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WALSH RIVER EPIC
  |  First Published: September 2006



After a number of one day canoe fishing trips with the kids over the last couple of years we decided to spread our wings a little and take on an extended tour down one of the many large rivers in the far north. What started out as a seven day paddle down the Mitchell River was changed at the last minute to a five day trip down the Walsh River. Due to a late wet, road access to the Mitchell was closed.

Our group consisted of three father/son combinations and one father/daughter pairing. The kids’ ages ranged from 9-17. We probably should have cancelled the Walsh trip as well, but after three months of planning we were all a little too keen to go. The river was running fresh on departure and rose nearly 2m on the first day. It looked like we would have to walk out, as it was too dangerous to continue. The walk out would involve dragging a canoe 3km upstream and ferrying the eight participants across the river at a safe spot, then walking 20km back to Dimbulah. Not something to look forward to, especially as we would then have to return in the very near future and spend three days retrieving all the gear. We decided to lie over for a day to see if the river would subside. All the adults had a very restless night, getting up to check the river on numerous occasions.

We had hired a satellite phone, and taken along two small EPIRBS for safety, but when we rang on the first night to tell family of our change of plan the phone dropped out when the battery went flat. This left us on edge for the remainder of the trip, not knowing if there would be enough power left to make an emergency call if needed.

We experienced the full gambit of emotions in that five days, from fear to anxiety, trepidation to triumph and even managed a bit of relaxation and enjoyment in the last two days when the river dropped enough to get on top of the conditions, physically and psychologically.

The trees were the big danger. We spent more time canoeing in amongst the trees than we did in the main river, which would have been far too dangerous. The current was much slower in the trees so when we did trip out it wasn’t so bad, though there were still plenty of scary moments. We had three Canadians and two kayaks carrying the party of eight. Tony and Jack Marnane were our saviours as their kayaks were much more mobile, which allowed them to scout ahead for the best (safest) route. Everyone but Jack ended up in the river at some stage, with some of the rescue operations taking up to half an hour by the time we retrieved barrels, paddles, kids and canoes.

Late on day two, after spending the day filling in time fishing and exploring around the base camp, Terry got in the back of his canoe and practiced with Baedyn, Marcus and Tenal (the three youngest) breaking out from the side eddies into the main current then breaking back into the calmer water along the tree line. This skill is vital for successfully negotiating fast running water. At the end of the session everyone felt more confident about being able to handle the conditions that lay ahead.

Daylight on day three broke to find the four fathers surveying the river. The decision was made to continue, as the river was down about a metre and still falling. I left camp that morning with my heart in my mouth and very nervous about our chances of getting to Chillagoe alive. Day one had seen my son Marcus and me in the river three times and my confidence was shattered. Even our expedition leader Terry McClelland and his son Baedyn had finished up in the river on the first day, along with everyone else except Jack.

In spite of the trying water conditions, day three was far less eventful, with our skill levels vastly improved from day one. One long dangerous set of rapids was too risky for the less experienced, and too long and difficult to portage around so, Terry, Tony, Jack and Frazer Bourchier paddled the canoes through while I walked Marcus and Tenal down the river. Baedyn was the only kid to take on the wild water in a canoe, with his dad, Terry, who is a qualified canoe instructor. Marcus complained all the way along the walk about me taking the chicken route. Tenal didn’t say much but I’m sure she was more than happy to walk it.

With a difficult but successful day under our belts our confidence was up and with the river continuing to subside the group settled into the routine on the river and relaxed enough to start enjoying the adventure. We camped on a high bank that night and Tony soon discovered a clear running side creek only a couple of hundred metres away, over the ridge. It was the perfect opportunity to flick a lure and fill the water containers with clear water. The main river was running mud, which was useless for luring and terrible to drink. The group still managed to catch fish every day however, using the old river technique of hook, sinker and a slice of salami. Black bream and catfish just love salami!

A dusk luring session in the pristine side creek resulted in multiple strikes nearly every cast, but the 7.5cm SWIK soft plastic was too big for the miniature assailants. One nice sooty however, hit hard and put up a sterling fight before coming to the bank. We spent that night overlooking the large waterhole, talking for ages under an almost full moon, and I really started to appreciate the beauty of this rugged stretch of absolute wilderness. In the five days on the river we didn’t see anyone else.

Day four was the best day on the river, with just the right combination of challenge, excitement, achievement and relaxation. We covered 22km that day, which put us within striking distance of our get out point at midday the next day. The camp, known as Fisherman’s Waterhole, is accessible by 4WD during dry weather but the late wet insured we had the place to ourselves, in spite of it being the Thursday before the Easter long weekend, when most accessible campsites across the north start to fill.

Opposite the campsite and a short walk inland is a hot spring, originally discovered by explorer James Venture Mulligan over a hundred years before. We enjoyed a swim, a chat and reflected on the history of the place with the kids.

We made a final call on the satellite phone that night to confirm our pick up time before it went totally dead. We’ll take a spare battery next time!

The last day was an enjoyable paddle with more long but still fast flowing waterholes and less time spent in the trees. The only challenge was finding the get out point, as it was in a section of the river where it breaks up into numerous channels and we had to be in the one furtherest left. The importance of not missing the get out was brought home when Terry and Tony called a halt and decided to walk downstream until they found the get out point. Missing it would mean a very hard portage of gear and canoes upstream, as there was no track running along the riverbank.

The rest of us waited in the shade and by the time they returned we had cooled down and our concentration had waned. As we set out on the final leg Marcus said, “I just want to get out of here”. I warned him about maintaining focus and giving it 100 percent right to the end. Unfortunately, only 100m from home, when negotiating a tight turn to change channels, we ended up side on to some trees and in the fast running water – again. It turned out to be one of the most difficult rescue operations of the whole trip with the canoe wedged underwater across two trees and being held there by the racing current. It took four of us some time and a great deal of effort to get the canoe out and finally make it to the finish line. Marcus now has a keen understanding of the consequence of finishing a race before you cross the line.

FACT SHEET

The best public access to the Walsh River is at the Emu Creek Bridge on the Dimbulah to Chillagoe road about 20km west of Dimbulah. There are no automatic river height stations operating on this section of the Walsh so the best gauges of suitable river height are:

If you can paddle down Emu Creek to the Walsh it is high enough. If you have to drag/walk the canoe it is too low.

Emu Creek Holiday Station (ph 07 4094 8313) is another good jump off point and a great place to leave the less adventurous to lap up luxury while you slog it out in the wild.

Wrotham Park Crossing (also called Munganna Crossing) about 25km west of Chillagoe needs to be a maximum of 30cm under, with the ideal river height being when you can paddle under the crossing. When we did the trip the crossing was 1-2m underwater – way too dangerous!

When the river is the ideal height it is best to paddle through to Wrotham Park Crossing as there is easy road access. It does however add at least one day’s paddling and a major portage 3km from the crossing.

There are plenty of other places to get in and out of the Walsh but they are on private property and require permission for access, which can be difficult to obtain. Joining recognised clubs such as the Tinaroo Canoe Club, who have access, is another way to get in through private property.

A dusk casting session in a pristine side creek yielded one good sooty in a torrid session of multiple hits every cast.

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