My four videos from last year’s trip – about 45 mins all up – are below.
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 frisbee (right) 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 1885s 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 kill and bury Jeff 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 it 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 rich aroma 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. Why not just move down south and spare yourself the laundry?
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 station 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 did not add to the overall 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, 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 river.
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 a clump of 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 (right) 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 (right – 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 that some ultra-marathon racers had been trapped by a bushfire in a gorge on El Questro near Wyndham a fortnight earlier 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 (on the aerial image left) 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 (left) 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 (left). As the conclusion of the video below also 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 much 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 turns 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 optimise 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 course 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 sustained 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 or video) 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 it’s 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 later. Since I first started visiting the Kimberley over 20 years ago 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 might 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 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 (right) to see how his load sat. Anything else may have risked a catastrophic rupture of the envelope. 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 added ‘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 (my old North Face Terra 60) 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 (left). 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.
I used to visit northern and western Australia regularly to update a guide book (right) and years ago, before I knew about packrafts, I had an idea to float down part of the Lennard River in the western Kimberley (see map below). At that time I figured the easiest way would be to use a truck inner tube, a lilo or just a pfd. My IK would have been too heavy to lug in from the Gibb River Road.
Now I’ve discovered packrafting and northwestern Australia – particularly the Kimberley – has taken on a whole new potential as a venue for possible packrafting adventures. As I got to know the area fairly well, here’s my take on packrafting possibilities in the Australian northwest, even though I’ve only packrafted on the Fitzroy in the Kimberley. If this page gives you any ideas, it would be great to hear how you get on.
One thing that soon crops up is access and permission, the same story as in England, but possibly worse, with no ‘Right to Roam’ as we have here on uncultivated land. Western Australia (WA) is made up of crown land of which a third is vacant or unallocated (‘UCL’; mostly the arid deserts of the interior). Another third is leased to pastoralists, 10% is Aboriginal land (including remote, ‘closed’ communities) and a bit less is put aside as conservation areas.
The first thing you want to do is work out whose land your river crosses and if it matters. This online resource leads to maps including pastoral boundaries, like the Kimberley map below.
After that you need to track down contact details for the property owners or managers, unless it’s a national park or conservation area. The White Pages online ‘telephone book’ will be handy. In that case in WA it’s the DEC (formerly CALM). They ought to be the least difficult to cough up a response from, because civilian access to wholesome outdoor recreation is partly their job. It has to be said too, that last time I asked, the few paddlers who’ve done the far northern rivers weren’t so forthcoming with information.
One kayaker expressed his surprise at how suspicious and hostile Kimberley station managers were to initial requests to paddle across their land. Knowing what little I do of the area, that response doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s a hard-won life up there, far from the southern, latte-swilling masses. These are tough, independent people who may have little interest in enabling your hare-brained caper across their land. In my limited experience you’ll have a particularly hard time with those stations off the Gibb River Road that have resisted ‘selling out’ by offering a few basic tourist facilities. Take it as a sign; if they aren’t trying to supplement their income by playing the tourist card, they’re unlike to go for your plan.
Though they may be less suspicious and more worldly, managers of former stations that are now conservation parks may in turn be concerned that you’ll inadvertently trample over the nest of a rare finch. So if you do make contact with a property manager (who may be the owner too), do so tactfully, have a bomb-proof plan that puts little or no obligation on them (unless they invite it), expect to pay a little and follow their advice about the country they know well – even if it’s just to piss off! They have little to gain from your antics, but all the hassle when something goes wrong and you get head-butted by a feral bull, not least due to the liability insurance issue which these days seems to cripple any initiative in Australia (photo, left). On the positive side they might be interested to hear about what you find on your travels, as it’s unlikely they’ll get to the places you can visit that often.
A day’s drive north of Perth, the long pools strung out along the Murchison River gorge inland from Kalbarri on the Indian Ocean might be a good place to start. The paddling will be broken up because, like all rivers mentioned here, they only actually flow once in a blue moon or in the Wet.
One problem: following the Murchison from the western boundary of the national park (see map, left) back to the sea (a distance of about 65km from the Loop) involves crossing Murchison House station land, but contact the guy there (see below) with your plans and you should be OK.
Kalbarri itself is a small resort town and most of the canoeing tours out of there take place either up the estuary close to town, or in the Kalbarri national park (NP), between Z Bend (80km upriver) and the Loop, 65km upriver from Kalbarri. You’ll need to be prepared to hike with your packraft up to half that distance back to town. Otherwise, I imagine you can day paddle in the national park the 15km from Z Bend to the start of the Loop (see map above) without any permission hassles.
Beyond the Loop, if you have the permission to paddle/walk to the sea, you’re on your own and depending on recent rains it could be a long walk before you get to any paddleworthy pools. About 18km upstream from Kalbarri you’ll pass Murchison House station homestead (they do accommodation). From here you’re close to the tidal reach of the river and once in town can even enjoy a little surfing off the beach. followed by a nice seafood platter at Finlays.
All in all I reckon you’d want to allocate about four days to do the full 80kms from Z Bend to the sea. You’ll spend a night in the park starting at Z, so you’ll need a permit from the DEC office in town where they may ask other questions. Otherwise start for the sea on the downstream side of the Loop and you’ll be out of the park in a few hours – no NP overnight permit needed.
One of my favourite areas in WA are the gorges of the Hamersley Ranges, the best being in Karijini NP. In the early 90s Dave Doust introduced me to the area including Miracle Mile canyoneering adventure here – described by FHM as one of the ‘100 things a Man Must Do before he Dies‘.
In 2005 I finally got round to filming the Mile with a couple of mates; a version ended up of Nat Geo Channel; not sure what the park authorities would make of that. As a packrafting adventure, Karijini without a vehicle gets a little complicated, but as a place to explore it’s very much worth the detour from the main highways. You really have to walk right into the amazing banded chasms of Hamersley, Hancock or Weano gorges to appreciate the park’s amazing geology, while a visit to Fortesque or Dales gorges are a great place for a splash about. Despite what the maps might show, the rivers and not continuous and lead nowhere useful, even in flood.
Down in the main Four Gorges area (where my film was shot) is where few venture, but where you want to get to. The rangers discourage this and it’s important to know that once down at Junction Pool having come down Hancock Gorge, the only easy way out is back the way you came (not so easy at one point), or paddling and walking 20km onwards down Red and Wittenoom gorges to Wittenoom townsite itself, or perhaps clambering out of Joffre. Going right through to Wittenoom passes right through the remains of the old asbestos mine with its tailings which made Wittenoom so notorious (it’s all quite a saga; ask Google).
As you can see from the still above, all a packraft will do is stop you getting too chilled on the long pool sections, but I still think it’s well worth the trek from the main car park down amazing Hancock (tricky moves or small jumps required), into Junction Pool and along Red and Wittenoom Gorges all the way to Wittenoom townsite.
With a bit of exploring from Junction Pool up Joffre as far as you can get, it will be an easy and fun two days, on top of another day or two checking out the usual park sites including the look-outs, Fortesque as well as Knox Gorge (left and above) past warning signs as far as the irreversible Knox Slide and Jump (see the vid below). Weano you can descend all the way past more warning signs to the dry waterfall looking out onto on the main gorge and even find a way down from there, but the rangers will take a dim view of this, even though as you can see in my vid it’s actually quite straightforward if you know the moves. The important thing is I was shown the way many years ago. There may still be faint yellow marker dots, but stray from the route and you may attempt something you oughtn’t and fail. Most years tourists die by falling or drowning in Karijini NP, though of course these are usually ill-prepared or unlucky people, not hardcore packrafting adventurers who know what they are taking on!
About the size of Poland, the Kimberley is a barely tamed region of tablelands, tropical woodland and savannah, and big seasonal rivers with gorges and lovely waterfalls. Marginal million-acre cattle stations (ranches) have increasingly become tracts of Aboriginal land or remote wildlife conservation ventures, and on some sheltered cliff faces you’ may find ancient rock art, including the enigmatic Windjana and Bradshaw figures, evidence of the world’s longest surviving culture dating back here at least 40,000 years. The Kimberley is such a relentlessly tough environment that unlike in the rest of WA, they haven’t managed to dig up all the resources and sell them to China yet. Some hope that will never happen and the natural environment of this wildest corner of Australia will be conserved.
Packrafting out here is a step up from goofing about in Karijini or Kalbarri. On top of the enervating climate, the usual access issues are more complicated as outlined above. Due to the wet season the Gibb River Road (GRR, mostly dirt) is closed at least from December to April or so. Apart from remote offshore pearling operations, one Aboriginal community and a couple of isolated, fly-in luxury getaways, the ragged northern coastline is populated chiefly by man-eating saltwater crocs and swept by ten-metre tides.
Horizontal Falls (pictured left) is a phenomenon created by these big tides and looks just as amazing on Google with the tide coming in. A few years ago one boat tipped over while going through the torrent and a woman drowned. Now that’s not allowed on tours. Other professional thrill seekers aren’t deterred.
So, much as you might like the idea of a ‘source-to-sea’ expedition in the Kimberley, the Timor Sea is not a place to arrive at without a good plan unless you want to end up like the character in Tim Winton’s great book, Dirt Music or even these guys. Apart from the one settlement of Kalumburu (accessible by dirt road off the GRR), there’s no easy way out short of calling in a seaplane or helicopter.
The Kimberley is like Alaska or northern Canada in this regard; bush planes are the best way to get in and out using station air strips. Even in the Dry the time saved not driving in is worthwhile, as we found on the Fitzroy. Choppers are also used to muster cattle and for scenic flights, so collections can be arranged at a price. As with a light plane, it all depends where the chopper is based. In Fitzroy Crossing a Cessna flight covering 100km/25-minutes cost us $500, a chopper was quoted at $900.
Some Kimberley Rivers
With a packraft’s lack of speed, limited payload and fragility when harnessed to a pack and thrown off a waterfall, I imagine your range will be limited unless you can hunt and fish. In my opinion the crux of planning a multi-day packrafting adventure in the Kimberley is to plan for an accessible put-in and take-out, unless you’re going to arrange for an expensive chopper or seaplane. At the very least that means starting or ending within walking distance of the Gibb River Road (GRR) or the Kalumburu Road branching off the GRR to the north coast (or at a pinch the Mitchell Plateau Road where in the high tourist season a passing tourist might pick you up).
Unless you’ve done it all, plan small for your first packrafting trip to the Kimberley as we did. Choose a river that’s easy to get to and get off before it gets to the coast. Once you have a feel for the experience you can then send a press release to all sponsors informing them you’re planning an unsupported 1000-km packrafting epic from Fitzroy to Kalumburu. (Interestingly the Fitzroy, Durack, Ord and Chamberlain rivers all show their sources to be close to the 1000-metere peak of Mt Wells (983m, 3225′) in the southeastern Kimberley.)
Easy Kimberley rivers
Easier rivers in the Kimberley are few and include the Ord river from below the Argyle Lake dam to what they call the Diversion dam on Highway 1, just out of Kununurra. It’s about 60km or a three-day trip. Access at the big dam is easy – a road goes up from town so you can get a lift from one of the self-guiding canoe outfitters in Kununurra. I’ve canoed it once or twice – no waterfalls, no portaging and possibly no freshies too. As you draw into Kununurra at dusk on the last day, thousands of bats take to the wing; it’s quite a site. Here’s a good link showing where the river goes. Problem is, at packraft speeds this part of the Ord would be a bit tame; an IK would be more fun.
Below the Diversion dam close to town you’re in the Ord River Irrigation Scheme where access may be restricted (I say this because if it was OK, they’d be running tourist canoes here too). Then, once you’re get much past Ivanhoe Crossing, a ford over the Ord 10km north of Kununurra, there’s technically a chance of a saltie swimming upriver from Cambridge Gulf, close to Wyndham. I’ve done barra fishing tours down here, and where there are barramundi there may be salties.
The far upper Ord beyond Lake Argyle would be a very remote run. It starts at the turn off on Highway 1 to the Bungles (as packrafting guru Roman Dial describes) and circles right under the NP through the baking desert to feed Lake Argyle, but only during a good Wet. Rocking up at the remote south end of Lake Argyle after a few parched days without a motor boat to meet you (easily arranged) is not so ideal. Not least because access back to Highway 1, 40km to the west along tracks, passes through the Argyle Diamond Mine from whom you’d want permission for sure. So all in all, the wild part of the upper Ord is a long shot in a packraft.
I have to say that since I’ve researched Kimberley rivers for this page, the Lennard River (Google map link) looks less exciting than it did. There are many wilder and probably more scenic rivers, but this 70-km stage from Lennard River Gorge (top red cross on the map and a few kms from the GRR) to the touristy Windjana Gorge NP had easy access at both ends from the Gibb River Road and so is good for starters. All you need is the station’s permission which may be hard coming and not be worth the effort.
The start at the gorge waterfall is pretty impressive (bottom of this page). Last time I explored the gorge in the 1990s we walked along the top cliffs downstream for a couple of miles to a point where we jumped off and swam back up. It was the biggest jump I’ve ever done, probably 50 or 60 feet and the guy with me landed badly and did his knee in. I also recall some kind of a sump (a ‘u-bend’, common in caving) heading back via the very narrow main gorge, and which would be tricky with an inflatable. Downstream from our jump, who knows, but the gorge soon opens out into Napier Downs station land. The station homestead is miles away on the north side of the GRR, and it’s highly doubtful anyone would see you passing, it’s all just Kimberley savannah with clear evidence of cattle, but trespassing is bad form. As you can see from Google Maps, the river won’t flow all the way to Windjana Gorge anyway in the Dry, but you can also see the obvious short cut to take around a big bend.
Windjana Gorge is a national park based around an impressive gorge that’s inhabited by freshies – you’re bound to see them upstream too. Paddling down into the Gorge from the back end would displease the park rangers, so you’d need to be discreet and also be sure you don’t disturb any crocs’ nests if it’s that time of year. Getting permission from the park is a much better way of going about it. From the gorge campsite you could continue down the Lennard another 20km until it reaches the GRR and from there hitch down to Derby for a pie and a pint.
Lennard could be a good little adventure if you can get round the permissions. Otherwise, just take a short paddle from Lennard Gorge up to 8km downstream just before Napier Downs lands, then walk or paddle back. That would be a fun packboating day or overnight that needs no signed affidavits from the Pope.
The Chamberlain River looks like it runs along a fault line or boundary between two rock types, from the watershed near Mount Wells (the source of many east Kimberley rivers) straight NNE to El Questro (ELQ, an upmarket dude station) before going on to join the Pentacost which the GRR soon crosses via a causeway. This often-pictured 4WD crossing with the Cockburn ranges in the background (right) is regarded as the crocodile boundary. Downstream of here there will be salties; a few years ago a couple camped by the Pentacost north of the causeway (a place I’ve checked out myself on occasion) had a croc take a bite out of their tent early one morning. Heed the advice: don’t camp near the water’s edge in saltie areas, even though now I think about it, I’ve done so myself with tours out at Shady Camp on the Mary River in the Territory where the crocs are as thick as log jams.
A good stage might be for little-known Kachana station (horse or plane access only) 90kms down to ELQ or another 20 on to the Gibb. Knowing what I do of the place, somehow I feel ELQ might not go for it and alas the guy at Kachana tells me there are saltwater crocs right up his gorge, which would a worry. Short version: Chamberlain too risky in a packraft.
King Edward River
Soon after the turn-off from Kalumburu Road up the Mitchell Falls track there’s easy access onto the King Edward which runs for a couple of hundred kilometres all the way to Kalumburu, the only settlement on the Kimberley coast; an aboriginal community with restricted access. The only packraft trip I know of in the Kimberley was in 2010 by the self-styled remoteriverman who knew the region well on foot and took out before King Edward Falls (the ‘croc barrier’) to walk east to Theda station back on the Kalumburu Road. He may have got his idea from some guys who in 2007 went all the way to Kalumburu in kayaks and some came back with rafts in 2009.
At 800-odd kilometres, the Fitzroy is the longest river in the Kimberley, reaching the sea at King Sound in Derby, the shire town of the west Kimberley. With a catchment area adding up to a quarter of the Kimberley, after a good set of storms it can become the largest volume river in the country, running at over 30,000 cfs at Fitzroy Crossing.
South of Fitzroy Crossing town on Highway 1 the river braids out onto a baking hot flood plane (a bit like the Ord after the Bungles). Ten miles wide in flood (check out this NASA photo and compare it to Google maps), it would be pretty dull in a packboat and involve travelling past possibly ‘closed’ Aboriginal communities. Upstream from Fitzroy Crossing is much more like it.
In early 2010 the central part of the Fitzroy was run by a rafting and kayaking expedition, some of who’d done the King Edward a year earlier (see above). They flew into Mt Barnett airstrip on the GRR then paddled down the Hann to meet the Fitzroy near Sir John Gorge and on down to Fitzroy Crossing in just over three weeks.
That was an epic achievement by hardcore paddlers looking for (but not finding) big water and actually conducted in a disappointingly dry Wet. Several members have published blogs and photos (see below), giving a vivid idea of what paddling in a Kimberley river in a Wet could be like. Having now been there, I see from the photos and film that the Fitzroy was barely 3 metres higher than levels we found it at the end of the 2011 dry season. Even then, it’s clear they found some thought-provoking white water in the Leopold Ranges – none of which I could recognise.
Once you cut away the bull citing ‘million cfs flows’ and the threat of salties, many reports here and on the King Edward a year earlier talk of being tired after just a 20-km day in a raft, as well as losing 10% of their body weight: that’s what the Wet season climate does to you. As mentioned, they also complained about a lack of rain and the river dropping before their eyes in February – proving the Kimberley Wet is no guarantee of big water, although the following season (2010-11) was the biggest Wet ever. When the river is big and tearing through half-drowned woodland, it might well get too much for a little packraft, but at least you can walk out and you certainly ought not die of thirst. Their pictures also reveal the beautiful Wet season landscapes and galleries of ancient rock art sites few have ever seen.
Mornington Wilderness Camp is a former station turned wildlife sanctuary, about 90kms south of the GRR and close to Sir John Gorge and Dimond Gorge on the upper reaches of the Fitzroy.
You can fly in from Fitzroy Crossing by plane or helicopter, get to the river nearby and follow it south to Fitzroy Crossing. That’s what we did in 2011. Permission to do this is required from Mornington as well as Leopold- and Fossil Downs stations on the way to Fitzroy Crossing which passes through Geicke Gorge National Park where more paddling restrictions must be navigated.
In September 2011 we packrafted the 130 kilometres of the Fitzroy over 6 days from Mornington to Fitzroy Crossing. Pictures above and right.
The Drysdale is another obvious Kimberley river with easy access off the Kalumburu Road or a flight into Drysdale River station. Here’s an account of a guy who canoed down as far as Carson River Station, just after Solea Falls (picture) which can be considered the croc boundary. Like others, he found paddling through the high water among the serrated pandanus palms quite nasty. You’ll need permission to get out via the Carson River station track that runs the 10km between the Drysdale and Carson rivers just east of the station homestead.
Don’t get too excited about the designation of ‘Drysdale River National Park‘ and other similar conservation areas in the Kimberley or WA in general. As a place it’s no more special than anywhere else and is merely a way of excluding pastoral and mining activity or slowing down Aboriginal land claims, while showing that the state has set aside the requisite acreage of pristine bush for conservation. Ring-fenced and with no vehicular access, there are no ranger stations, picnic sites or any visitor facilities whatsoever, though permission from the DEC ought to be a formality once they’re certain you have arrangements to get off the river.
Although it’s only a pdf now, Kimberley Coast (left) by Len Zeil is pretty good.
Dirt Music, fiction by acclaimed WA writer Tim Winton. A great read with a climax in the Kimberley. There’s a CD and there ought to be a film.
Last Horse Standing by Mike Keenan. Epic survival yarn set around the croc-infested Walcott Inlet in the early 70s when an ambitious cleanskin mustering venture goes wrong. He has another book about the Fitzroy River called Wild Horses Don’t Swim which came across as comparatively indulgent and lacking direction, though it proved Fitzroy had been rafted back in the late 90s.
Around that time there were plans to dam the Fitzroy like the Ord to make an intensive irrigation area to match Kununurra. Most hope that’ll not happen and part of the 2010 rafting/kayak expedition mentioned above was given over to highlighting these issues – and it wasn’t necessarily a token ‘seen-to-be-green’ gesture either.
Came across this book on the left while in a Broome bookshop recently: Swimming with Crocodiles, set partly on the Prince Regent river. Have to say quick flick through didn’t convince me it was worth buying. Read some amazon reviews here, including one by the author’s mate featured in the book.
Important note: For a huge and barely occupied country, Australia is pretty locked up and regulated; not least WA where business interests come first. So if you get up there, do the right thing.