Gregory River [68]

By John and Pat Colquhoun

The Gregory River Canoe Marathon is an annual affair held on the May Day Long Weekend in Queensland. The event is run most professionally by the North West Canoe Club at Mt Isa.
Our adventure started in the planning. Having reviewed the website photos we decided our fibreglass double Dusky Bay was not the correct craft and purchased a plastic copy from Pro Kayaks at Narrabeen, which turned out to be shorter, heavier and, I am pleased to say, robust enough for the job.

Getting to the Gregory River

Mount Isa is a long way from Sydney and we needed to make some alterations to our camping equipment as we were frightened of crocodiles. This meant no “on the ground” tents for us and while it didn’t prove to be necessary, it was comfortable. Our journey took us up the coast as far as South Mission Beach, where we paddled to Dunk Island on a beautiful day, and then for good measure did the around island walk which included the ascent to a 300m lookout. It was worth every bit of the effort. We are both interested in birds and saw many new and exciting ones. We then went south to Townsville and across to the Dinosaur Way (another story here) and on to Mt Isa. Our friend Dave Pratt flew in from Sydney to join us and we had a great day on Lake Moondarra, the recreational area for Mt Isa and home of the North West Canoe Club. We were made welcome by the President, Ken Glasco, and advised of distances to each turning point so we could check our times. Ken paddles a K1 as do most of the serious paddlers, and our “Queen Mary” looked very substantial beside them. We could not imagine how glass boats would survive the rocks in the Gregory River.

Our day on the Lake was fantastic. Regrettably we did not take our binoculars and what should have been a training paddle of one or two hours turned into a four hour birdwatching expedition. New birds for us again!

Then North again, and we elected to visit Lawn Hill National Park and had a wonderful paddle on the waters of Lawn Hill Gorge, definitely crocs here but only freshies (we hoped!). Incredible to be in a clear stream surrounded by red hills and dust other than in the Gorge, all spring fed. You will probably have heard of Archer Fish that shoot out water like a water pistol — well, that’s exactly what happens. While we rested and ate muesli bars they tried, with some success, to dislodge crumbs from our fingers. We camped at Adel’s Grove a few km from the Gorge and would give it a “highly recommended” as a place to stop (cold beer amongst other attributes). Then two hours on to the Gregory Downs pub and upstream to a camp site called Mellish. This is one of quite a few camp sites but in our opinion it is the best as it was frequented by almost one hundred per cent like-minded paddlers (early to bed and not too much loud music).

Trial Run on the Gregory River

We arrived on the Wednesday afternoon prior to the race on Sunday. On Thursday we paddled the first half from the start to the Mellish campsite. This took us about three hours, we got lost once and had lots of time to look at which way was best to negotiate rapids, chutes and the biggest waterfall along the course. We realised very quickly that there was no point trying to protect the bottom of the kayak as we bounced down the falls and, on more than a couple of occasions, I needed to get out and push as the water level was considerably lower than normal. We arrived at Mellish around lunch-time without having capsized. It was hot with low humidity and we sought the shade which made it bearable and cooled off in the rapids five metres from the tent.

On Friday we paddled the second half of the course. This is very different and even more picturesque, ranging from rapids with a chute called “Deliverance”, to pandanus Alley, where the river is only a metre or two wide. Pandanus leaves are sharp and while some of the locals paddled in singlets we covered up from both sun and thorns. This part of the river was almost like entering another planet because the cool, green envelope of pandanus palms and large river gums envelope you in a pleasant aura that was so different to the hot, dry black soil plains just one hundred metres away.

I should tell you the night smell of the camp area was not smoke or toilets but curing fibreglass. To see the repairs going on with generators powering angle grinders and sanders told us that this was a professional repair centre. That’s how the glass boats do it!

We arrived at the Gregory Downs finish about lunch-time again without capsizing although we had a couple of close calls, exiting one area backwards. The finish is just short of the bridge at Gregory Downs and about five hundred metres to the Pub – one of those must visit places. Then back to the camp and another lazy afternoon.

Saturday was Picnic Race Day, lots of fun, dust, locals and beer. If you have not been to a country race meeting, then this is a must for educational purposes. With a local population of around five, it was an amazing transformation to see the local head count increase to around four hundred with the influx of kayak crews, miners from the Century Mine and station hands from up to 200 km away.

Race Day Sunday

After a 7.30am briefing, we were placed in a non-competitive recreational class and started with the first group at 8am. There is a chute one hundred metres or so after the start which is definitely single file and then into a series of reasonably long waterholes. Our training memories seemed to have evaporated and if it could be done wrongly, we did it. We capsized at the bottom of Kamarga Falls, went aground numerous times and two thirds of the way through, asked ourselves if we were having fun yet. In the second half we capsized again under the pandanus palms and lost a hat and glasses but pressed on to the finish some five hours after the start. The K1’s were through in three hours plus. We were most fortunate that Dave, who had paddled with us in the practice runs, decided to act as land crew so we had our car at the finish with a fresh set of muscles to help put the 45kg kayak onto the roof. Without the Thule Hull-a-vator to help lift the kayak from door height onto the roof of the four wheel drive, we could not have managed.

Sunday night was Presentation Night and to our delight we were awarded gold medals for winning our class — first gold medal we’d ever won! This was followed by the local bull-riding rodeo, and we were glad that we had only paddled, and not taken part in this crazy activity!

While the river paddle could be done outside race week, the atmosphere and camaraderie made the experience one not to forget and we decided that we did have fun. Next year who knows — I have heard about a marathon on the Katherine River, complete with saltwater crocs!