Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wellington to Dubbo on the Macquarie River

Waiting for the water

The advice is to do the trip in January or February when the water releases from the Burrendong Dam ensure there is enough water flow to do the trip.  However, a few months before departure there was no water in the dam to release, a symptom of nearly five years of drought in the Macquarie River catchment.  It looked possible that we would be dragging our canoes most of the distance down the river.

However in early December that changed, with rains causing the river to rise over 10 metres in days and the Burrendong Dam filling to 160% of its normal capacity.   The bridge was closed, as was the road between Dubbo and Wellington.  Compulsory dam releases were keeping the water at flood levels well into January, and our canoe dragging trip was thrown into doubt for the sheer volume of water that was continuing down the river.

However, by the time of departure the dam was still full but releases had dropped, leaving the water level at Wellington a perfect 2.8 metres.  High enough to traverse the whole river by canoe, but low enough to avoid becoming one of the media stories about naive city guys who ventured onto a flooded river to come a cropper.

Getting organised

Launching Point at the Bridge Motel
Hiring a canoe in Sydney or Dubbo isn't as easy as it sounds, the popular hire places like Anaconda only hire kayaks.  We found that Australis Canoes in Bellambi hires them, around an hour south of Sydney.

The Bridge Motel at Wellington was the base for the expedition.  They have good access to the river, with a long sloping grassy bank and an easy launching and loading point for the canoes.   They were even kind enough to allow us to store the canoes in their shed, and to leave cars there for the duration of the expedition.

Packing the canoes at Wellington

The canoes had a capacity of 285 kilograms, a total of 1.5 tonnes over the 5 canoes.  Surely enough for ten MEN and their necessaries, surviving in the wild.  Four eskies of food, a few eskies of beer, a wok, barbecue plate, casserole dishes, firewood, axe, knives, four stoves, tents, water, clothes, sunscreen, moisturiser, air-mattresses, Martini glasses, 5 cup espresso pot.  Our canoes must have been under-spec as they were clearly incapable of holding what we needed for two nights away from civilisation.  However, taking them back now was not an option, so we had to send the ute on ahead to Ponto to hold the essential supplies. 

Setting off

The Capt'n gave us our briefing - the boats were very stable, the water was up, and the weather was warm.  We were in for a favourable day's paddle.  The Macquarie flows wide not fast.

So, what could possibly go wrong?

All loaded up a ready to go, the gently flowing river invited us in for a paddle.  It pushed us along, offered us a drink, a chat, and then 900 metres from our starting point it decided to get to know us just a little bit better.
Our preparation checklist ensured that all the beer was in the esky, and the esky was in the canoe, but unfortunately didn't go as far as ensuring any of the equipment was tied to the canoe.  Three of the canoes hit the snags of the 900m rapid, and the river quickly became a stream of life jackets, paddles, beer cans, esky lids, tents, and clothing.  Phones were waterlogged and lost.
The rescue

Quick response from the ballast in swimming out in the river to rescue the beer saw him stuck on some snags with the river flowing over and gave us an opportunity to put our rescue procedures that we had rehearsed into action.  We quickly produced the rescue line and threw it out several times - each time landing well behind and short, leaving the ballast to go with the current, before eventually making his own way in.

Up on the bank we took inventory.  A couple of phones, a paddle, some clothes, a tent, shoes, life-jackets, and much beer missing.  We quickly reassessed.  This wasn't MAN and river, it was MAN v river, and the river had clearly gained the upper hand, and it would require all our determination to get back on track.  We dried our tears, and started to dry everything else.  We were back on the river.

Wellington to Ponto Fall

On the next segment of the river we started to reclaim some of our equipment that had been snagged in the slower moving water.  We found the paddle, the lifejackets, and the tent.  Things were starting to look up.
Drying out from the effects of the Grade 2 (Ripple)

We were navigating by the GPS, programmed in advance with the river course and the waypoints. This segment of the journey was 22.9km.

However, the GPS didn't note the grade 2 (ripple) that caused the next overbalance, but this time we at least had the the gear secured.

Looking at the river from Google Earth, you could easily think that this is a journey through farmland and open plains.  When you are on the river, however, you can't see the surrounding farmland over the eroded banks.  This river can take 10 metre water heights, so when the water is around 2 metres it isn't unusual to see 5 meter high eroded banks which are impossible to see over.  All you see are the trees, the bird life, and the river.

Heading into the next piece of faster flowing water the confidence was building, and we were ready to film the progress through the rapid.  However the river would not be mocked in this way, and set us up for the next knockdown, which saw the Capt'n having his first taste of the sweet waters of the Macquarie.  The river also thought that navigating by GPS was not to give us a sufficient challenge.  It swept away the GPS like a river pebble, never to emerge. 

We made it to Ponto just after lunch.  Humbled, we again tallied our losses, but undefeated we decided to press on to Scabbing Flat for the night.

Ponto to Scabbing Flat

Scabbing Flat is the site of the only bridge across the river in the area we were paddling.  A 1911 iron and wood structure on a dirt road linking the areas of Geurie and Ponto. A serious bridge linking two now nearly non-existant towns. Having the bridge at this point was convenient because with no GPS we would have no other real way of locating the site.  Scabbing Flat isn't an official camping spot on the canoe trail, but it is crown land, and there plenty of space to camp there if you wished to.

Being only seven kilometres from Ponto to Scabbing Flat, it looked like an excellent challenge to get a little further on the first day.

The speed of travel along the river is very variable.  Before the GPS found a new home at the bottom of the Macquarie River it reported our minimum speed at 4km/h, our maximum at 13km/h and our average around 7km/h. The river narrows, quickens, and forms small rapid sections before opening into large open ponds.  Headwinds are also a factor that effects speed and effort dramatically.  This section of the river was a dream run.  Within 40 minutes we had cover the seven kilometre distance, and had the real prospect that we could make it to Bril Bral Fall (recommended as the second day's journey) by sunset on the first.

After a consensus making discussion under the bridge, we paddled on.

Scabbing Flat to Bril Bral Fall

How does this paper thing work?

We knew that we had covered roughly a third of the distance from Ponto Fall to Bril Bral Fall in a little under 40 minutes.  However, we really had no idea of the distance or location for the next part of the trip.  Someone did bring along some black and white print outs from the Department of Lands Website, which we set at deciphering.  The river bends, the map has bends and then you get there.

Our arrival at Bril Bral certainly felt like the end of a serious day's paddle.  Around 40km on the day.

The campsite at Bril Bral Fall

Camping at Bril Bral

The effort put into making Bril Bral clearly paid off as soon as we saw the site.  Set on flat grassy ground by the site of the bend in the river just upstream of Bril Bral fall, it is hard to imagine a more suitable camping site.  Unoccupied and free of charge.

We soon had tents set up, fire started, and were chopping vegies into the wok. A full moon rose over the camp site soon after dark.

We believed Bruce intended to keep us entertained with strains of James Taylor, however ironically he provided more entertainment by just throwing the guitar on the fire.  No reflection on his singing, at all.

Bril Bral Fall to Butlers Fall (Butlers or Bust)
The river has brand new sections

Starting out from Bril Bral Fall, the G/A team set out to better the previous day record, and succeeded. By an act of supreme coordination they navigated to the one small snag in the centre of the Bril Bral rapid, ending up in the drink within 400 metres of the starting point, a vast improvement over the 900 metres it took the previous day.

A couple of breaks made the longest segment of the trip - 25km - pass without undue stress.

There were two points on the river which we couldn't pass, both where the river had cut new sections during the recent floods, with these sections having trees and bushes still growing in the middle of them.  In both cases the bypasses were easy, with the old river beds providing smooth pebbles to slide the canoes across.

The final night

After making Butlers Fall on the outskirts of Dubbo, we returned to Bril Bral to stay the night.  Bril Bral is a much more pleasant camping spot, and Butlers is far more popular and closer to the road. In any event, the canoes needed to be loaded back onto the cars, which gave us the freedom to choose where we wanted to sleep, and the obvious choice was Bril Bral.

The heat of the night was tough.  The river that had given so much and taken so much, kept the beer cold, and provided a refreshing swim.

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