Size (fully ‘inflated’) 90cm long x 38cm wide. Circumference 120cm
Features Grab handles at each end; holdall handles; basic backpack harness; small zipped mesh inside pocket; one-way inflation/purge valve
Fabric: Don’t know exactly, a tough, abrasion-proof nylon fabric with a glossy coating on the inside
Cost About £120 in 2011. No longer made
I’ve been using this big holdall for four years now on kayak and packraft trips in France, Australia, Turkey, the US and in the UK, as well as a side bag on my motorbike. As it’s among my favourites it gets an upgrade to its own page. ‘One dry bag to rule them all’ I wrote back then and my UDB still ticks that box. Your typical roll-top dry bags aren’t submersion proof, yet in paddle sports submersion is a likely scenario. Using roll-tops I found myself packing drybags inside dry bags to keep important things like clothes and down bags dry. With the UBD you can just chuck it in and zip it up.
Initially, I tried using the UDB as a backpack (left) but, like trying to do that with any holdall, it’s only a short term solution that puts a huge strain on your shoulders. Plus I found the harness was poorly positioned so the pack sat high on my back, further increasing the centre of gravity, but running the shoulder straps loose (as left) didn’t work either. It became clear the included harness was not intended for anything more than short hauls. What was needed was a frame of some sort, or a better harness. You can read a summary of my experiments here. In the end the NRS Paragon pack harness suited my needs best.
What I like about my UDB is that it’s a simple, rugged and basic big-ass bag with handy handles and a reliably submersion-proof closure. There are no gimmicks unless you count the purge valve. On the water it eliminates any worries about stuff getting wet and of course it’s something to hold on to if your boat get shot out from under you by a dozy spearfisherman.
Watershed still make bags with drysuit zips – see the gallery below or the website. But they’re either huge or just a bit on the small side or are priced for military procurement departments only. I also used Watershed’s 80-litre Westwater (above – more like 70L) for packrafting day trips, but pushed it a bit hard on one cross-country MTB ride which ripped out one of the strap fixtures.
Like their handy 30-litre Chattooga day holdall (right, yellow), the Westwater has their slick watershedding fabric which is tough for sure but less agreeable or grippy when pressed against your back all day. And like the UDB the straps have the legal minimum paddling (though are easily replaced). Both use their chunky giant fold-over zip-lock closure which I’m sure works as well as a drysuit zip. But if it had to be one bag it’s my UDB – ‘One dry bag to rule them all’.
What more is there to say about the Watershed UDB? How about that in 2019 I adapted it with a cheap, chopped-down lightweight, big-wheeled folding trolley (right) from previous packboating trips to carry my packraft to Australia and New Zealand. With zip ties and straps, the trolley frame lashed securely to the rugged UDB’s harness tabs and I could roll it with the top handle. It weighed in at 2.7kg. Interestingly, the rigidity provided by the UDB once fully inflated (as above) helped make it more comfortable to wheel and less of a sack on wheels. But one thing I did notice is that without a full-length telescopic metal frame the set up tends to bob up and down annoyingly as you walk.
The thinking was that once packrafting a river for a few days (I never made it), the UDB trolley would still be more compact than a regular wheeled travel bag, while enabling wheeling along paths and long gravel roads to get to the river. It was all an attempt at not blithely splashing out the huge but pricey Ortlieb Duffle RS 140 (left) which I’d been eyeing up. A few months later I eventually did buy a used RS140 for the Seawave but can still see plenty of years use in the UDB.
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.
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‘.
Roll-top dry bags (right) – even the best ones – aren’t really submersion proof, are they. That’s fine for a SinK with hatches (unless they get flooded), but no so good for an IK, packraft or any open boat on rough water or in crap weather. When I pack for either packrafting or IK I find myself putting roll bags within roll bags to make sure important things stay dry while hoping I don’t flip as I know they’ll not resist a couple of minutes submersion.
A year or two ago I came across Watershed Dry Bags from the US which seal with a big rubber Zip-Lok like seal (see image below) – ZipDry they call it. They’re expensive, but were available in the UK. In an effort to get one dry bag to you-know-what, I’ve got myself a 30-litre Chattooga ‘day bag’ duffel (below left) and by chance, on eBay an ex-demo Watershed Ultimate Ditch Bag turned up at 20% off (still £130). So that’s actually two bags.
The Chattooga is not quite the rich yellow of the brochures, but a bit translucent which actually makes seeing inside easier when the foam and fleece liner is not used. That’s another £18, but it may absorb ‘high point’ knocks to the outer skin as well as protect what’s within, though I’ve never used it as it takes up space. The shell plastic is a hard, slippery polyurethane rather than the soft rubbery vinyl of something like a SealLine Baja bag. It’s all RF welded and very solidly built. With the bag top rolled down as it is with a roll bag (not actually necessary) I’ve found this is submersion-proof. Once in a while a spray of 303 as a moisturiser along the seal grooves helps it seal readily. The bag sits fixed to the mid-floor lashing point in my packraft between my legs for easy on-the-water access, and it fits neatly in the front of my IK and on the back of my bike. I’ve also divined that if things get desperate the Chattooga can work as a paddle float (left). My Chattooga got nicked in 2012 and I’ve since replaced it with another which seems a little thinner and shinier material, but otherwise seals the same. I replaced the Chattooga with an Ortlieb Travel Zip.
The since superseded Mk 1 Ultimate Ditch Bag (UDB; left) was unique to Watershed; a plain, big 96-litre duffel with basic detachable backpack straps, handy grab handles on each end and accessed by a single tough, dry suit-style waterproof zip, rather than the press-together ZipDry closure as with the rest of the ‘civilian’ Watershed range. My experience with dry suits is that amazingly, these zips actually work long after the material delaminates. Ortlieb have lately brought out similar bags in their usual soft fabric, but using what they call a TIZIP which looks like an ordinary YKK wetsuit zip to me and is only rated to the IPx7 standard (explained in the image right). I spent a couple of hours floating about in my Crewsaver drysuit the other weekend and nothing leaked; the UDB would manage the same while keeping the contents dry, and the fabric is much tougher than Ortlieb’s PVC. You could classify a UDB as ‘IPx∞’.
The UDB also has a complex, chunky inflation/purge valve for compression packing once the zip is done up or even to inflate the bag as a buoyancy aid if you’re in really dire straights and your boat loses air. This is reassuring when paddling a relatively flimsy packraft through a school of agitated swordfish or sea porcupines. If the boat goes flat you have a huge buoyancy aid to keep you out of the water and slow down hypothermia. And it can be used empty as an effective float bag inside a hardshell, folder or decked IK hull to limit the bailing required after capsizing or swamping.
Apart from my down sleeping bag which might be too much of a risk, I’m now able to simply pack and access things normally in the yellow Chattooga and the UD Bag and so can downsize my collection of dry bags which were gradually taking over the room. The UDB has proved itself as a functional packrafting backpack for the walking stages – more below, sea kayaking in Australia and remote river packrafting out there too. The good thing is the detachable straps can be modified or replaced with something better, although the UDB lacks any rigidity to carry its weight on a hip belt and as I say below, the shoulder straps’ position is too central. Plus you don’t want to strain those ‘probably-not-for-hiking’ harness fittings and risk tearing them off the bag (although they’re sewn to a patch as left, which is glued to the body, so not much chance of that rupturing the bag – unlike a Gumotex IK bag).
2013: Watershed redesigned the UDB as a smaller, 78-litre duffel now made from their tough, glossy PU-coated fabric, but still with the dry suit zip and purge valve. Or check out their pricier military range of packs, below. IMO while not perfect, harness wise, the original UDB was a better bag. The canvas textured fabric gripped better, didn’t wet out, and the size and shape were just right to slip into a slim kayak or across a packraft’s bow.
Walking with the UDB As a backpack the UDB has been surprisingly good at carrying a load in Scotland for up to 3 days (40 miles). Part of the reason for the tolerable comfort was that the UDB’s relatively rough fabric and frameless ‘coal sack’ form grips right across the entire back like weak velcro and so helps spread the load. The chest strap helps greatly too, though I’ve half a mind to try the chunky, wide clip-on thigh straps from my kayak as shoulder straps to get two uses from one thing. It does lack exterior pockets like a conventional rucsac, but that can be got around by having pockets in your jacket or a using a waist bag.
Having used the UDB again in Utah and overnight in Scotland, I’ve reconcluded that the shoulder straps are located too much towards the centre of the pack which means that the pack sits too high on your back (see walking pic, top right), making you unstable at times. Loosening the straps to make the pack sit lower but isn’t the same thing as it’ll just be loose. Up to a point you could pack heavy stuff low and anyway, it’s clearly not designed as a full-time pack, but I must say that’s how I’ve used it when packrafting. It’s so convenient to just use it as a waterproof/submersible holdall: chuck stuff in, zip it up and get on the water. Occasionally I run beeswax along the zipper; a bar of soap will do the same and smells nicer. I’ve since got myself a packframe (left) but decided an NRS Paragon pack harness was the best solution to portaging. I used the UDB like this in Turkey.
Watershed Westwater Recently I walked and cycled the Coast to Coast with an ’80’-litre Westwater pack featuring a regular ZipDry seal, thin shoulder straps with chest and an added hip strap. (They now claim it to be 65L) The load was only about 12kg but I found myself unstable in the hills as, with no proper hip belt, the weight was hanging high from the shoulders. On the Lakes stage it was very hot and the back was very sweaty, but it carried OK. Once I got on a bike and the weather broke, the pressure on my butt became exceedingly painful (no surprise there).
The pack is handy in that in dry weather you can simply roll the top over and clip it down, not using the ZipDry seal (as above left) and so easy day access. While sealed up in the wet you know the insides will keep dry. Again, I can see the Westwater working well lashed to a Lastenkraxe packframe with the packraft rolled up beneath it, or in a harness like the NRS Paragon or Flex PR. The only drawback is the slippery texture and shortness doesn’t sit so well on the bow of a packraft (left) compared to the UDB.
The story so far. We’d nursed the cheapo Intex Boat Hawk II for three days from Les Vans down the Chassezac river as far as Vallon on the Ardeche, but following a brief reprieve, that boat was now a bundle of plastic stuffed into the campsite bin (right). Former Boathawker Steve was now astride a rental sit-on-top, like 98% of paddlers heading into the Ardeche Gorge.
With the river already packed with day boaters, we joined the melee towards the moderately technical rapid of Charlemagne, near the Pont d’Arc (above). Recce’ing the Ardeche a year ago, we’d sat at Charlemagne rapid watching the boats come through, not all as neatly as the canoe on the left. But at that time (late May) the river had been at least a foot higher. Today, the surfing wave at the exit (above) was much flatter and the 200-metre dog leg channel to get there was pretty easy to follow. Traffic was much higher though and I had to queue up and take my turn to drop in.
As I rode through, in front of me a couple of teenagers in a double rode up onto rocks and slowly flipped over (left), but in the packraft it was easy to steer out of their way and complete the run. First time SoT-er Steve also had no probs.
That done, we pulled over to watch the fun for a while. Most slipped through like us, but the double SoTs were far less agile. There’s no mystery why; put a teenage boy and his eight-year old sister – both new to kayaking – in a 4-5 metre hunk of plastic SoT weighing 30 kilos and they’re bound to cock up any rapid that requires co-ordinating a sharp turn or a bit of elementary river reading. So it was that boats piled into boats (left) and a train of flotsam flowed out of Charlemagne towards the arch: vacant kayaks, loose drums and paddles, kayakers with no paddles, and the odd swimmer. Some very young kids were not seeing the funny side of it, but the crowds applauded their dad’s rock mounting antics and I don’t recall any single SoTs flipping. Remember that next time you do the Ardeche!
Just beyond we passed under the famous arch (left) close to where the Chauvet cave had been discovered in the mid-90s. Full of fabulous prehistoric rock art (right) dating back 30,000 years, it’s exact location is little known and it’s locked up for protection. The cave was the subject of a recent Werner Herzog film and, as has been done elsewhere in France, a replica ‘tourist cave’ is planned nearby.
Up to this point was the regular half-day fun run on the Ardeche. The next 25kms entered a conservation reserve with only limited exits, and to rent his SoT for two days Steve had had to prove he’d booked a place at one of the two overnight camps or bivis in the gorge (see map below). Wild camping is forbidden, although we did spot a few doing so and I imagine you could get away with it if you don’t want to get bogged down in the need to book the bivi in advance. You’re also supposed to be off the river by 6pm. As soon as we left Pont d’Arc paddling traffic dropped off dramatically.
I’d been put off the Ardeche for years by the rather intimidating description in the Massif book, but Charlemagne had been a doddle and levels were low or perhaps just normal and i was a brilliant paddler? I don’t think so. That book had over-egged other rivers and rapids over the years, but it is aimed at Brit families in canoes (not a huge market it must be said, never seen any). While my old Gumotex Sunny would have swamped harmlessly here and there, and also been tricky to turn fast in some rapids, the Alpacka Yak has the effect of reducing the WW grades by a factor of one. You can turn the Yak with one swipe and you’re so low and stable, especially with the UDBag sat over the bow, it’s hard to think how it could ever flip. We wound our way along the meanders, passing the odd knot of kayakers as well as hikers following the gorge on foot, something which includes the odd bit of via ferrata.
The rapids ahead held little dread now and even the notorious Dent Noire mid-river rock (left) passed without incident. I managed to pass to the right, the correct way but which the current makes quite difficult; Steve took it on the left, grabbing a small bite from the Black Tooth on his elbow as he passed. A pair of river rescue firemen are stationed here each day, but with a ‘chicken run’ channel dug out of the shingle bypassing the rock altogether, they’d be having a pretty quiet time as long as the less controllable doubles took that line, as the signs advised.
We arrived at the empty Gard bivi early and took our pick of the pitches. After days packed like sardines in holiday camps, it was a relief to spread out over a sloping field as on a normal farmer’s campsite. There’s nothing here but toilets, water, free charcoal for the BBQ pits and a 2km track up to the road, as well as warnings to keep food sealed against the wild boars. The field filled up towards evening but it was still far from the overcrowding for which the Ardeche is notorious. A weekend here may have been another matter.
Friday was another wonderful day, hitting the frothiest lines we could find (left) and drifting with the breeze under the overhanging limestone walls. Only one rapid flipped Steve’s rigid SoT out of the blue, while the following Yak just hung up on the same rock, pivoted round and slid off.
At times stiff a breeze blew along the gorge, either in our face or our backs, depending on the orientation of the meander. As the walls subsided towards the take-out at Sauze near St Martin (left), that turned into a strong backwind which rushed us downriver. At one point after a break, I swam out with my boat and planned to get in it off the water just to remind myself it was easy, but the little tab I was holding onto broke and the boat was gone like a balloon in a gale. Just as well Steve was downriver to catch it.
At Sauze beach the rental outfits’ vans and trailers line up to retrieve their clients and SoTs. Me, I didn’t want to get off the river, but our original plan to paddle on for a day to Pont Saint Esprit was only possible with our own boats. Steve could have bought another cheapie from a toy shop but it would have meant rushing for tomorrow’s train from Avignon. So it was time to roll up the Yak on this mini adventure and head for out allocated patch in the Camping Municipal.
Our week in the Ardeche was all a bit of a holiday, not the sort of thing we normally do, but a fun run on which it was safe to take a chance with the cheap dinghy. There wasn’t a mark on the Yak but I was shocked how easily and quickly the Hawk had got mashed. Conclusion: you do indeed get what you pay for. With some duct tape we could have kept it going and for the £35 it cost, it was still worth it as a one-trip wonder, compared to the commitment of buying a proper packraft. Combined with the brilliant Watershed bags, the Yak made light work of it all and makes me realise I’d be happy to do the Massif rivers I’ve done in the Sunny all over again with the Alpacka. It would also be fun to do the Ardeche again at higher levels and maybe start from Aubenas to make a meaty 100-km run down to St Esprit.
Getting to the Ardeche We took an infrequent Eurostar non-stop service from London to Avignon – just 6 hours but £260 return each. An Easyjet to Lyon or Ryanair to Nimes may have been cheaper but not quicker and much less fun. From Avignon we backed up to Montelimar by train and from there took the connecting bus service on to Ruoms (one ticket about £15 – 1.5 hours). At Ruoms, just north of Vallon, an empty minibus turned up bang on time and took us on to Les Vans for just €3 (30 mins). Simply getting a TGV train to Montelimar may be a better and cheaper way, but from the UK would probably require changing stations in Paris (40 mins walk) – or maybe just platforms in Lille. Coming back we got a lift from St Martin to Pont St Esprit (no buses – taxi €15 for 9km – 16km by river). And after wandering through the Saturday morning marche (above left), took the bus on to Avignon for just €2.50 (90 mins) for another 6-hour train ride back to London.
Tracking down Pont Saint Esprit timetables online unearthed a sinister history to the town: the Incident at Pont Saint Esprit. A recently published book (right) claimed that in the early 1950s, as part of what later became their MK Ultra mind control program, the CIA drugged the town with LSD with predictably terrifying results. Several people killed themselves in the hallucinogenic torment, many more were locked up in asylums. If it’s true then CIA stunts like that make an exploding cigar sound positively benign!
Packstaff™ Made of the two shaft sections of my Aqua Bound paddle and now with a metal- tipped ‘nib’ riveted to a piece of old Lendal. In the terrain I was tramping over, this is such a great walking aid. No need to expend energy balancing over tussocks and rocks with a pack on your back; take some of the strain off your legs and knees and just lean on the pole like a handrail, use it to probe a boggy patch that could be firm or knee deep; use it to vault over ditches, use it as a monopod to rest a camera on full zoom; use it as a tarp pole, tent peg – you name it, it will do it. Mine happens to be well balanced, just the right thickness to grip securely (warm, too), and because you can easily slide your hand up and down as a sleep slope requires, it’s much more useful than a pair of trekking poles with a moulded cork handle. And when you get to the water it converts into a paddle!
I’m now using it for all our mountain walks around here, and most of the time it’s much more useful than a burden. Of course it’s nothing more than a shoulder-high stick which any self-respecting medieval pilgrim would have used along the way, but mark my words, some time soon a packstaff will be re-invented and become the new must-have trekking accessoire obligé.
Kokatat Swift Dry Pants I’ve been looking for an alternative to my full-on drysuit for less lethal packrafting (as opposed to sea kayaking), and the Swifts look like the lower half of the solution – the top half is yet to be pinned down, but will a regular walking cag will do. I’ve only used them for half a day but I was not sweaty and they did not leak, but then I didn’t wade around up to my waist and was wearing the long SealSkinz over the top like riding boots. XL is my size which fits great, the waist is high and there’s a very handy thigh pocket – always useful on a packboat or open IK with no deck. I deliberately chose dry trousers with no sewn-in socks as my drysuit has those. With the Swifts in future I’ll just wear short Seal Skins and have no worries about the sewn-in socks getting holed by gravel. Time will tell how they wear and perform. They cost me around £100 from i-canoe in Ireland. Since then I glued on latex socks.
SealLine XL Mapcase Never had a mapcase but now I find it very useful on the water for the obvious reasons. Ortlieb does a roll-top; SealLine uses a ziploc which as you can see on the left, works fine. The size means you can have a large map area or other info on view and so don’t need to open it unnecessarily, and there’s a ring in each corner for attachment. Again, time will tell how it wears.
Seal Skin long socks I know, I look a bit of a knob wearing these in shorts. But the fact is these socks genuinely extend your wading ability while keeping your feet dry. The feet may get cold as you step into deep water and ‘feel’ wet, but that’s just foot sweat getting chilled – they soon warm up again. In the tent what to do with wet, muddy socks? Take them off and turn them inside out! No mess. They’re like a pair of ‘Wellington socks’ or mini waders. As I left for Suilven I realised I should have grabbed my knee-high gaiters too, mainly to protect my woolly wellies from the brush. Sure enough, at the end of the trip there were bits of twig knotted into the woolly fabric, which was all roughed up and scuffed. Next time I’ll know; wearing gaiters may reduce the prat-effect too. They cost about £30. Quite a lot for a pair of socks and tbh, I expect them to leak eventually.
Watershed UDB Hats off again to the UDB as a land and water submersible backpacking haul sack. No complaints, although I was only carrying 10-12 kilos. It just sits on your back like a coal sack and best of all you know it won’t take in any water and can act as a back-up buoyancy aid. More UDB here.
When I got back from this trip I was all set to give up on my Black Diamond Lighthouse (now called a HiLight) – a single-skinned tent using ‘Epic‘ ‘breathable’ fabric – I bet that’s now gone the way of Ventile from the 1970s. Reviews of the BD-L here – the lower rated ones reflect my feelings. It worked OK last year over two rainy nights, but as so often happens with Epic tents, it has its off nights which can mean a miserable experience: what you might put down to condensation (which is easily managed) is actually rain dripping off the top cross poles. If I’m to be doing more packboat touring in Scotland I’m going to need a waterproof tent. Using Todd Tex fabric, the famous Bibler Ahwahnee is exactly the same design as mine, but at double the price and double the weight (so what’s the point you wonder?). But it is actually waterproof. I spent hours on the you-know-what researching possible alternatives. Although outside the stuff can go under the upturned raft, I do miss a porch as well as external clip- or sleeve poleage for easier pitching without opening the tent in a downpour. I considered a 1.1kg Tarptent Cloudburst 2, or a Macpac Macrolight. Luckily I didn’t get as far as Terra Nova or Hilleberg websites before I figured there’s nothing that wrong with my tent that a splash of Fabsil proofing over the vulnerable flat-to-the-rain roof section might not cure. Plus the fact that back at the house, while it was drying, pegged out in the garden, a gust of wind picked it up, blew it over our house, over the road, over the store and into the field behind before it caught on a wire fence. It survived all that without a scratch as far as I can see, so I’ll give it another chance. The steep sides can’t let rain in anyway, and it really is such a light and compact shelter that’s roomy for one and OK for two, it dries in a shake, stands without pegs (I never use guys), and has a nice big door. If the Fabsil doesn’t do the trick or makes the condensation much worse, I may have to give up on the BD for packboating in Scotland and go double-skin. I do like the idea of a tent that pitches fly first and can be used just fly, or just inner. There must be tents like that. Or maybe I should get a Nemo Morpho airtent to go with my airboats… More on tents here.