Trips on the side
  |  First Published: October 2010

While fishing is my main objective on our canoe expeditions, for others it is an addition to the main event. Other paddlers on the trip are occasional fishers, rather than fanatics like myself, so our expedition leader, Terry McClelland, tries to mix it up a bit and keeps a lookout for interesting side trips as we meander our way down the river.

Over the years we have explored abandoned bridges, fossicked for semi-precious stones, searched for fossils, mines and caves, visited hot springs, old telegraph stations and grave sites and explored side creeks on foot.

Terry is an exceptional navigator; he not only uses his skills to find interesting diversions, but he has been developed a full blow obsession for extreme outdoor competitions. Terry regularly competes in Rogaines and the most extreme of all outdoor endurance sports, XPDs. The skills he has developed from family involvement in the likes of canoe expeditions, canoe polo, camping, trekking and mountain biking have been fine tuned in the competitive area, turning him into a forerunner in these extreme sports. Consequently you just never know what challenge Terry is going to throw at you – thus the reason I start serious training straight after Christmas every year!

This country has a rich post-European settlement history with much of the area explored on foot by miners hungry for the next great gold rush. They were followed by cattle drovers who settled the area and began to build infrastructure for easier access. One such piece of history is a long abandoned wooden bridge that still has some support spans in place, in spite of decades of flooding. They certainly knew how to build things to last in the old days.

Terry studied geology before becoming a maths teacher, thus his interest in all things rock. He scours the map while planning the trip and talks to anyone he can corner who knows the area, gleaning geological and general information that may be of interest during the trip. We have found lots of semi-precious stones and explored intriguing rock formations en-route, thanks to Terry’s research.

The Gulf Savannah is rich with mineral deposits of all kinds, so there is always half an eye out for interesting rock formations exposed along the river bank. The semi-precious stones are mostly in the river gravel but in some places we have traced them right to their source, where they are still imbedded in basalt rock. It is a real lesson in geology to see how these stones form.

There are numerous sites along the rivers where sediment layers from past millenniums are exposed by the floods, and fossils of all shapes and sizes are revealed. The area we paddle is where Dave the Dinosaur was discovered, so it is truly rich in fossils. Keep in mind that it is illegal to remove fossils, but it is truly fascinating to search for them. The kids, along with some of the adults, develop what I call ‘fossil fever’, where they just have to stop and search every likely looking shale bed we paddle past. The array of fossils we have discovered over the years is mind boggling.

With large mineral deposits comes mining, and the area is littered with operating and abandoned mines – all marked on the maps. We spent one morning finding an abandoned mine shaft that was 5km from the river. Terry’s skill at finding a hole just 3m by 3m, without the aid of a GPS I might add, is awe inspiring. It was fascinating to fossick around the site for clues of how the miners lived, and imagine what hardships they had undergone to eke out a living.

There were also plenty of signs of more recent exploration, with numbered drilling holes scattered throughout the area. With the ever increasing price of gold and other precious metals, these areas are being re-prospected by both small and large mining concerns.

Where there is limestone there will be caves, so keeping an eye on the escapements and hills along the river can reveal limestone outcrops popping up. Another morning was spent exploring magnificent caves that Terry and another energetic expedition member, Frazer Bourchier, had found the afternoon before, through checking out a number of likely looking outcrops near our campsite.

If you note the theme, much of what is worth exploring is tied to the geology of the area, and another example is hot springs. It is one thing to drive to a well known hot spring and gaze in wonder and bathe in its waters; but it is an entirely different experience to find this tiny dot on a map, plan the canoe trip so you camp a night near the site, then trek overland and eventually find your own private hot spring.

There is an immense amount of European history along the rivers, as they were the lifeblood of settlement in the early years. We had the pleasure last year of taking with us an ex-resident of the area, Barry Merrit. Baz grew up on a telegraph station, where his father was the telegraph linesman on the banks of one of the rivers in the 1950s; and it was a very nostalgic trip down memory lane for him. We visited many of the playgrounds of his childhood and were treated to an endless commentary of life on the river during his formative years.

A highlight was visiting the abandoned telegraph station and exploring what remained of the homestead he grew up in. Baz even showed us a footprint that he made in the concrete, as a child. He filled us with stories from the pioneering past. Tales of hardship, brutality and survival, which are all part of our history. One fascinating story, complete with a visit to the grave site, was of a young woman speared to death – A stark reminder that we and our forbearers were on land previously inhabited by indigenous tribes.

Every river is fed by numerous tributaries and many of these are worth exploring on foot, as only a few are deep enough to be paddled. The added bonus of small feeder creeks is they are safe from estuarine crocodiles and bull sharks, which inhabit much of the river sections we paddle. This allows the kids, big and small, to swim in safety in the crystal clear water.

One such side creek a few years ago presented us with the best camp-site I have ever had the pleasure of pitching a tent on. It was so good we spent two nights there, swimming in the cascading pools, feeding the resident tortoise and watching in fascination as the local kites and sea eagles patrolled the receding pools, preying on fish and cherabin as the water level fell.

The key to finding such treasures is research. Spend time pouring over maps, researching the history of the area and talking to old timers. The journey down the river will be enriched by the knowledge you have gained and the discoveries you make along the way.

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