You’ll find Jeff’s version of the same trip in 5 parts (about an hour) right here.
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.
The video above covers Day 1 (previous post) and Day 2 which is this post.
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.
Slackraft Main Page
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.