Kayak and paddle
Rock gardening
Sea kayaking off Rottnest Island
Sunset on the beach
Ningaloo, August 2020
Kayak and paddle
Rock gardening
Les in Surf Zone
Sunset on the beach
Ningaloo, August 2020

An Alternative to Sea Kayaking 3

An Alternative to Sea Kayaking 3
Story and photographs by
Martin Burgoyne

With Thailand a distant memory, and only a few white water trips on the Collie to keep a hand in, the festive season was upon us. It looked like the end of white water paddling for another season.

But then the email came around: Flood warning on the Murchison!  The river was rising, and should be a ‘goer’ in around a week – so be ready to go at short notice!  Having missed out last year I didn’t want to miss out this time, there’s no knowing when it would be paddlable again. Those in the know pointed us to BOM’s Emu Springs river monitoring station, and the graphical display of the river’s state. Those with experience said we wanted a level of 1 – 2 metres, with the river falling. That way the trees, dead kangaroos, cows and other flood debris would be long gone!  It seems that at Moderate and Major flood levels, equal to 6 – 8 metres on the gauging station, the river while BIG is generally washed out and less technical. So while providing a good fast rollercoaster ride there isn’t much to ‘play’ on. With Emu Springs consulted daily it was clear that the river peaked on Boxing Day at just over 6 metres. The printout of the graph was then used to extend the falling line to try and judge when the river would be at its optimum 1 – 2 metre level.  We decided this would be just after New Year.  The call went out, and on New Year’s day ten kayakers headed for Kalbarri.  Our aim was to paddle the gorge the following two days, and then return home.

We met up at Ross Graham Lookout early the following morning and organized the long car shuttle to the half way point at Z Bend.  We had ten in the group, five river runners in ‘creek’ boats, and five play boaters.  Our river runners group was all Murchison virgins.  The play boaters had all done the river several times before and were eager for action. They set off while the car shuttle was being completed, with plans for us all to meet at the first big play wave.

The river is quite wide at the Ross Graham put in, and in places we were paddling through the tops of trees, with our paddles snagging on submerged trees, definitely not a place to go for a swim.  The water was a deep red brown color due to the amount of silt it was carrying.  This makes reading the ‘white’ water much more difficult, as the changes in color one expects with normal river water is lost in the more uniform red foam.

Serpent’s Tail surf waves.

Never knowing what was around the bend we paddled with caution.  The term ‘dinosaur paddler’ comes into play on rivers like this.  You see a horizon line in front of you, obviously a drop, and so paddle slowly towards it extending your neck as much as you can to try and see what’s over the edge.  If you can’t see or don’t like what you see then it’s a quick sprint for the bank.  A true dinosaur paddler – ‘long neck and no brain’ just extends their neck and paddles straight over the lip!  Having paddled a few drops on sight and liking what we saw, we eventually caught up with the play boaters.  They were on the left bank inspecting a long wave train rapid – Serpents Tail, or more to the point, inspecting the potential of the big play waves in the middle, and the consequences of a swim if you got it wrong.  It all looked good and so we spent some time surfing the waves and running the big wave train down the middle.  As we river runners became bored we decided to leave the play boaters and headed off down. We were now on our own as none of us had paddled this river before.  We knew the take out was at Z bend on river left, and that there were a few rapids we might want to inspect on the way. But that was all the knowledge we had, so some critical decisions would be needed.  We ran quite a few big drops on sight, without the need to stop and inspect.  Our confidence was growing.  We came round one corner and there was a river wide horizon line, I paddled closer and closer, neck extended but still couldn’t see the bottom, or any spray or wave peaks that would indicate the features. So a quick signal to exit river left, and we all PLF’d to the bank for a closer Iook.

Everything funneled into a narrow shoot down the middle, with some big exploding waves at the bottom followed by a shallow gorge below.  The shoot was OK but the waves looked menacing, and the shallow gorge below had sheer rock walls that were sure to be undercut, so not the place for a swim.  Yvonne decided to walk.  Jason our kiwi extreme boater went first and made it look easy.  I followed and being conscious of the exploding waves at the bottom of the shoot went too far right and punched through into a micro eddy.  But there was no way I was going to break back into the main flow through the exploding waves, so I decided to exit and put back in at the eddy below.  But it gave me the chance to video Rob’s run.  He made it through the exploding waves only to be knocked over below, after a couple of attempts to roll he was swimming!  Fortunately he stayed down the middle avoiding the undercut walls of the shallow gorge.  Yvonne and Jason fished him out, and it was now my turn to get back into the main flow and join them below.  Getting into my boat in the surging eddy suggested that exiting would be far more difficult than the entry. Thankfully I managed to punch through the eddy line on the third attempt and ran the main flow to the rest of the team waiting below. This had been Sharks Tooth Rapid.

Shark’s Tooth rapid.

Together again we continued down the river, and through some of the classic sandstone gorges that the Murchison is famous for.   There were plenty of rapids to keep us entertained, but none of them had us sprinting to the bank for a closer look.  Glenn who had recently paddled some big volume water in Nepal only a few months before, was full of confidence and really enjoying the river and being out in front.

As the gorge narrowed and the walls closed in, another horizon line appeared.  Hmmm nothing was visible immediately below and there were no tell-tail signs of wave spikes to indicate a wave train.  It seemed to suggest a steep drop.  So I started to head for the bank for a look.  However Glenn didn’t follow me but kept paddling towards the horizon.  Over he went and disappeared.  It seemed an age before I caught a glimpse of him way over on the left, paddling hard.  He was OK but must have had an encounter with a stopper which had held him up.  Jason followed slightly more to the right of centre, and over the horizon he went.  I could just see the top of his helmet which momentarily stopped, and then he was his away.  I turned to Rob and Yvonne and yelled that there must be a stopper below the horizon and they needed to paddle hard.  Over I went and sure enough there was a big river wide stopper, but following Jason’s line I managed to find the break in the stopper and punched through easily.  As I turned to watch the others I was knocked over by a big breaking wave.  Thankfully I rolled up, only to be knocked over again.  But my roll was working, and I was up again and making for the slack water below where Glenn and Jason where waiting.  Rob and a wide eyed Yvonne joined us.  We exchanged stories, and agreed that perhaps we should have looked at it!  It turned out that this was Z bend rapid, and the playboat boys, who knew the river, had all got out above, and looked at it from the bank.  They decided that a walk was the safest route down.

Being on a high from our success we continued down river and turned the corner into the next gorge.  There was a whistle blast from Rob and Yvonne who were at the back, and as I tuned to see what the problem was I could see the Z bend look out high above the river behind them.  Bugger – we had gone too far, and unfortunately we had run one more rapid which meant we couldn’t paddle back.  Rob and Yvonne managed to get to the bank, while the three of us scoured the sheer sandstone walls for a possible get out.  There was one small ledge which we decided was the only option.  We got our boats onto the small ledge and then had a grade 11 rock climb up to the main half way ledge of the gorge.  Fortunately the rock was dry and once on the ledge I lowered my throw rope to bring up Glenn.  Jason stayed at the bottom and tied the kayaks on, while Glenn and I hauled them up to the safety of our ledge.

We left the kayaks on the ledge, climbed the easy gully and made our way back to the others.  We could see the playboat boys on the bank further up the gorge directly below the Z bend look out.  I tried to make a mental picture of the spot for next time, though I think Z bend rapid will be enough of a signal for future trips.  It was a steep and sweaty trek back to the cars, enough to make us decide a hotel bed a shower and a good meal was what we needed, rather than more mozzie infested camping.

Day two and we were back at the Z bend look out, but this time it was a shorter car shuttle to Natures Window, so we had a shorter wait for the drivers.  Another trek down into the gorge and after some more nifty rope work we had our kayaks back on the small ledge that we escaped to the day before. With everyone on the water we were ready to roll.   This time we paddled as a group. After the excitement of the first day we were getting used to the volume of the water and its chocolate brown color.  We ran everything on sight until another tell-tale horizon line grabbed our attention. The playboat boys said it was Killer Fang Falls.  A quick bank inspection showed us the line between the fangs, with some nasty consequences if you went too far right at the bottom.  But we all made it down safely.  More tight gorges, a pleasant lunch stop, but no major rapids to slow progress.  There were a few play waves that provided entertainment, and one excellent wave train that provide some steep surf waves with friendly eddies to enable you to paddle back upstream and try them again. The playboat boys were in heaven!

Killer Fang Falls.

Mindful that we still had the notorious walk out to Natures Window and the car park, with heavy creek boats on our shoulders, our select team pressed on.  The gorge started to open out and high up on river left we could eventually see Natures Window.  Hmm – this was going to hurt!   First we had calf deep mud, then a couple of centimetres of greasy oozing mud, and then the steep ledged rock slope up to the window.  Time for congratulations and a photo call.  By the time we were ready for the one, or was it a two kilometre walk to the car park, the playboat boys had joined us.  Being young and fit and with play boats weighing around 10 kilos less than ours they disappeared up the track.  The final carry up the steps to the car park was too much; I dropped the boat a sat on it gasping.  But a passing tourist took pity grabbed the end of my boat and helped me to the top.  Job done![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]

Watch out for trees.

Kayak hauling.

The Creek Boaters.

 The Gorge.

No-name rapid.

Looking back to Z Bend.

Get out of that!

Lunch stop, day 2.

Surfer’s heaven.

Martin on the last surf wave.

So just the long drive back to Perth to look forward to, and plenty of time to develop the tales of ‘daring do or die’!  The river was a great paddle and I certainly want to do it again, if only I can put out of my mind the heat, the mozzies and that nightmare climb out at the end! Not sure I would have managed it had the sun been in a cloud free sky!
For a short video of the adventure check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s-j_K3iKGE