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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‘.
The video from this day is on the next post.