Dargo River Expedition

 P9230114.2

 

FOOLS GOLD

We could only imagine what the passerby’s were thinking about us two blokes. Here we were, Dave and I, above 1600 vertical meters by the side of Mt.Hotham, Victoria, hauling two white water kayaks along the snow in winter like laymen sherpa’ with no water to be seen for miles except for the frozen stuff! Talk about being up the creek with no paddle.

As the cars drove past us with a curious gaze, we too shared a laugh with what possibly lay in front of us and the potentially ridiculous nature of this trip. Similar to the gold miners of the bygone era, we were faced with hauling our heavy loads east from Mount Blowhard along Morning Star ridge for roughly 7kms, through snow and thick bush. I glance at Dave as he gives me a nervous smurk as he always does at the start of our trips. It is his attempt to grin and hide his trepidation but somehow he never quite pulls it off.

To understand our questionable logic, we’ll have to go back a few  years to when the seed was planted for this oddball adventure. Both Dave Matters and myself make a crust as Outdoor Education teachers in Victoria and when we get spare time, we like to dabble in white water trips. It’s a silly ode of ours to finish one paddling trip with ‘How about a trip on the (next river)’ and that is how this trip on the Upper Dargo River was born. Since that day, we have been homeworking all components of the Upper Dargo, digging up gold so to speak. As per many outdoor folk, we are not at peace unless there is a forthcoming paddling trip playing in the back of our minds. We have both done paddling trips far and wide including overseas but there’s a certain allure of discovering new rivers at home  in your own backyard. Not to mention that they often don’t require the extensive time and research that larger expeditions often do.

The Upper Dargo starts it journey from the south side of Mt. Hotham, Victoria. Water from snow melt flows from Hotham Heights and Mount Blowhard and then meanders its way south for 90 km to Dargo township. This stretch of river is rarely, if ever, paddled due to its poor access and remoteness but that’s the appealing part about it that drew our keen interest in the first place. Throw in the pioneering gold history of this valley from the late 1800’s and the promise of good gradient and alpine wilderness and need we say more.  Lingering in the back of our minds though was the notion that the river may barely be flowing and worse still, choked by fallen logs or blackberries. Getting in to the river was one thing, getting out could be another. Time would tell.

As with many adventurous and remote trips, they have a way of building up momentum all by themselves, like a gathering flood, once you have started the ball rolling. Required resources, advice and know how all start to be gathered and it is often this process that decides when we are ready to commence the trip, not when we would like to be ready, atleast for us anyway. On a reconnaissance weekend for example, we were knocking down a beer at the Dargo pub when we bumped into an old chap named Jim Shepherd. As it turns out, he was a bit of a pioneer of the Dargo valley, having a creek named after him, so we picked his brain on what to expect and routes. His parting words were watch out for the waterfall near Shepherds creek. “A real big boomer’ he said with a wry smile.

It was September 21 and our moment of truth had finally arrived. It had been 3 years in the making, the timing felt right.  We rounded up our faithful mainstay logistics man, Lawrie, to help with the epic shuttle and as always he was a faithful companion who has a charm for keeping our trips jovial. His feather in his hat is his trusty old 1970’s Series II Land Rover. Like Lawrie, his Landy always starts us off on the right foot with a sense of hardiness.

With Lawrie filming our departure, we donned our snow shoes, assumed haulage position and pushed out along the Australian Alpine track before we headed east out along the ridge. Those first 20 metres took both of us by surprise at how extremely hard it was to drag and control our heavy ‘sleds’ as they hung at a right angle off to the down hill side of our bodies. As we rounded the first corner, we were exposed to a steep & icy slope that proved to be our first hurdle of many on this haul in. Painstakingly we had to cut steps into the slippery slope to avoid the same fate as our sliding skiing cousins only a couple miles away at Hotham.  Methodically, we spent the next hour kayak mountaineering so to speak, all too aware that a slip of boat or person could spell the premature capsize of our little kayaking caper. Before the trip we had thought about harnesses to drag the kayaks with, though in the end we decided to keep it simple and conserve space.

From here the spur opened up infront of us, daring us to follow. We not only followed but we followed in style! On a gentle slope, we tobogganed along the ridge. It sure raised a good chuckle and we felt like we got one up on mother nature as we travelled with ease. We had chosen this ridge as a friend of ours and gold historian, Andrew, knows this area well and suggested this should be the clearest route. That gave us great confidence but as per all wilderness trips, we are sure there will be tough times ahead.

We spent the next four or so hours guts’ing it out, dragging our boats along this ridge.  We estimated the laden kayaks to be about 45kg, so hauling them through the bush and up slopes was good old fashioned hard yakka. Crammed somehow inside the rear of our boats is enough gear and food for 6 days of potential snow camping which made packing no easy task. There is no room for any beers on this trip, just the bare essentials.

The last knoll along the ridge was a back breaker. Not only did it not have any snow to aid gliding but it was steep.  Amongst the grunts and groans, we still managed a grin towards each other, laughing at what we were willing to go through for this so called sport. Lawn bowls looked a damn attractive alternative at this point. It’s hard to believe that back in the late 1800’s, many a gold miner were filing out along this spur in their quest for gold. The feeling that we were doing something exciting, as always, drove us on.

After many long hours and with a last gasp effort, we finally reached the top of the last knoll, which would’ve been a great excuse to dance the jig but we were too exhausted to do so. From here, we have to head 1.5km south down a spur to the west branch of the upper Dargo, affectionally known as Brocket spur as it leads us to the historic Brocket settlement. Rumour has it that it shouldn’t be too thick with undergrowth but as any knowledgable bushwalker knows, the south faces of any spur are notorious for thick growth. It was 4pm, so with this in mind, we decided to pull up stumps for the day and we made home sweet home snow camping in a sheltered saddle. As the roaring fire eased away the snow’s coldness, Hotham heights teased us with its bright lights seemingly only a stones throw away. After the usual banter, we bunkered down to sharing a one person tent, the things you do to save on space……

The second day of the journey dawned a rippa. Blue skies & a hearty breakfast. We knew we’d need it for the decent down the spur. It started out alright but got as thick as our morning porridge in no time. All the epicormic growth after the recent fires added to the cocktail. On one occasion, Dave whilst behind me lost hold of his boat on a steep section and as he hollered ‘watch out below!’, it nonchalantly slammed up against a tree next to me. ‘Well parked Davo’ I replied while my mind was conjuring up images of broken bones or how the heck can we paddle one boat between two of us? Better tighten up on that loose end.

Dave’s’ diary entry  ”Much the same as the day before, we had to drag and wrestle our boats between trees and over logs, sometimes even resorting to roping them down the slope as the dense undergrowth made towing dangerous. The experience was like taking a 45 kg pit bull for a walk on roller skates while passers by slap you in the face.” 

I was all of 2m in front of Dave but we couldn’t see each other due to the thick growth. The person behind had the luxury of following a reasonably distinct snail trail of flattened shrubs as the front person dare navigate the best way down. We could see the small creek to our west in between the spurs & besides a few logs it looked not as thick or steep, just with a few logs to contend with. We both knew what the other was thinking, so we headed towards it.

As we steered our direction towards the creek, the slope abruptly turned into a steep down climb, so with the memory of almost loosing a boat earlier on, we opted for belaying our boats down. Like multi pitch climbing backwards, one of us guided the heavy laden boat down the slope while the other kept it tight on a frictional knot around a tree. After repeating this process many times, we were relieved to finally reach the relative comfort of the creek. From here, we wrestled our boats up and over logs and through scattered blackberries. We occasionally caught each others eye and once again remarked upon this odd sport, especially how the gods have now opened up the skies upon us. To most folk, rain is probably a darn nuisance but like many paddlers, it excites us with its flowing benefits. Strangely, amongst all these challenges we are never disheartened much. For when you put yourself in the way of adventure you need to accept that the choice of the adventure will ultimately not be yours, instead determined by the elements of nature, luck and the big man upstairs. That, quite simply, is the adventure. At least that is how I looked at it.

Dave’s’ thoughts; “We stood sometimes waist deep in blackberries. I thankfully remembered my gloves as the back of my hands were starting to be minced pretty badly. I remember looking back up at the ridge that we had slid down and thought we’ve really put ourselves amongst it this time! An almost irreversible move, all in the name of adventure.” 

The weight of the boats was mostly taken by the water in the little creek. We too were often forced to walk in the creek at times up to our knees, slashing at black berries with our expensive carbon Kevlar paddles. This continued until Dave remarked upon a white glow from the bottom of the valley. We both paused for a moment, wiped away the rain from our eyes and slowly succumbed to the realization that the Upper Dargo looks to be flowing! We could now see the upper west branch of the Dargo river with many a white caps gracing its flow! The scratches from the numerous blackberries didn’t seem to hurt any more. Stoked. That was one of our greatest fears relieved. So, now there appears to be flow, lets do the final amble down to the river and see whether it’s clear to paddle. The mood had lifted somewhat.

We were both like drowned rats by now, so we ploughed through the deep holes of this creek, keenly pushing on to see what fate lay below. Just like the quality of the snow fed water, the river was clear of debris and flowing gloriously in its eight metres of width! Three years of waiting, planning and hoping was lifted off our shoulders! It was a grand moment that we both would never forget. It resembled the Upper Big river on the south face of Mt. Bogong as we spent a whole day hauling our boats up there on golf buggies years ago. After treating our boats like toboggans for two days, they like us couldn’t wait to launch on this rare stretch of water. Before we did, we quickly poked our nose around the corner at the Eureka flat battery site just upstream of us where many a hardy soul tried to make their fortune. Back in the mid – late 1800’s, this upper Dargo valley was abuzz with numerous gold mines and settlements, all tucked away in a remote and heavily vegetated valley in a National Park miles from anywhere. It’s just amazing how resilient and determined these folk must’ve been. Interestingly enough, where we had lunch was a site where a restaurant called Tobias’ was situated back in 1867.

Back to more pressing matters, once we were braced in our kayaks we graciously slipped into the river with that mischievous smile still upon our faces. On the Dargo at last. It was a grade two rollercoaster, with small chutes and various lines. It was hard to believe that it was flowing so well, only a handful of kilometers below its source, we had timed it to a treat with plenty of water and hopefully warm spring weather. We soon arrived at old ‘Brocket’ settlement which was a classic reminder of the bygone gold era through here. It was scattered with rock wall ruins from old miners huts and gave us a good glimpse of how tough life must’ve been here. For interest sake, we took with us an old Brocket township map which outlines the surveyed blocks for sale back in its day. Not many boundary pegs were left to say the least.

Time was fast eating into our remaining daylight, so we sought about reaching the junction of the east and west branches where its rumoured to accommodate one of the rare campsites amongst all this rugged and thick vegetation. After a few more kilometers of roller coaster, the junction was reached at the same time that more of ‘gods juice’ came bucketing from the skies. Rapped in the day’s proceedings, it was now time to warm up and bunker down and settle in for a very wet night. Amongst our chuffed banter during the eve about the days success we somewhat joked about a flood overnight and tomorrow. It felt all too eerily familiar to our Loddon river campsite on the Franklin river in Tassie. On that occasion, we tied up our boat four metres above the river level in a fork of a tree, somewhat as a joke, but it rained cats and dogs overnight and we found the water lapping at our raft by morning! We secured our boats this time just to ease our mind if nothing else.

It was one of those long nights tucked away in the tent, counting sheep until sunrise would hopefully steer the rain away. It was below the snowline but still damn cold. It was made even longer because when we went to find the firelighters and the lighter to cook tea they were no where to be seen. Confused by this we chose to conserve our energy and not hunt madly in the rain for the lost equipment or the spare lighter; instead we ate a handful of snacks and a cold dinner of sorts.

Dave’s thought; I think these items must have fallen out of my pocket while barging through the trees, stupid mistake in such a potentially cold and remote environment.

Well, there was no Franklin flood overnight and there was promising signs of good weather to come. The river certainly had more gush to it with both the rain and the second tributary adding to its flow. Let’s hit the h20 Dave. After another mornings eventful packing ‘squeeze’ saw us on the water by quite early. This was to be the start of the true upper Dargo, so the wry grins were back on our faces. It was flowing pretty slick & it certainly kept us on our toes. It was like a grade 2 roller coaster the whole way with little or no flat water. Pretty happy with that. All the fun and games aside, we were quite wary of not only being in the wilderness with miles to anywhere but also, and notably more dangerous, is the river itself.

As much as Dave and I feel at home on the water, we never take it for granted.  Being a tight and tricky river with thick vegetation surrounds, we had to be particularly careful of logs (otherwise known as ‘strainers’ to paddlers) and debris in the river. While it has been quite clear thus far, there were plenty of warning signs. If we were washed up against a log at or near water level, it could be curtains for either of us. This is one of many fears of any white water paddler, but like all sports, you manage it in a way so that it is very unlikely to happen. In our case, we paddle very defensively, always be on the look out and never paddle into a rapid or river bend ‘blind’ (without looking beforehand). We either get out of our boats and have a squiz or, as it has been fortunately the case thus far, we ‘eddie hop’ until we can see whether the river is clear downstream and move down to the next pre-determined eddie. Eddie hopping and lead swapping. So far so good!

Another heads up was looking out for the diversion tunnel on a tight bend on the river. The wrong choice of line may lead us down a nasty chute similar to those enclosed twister rides at Wet n’wild water park. We safely avoided that sucker and we once again marveled at the ordacity of these foolhardy miners. With the weather clearing, it was all grins as we passed yet another old mining settlement ‘Louisville’. It was said that 1500 miners rushed to this valley after Gold was found here in 1863 and Louisville peaked at about 300 miners. As a result, stores all along the Dargo were established with uncoordinated speed. Before long it became obvious that the valley could not support a population in such numbers, and the rush abated almost as quickly as it began. The thick local vegetation has tried to swallow up the those turbulent decades but the scars are still very obvious and hopefully there for eternity.

Heads up, here’s some logs and strainers. Our defensive paddling is paying dividends as some nasty strainers have reared their heads. No damage done. The roller coaster of grade 2 rapids rolled on. We had to keep pinching ourselves on how lucky we were with the good flow and relatively clear lines. Our smirk was now one of ‘We may just knock this bugger off!’. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Still about 70 kilometers to go.

The occasional log can also give you some air time. We came across one that was just underwater and it made a 1.5m drop on the other side. Cheap thrills. What the heck was that noise? Did we just hear a car horn noise? As yes, the infamous ‘honk’ call sign of the Samba deer. It scared the bejesus out of us. Big beautiful Samba dear, probably in shock itself from seeing two weird looking and colourful thingymajigs floating down the river. We saw atleast half a dozen deer as our journey floated along.

The numerous stone hut ruins and continuous rapids kept us honest as we passed the next settlement known as China Flat. Like meerkats on the savannah, these hut ruins pop up everywhere.  Our next rendezvous is Mayford,  a common four wheel drive getaway and camping ground.  We were now starting to hit our straps. The river is delivering beyond our expectations, we had our eye in & we were getting below the ‘danger zone’ of the first steep 20 km or so. We were really starting to lap it up. As the rapids and banter rolled on, we quickly found ourselves arriving at the rather palatial grassy campground of Mayford.  Great spot for lunch. We were hoping to add a fresh pear to our lunch, courtesy of the famous century year old pear tree but it was out of season unfortunately. Mayford was also surveyed for a town but never developed beyond one store. This is also where the famous McMillans Walking Track crosses the river.

With some good tucker down the hatchet, we set sail for further downstream, hoping and expecting more of a smooth run. We couldn’t be more from the truth to begin with as we came across a 10 meter long strainer mess of logs! Once again, we found ourselves clambering around the logs to find some clear water downstream. The next few kilometers had a few more strainers making it slow progress but we soldiered on. The vegetation was no longer alpine shrubs but it was still thick with consistent blackberries choking the banks. It looks like the local Catchment Management Authority (CMA) had passed through and are earmarking area’s of blackberries to be poisoned with pink tape.

Now with less gradient and a more open river valley, you would expect the rapids to ease but the river declined to follow suit. The grade 2 wave trains rolled on still and we lapped it up. This continued all the way until our muscles couldn’t stroke any further and we pulled stumps near China Flat, some 30+ kilometres of paddling for the day. Tired but content, we set up camp under the clear skies and told many a tall story by the fire. The next morning Dave decided to sacrifice his so called dry pants to the gods by burning them on the fire. They are supposed to keep the water out but Dave’s very old pants had other idea’s and so he sacrificed them to the paddling gods. We vertially had to wear our snow shoes to get around camp in the morning! While it wasn’t snow, there was ice everywhere. Our paddling gear resembled more like stiff cardboard than goretex, so we cranked the fire up to thaw ourselves and our gear out.

We were buoyed by the notion that we may reach the end today & the thought of beer o’clock was all too tempting. We slid our way back into the water and re-established our acquaintance with this Alpine water highway. Notoriously, the grade 2 rapids continued with old rock hut ruins still scattered on the river banks.

We passed by Miners flat soon afterwards. This is nearby to Shepherds creek where good old Jimbo warned us about that waterfall, so it was heads up for any pleasant surprises that may stroke our way. As it turns out, a rippa surprise did bob up in the shape of a mini gorge that narrowed up in front of us. It was all smiles as we were treated to some solid grade 3’s and 3.5’s that had some clean exciting lines.The crux rapid was a rippa double stager with some nice chutes and lines that was nicknamed ‘The Fang’ by Dave by its fang rock at its entrance. After every good rapid there is always that childish chuckle that you share in the eddie below the rapid with your paddling compadres, and in Dave’s case it had the usual cheeky smirk to accompany it.

It was time for lunch at this stage, so we stopped here and lapped up the surrounds. It was like, with the hard yards behind us, god had decided to throw us a beer of his own as we were drunk on this rivers glory.  As per the whole trip thus far, we finished lunch with a Carbo Shotz energy cookie. This little chocolate tasting gem gives us mouldy paddlers a nice boost for paddling all day, courtesy of our friends at Carbo Shotz.

With our tails up, we continued on this roller coaster. We soon passed the little Dargo confluence as the river swung back to the south on the last leg to Dargo township. We pushed hard to get some kilometers under our belt, as we knew that happy hour at the pub was a long way off. A couple hours later we reached Matheson flat which not only meant that the trip was flowing well but we now had the upper Dargo track on river right as a guard rail all the way to Dargo. We were out! Like an errant school boy, Dave was permanently glazed with a mischievous grin and I wasn’t much better.

The day was getting long in the tooth but we pressed on. After we negotiated a few more user friendly strainers, it was just about dark, so we pulled up stumps just a few klicks short of Dargo township. Close enough! Well, there you go, we actually pulled this trip off. Nice one Davo. After 3 years of planning, we had discovered and journeyed down the mysterious and nostalgic Dargo.  As we were swinging high 5’s,  we realized that we had pulled up the bank to where some folks were camping, so we had some um…..explaining to do. They reckoned we were um….’nuts’ & they are probably right. We were happy nuts though. They let us indulge in our story as well as shouting us a hard earned beverage! Yep, a VB. Like a beer commercial brought to life, it was one of those moments that a beer was made for.

Soon afterwards, we were debriefing at happy hour at the Dargo pub. Now that’s how you close a paddling trip. Don’t get us wrong, we are far from beer guzzlers but there’s a certain rewarding closure and relief that a hard earned beer gives you. As a final touch to our journey, guessed who waltzed into the pub? Yep, good old Jimbo’ Shepherd. It all meant to be sometimes isn’t it. We shared a few tales with him. We never found that waterfall Jimbo?

Well there we go. Just like the early miners found their own gold years ago, these two paddling fools found our own gold as well. A big hearty cheers to Lawrie and Andrew who helped out so much with the trip. The Dargo is such a beautiful and remote river valley that delivers great rapids with still a sense of pioneering spirit, ala yesteryear. So Dave, how about a paddle on the ……?