‘This is it,’ I thought.
As the sharp glare of headlights hit the back of my eyes, I allowed myself the luxury of hoping someone remembered to scatter my ashes on the river. Then I wondered why you never die actually doing high risk things, but travelling there or waiting to start…
Thankfully, Simon noticed my ‘corpse’ in his path and the sound of brakes was welcome. As it turned out, there was no danger, but it mattered little to a dazed and confused bloke woken in the middle of the night as the campsite turned car park. It was the night before we began stroking down the majestic Snowy River from a put in near Willis on the NSW Victorian border. “Bout time you rocked up, mate!” I said with a wry smile.
Just after dawn the three of us, Steve, Simon and I, combined our paddling know how and packed our creek boats for the journey ahead. Simon, hoon driver and good mate, was the young buck of the group with a chronic white water habit. Steve was a new friend from Gippsland who took to white water like a duck. Me, well, I just like paddling.
The usual banter ensued as we looked forward to escaping into the wilderness. The Snowy River is one of Australia’s classic runs and it was high time we gave it a crack. We were all proud Snowy virgins. This gem of a river starts flowing on Mount Kosciusko then drops swiftly to Jindabyne before meandering a further 350km south to Marlo in East Gippsland. Its combination of rich history, scenic semi-wilderness and good quality rapids made it a trip we’d talked about floating down for a long time.
This section was first tamed by Arthur Hunt and Stanley Hanson in 1937. They set off in their trusty overloaded wooden canoe without life jackets and only limited white water experience. When they sought advice about the river from a local bushmen, he’d called it ‘a complicated form of suicide’. It took two arduous months but against the odds they succeeded, arriving in Marlo to a hero’s welcome. We had to admire their audacity, but wished for a simpler journey as we shoved gear into every nook of our h20 caravan. Modern day equipment and skills combined with the Snowy’s dammed flow have dampened the Snowy’s reputation from a near suicide mission to a user friendly moderate white water journey.
With all essentials squeezed in, we launched from Guttamuph Ford and pointed our noses downstream with the hope of reaching Buchan confluence in four eventful days or so. The first day was mostly uneventful on the rapid front which didn’t matter too much. As any outdoorsy soul can testify, the heart of any escapade is the surrender to the beauty and peace of a beautiful place where nothing else matters. Lizards sunned themselves on rocks, and conversation flowed as we strolled through easy grade rapids.\\
By late afternoon and after we passed the Deddick river junction, we reached the historic McKillop’s Bridge. Constructed in the Great Depression, this enormous and proud bridge was claimed by its builders to be the longest welded steel struss road bridge in the world and as many folk can attain to, its presence takes your breath away as you paddle towards it. Named after the pioneer overlanding squatter George McKillop, this bridge was built largely to allow the easy passage of livestock across the high country and between NSW and Victoria (replacing a Government ‘turnback’ ferry) but it soon became core material for Australian Balladry, folk legend and mythology. At 256 metres long and 15 metres high, McKillop’s Bridge was destroyed by flood waters, resulting from a storm in the Deddick River catchment on Jan 8 1934, 11 days before the bridges official opening. Reconstruction of the bridge commenced straight away and was built 5 metres higher. The rebuilt bridge was opened December 1935. In no time we had set up our cosy ranch for the night in the full moon shadow of this iconic bridge, listening to Simon’s mysterious sleep chatter.
In the morning, a local road gang appeared, but vanished after maybe deciding their heavy machines might be too much for the bridge – either that or the sight of our fashionably striped thermals scared them off. Before we left McKillops, we had a closer inspection of the bridge and its surrounds. We were simply in awe of the sheer expanse of the bridge and it painted a strong and humbling reminder of what enormous natural flows carved out this impressive valley and its gorge’s in years gone past. It sure would’ve been a complicated form of suicide. The river gauge alongside the eastern bank rose bravely up to the tens of metres and yet we were at meek 0.8m, a height considered not far below moderate flows for present snowy river levels. Regulation of this once mighty river system has reduced flows to less than one percent of the original volume. It was first dammed in 1965 at Island bend above Jindabyne and then again in 1967 at Jindabyne for power generation and irrigation. While this was a blessing for many, the ecology of the river was collapsing with 99% of its flow being diverted which had many follow on effects including salinity. The positives of renewable energy and recreation had come at a high cost to the rivers health downstream.
Back on the watery postcard, we passed through the first mini gorge which led on to some fun grade two rapids. This helped feed our excitement for the major gorge, Tulloch Ard, which lay waiting tomorrow. A few dirty jokes aside, we lapped up the solitude and escapism such a trip provides. Silently, we passed the campsite that claimed the life of a young girl a few years ago, tragically killed by a falling tree. It served as a strong reminder of Mother Nature and her sometimes dangerous moods and the need to be vigilant.
At lunch time, we caught up with a rafting group from the Outdoor Education Group (OEG) as they ventured down the Snowy on their Summit to Sea program. We had a casual chat to their instructors before contorsioning our bodies back into our boats to continue our way. We had arranged a food drop at a place called Campbells Knob track and this fuelled our progress to push on. As we neared the campsite, fire smoke raised our grins as we knew staff from East Gippsland Water Catchment Authority were camping there aswell as they painstakingly clearing nuisance willows along the entire river. Extra banter on the menu tonight. As it turned out, they treated us to pork chops and roast vegies, assisted by the welcome taste of fine bevvies. Not half bad for a wilderness trip!. For yet another day, the Snowy gods have been looking after us with good weather and a few treats along the way.
Beer in Greg’s belly initiated a steam train of snores last night…..atleast he slept well.
While we packed up, the lads from the catchment authority farewelled us and headed out to once again battle the willows. We took our hats off to them. All year round, including winter, they are out there working in 10 day stints clearing these river choking hazards from all over Gippsland. These willows (non native species) spread their roots into the bed of the river, slowing the flow of water and reducing aeration. They form thickets which in high flows can divert water from the main channel causing flooding and erosion. While it is very demanding work, they recognise, as we did, the experience and beauty of the landscape left them thankful for having such a fine office to work in.
Tulloch Ard Gorge day dawned and we drooled for some daring h20. There was quite a long lead in with some tastier grade two’s before the initiation rapid, Compressor, which hinted at the gorge’s nature. With that rapid negotiated successfully, we paddled onto probably the most famous and recognisable rapid, ‘A Frame’. Two large boulders stand defiantly on their ends to form an A Frame shape which tempts the brave paddler to cross the threshold. It is quite a nasty looking undercut rock that at this particular height would give the jeepers to any paddler. Our only option was the chicken chute to the left which was a sedate alternative. We wondered what else the gorge might offer as the A frame fell behind us.
‘George’s Mistake’ was next on our agenda, no doubt hoping for a new mistake on our behalf. With some careful spotting and route choice from above, we picked our line near the middle and survived the bouncy grade 3+ which was divided into two notable drops, 150m apart. Wry grins were evident on our faces as these rapids were very exciting, nearing the weighty status of grade four. ‘Washing Machine’ also offered food for thought but as with the rest, a clear line was evident and once we had a plan, we safely negotiated the turbulent waters. After a challenging morning, hunger kicked in – what better place than mid gorge on an isolated river to have a scenic lunch.
Not to be outdone, ‘Gentle Annie’ had a tight line to negotiate. We agreed on a path that had us weaving around rocks before launching off a formidable rock ledge and stopper, closely followed by a friendlier, but rocky, second drop. We liked the look of this one and wondered how ‘gentle’ Annie would prove to be. Simon led the charge in his Necky Blunt creeker and proved our line was a goer with a smooth but bouncy run. I enjoyed following Simon’s line and actually ran it twice, paddling Steve’s boat through while he cooled his heels after an involuntary swim before lunch. Steve’s Dagger Nomad felt like a bath tub compared to my smaller Piranha 240 creeker.