We’ve brought way too much gear, food and water. As we lay it all out for our four-day paddle on Western Victoria’s Lower Glenelg River, each of us stares wide-eyed wondering how we’re going to fit it all into three canoes and the single sea kayak I’ve hired in Winnap, 75 kilometres upstream from where the river flows into Bass Strait near the South Australian border.
I’d given strict instructions to our crew of six adults and one seven-year-old to minimise their clothing, then drawn up a roster of meals that each party could prepare ahead of time, with suggestions for the sort of snacks and drinks they might like to bring. To their credit, they’ve adhered to those instructions accurately. There are, however, two notable exceptions.
The first is that we’ve brought enough cask wine to quench the thirst of the Biblical five thousand. And the second is that there are way too many avocados for my liking, making me wonder whether some in the group failed to read the memo that this would be a simple, no-fuss canoe trip. Then, to top it all off, Paestan Canoe Hire’s Ross Atkins tells me he’ll be ready to take us to our put-in point in his Land Cruiser in just 40 minutes’ time.
“We’ll just have to throw it all in and sort it out later,” suggests Andrew, who admirably adopts the role of logistics manager while the trip organiser – i.e. me – stands around scratching his head.
Fast forward a bit and we’re standing at Donovans Landing in South Australia, trying to spread innumerable barrels, dry bags, Eskies, camp chairs and a gas barbecue between our river vessels so that they won’t sink or lean too far to one side. Ordinarily we’d have started our journey closer to Dartmoor, the usual starting point for canoe trips on the Lower Glenelg. But since some campsites were already fully booked on the dates we’d needed to stay at them, Ross had suggested we paddle upriver, against the flow.
“There’s barely any current at that time of year, and you’re likely to have the wind at your backs,” he’d explained to me over the telephone, two months earlier.
It’s a relief to finally be on the water when we eventually paddle away from Donovans Landing jetty. We’ve somehow managed to squeeze everything in and miraculously our watercrafts are all still afloat. I’ve teamed up with my son Finn in one canoe. My wife Michelle and her sister Kath, a first-timer, pair off in another. And Craig jumps in the third canoe with rookie paddler, Vicki, while her husband Andrew commandeers the shakier kayak on account of him owning one many years earlier.
The weather gods have blessed us with a fine morning though there’s enough of a headwind to push us back if ever we stop paddling. Finn’s seven-year-old muscles propel our canoe forward noticeably whenever he dips his paddle into the water, and we’ve only been on the river for 20 minutes when he tells me how much he’s enjoying it. I wonder how long it will last.
Farming lands and fishing shacks line the banks of the river on the South Australian side of the border. Some shacks are only accessible by boat, nuzzled into confined spaces at the foot of limestone cliffs, with mooring terraces built over the water. The cliffs here are the most dramatic along the route, stretching as high as 50 metres and polished over millions of years by the river’s constant flow.
We reach the Victorian border just after Dry Creek and immediately cross into the Lower Glenelg National Park. Anglers in battered tinnies hide away in nooks amongst the reeds, trying hard to snag a bream or mulloway, the river’s prized catch. From what I can tell, the fish appear to be winning.
It’s a further three kilometres of paddling to Princess Margaret Rose Caves, where we tie on to the jetty over lunch. Michelle and Kath laze on picnic rugs in the sun while the rest of us climb the steps to the Visitors Centre to investigate cave tour times for when we return tomorrow.
When the lunch provisions appear, I tally five avocados. There are mangoes and other fancy foods too, all added to our inventories by the girls. No bloke I know would ever bother to bring either along on an austere camping trip like this. They nevertheless taste great. And they help in providing the energy we need to paddle the remaining two kilometres to reach our first night’s camp.
Lasletts is one of seven special canoe camps spread out along this stretch of the Glenelg River. Each is only accessible by water or on foot, for canoeists paddling on the river or for hikers who are tackling the 250-kilometre-long Great South West Walk. Whenever possible we’ll be staying in these camps, away from boozy car campers and their associated noise.
It’s cool in the shade at Lasletts, though the campsite’s sun-kissed jetty proves the perfect location for sipping on cask wine or as a launch pad for swimming in the river. With the weather predicted to deteriorate, it may be the only time we’ll want to get wet.
We have the camp to ourselves until a crew of Melbourne University students paddle in after dark and set up their tents at the opposite end of the clearing. We’ll bump into them repeatedly over the next few days as it turns out they’ve hired their canoes from the same place as us while also adhering to Ross’ advice about paddling upriver. As a result, they’re scheduled to stay in the same campsites as us.
The clouds close in overnight and it’s overcast when we wake. It remains that way all day. After breakfast, we’re ready to backtrack to Princess Margaret Rose Caves on foot, following a fire track until it intersects with the Lasletts Loop walking trail. Several lookout points along the way offer dramatic views over this big, lazy river.
We’re fortunate to beat the crowds to the cave for our tour is the first of the day. A young park ranger leads us from one floodlit chamber to another but she’s difficult to understand, with much of her oratory lost. I learn later, from literature inside the Visitors Centre, that the limestone caves were carved out by tidal waters some 800,000 years ago and that they form part of the Kanawinka Geotrail that extends from Millicent in South Australia to Buninyong in Victoria.
Early pioneers discovered the caves when they noticed several ink-black shafts that have doubled as death traps over the years for unsuspecting mammals and reptiles. The remains of long-extinct mega fauna like the giant kangaroo and marsupial lion have been found here, as well as those of Tasmanian devils, from a time when they roamed the mainland.
It’s raining when we re-emerge into daylight, where the queues for the next tour are considerably longer than they were for ours – this being a long weekend (Melbourne Cup weekend, 2015). It’s lucky we’ve got an easy day ahead of us as one of our crewmembers insists on shampooing her hair before we leave. It’s a daily ritual she’s loath to alter.
The paddle from Lasletts to Pattersons Canoe Camp measures just four kilometres – less than the distance we walked to the caves. We could certainly have paddled further, but that’s not what this trip is about. Each of us prefers to treat it as a relaxing escape from our daily routines. The fact that some are outside their comfort zones only enhances that feeling, even if the presence of avocados and shampoo softens that sensation somewhat.
The rains settle in and it drizzles throughout the night. I could hear an animal thumping around on the grass outside our tent and Finn spots the protagonist – a red-necked wallaby – grazing near the toilets in the morning. We see many more from this point on.
Because of the cold and damp we’re slow to move. It’s warm inside our sleeping bags and the fire is too cosy to leave. But leave we must, for we have our longest day of paddling ahead of us.
Finn requests a turn in the kayak, and he takes to it like a duck on water despite minimal experience. The kayak is actually the best seat for him as it glides along the surface effortlessly. But seven-year olds can’t maintain that pace all day and he eventually tires, jumping back into the canoe with me.
Our lunch break is at Sapling Creek, where the call we’ve all been dreading cuts through the silence. “We’re out of avocados,” announces Kath. But disaster is averted when Vicki scrounges through the barrels to find an uneaten half. It’s the closest we get to mutiny.
We bump into Ross at Sapling Creek, where a couple who have paddled in behind us have arranged for him to ferry them back to their car in Winnap. He informs us that the campground at Battersbys might be a better alternative than Georges Rest because of all the rain we’ve been getting. It contains a timber shelter – a handy addition, should the rain persist.
It drizzles constantly for the remainder of the afternoon, and the scenery varies little from one bend to the next. I haven’t got a clue whether we’re paddling north, south, east or west, only that ultimately we’re paddling upstream in an easterly direction. It’s nevertheless peaceful and I enjoy drifting and having time to look for koalas in the trees, or watching azure kingfishers dart from overhanging branches to pluck a meal from the water.
The university crew have already got a fire going when we stop in at Georges Rest. They offer us warming cups of tea, which my companions all gratefully accept. I forego mine to instead jump in the kayak and paddle upriver so I can scope the next campsite at Battersbys.
Two wallabies bound away when I get there and the outlook isn’t as clear as the uninterrupted vista at Georges Rest. I can also hear – but not see – some vehicle campers through the brush, 100 metres away. On the flipside, they’re not loud. And the campground area here is broader than the one at Georges Rest. Wood has been cut and piled beside the fire pit, ready to light. No further invitation is required for this to be our camp place for the night.
Andrew is the closet pyromaniac that every campfire attracts and he’s kept a vigilant watch over our hearths these past few days. He’s been quick to scavenge for kindling wood upon our arrival at camp then poked and prodded the flames with borderline zealotry while they’ve crackled. Finn has offered sage advice here and there, and he’s been keen to move a log or add a stick whenever he’s felt it’s needed it. The rest of us, on the other hand, have been content to hand Andrew the responsibility for keeping us warm. But this time is different. While Andrew’s back is turned, Vicki piles the entire inventory of wood onto the fire.
“What did you do that for?” he asks, incredulously.
“I thought it would be quicker,” she replies, shocked to think she might have erred. Andrew purses his lips and shakes his head. You’d think she’d been thieving avocados.
After our coldest night so far, we wake to an auspicious day that’s bathed in sunshine. Michelle Payne will become the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup and two of our crew are celebrating their birthdays. Both turn eight – one in dog years – and we celebrate the occasion with marshmallows and M&Ms while the university crew serenade them with a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ as they paddle past our camp. It’s a nice gesture that manages to put smiles on the face of Finn and Andrew, the latter having visibly mellowed with age overnight.
A chattering of gang-gang cockatoos – the first I’ve seen in the wild – fly over as we paddle through the river mist away from Battersbys. There’s a stiff southeasterly to plough through and the sunshine doesn’t last. With three days and over 30 kilometres of paddling behind us, we’re just going through the motions, and by the time we reach our finishing point at Pritchards we’re all stiff, tired and hungry. What I wouldn’t do for an avocado right now.
This article first appeared in Wild issue 157. Subscribe now to ensure you don’t miss out on our upcoming edition.