thuraya sat phone was handy to call Fossil one time, or to liase with Jeff when he was still on the river at the end (his Ozzie PAYG mobile didn’t work up north). Thuraya sat phones just about work everywhere except the Americas and are cheaper than Iridiums.
Food and water We brought a week of freeze-dried, Pack n Go food from the UK (below left) which weighed in at 3.5kg each but didn’t cover lunch – just hot choc, breakfast cereal and a two-course dinner. Pour in boiling water, seal, wait a few minutes and you got meal. Although it became quite boring after a while and some meals are tastier than others, I was amazed at its ability to sustain us considering the energy we were expending for up to 11 hours a day. I probably ate half what I do at home merely bashing at a keyboard; I suppose the heat helped suppress the appetite, but it must have also been due to the food’s calorific and nutritional values.
In the morning we had a hot drink and a hot P&G cereal of some kind. Smoko (morning tea break) was tea and a muesli bar or trail mix while both lasted. For lunch I just ate a double cuppa soup (good for salt) and another hot drink – Jeff got to eating his evening pudding at this time. And in the evening we ate the main bag meal and I had my pudding as well as more tea, coffee and whatever. I can’t say I was ever hungry, but I sure enjoyed some real food when we got back to Broome – including the brilliant seafood curry down at the Wharf – you gotta go there! We took my Pocket Rocket knock-off stove and a gas can but only used it on the last morning where there was no wood nearby on our sandbank. At all other times there was plenty of dry wood and little risk of a bushfire along the river bank. Out in the open during very windy conditions a stove would be less risky.
We planned to filter water daily with my Katadyn Pocket Filter (left), expecting lots of scunge due to low water levels. In fact the river was pretty full and running so after a day I dumped my cumbersome 5-litre water bag and filled a 750-mil bottle straight out of the river, while adding a Zero tablet (right) every time to stave off mineral loss through sweating. Jeff stuck with filtered (as did I on the day bat crap covered the river), and even though I didn’t use it much, I’m glad we brought it along,. There could have been an occasion where it would have meant clean water or no water, and out there you need water. Including drinks I drank up to 4 or 5 litres a day when engaged in hot and arduous portaging. Since sold and got an MSR Waterworks which I’ve not used yet.
Clothes I expected to need to cover right up to reduce sun burn and transpiration: long trousers, long sleeves and a hat. But in the end while the UV was the same, it was not so hot on the river due to splashing and shade, and the trousers were only useful against big flies in the gorges on day one. The problem with long trousers is that when wet they cling to your legs and drag – Jeff eventually ripped his North Face zip-offs above the knee, but both if us turned to shorts and a bit of slip-slap-slop on our legs. Rolling up the trousers didn’t quite work. Knowing they would get a hammering from the UV and all the rest, I invested in some American 5-11 Tactical trousers and jeans. They are basically the same as normal work or hiking trousers and shirts, but as far as I can tell feature a thicker synthetic material, countless pockets and other small details like tabs to hold up sleeves. The shirt was very good: huge pockets to take a map or whatever – both it and the trousers finished up fine after a rough week unwashed. And they both cost half of what Fjallraven and the like might charge. All in all, I am a 5-11 Tactical convert, even though I know it has a naff ‘special forces’ connotation. I didn’t find the synthetic material a problem in the heat with regards to rashes. odour and so on – if anything it dried much quicker and was tougher than cotton.
Footwear We both bought some Brasher Lithium boots which were going half price in London (£65), as we expected a lot of tough walking with full loads. In the end there was very little of that – and just as well in the heat away from the river. The Lithiums were great when portaging/balancing over boulders and wading through slimy, rocky shallows. But in the sands they filled up with grit and were hard to drag out of quicksands where they filled with sand all the more. Jeff who did more walking than me, wore his Lithiums more, or his Tevas, but in the end we both went barefoot in the river: lighter feet, easier quicksands and more hygienic. By the end our feet were a little sore and swollen from rough gravel, very hot sand and twig jabs, but I think Jeff found his Tevas the worst of both worlds for catching gravel on his already sore feet while not giving full boulder support or secure footing. On the last morning he duct-taped his shoes to his feet (left), but that didn’t really work either. Around camp I wore flip-flops. In the end, although lacing the Brashers up was a pain, you do need a pair of tough boots if you plan to be walking in the Kimberley – Tevas or Keen Arroyos will not do when packing a load. I poked drain holes in mine after a couple of days so my feet would not get sodden, but in the end it was better just to put them on when needed, even for a short portage. Teva Omniums much better.
Packs and camping gear Jeff used my old TNF Terra 60 pack with dry bags, which was barely big enough but extremely comfortable. He also had a day pack which he clipped to the front – a neat system (right) for portaging. I used my UDB (90+ litres) and the Watershed Chattooga as a day bag (both left). But the UDB was a floppy sack on my back compared to the TNF and the Chat bag just got in the way for portages, so that went inside the UDB pretty soon and my shirt pockets became my ‘day bag’. I made great improvements to the stability of the UDB but packing the weight low one time. After that walking with it was not so bad, but it’s nowhere near as comfy as a proper backpack. But it can be if you use this.
I didn’t take a sleeping bag, just a thin blanket that was going spare, and wore all my clothes on the one or two cold nights. Most nights I used the $15 K-Mart Tent which Jeff bought me – more as a mozzie dome than against the cold. The K tent was too short for me but for what it cost it was OK. Since then I’ve bought myself an Exped Venus UL which pitches with just inner for hot, insect nights and is longer than I am. Jeff’s mozzie dome is the same sort of thing – just right for the tropical bush. I used my Exped Synmat DL which is excellent and sold,it to Jeff in the end who suffered under his Thermarest UK which I used to use until I woke up (too much). I’ve since replaced my cushy SynMat DL with the UL version which weighs just 500 grams and is half a litre in bulk.
Cameras and recharging We both used Panasonic FT2 waterproof cameras – the ranger we met at Geikie had one too. At the time (before Olympus TG) it was good in that it’s waterproof (great for Ningaloo reefing) but of course the lens is tiny and so the picture quality- is not that hot, especially on zoom. The video quality, it has to be said, is pretty amazing for a £200 camera. We shot in Motion JPG and HD modes (not the AVCHD which doesn’t import so well I find). That gave a 1200 pixel image which is certainly good enough for youtube, even if it takes many many hours to upload a 5GB movie. I would love to have used my old TZ Lumix, or the even better LX5 I now have, but out in the wet and wilds it’s too hard to be careful with fragile gear so the FT2 is good enough until I get a commission from National Geographic. They’ve since brought out an FT3 as they do, with GPS and other gimmickry – there is no substantial improvement as far as I could tell and you’ll never get a decent lens in such a compact, flat, waterproof body. A pair of 16GB cards were more than enough for both of us. We carried 1 spare battery for the Panas and, with the Go Pro below, that just about did us. In the end I didn’t take the Power Monkey solar charging gadget on the Fitzroy, but did use it on the Ningaloo stage. It charges the Pana batteries very quickly and has the capacity to do that about 10 times. I also used my Go Pro which is temperamental and drives me nuts, but can get the hands-free shots other cameras cannot reach – mostly when on your head. The buttons are a pain so you have to check every time to be sure it’s on, but I also got into using it out of the box when the audio is of course much better. Out of bright conditions the exposure is not half as good as the Lumix; in the shade its terrible but maybe I should meddle with exposure settings which are on default. I also took a Gorillapod but that fell apart at the joints. Jeff used his newer one a couple of times; I’ll probably get another, maybe the bigger one for SLRs which may last longer.
Health and Dangers The Kimberley can be a pretty unforgiving environment, hot, harsh and full of nasty or just plain irritating wildlife. I must say I feel I got away from there with barely a scratch; Jeff suffered a bit of crotch rot and cut up feet. I like to think that the Zero tablets I ate religiously kept me in good shape, even with unfiltered river water. I used a bit of 50-factor on my exposed legs and always wore the hat in the sun. In my experience in Australia the UV is much harsher than even the Sahara.
We saw no snakes – maybe one – though there are big olive pythons around (we had gaiters for walking in long grass, as Jeff did on occasion). Big lizards and freshie crocs are also only a danger if you tread on them by mistake. The only cow that got edgy was clearly in a bad way and cornered, and the only time big horse flies were a pain was, funnily enough, in the Leopold Ranges, well away from cattle country. I think the biggest danger was portaging over boulders – a slip there could have ended badly once you crash to the ground under the weight of your gear. The answer is to pack carefully and take your time, or just do two trips as I did on one occasion. I found my packstaff was rather a hindrance with my boat on my head. There were a few mozzies at night, but they were nothing compared to the blood suckers I’ve experienced in the Top End. So all in all, no drama.
Today, our fifth on the river, we expected to break out of the clogged-up side streams of the last two days and get on the deep, open channel which led right through Geikie Gorge national park, not far from Fitzroy Crossing.
After breakfast the log jam which had defeated us last night was easily carried around, and after a couple of hours lifting over and squeezing under other blockages (left), we turned the last Big Bend and spied the northernmost outcrops of the Geikie Ranges in the distance.
This was the last of the few landmarks on the route and though the bridge was still 40km away, it marked the beginning of the final leg, just as the Gap had marked the end of the Leopolds. As if on cue, the rock changed again from the sand-smothered granite we’d been on since leaving the Leopolds three days ago, to limestone which gave Geikie’s flood-scoured gorge walls their distinctive appearance. The river spread out and lost its depth, and as we picked our way over shallow but gnarly limestone rapids not unlike the Ningaloo‘s shores, Jeff’s floor got snagged and went flat. It was smoko time anyway, so while the water boiled he repaired his boat one more time.
As far as we could tell, the park’s northern boundary began at 18°S, and as you’d expect in WA, paddling there was not without its restrictions. The DEC website stated private boats were only allowed on the river before 7.30am and after 4.30pm so that the daily boat cruises wouldn’t be disturbed by people bombing around for free. At our paddle speeds, keeping to these times would be difficult, let alone getting through the 18km-long park before nightfall, because camping wasn’t allowed either.
All visitors to Geikie drive in, almost all to do the one-hour boat cruise. Aside from a couple of short walks, that’s all there is to do, even though it’s clearly a great place for paddling. As with kayaking the Ningaloo Reef, we were again expecting ranger problems due to our unorthodox arrival and mode of travel. If the Ningaloo Reef NP regulations had no category for sea kayak touring, you can be sure Geikie Gorge had no equivalent for packrafts and slackrafts coming down from the King Leopolds. Our transit would require a sympathetic head ranger; something of an endangered species up north, if experience during my guidebook years was anything to go by.
At least we’d seen from the plane that the river cut through Geikie in a deep, wide channel with minimal shallows. For me in the nippy Alpacka that was great news, but hours of unbroken paddling would be a drag for Jeff in his sluggish pool toy. Mid-morning a hot northern wind rose up and Jeff was quick to rig up a sail, but its effect was negligible; the only way forward was to dig or settle back and drift on the quarter-knot current. To our left and right, sun-bleached water marks reached ten metres up the cliff sides, demonstrating how high the Fitzroy rose during the Wet.
It was lunchtime, but with little flat and shaded land between the cliffs and the bank, we rocked up on a slither of an island capped with fresh green grass that no cattle had managed to reach. Later I realised I’d taken a picture of the very spot from the plane (left). While Jeff got the billy on, I emptied the Yak for a rinse and then went for a quick blast across the open river. Without its load the Alpacka skimmed across the water like a pebble. “Have a go in it” I said to Jeff when I got back. He did and of course loved it. “I shouldn’t have done that. I really shouldn’t have done that“, he realised. It made getting back is his squidgy pool toy all the more galling.
Back on the water, up ahead a motorboat was gunning towards us. Here comes the ranger; we’ve been spotted and our trip could end right here. But our paranoia was premature, it was just a bloke heading out to his favourite barra hole by some sunken trees. He explained we were in an unofficial access window tolerated between 11am and 1pm, between the two big daily tour boat cruises. He also warned us that the head ranger was a grumpy sod. No surprise there, so we decided better not to get bogged down in explaining ourselves on the sat phone, while at the same time planning to make the most of the Fossil Downs station land on much of the east bank for which we did have permission. Before we’d flown out of Fitzroy we’d tried to track down the ranger’s office in town to inform someone of our plans. We couldn’t find the place, but heard later there was no one there most of the time anyway.
As we entered the main part of the gorge, up ahead we heard the blaring of a guide giving his tour schpiel from the cruise boat. People looked to be taking pictures of us which meant we’d be seen for sure. They’d be waiting for us downriver, hands on their hips, drumming their fingers, but we decided we’d deal with that when it came. We’d talked our way out of it on the Ningaloo; we could do the same here. It’s not like we were drunk and churning the place up in jet skis.
Without any overhead canopy to shade us, the full heat of the afternoon pressed down and Jeff was feeling it. After some 20kms we came to a big sandbank where crocs buried their eggs. Seeing a curve in the cliff line, Jeff could bear the paddling no more and set off on foot (left) to cut the corner. At the far end I came ashore to look for him but he was still way back. The day’s heat bounced off the glaring sand.; great for incubating croc eggs, but it reminded me that had we actually done much open country walking (as we’d expected) we’d have had a tough time of it. Wading or paddling, the surface of the river felt a good 5-10°C cooler, even out of the shade. The combination of the cool water surface as well as constant splashing kept us swathed in a temperate micro-climate which made the whole experience infinitely more tolerable. The few portages we’d taken over boulders or sand banks over the last few days had been brief reminders of how hot it actually was out there, and later that day we were told the temperature had topped out at nearly 39°C (102°F).
Unless he was training to be an Indian fakir, it didn’t look like walking across the scorched sand bank had been any kind of respite for Jeff, and he flopped back into his boat. As on the first day, I suggested I tow him for a bit and this time he was too weary to resist. He reposed on his water sofa as we set off to explore the main east wall of Geikie, where eons of seasonal flooding had carved the former subsea reef into scalloped and fluted Gaudi-esque forms.
We glided under overhangs and nosed into caves and web-drapped fissures which bigger boats couldn’t reach. As we bounced along the eroded undercliff, enjoying a break in the pace, up ahead a babe in a red kayak came into view. And as we got close she started chuckling.
“I hope you’re not laughing at us” I said with a stern grin. It was Ingrid, the Cool Ranger, probably the only person north of the 26th parallel who was remotely impressed by our achievement. “Good ON-ya guys!”,
she said as we filled her in on our adventure, and she meant it too. We gloated modestly at this unexpected attention as she fired off questions about our boats and a trip she’d often thought of doing herself. On the way out we’d actually spotted her red kayak from the plane, beached on a bank somewhere upriver. Turns out she was one of the dreaded park rangers, but despite six months on the job was still keen enough to use her days off to see how far she could get upriver in her SoT. And this wasn’t just any old SoT, but an Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro – a boat I’d considered buying myself for our stay in far northwest Scotland earlier in the year. Compared to most SoT tubs, the SP is a long, slim and sleek-looking boat, much admired by spray skirt-dodging hardshell connoisseurs as being the most sea kayak-like of SoTs. No stranger to her own outback adventures, she quizzed us about our run down, while a fellow ranger glided over to deliver her fishing rod in a dumpier OK Frenzy, the more usual door-wide slab of SoT plastic. Ingrid had caught a two-foot barra hereabouts just a few days ago, so there were fish to be had here after all.
After a long chat it was time to move on; the sun had just about set. She explained that up ahead was a big sandbank on the left where another river joined the Fitzroy. That was out of the park so we could camp there as long as we liked. Buoyed on by the hope of a fresh fish supper, Jeff trailed his lure until half an hour later we bounced into the sankbank at twilight, barefoot and fishless as usual.
To the Bridge Jeff had well and truly had it with his Bestway, and the previous evening had talked about walking the last 15kms back to the van at the aerodrome and putting back in at the bridge. By dawn he’d come to his senses. After all he’d nursed his malformed lilo over a hundred kilometres, past sleeping crocs and charging bulls, over boulder fields and under fallen trees, patching it as he went. For whatever reason, yesterday had been a hot slog and the novelty of his achievement had long gone stale, but he knew he had to see it through to the end – or at least give it a go. If nothing else, he had a film to finish!
He suggested I go on ahead to the bridge, walk to the aerodrome and come back with the van, by which time he’d be arriving himself. And so at 6am we set off for the final 20-kilometre leg which I figured I’d complete by noon. Although there was no let up in obstacles – more log jams, frequent sand shallows with quicksands, as well as headwinds – by 9.30 I’d reached the original ford which at the end 19th century had given Fitzroy Crossing its name. My watch had packed up days ago and for some reason the last topo map was printed on toilet paper and had quickly disintegrated. An old guy was walking his dog over the ford and as I lifted my Alpacka over the concrete rim I asked the time and how far to the bridge – groaning when he said about 4 or 5 kilometres. Oh well, about another hour then.
I attacked this final stage non-stop in one last burn up, but after 16kms I was fading. It was hot and I only had a 750-mil bottle of water. Having passed a dead animal and other rubbish, I didn’t fancy the river water down this end, and now the river was no longer wild, I was keen to get the job over with.
Another sandy, shallow bend. I hop out to wade, sink over my knees in quicksand, crawl out, stagger on, get back in to paddle a bit, ground out and go through the whole cycle again. Jabiru storks carved the airwaves overhead and Brolga cranes danced about on the sandbanks. There were a lot more roos bouncing up and down the banks here, too. But never mind the wildlife, where was that bridge? Surely around this bend… that one… or the next, until finally there it was, less than a mile away (below). Road trains sped across, oblivious to the tiny raft below with its paddler, up to his hips again in quicksand.
Presently a shadow passed overhead, but it wasn’t a flood-battered river gum or a rustling cadjeput; it was the bridge on Highway 1 which ringed the entire continent of Australia. Worn out and parched, I filmed a final, slurred p2c and headed for the steep bank to pull the cork out of the Alpacka one last time.
Soon after dawn we stood on a small hill overlooking our camp down on the sandbank (middle point map left or picture right). For the last couple of days we’d spent most of our time in the tree-lined river channels, seemingly separated from the outside world. Here was a chance to see what lay on the outside, beyond the river.
It was the same old gum-tree spotted Australia bush which covered most of the country, but up ahead a particularly thick mass of gums obscured the course of the Fitzroy. It did not bode well for an easy day.
We set off a little later than usual, wading and paddling the shallows, but mostly walking with our boats. We passed Munsters Pool as marked on many maps, but it’s just another part of the river with a few cattle milling around. The flow braided and at one point I idly took a left stream while Jeff just ahead went right. I assumed they’d join up which they did, but not for 20 minutes or so by which time we’d lost touch with each other. I’ll let the video above show how events unfolded, but I knew soon enough was my mistake for not following the one in the lead, even if that path might end up a dead-end. I’ve experienced this kind of unintentional separation several times in the desert on motorbikes: everyone knows best so you diverge round an obstacle as you think your way is better/easier and will soon join up anyway. Your path goes astray and round the other side you don’t meet up. The one ahead goes back looking for the one missing, the one behind thinks he’s way behind and rushes on ahead. Cue wasted time and frayed nerves. On this occasion, once I stopped I was pretty sure Jeff was behind me, and sure enough, 40 minutes later he walked in from upriver after backtracking all the way looking for me, giving up and carrying on. Although we were both self-sufficient, from then we vowed to stick together – it was better for the film!
Soon after that we has smoko and tensions eased over a cup of tea. As we gathered wood I found a plastic bin lid which made a great over-sized frisbee and which Jeff later adapted into a seat to keep his butt out of the swill. Very soon that bin lid became handy as I came across a rich deposit of alluvial gold, sparkling in the shallows. Jeff swilled the sediment around while I filmed, and very soon we had some colour. There certainly is gold in the Kimberley; WA’s wealth was founded on it in 1885 with the original gold rush at Halls Creek, the next town down the road from Fitzroy Crossing. And since pre-industrial times the low-energy method of surface mining has been to divert rivers into torrential ‘hushes’ which scoured away the topsoil to reveal precious mineral veins or ore. The 2011 flood on the Fitzroy had clearly exposed riches beyond our wildest dreams and I’d have to beat Jeff to death with the bin lid to get my hands on the treasure. In the end we came to our senses and recalled that the lady’s assertion in opening line of Stairway to Heaven was most probably deluded.
The day proceeded to warm up with a series of short pools, very often preceded by tiring quicksands where the shallows became waterlogged. Elsewhere progress was slowed by log jams where the flow was forced into the trees lining the main channel which has become choked with sandy sediment dropped by the river after the flood. But along the entire route the Kimberley soundtrack of birdsong kept us company with its squawks, whistles, warbles and chirps. Today we saw a few blue-winged kookaburras and a couple of rainbow bee eaters along with the usual procession of egrets and cockatoos. In my guidebook-researching days I knew them all by heart and it was fun to jog my memory or be able to name what I saw.
Up ahead a welcome pool promised some steady progress – even Jeff was getting to like to the effortless paddling now. But very soon a strong reek of guano or urea choked the air, with the below water covered in a skanky film. A huge colony of bats where clinging to the river gums along the left bank, and with a shriek took to the wing as we slowly paddled by. Jeff explained the reason for the stench was that bats pee on themselves in an effort to keep cool.
At lunch I called Fossil Downs station to notify them a little late that we were on their land, (as they’d asked us to do). The old lady there seemed quite inspired by our mini adventure along the river which she’d never really seen but which watered most of their land. Still in the hands of the same family, Fossil Downs was established in 1885, making it the oldest cattle station in the west Kimberley. Although I’d never been there I’d always been in intrigued by tales of the comparatively palatial homestead and its marble flooring (or some such). In the Kimberley most station homesteads were functional affairs.
Just as yesterday, within a few steps of lunch Jeff got another flat, but fixed it in a jiffy by rolling the hole up with superglue and applying a duct tape bandage for good measure. We pressed into the afternoon, squeezing under trees or lifting the boats over or around fallen logs. At one point a rather mangy bull stood in our channel, sick and clearly agitated. Normally the cattle ran away; this one tried but got stuck in quicksand and didn’t have the strength to gallop up the steep bank. It turned round and came back to stand its ground. Filming all the way, Jeff got a little too close and the thing lowered its horns and ran at him. Eventually I crawled up the steep bank, and from point downstream but safely out of reach, coaxed the ailing steer upstream past Jeff and our boats by throwing sticks.
Since the bat colony the surface of the river had been pretty rank which didn’t add to the ambience. More bat colonies followed, and about 4.30 we came across another piled-up sandbank which filled the whole channel while the flow took off left into the side trees. A knot of fallen trees required lifting round to continue so we called it a day just as a helicopter flew overhead. With cow crap and bat shit all around, it wasn’t a great spot, but would have to do as we were just about finished for the day. In fact we’d done better than we thought: 10 hours to cover 26 clicks according to the map, and not far from the second Big Bend which led down to Geikie, possible ranger issues and the final big run on wide open channels.
That night Jeff prepared a brilliant garlic damper which we cooked on the coals. Real food – you just can’t beat it! It had been a hard day to end at a grubby camp, but we felt we’d finally broken the back of the Fitzroy.
We were up again with the light, ready for more ankle-twisting boulder portages like those which had slowed us down yesterday afternoon. Little did we know that the day would turn out to be one of our best on the Fitzroy. Back in our boats, within minutes of leaving the camp, we emerged in an open area of rocky outcrops and knotted rapids, like the lower reaches of a mountain stream. Little crocs basked either side on the sandy banks. As the day developed we ended up towing our loads along shady shallows, as effortless as walking a dog. The occasional quicksands, log jams, jumpy cattle and the Bestway’s first puncture only added to the day’s adventure. We ended up camped on a broad sandbank below granite hills after a great day on the Fitzroy. Let the day’s filming and gallery below tell the full story.
By 5am the sun had risen somewhere behind the ranges and it was light enough to get stuck into our first full day on the river. I’d slept well enough on the unrolled tent under a thin blanket and all my clothes. Some time around 3.35am a hot, phantom wind had blown through our sandbar camp from the northwest. I’ve experienced these lost night winds elsewhere in the desert and always wondered where they come from and where they went.
Like us, in the cool of the morning both boats were a little flaccid after yesterday’s exertions, but Jeff was relieved to find his Bestway was still holding good air. Even then, after a brief paddle he decided to walk the remaining five kilometres to Dimond Gorge. Me, I was pleased to stay on the water, even if it occasionally meant skating across slime-covered rocks when dragging the boat through shallow rapids (left). Right along the length of Fitzroy, another six inches water and just about all rapids could have been run in our boats, but I don’t suppose it works like that.
Jeff was now out of sight somewhere in the woods and soon enough the flow got shoved off the main channel by a blockage to burrow into the fringe canopy of trees where birds twittered and water monitors glared. This benign riverine underworld was a habitat I’d not anticipated, but was one of the most pleasant environments we found on the Fitzroy. Like a Damascene souk, shaded from the heat and glare of direct sunlight, you felt protected, cool and soothed while cockatoos squawked, rainbow bee eaters darted ahead and lanky-necked egrets stalked the pools. While pushing, pulling or paddling the boat through these cool causeways, I was reminded of that cool picture of Ed Stafford hauling his heavily loaded Alpacka through the Amazonian swamp.
A couple of hours later I was back out in the open and squeezed the Yak between two rocks to slip into the top end of Dimond Gorge (above – downstream, and above, looking upstream). MWC left a few canoes here for day visitors and I pulled over alongside them, stripped off and dived in. Jeff turned up about 15 minutes later but it didn’t look like he’d enjoyed his bush walk and he simply dropped his dinghy in and set off along Dimond, knowing I’d catch him up soon enough. The headwind already funneling through Dimond from the plains didn’t improve his mood.
Presently the gorge turned left to break through the ridge and soon choked on the effort. It was here that the dam proposed over 50 years ago would have been sited, to match the Ord Irrigation Scheme near Kununurra in the East Kimberley. Although the idea gets revived once in a while, as things stand the Fitzroy is unlikely to get dammed here.
It was already 10am and with 8 or 9 clicks behind is, it was high time for ‘smoko’ as they call it in out here. As always, firewood was within arm’s reach and soon the billy was on the boil. We’d brought a gas stove in case high winds made real fires risky; on the way in from Broome we’d seen several roadside fires. Most were deliberate, late-season burn-offs, but we’d also heard some ultra-marathon racers had been trapped by a bushfire in a gorge on El Questro near Wyndham and had been very badly burned. If nothing else, it would be extremely bad form to start a bushfire on the station land we were about to cross, but we always lit up alongside the river where things remained damp and cool.
From this point it was about 6km to the next landmark – what we called the Gap, an opening in a low ridge like those found in the West Macs out of Alice, and which here marked the southernmost ridge of the King Leopolds. We’d seen it clearly on the flight in and with the headwinds persisting, Jeff decided to head off across the boulders while I paddled on for a couple of minutes, then portaged a very gnarly section. It looks like an easy 5-minute walk on the aerial picture but let me tell you with the head wind and my unstable pack, stepping between fridge-sized rocks with a boat under my arm was not a dance the Royal Ballet will be performing any time soon. At least the Brasher trail boots both Jeff and I had bought cheap in London were earning their keep here. Out of the shade and off the water, the heat bounced off the rocks, sapping the energy expended in carefully negotiating these rocky portages. I’d have to come up with a better system like Jeff, if these rough portages were to continue downstream.
I put back in as soon as I could, noticing we were now on granite, a little less smooth but also less coated in treacherous slime in the shallows, which made wading easier. Up ahead Jeff was putting in too and despite the headwinds held his own – clearly he was refining his Bestway paddling technique. As the conclusion of the video proves, Jeff was finding his pool toy to be more versatile than he’d initially hoped.
Another sweltering rocky portage led past some sort of sentry box and pipework river left, close to where an outlying airstrip lay on Fossil Downs land. It was a clear run from here against the wind to the Gap and the end of the ranges. We clambered onto a rock for a lunch of double cuppa soup and another hot drink. While the billy boiled Jeff threw out his handline; we’d been assured in Broome that the barramundi (northern Australia’s best know fish), would be huge so Jeff had bought a 30-pound line accordingly. But there was no fish for lunch on that or any other day while we were on the Fitzroy. They must be out there, but the only fish I ever saw where the size of my finger. It’s no wonder the crocs were so stunted.
Beyond the Gap we knew the river would change character as it weaved over the savannah for 60 kilometres towards Geikie Gorge. This would be the crux of the trip. Even though the flight had revealed several long and clear river channels, we’d also spotted masses of thick woodland with no clear path. We looked back at those aerial shots in our cameras to figure out the way ahead. Our goal that afternoon was to try and get west of 126°E and onto the next map sheet, something that in the end we only barely managed.
Soon after leaving the Gap we came to another big rock pile where the river braided out into nothing paddlable. In the mid-afternoon heat, clambering with all my junk was as much fun as roller skating on cobbles while balancing a sofa on your head, and using my packstaff for the first and last time was merely another encumbrance that threatened to impale me should I trip. I desperately floated across the smallest pool, and when it came to the next big portage I simply left the boat and set off with the UDB pack. It took twice as long of course, but being able to see ahead and use my arms to balance, it felt safer. Perhaps it was hotter than we realised – getting on for 40° maybe? – but even before I turned back for my boat I was parched with thirst and croaked to Jeff, ‘Let’s camp at the end of the next pool’. Whatever the time was, we were beat!
The GPS was no longer tracking as the batteries lasted less than a day, but it turned out we’d put in an 11+ hour day of only 20 kilometres, managing just 5km after lunch. At our poolside camp, I slung the gear into the bank, went for a swim and then drank and drank. Unless I’d some acclimatising to catch up on, this effort in portaging over the big rock bars was not sustainable; fatigue would eventually lead to a mistake and Jeff had already fallen a couple of times. I needed to radically revise my portaging set up. My yellow Watershed ‘day bag’ was better out of the way inside the UDB which now sat in the boat not perched across the bow. That worked much better for wading and towing while I sat with feet plonked on either side in a suitably reclined paddling posture. Like this I could also access the UDB in the boat if needed, and forward visibility was better too while the Yak’s extended ‘fastback’ tail compensated for the rear-weighted trim. I’d also ditched my cumbersome water bag and now simply drank from the river. We’d brought my Katadyn and used it most evenings. Jeff stuck with it, but I found carrying a full day of water too heavy at the rate I drank it. I took care to drink from less skanky pools and flowing riffles and never got sick.
The water boiled and another two-course freeze-dried supper was wolfed down, along with several rounds of tea. Jeff was in bed by 6 – a personal best. It had been a tough first day and now we were heading into the meandering cattle lands we weren’t expecting it to get any easier as the river lost its definition. Jeff wasn’t convinced yet, but as I saw it, the key would be to keep track of the main channel and minimise arduous portaging at all costs by paddling or towing. Even then, we figured that as long as we didn’t get any more tired than we were tonight, and our once-daily bag meals continued to sustain us, we still had five full days of food for the remaining 100 kilometres and could trudge on at whatever daily distance we could manage until it finally ran out. By that time we’d surely be very close to Fitzroy Crossing.
It was a hot evening and out on the pool crocs, lizards or the elusive big fish were splashing about. I pottered around the camp for a while, putting off the unenviable moment when I had to squeeze into my too-short K-Mart tent to grab a mozzie-free night. I was still thirsty as I dozed off. Likely as not, tomorrow was going to be another tough one.
A few minutes after the plane took off from Fitzroy Crossing (see maps) Jeff taped me on the shoulder and gave a thumbs up. A thousand feet below, things were looking promising. Sam the pilot had agreed to fly us low for the 25-minute run to Mornington Wilderness Camp (‘MWC’) as the direct route closely followed the river which we planned to follow back over the next week.
It was soon clear that thanks to a huge Wet season a few months earlier, there was a lot more water down there than we’d ever hoped for so late in the dry season. It could well be more of a paddle and less of a walk than we expected, and having missed out on kayaking the full Ningaloo a week earlier, I was feeling optimistic.
During the Wet season (Dec-March) when tropical storms converge or a cyclone dumps over its huge catchment area, the 700-km long Fitzroy River briefly becomes the largest volume river in Australia. Expanding in width from 15 metres up to 15 kilometres across the flood plain, the 13-metre-high highway bridge at Fitzroy Crossing gets submerged for days while log debris gets rammed in the upstream side of the parapet (left).
That’s the Wet. By the end of a Dry we were expecting the river to be a string of stagnant, fly-ridden pools necessitating tiring portages. Packrafts make great walking boats of course, but September wasn’t a great time for bush walking in the Kimberley as the enervating ‘Build Up’ (pre-monsoonal heatwave) was on its way. Still, this is the Kimberley, Australia’s pre-eminent harsh and remote wilderness just 15° from the equator so it’s hot up here most days. Thirty, 35 or 40°C – we’d just have to keep in the shade. It took a few months to research the Kimberley area, pin down a viable river there, and then narrow it down to a doable section where permission from the various landowners was most likely to be given.
Having got to know the Kimberley’s regular tourist spots as a guidebook writer, I decided our 130-km section of the Fitzroy was a varied but not over-ambitious packboating introduction to the region. Even then, permission from MWC was only finally confirmed the day I flew out of London, and for Leopold station on the day we left Broome.
The way I saw it in a post I wrote earlier, the key to packrafting up here relied on uncomplicated access and exit: fly in from a town or station airstrip and paddle back to it if you can. Rendezvous with helicopters or seaplanes could be left for more ambitious trips. Since I first started visiting the Kimberley in the early 1990s I’ve been planning some sort of bush walk out here, and now finally I was going to get my chance, thanks partly to the advent of packrafts.
If things went wrong on our river there were station tracks not too far off, from where we could get recovered inexpensively in a ute. And there was no saltwater crocodile menace up here, as there is on some north Kimberley rivers draining into the Timor Sea. Like the dammed Ord to the east, the Fitzroy flows south off the massif flows into the baking savannah plains of what are really the northern reaches of the Great Sandy Desert. It then swings back west and northwest to empty into King Sound at Derby, hundreds of kilometres later.
Salties can live in freshwater and can travel far inland during the Wet, but it was very unlikely any would be far upriver at this time of year. Much more timid freshwater crocs are commonly found in the Fitzroy and the nearby Lennard River at Windjana Gorge. We saw plenty on our transit, all bar one diving for cover on detecting our splashes. Although it sounds good for the yarn, freshies are no more dangerous than lizards or snakes, and swimming, wading or paddling among them is quite acceptable.
At MWC we paid through the nose for a gourmet dinner and breakfast, but one last ‘real food’ supper was worth it to save on our supplies of bag food. I’d checked MWC out for the guidebook years ago, but the place was really more of a wildlife sanctuary for studying Kimberley fauna; the upmarket tourism side merely covered its costs. Diane, the manager, was involved in an early morning finch census when we arrived, which meant she was unable to drop us off at the riverside until 10am next day.
We’d originally planned to put in at Sir John Gorge further upstream, but Diane advised that might involve several rocky portages. Dimond Gorge was the other obvious alternative, but that would flush us out of the King Leopold Ranges in an hour or two which would be a shame. So we compromised and got dropped off midway at Cadjeput Pool, all up about 133km from the highway bridge and 20km from Dimond. Cadjeput was at around 180m elevation which only meant an 80-metre drop to Fitzroy Crossing, but as we were soon to find, the river flowed there all the way.
Jeff was in denial over his $30 Bestway Outdoorsman 200 Sport pool toy, and who can blame him. He’d only paddled it briefly in the campsite pool in Broome to see how his load sat. Anything else may have risked a catastrophic rupture. But now was the moment of truth and on the river, paddling ‘backwards’, stern first (these boats are meant for rowing and so have the additional ‘sitting’ buoyancy in the rounded bow), his dinghy didn’t look like it was going to start a bushfire anytime soon.
We set off downstream along the tree-lined pool (right), but within half an hour came to our first rock bar where the river took a 90° turn to the southeast. It was to be a pattern we’d recognise all along the Fitzroy; any significant change of course usually meant a slowing of the current and the deposition of rock or sand into a blockage which the river either worked around or seeped through.
Already mid-morning and hot, unloading the boats and tramping with full packs for the first time (left) underlined how tiring and tedious this was compared to effortless gliding in a raft. Initially Jeff’s view was quite different; walking was preferable to slow paddling, especially as he’d worked out a neat portaging solution. By putting his paddle through the rollocks (picture below) he could position the paddle shaft between his backpack and his back which located the boat securely, made a great sun shade and, with a light headwind, even generated a little lift as he tramped along, carefully avoiding any low branches.
My own boat-on-the-head arrangement using my more floppy UDB as a backpack (left) didn’t work half as well in a breeze, especially while staggering over fridge-sized boulders. Over the coming days while Jeff was happy to walk, I took to the water as soon as I could, until I figured loading the UDB with the weight low when backpacking made it much more stable.
Back on the water, before us stretched a 3km-long pool leading to the next right-angle turn to the southwest around Fitzroy Bluff where a much longer 6km pool and a headwind really tested Jeff’s Outdoorsmanship. For at least two hours he span his paddle furiously while I slid along in the Alpacka. Just like Steve on the Chassezac in France earlier this year, Jeff tried various ways of paddling: sitting on the bow, in the boat, swimming from behind. Nothing could shift the pool toy at a satisfying speed short of wearing it as a hat. It sat on the water like a jellyfish in a coma, and with the GPS I measured it running at up to 3-3.5kph while I topped out at 4.5-5kph in the Alpacka. And even to achieve 3kph Jeff had to paddle at twice my frequency, while failing to get a good catch due to the BW’s added width.
The Bestway really isn’t the best craft for touring big Kimberley rivers until you appreciate it costs less than a night’s camping in Broome or five overpriced beers at the Potshot Hotel in Exmouth. I was already wondering if Jeff would stick it out as pushing his water sofa into a headwind clearly ate him up. It was a mild reversal of the situation on the Ningaloo a week or two earlier, although being in the slower kayak there didn’t bother me as much as its handling in the high winds; you’re as fast as you are and here on the Fitzroy the reduced pace suited me just fine. I wouldn’t wear myself out and anyway, I was sure it would take us a day or two to establish an equable travelling pace. Could I carry on alone if Jeff bailed at Dimond tomorrow? What if he damaged it beyond repair and walked on while I carried the packs on long pools. Would that work? All options were on the cards for the coming days
At the next blocked bend I lifted over some logs and took off down a cool, canopied channel (left) while Jeff loaded up to haul over the sand and rocks. At the start of the next pool there was no sign of him, until backtracking on foot and shouting, I found he’d somehow got around me onto the far side of the channel.
In his exhausted haze he’d wandered up a side valley and only realised his mistake on turning on his Garmin Nuvi which had unusually good mapping, even out here (only I carried 100k paper maps). At that moment he looked rather shell shocked – I’d not seen him like that before. Just after the next shallow rapid an inviting sandbar glowed in the late afternoon light. ‘Let’s camp there‘ I pointed, and to my surprise he simply agreed; a mark of how tired he must have been.
We’d covered what I now realise was actually a pretty good 16km over about 7 hours, much of it into a valley-funnelled headwind with little shade and with no food breaks. We’d eaten our fill at Mornington, but that was going to have to change as we got to put in full days on the river.
A fire was easily lit and soon we tucked into the first of our freeze-dried bag meals followed by several cups of tea. By 6.30 it was dark and Jeff had already passed out in his mozzie dome after admitting ‘This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done‘.