Paddle for Life [63]

Lismore to Ballina

By John and Pat Colquhoun

Most of the articles in our magazine talk about the things we dream about, tripping across Bass Strait, fending off crocs in the far north, or sailing at 30km/h down seven metre waves.

Pat and I are now in our 60s and, while on a calm day we may paddle out through Sydney Heads to have coffee at Shelley Beach, or Bondi, or paddle from Palm Beach to Pearl Beach, most of our paddles are in estuaries, rivers and impoundments.

Our most recent adventure has been a paddle from Lismore to Ballina, roughly 100km, down the Wilson/Richmond Rivers. This is a charity event, run under the umbrella of the Northern NSW Canoe Club at Lismore, and the principal organiser is Tim Limbert. The theme of the event is “Paddle for Life”, and raises funds for two charities: Summerland Early Intervention, a charity for children with disabilities and delays, and The Buttery, a counselling service for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

While we have done the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic a number of times, this is not in any way a copy – people have FUN!

The paddle was over a three-day weekend, which this year coincided with Anzac Day on the Tuesday. We drove on Friday with our long-term paddling mate, Dave Pratt, to the Coraki campground on the Richmond River, to set up our tents at what was to be the Saturday night camping stop. This had two advantages for us: firstly, we did not have to put up our tents after having paddled 40 something kilometres, and secondly, we did not have the weight of our camping gear in the kayaks.

The paddle is broken into five stages, and you can do any or all of these stages.

Day 1, Saturday

7am registration at Lismore under the bridge, and 8am start with a non-muddy entrance. There were 62 varied craft taking part, and while in our Dusky Bay double we felt clumsy compared to the K1s and K2s, we were definitely sleek compared to the canoes! Countdown to the start was from 10 down to 1, and a communal shout of “PADDLE FOR LIFE”.

Lunches each day were provided by service clubs, and the first was at a private property at Wyrallah. The owner had been cleaning up the river bank to assist the landings, and lost his bulldozer into the river in 11 metres of water. Needless to say, we passed the hat around to try and defray the cost of retrieving the bulldozer!

The river was interesting, the banks are reasonably high here, and the vegetation is thick, not much bank erosion, and lots of birdlife. We carried binoculars, but after settling into our stride with paddlers of similar ability, found no time to use them.

Stage one was about 17km, so with an outgoing tide, a comfortable two hour paddle. Then from the last arrivals, another hour before the start of Stage Two. This start was again a countdown from 10 with a “Paddle for Life” at the top of the lungs, but was not quite so well observed, and some of the slower boats were one or two kilometres downstream before the general start. This added to the fun, as we met and greeted all of those that we were able to catch. This second stage was about 28km, so the spread at the finish was even greater. The banks of the river had become less steep and we were able to see homes on the bank and adjoining paddocks. We were fortunate enough to see a wedge-tailed eagle and a Brahminy kite fishing the river. Dave found that riding our quarter wave was most effective, and that we clashed paddles every fifth stroke – interesting what can distract you from the repetition of paddling.

On arrival at Coraki, we were in the first half dozen or so, and with our tents already up, we had time to retrieve one car from Lismore, and place it at our Sunday night stop at Broadwater, not far from the sugar mill. On returning to Coraki, we found dinner was being served, by another service club. At 6pm it was all over, and some of the paddlers started making sleepy noises. We found the Coraki pub some 50 metres away most appealing, and managed to stay awake until about 9.30!

Day 2, Sunday

This was to be an easier day, the first stage from Coraki to Woodburn about 19km, so a 9am start, same details, same use of the outgoing tide by some of the shorter boats (some as short as 2.5m). By now it had become apparent that there were some participants whose competitive spirit was coming to the fore, and they would wait until the “Paddle for Life” call went up, then race off. We were not as fast off the mark, but by the end of the stage we would end up with the same group, and as we caught each one, they would join the washriding ‘snake’ – up to five boats behind us. The last 2km to Woodburn became a sprint, with much laughter at the finish, particularly at the “silly old buggers” who needed to compete!

Lunch at Woodburn in the sun on a grassy bank, provided by yet another service club, and then off to Broadwater, about 14km. Our hosts for the evening were participants, and to see some 30 – 40 tents in their front yard was something to behold. A BBQ dinner was provided, and much fun and fellowship, particularly with Ross, and his guitar!

Day 3, Monday

Numbers were slightly down, as some participants had to go back to work – the retired among us had no such problems. The wind had changed overnight to a sou’easter, and quite a number of sails appeared. Those who did not have sails were quite happy with this, provided they left their sails up all the time! The oldest competitor (at least 10 years older than us) lit up a cigarette just before the start. When asked if that was part of his training program, his reply was, “No, I just need to see which way the wind is blowing”.

The river was now parallelling the Pacific Highway, and with flat banks there were islands and short cuts and, as we found out to our cost, substantial sandbanks. This last day was supposed to be a “smell the roses” day, as there were a few underarm rashes from the previous day’s sprint. However, as the morning progressed, we found ourselves with the same group of boats, the “roses” were forgotten, and with the GPS showing 10.5 km/h, things were on for a competitive finish. Pat, in an inspirational moment, produced a bag of jelly snakes, and offered them around at drink break time. We then decided to collude and arrange a blanket finish, to save us all from the effort of competing with each other. We had ended up with two doubles followed by a gaggle of single washriders – just fine until we hit the sandbank. It did not look too far across, so out we got and dragged the kayaks – however in soft sand, 100m of fast walking was really tough, and a lone K1 had seen our plight, and paddled into the lead. Now the GPS was showing 12.5 km/h, we overhauled the K1 and offered him a place in the combined finish (we can’t actually sprint at 12.5 in slack water, there was still a great outgoing tide!).

What a great way to finish – seven kayaks in a row at Riverside Park, on a sandy beach, and all just upstream from the big RSL club on the river. We had moved one of our cars to the park on Sunday night, and having changed, packed up and lunched courtesy of another service club, it was time for the presentation. There were no trophies, as we were reminded that this was a fun and fund-raising paddle. Certificates of proficiency in various classes, all ridiculous, were handed out, together with certificates of participation – a lot of fun for all. Cheques of $5000 each were handed to representatives of the two charities (a huge amount from just one race!), and everyone set off towards home.

We were asked if we would be back next year, and would certainly like to, but have heard of another river paddle down the Gregory River (four hours north of Mt Isa), held on the same weekend, so will probably be camping and paddling there in North Queensland in 2007.

Ah well, that’s what retirement is for!

The next Paddlefor Life will be on Saturday 21 April to Monday 23 April. Entries from late January 07. The forms will be on the website