Big River Country [42]

By John Colquhoun

Nevil Lazarus and some of the ‘Thursday Night Team’ journeyed north in February to paddle the Clarence River. After a December check of the river, it was decided to paddle from Copmanhurst to Ulmarra, with an overnight at the Big River Ski Gardens.

While originally it was thought there might be 10 or 12 participants in the team, it turned out to be six – two couples in doubles (Mirage and Dusky Bay), and two men in singles (Mirage and Raider X).

One of the team had a cottage in the village of Minniewater, 30 km east of Grafton on the beach. Our itinerary was to arrive at the cottage on Thursday evening and have an ocean paddle on Friday, and start our Clarence paddle on Saturday (for those who could not afford the extra time off).

With fewer members and a little extra time available, we completed a most enjoyable four-day weekend.

On Friday, after a 7 am body surf and breakfast, we launched into a protected rock harbour and paddled to Diggers Camp, about 6-7 km south. A reasonable swell was running and we chickened out on landing at Diggers. On the return trip to Minniewater, with a following southeast swell, a lot of excitement was experienced catching runs.

The boat harbour is only semi-protected and wave trains run through it, so we were able to catch these on our return – another half hour of fun. Friday afternoon saw a car trip to the fishing village of Wooli so that ‘chef of the night’ Nevil could prepare a gourmet feast. Dinner was a great production, with liberal lubrication, and as the night drew to a close, the idea of warm beer and pasta in Trangias on Saturday night seemed less appealing. A hasty rewrite of the itinerary was needed, and it was decided that we would paddle as agreed from Copmanhurst to the Big River Ski Gardens, but to set cars so that we could end up back at the cottage.

Saturday gave us a beautiful start and another 7 am bodysurf. All of the party participated and after a quick breakfast, and with rather lighter boats than expected, we set off for Copmanhurst. In addition to the kayaks previously mentioned, one of the team had a ‘Dancer’, and with the knowledge that there was white water not far upstream, we felt this could add some fun.

At Copmanhurst (about 30 min by car west of Grafton) there is a launching ramp. This is about 100 metres from the limit of tidal water, 100% fresh but still tidal. We launched at about 10:30 am and with the Dancer being towed by the Mirage double, upriver we went.

The first kilometre was fast water, and quite disconcerting to be paddling ‘flat out’ and only creeping past the bank. The Mirage team used their brains and found a shallower stream, and with pull/paddle, reached the first drop before the rest of us. On arrival at the ‘rapids’, a portage of about 50 metres was needed, then into a quiet pool, followed by some shallow work and a little more walking in the water. This area seemed to form a natural weir and opened into a tranquil area, and we paddled some 3-4 km without change. Beautiful bird-life, especially sea eagles, was enjoyed, and goannas taking flight into the water as we approached. We would have liked to continue but the length of paddle to the Ski Gardens was only a ‘guesstimate’ and we felt we must return.

The return down through the shallow water was exciting to the ‘non whitewater paddlers’, although to our whitewater man, fairly passe. We stowed the Dancer with the cars and set off downstream at about 1 pm.

The day was sunny and breathless, and at about 50 minutes downstream, we stopped at a sandy beach, backed by a couch pasture. We carefully sat between cowpats and enjoyed lunch. Our trip upstream had taken longer than estimated, so after a swim to cool down, we did not tarry. We had a mud map, but distances were only approximate. We expected to see the Orara River, and we knew that a low level bridge crossed the Clarence, as we had used it on our way to Copmanhurst. Pairs of sea eagles were present on almost every reach, and Rainbow Bee Eaters gave some colour.

At about 3 pm, the northeaster arrived and that helped us cool down, but was in our faces. At 4 o’clock or so, we were taking bets as to how far we still had to go. My guess was 5:00, but the final ‘bend’ proved to be considerably larger than anticipated and we did not reach the Ski Gardens until 5:30 pm. A few freshwater blisters were in evidence, and those fetching the cars from Copmanhurst set off, while the rest washed and unpacked the boats.

We were surprisingly tired, and put it down to our upriver excursion. John and Donna were elected to do dinner, and went off to buy the necessaries, while the rest of us took the boats back to Minniewater.

Dinner was a Portuguese extravaganza, and again well-lubricated, so on discussion, the Sunday paddle from the Ski Gardens to Ulmarra was cancelled, and a car trip to Yamba was scheduled. Fortunately John C had his boat moored there, so we boated on the Big River and fished without luck. We returned to the cottage with fish from the fish shop, and Pat and John had a turn cooking dinner.

Monday was ‘return to Sydney’ day, and it was cloudy and cool, however we still managed the 7 am swim. After breakfast, we decided to take the Dancer and a Raider Wave Ski down to the surf, where a great deal of fun was had. The Dancer was a ‘first’ for both John C and Nevil, and they are both looking at purchasing one for surfing. John W handled the conditions with ease. Dave and Donna took some spectacular photographs of waves and wipeouts.

Before lunch we each went our own ways, with very happy memories of our Clarence experience.

Participants were Nevil Lazarus, Dave Pratt, John Wicks and Donna Couto, John and Pat Colquhoun.