Big River Expedition (Upper Mitta Mitta River)

Paddling the Headwaters of the Mitta Mitta River.

By David Matters 2005

 

Rowen’s finger slowly traced a faint blue line on the map. As he looked up at me, I knew the seed of a paddling trip had been planted.

A year later I drove into Mount Beauty as the surrounding hills of the Victorian Alps were lit sporadically by a violent storm in the night sky.

I was on my way to meet Rowen Privett, who for the past year had been studying the possibility of paddling the upper Big River, the headwaters of the Mitta Mitta River. The Big River is fed by snow melt from the summit of Mount Nelse at Falls Creek, and gradually gains more volume from the melt off the southern side of Victoria’s highest mountain, Mount Bogong.

We planned to begin paddling only five kilometres from the river’s source. With such a small catchment above our starting point we needed to stack a few odds in our favour, so aimed to catch the increased flow created by the melt in early spring.

If successful, the trip would cover thirty three kilometres in total. We divided the trip into two stages. The first would be a twelve kilometre hike in with boats on golf carts, and enough gear for four days of possible snow camping. As the track is supposedly 4wd all the way, we opted for the good old golf cart’s instead of the more arduous task of physically lugging them. In total our gear weighed around fifty kilograms each. The walk would pass over six hundred vertical metres from Clover Dam to Timms Spur track, where we would get our first glimpse of the river. The second stage was to kayak the seven hundred vertical metres down to the Mitta Mitta Bridge, eventually finishing at the Omeo highway twenty one kilometres away. At this point the Big River becomes the Mitta Mitta River proper and is commonly paddled and rafted.

To help the trip run smoothly Rowen invited two mates to help with the shuttling of cars and gear. Not only did Geoff and Lawrie agree to help with the lengthy shuttle, they also wanted to join us for the walk and take our empty carts out the next day. Their help proved indispensable and was much appreciated by Rowen and my self.

 

In the morning the rain slowed to a drizzle, and a lazy cloud shrouded the foot-hills. Despite the ferocity of the storm that lashed at everything overnight, the weather looked promising for the walk. After a final gear check we piled into the bright yellow ‘Bongo’ troop carrier.

After a year of dreaming and planning Rowen and I sat quietly contemplating the absurd choice that we’d made. Instead of staying in bed on this icy cold morning, we had chosen to go paddling on some of the most remote water in the state. The fact no one had ever completed this journey gave the trip an unknown factor that both excited and sickened me.

After twenty minutes Jeff pulled the car to the side of the road at the Clover Dam gate. “So this is where it all starts.” I thought to my self as we flung back the doors and began to unload the gear. After strapping our boats to our carts it wasn’t long before I was realising this was going to be a very long day. After only five minutes of hauling, my hands burned from the weight  transferred through the grab loop at the end of my kayak. This left me wishing we had more time to practice our hauling technique and to test the gear.

Lawrie had brought a GPS and we had already started talking about walking speed and distances, even though we hadn’t even been walking for half an hour yet.  Although we were enjoying the struggle, we knew that this literally wouldn’t be just another walk in the park.  We stopped frequently to swap hands, or pause and look down at the vanishing valley below. Most of the time I kept my eyes focused only a few metres ahead on the track, as I found looking at the road too daunting.

The track was a steep push that gradually zig-zagged it’s way up the hill. Due to the previous nights rain, occasionally it resembled more of a river as little creeks burst their banks & ran freely down the tyre ruts, forcing us to walk in ankle deep water.The tiny wheels of the carts move uneasily over the ground, making it very tiring.

When the boats were tied on well they generally sat balanced and didn’t cause too much stress on our bodies. I had only brought one tie down strap that made fastening my boat to a 1960’s golf cart quite tricky. The cord I ended up using kept sliding on the smooth plastic surface of the kayak, working itself loose as the cart bounced over the rough ground. This eventually resulted in the boat listing side ways and then the inevitable thud, as the cart would over balance and topple sideways to the ground. To help solve this problem Lawrie, an engineer, and Geoff, a builder, devised a  cradle out of logs and bark that proved an inspiring piece of bush engineering.

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After five hours hauling up hill, and three river crossings we were finally able to see far off peaks and land marks such as Quartz Ridge, crowned with a layer of snow. We had climbed to eight hundred metres and I could feel my energy fading. Rowen, on the other hand, doggedly pushed on and I envied the fitness and stamina that displayed, despite the fact that he had torn his knee cartilage a few days before and was notably limping. My tiredness was a strange thing, I felt like I could only walk ten paces before having to rest and swap hands. I’m sure I was dehydrated, but at the time I  felt completely drained. Earlier in the day my water bottle had burst inside my kayak leaving me without water. Lawrie kindly offered me his water bottle and a hand to help steady and pull the cart. Rowen and I had refused as they were carrying their own supplies in packs, but towards the end it seemed stupid to refuse their generous offer. With the extra help and water, my lethargy faded.

As we approached the helipad at eleven hundred metres I had a feeling for the first time we could actually pull this little stunt off!

The flat ground of the helipad was covered in a thin layer of snow, and with our kayaks on golf carts, the contrast was quite surreal. Rowen commented that he’d love to see the pilot’s face as they tried to figure out what had made the tracks which criss-crossed  the snowy ground. The sun rested on the horizon, leaving us enough time for a couple of photos and a quick glance at the view we had earned. Rowen always the prankster had a preconceived idea of the photo he wanted, and had brought up a golf club for the shot as a link to the carts we used. With the light now fading, we decided to tow the boats on the snow the last half a kilometre down to camp. That night we spent snow camping on the banks of the Big, and fell asleep to the low hiss of the Big as it drained the snowy peaks of the surrounding mountains.

In the morning I woke early, excited by the next leg of our journey. The others were still asleep which gave me time to have the river to myself. As my eyes followed the fast flowing water, I sat there thinking soon I will be travelling on the same current, around the bend and out of sight.

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We were all moving gingerly after the walk the day before. Rowen and I packed our gear and loaded the boats, occasionally glancing over our shoulders at the river beside us. With our gear stowed safely away inside our boats in dry bags, we made our way to the waters edge. The moment of truth was only minutes away so Geoff and Lawrie gave us hand shakes and reassuring words. They seemed very excited too. I think if they had found a bottle of champagne, they probably would have smashed it over our bows. It felt strange to have somebody geeing me up just before we were about to plunge into the unknown. I felt like a boxer in his corner, being encouraged by his coach before a heavy weight bout. We had no idea what lay ahead, save the knowledge that the nature of a steep creek is potential log jams and big rapids with few eddies to safely park our foolhardy boats . After some last minute adjustments Geoff gave Rowen a shove and I watched as his boat speed away. Within seconds I too had pushed into the river and could see Rowen ten metres ahead. The speed we were moving felt fantastic in comparison to the previous days walk. The river was only about three metres wide, and the banks were densely covered with alpine shrubs that grew in an arch over our heads.

We had only gone two hundred metres when we came to a small branch that grew out into the current. Rowen was about ten metres ahead of me and had to struggle a little to manoevre his way past. As there was no eddies, I was back paddling desperately trying to hold my ground to avoid crashing down on him. The entire width of the river was full of current and it was a fruitless task. Rowen made it through the strainer unscathed, but I drifted too close to the over hanging shrubs on the banks.  Leaning down stream onto their horizontal branches, their springy young growth pushed me away. Before I knew it, I was sliding underneath the branches unable to roll. ‘Shit!’ I thought, as water swirled around my torso, I can’t believe this. I prepared my self for a swim.

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My pride was bruised as I dragged my boat onto the snow laden banks but luckily that was all. Rowen suggested that I check around the corner while I was on my feet. Narrow river being combined with dense vegetation made it hard to see for any distance, but for the immediate future the river looked free of hazards. As it turned out, the next three kilometres down to Survey Hut was exceptionally clear and we only had to portage twice. Rapids in white water are graded from one – being easy – through to six being possible death. At the water level we were paddling at, graded this part of the trip as being high grade two, low three standard. As the whole river was one long skinny wave train with very few eddies, we agreed that due to the remoteness of the trip and the fact that there was no information on this section, every rapid needed to be treated like a grade four rapid.

Rowen was keen to take a look at Survey Hut that stood on the base of a valley, at the end of a remote walking track. Very few people visit this lonely dwelling by foot and I would not be surprised if we were the first to arrive by boat. After a bite to eat we left the hut with an entry in its log book and a quick glance at the map.

The next three and a half kilometres saw the river continuing to drop thirty metres per kilometre. The river widened to five metres after the confluence with Cairn Creek and it was flowing notably faster. The surrounding country side and water quality was amazing, yet we couldn’t allow ourselves to drop our guard and relax too often as the steep gradient still created continuous rapids. Swapping leads between rare eddies, we paddled very defensively, utilising reverse ferry glides (moving sideways and paddling backwards) to slow us down and to enable us to grab the scrubby bank when the nasty surprises pop up.

At times, we could barely see more than ten metres in front of us. Our policy was to keep a good distance between us so the rear paddler could read off the front paddler and have more ‘grace’ time to abandon ship if necessary. Exciting stuff. Our hearts were in our mouths the whole time, especially when it was your time to lead.

‘Changing of the guard’ at every eddie was a mixture of emotions as one of us felt like we were ordered to the front line of battle as the other took stock with a well exasperated sigh of relief. We were both in a heightened state, where you are captured by the moment and where the present fear translates into a rewarding excitement. Like any athlete or outdoor enthusiast, this is why we paddle these rivers and why we were here.

As we drew closer to Duane Spur the gradient eased off to eighteen metres per kilometre and the river widened to at least ten metres. Rowen told me he could hear my sigh of relief. We dropped out of the snow line and the banks became scattered with mountain ash trees. Rowen and I had heard about one other party that had attempted to start their trip from this point and had complained about many log jams. From this point on logs featured a lot more than before, though over the whole journey, we only had to do a handful of portages, most of these in the last few kilometres. We thought that main reason for our clear run was the recent bush fires and floods that had passed through the area.

Once we arrived at Duane Spur we thought for the first time that we might possibly complete the trip in one day. The run was even more free and wide and we travelled at about three to four kilometres an hour on mostly consistent grade two/ three water and the sun was shining…Hmmm complacency!

We spotted a horizon line in the distance, then Rowen yelled out “Is that a drop Dave?”. I was in the lead and had the first glimpse at the possible hazard. Peering over the drop formed by a fallen tree I casually dismissed it as nothing more than a log drop. About two metres I planned to launch the kayak (boof) off the lip and land clear from the recirculating water at the bottom. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I wish I could say that it all went smoothly.

I landed way too short due to the extra weight (all the camping gear) in my boat, and was pulled back into the violent water of the stopper. The next sensation I felt was my body being thrashed about as I tried to roll. As I dragged my paddle across the aerated water I felt my boat turn then right it self. I was now sitting up-right on top of the water but only for a second.  As the stopper reclaimed the bow of my boat I went straight into an airborne bow stand, and was thrown vertically out of the water. Rowen has since commented on the up close view he had of me from above the drop only a couple metres away. He remarks that I went from being completely submerged engulfed by the fold in the current, to a ‘jack in the box’ staring him straight in the face metres above the water, gasping for air. Now that’s some serious hydraulics! Needless to say, Rowen thought twice about taking the same line. Scared that I’d never get my self free of the stoppers’ grasp that continued to thrash at me, once again I bailed and swam for the bank. My pride now bruised to a deep shade of crimson, I knew that I’d been punished for being foolish and for not treating the river with the needed respect.

At this point we were about five kilometres from the end and I was starting to feel the pinch of two full days. Some of the biggest logs that I have ever seen across a river, we had to portage around, and I was glad to follow Rowens lines. By the time we paddled towards the Mitta Mitta Bridge we had successfully descended five hundred vertical metres in one day and seen everything from alpine scrub through to dry woodland.  I was smiling at the amazing trip that we had just been treated to, and was finally able to relax safely. As we glided into an eddy underneath the bridge I asked Rowen jokingly whether he already had any plans for another trip.

Without missing a beat he replied with a tired glint in his eye. “What about the Upper…?”