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!

GPS for Sea Kayakers [68]


Being lost can be disconcerting. Being kilometres from anywhere or just finding yourself in an unfamiliar waterway can make the best of us feel uncomfortable. Been there? Knowing how far away you are from something familiar or how many more kilometres you need to travel to reach shore or help can certainly go a long way to put you at ease.

Carrying and being able to read a map and having some navigation skills can make a big difference between having a trip that you’ll always want to remember and one that you can’t wait to forget. GPS are a great aid to navigation and can tell you “exactly where you’re lost”.

Simply put, a GPS knows exactly where you are at all times. GPS units are small electronic devices that receive signals from a group of satellites orbiting the earth. If you have a view of the sky then these devices will know where you are anywhere on the Earth’s surface, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

GPS units come in two basic styles; those that display your location numerically in latitude and longitude, and those that have inbuilt maps so that your position is displayed graphically over the top of an electronic map.

Like kayaks, GPSs come in different styles, with different features and varying prices from a few hundred dollars to over a thousand. Lower priced units, like the Garmin eTrex (RRP$257) or Magellan’s eXplorist 100 (RRP$250) will provide the basics. These include the ability to record locations (launch ramps, fishing spots etc). These are called waypoints. It will record your travels, like a snail trail, handy if you need to back track along the way you came. This feature is called the track log. It will give you an “as the crow flies” indication on how to get to a recorded point and lots of other numeric information like current speed, max speed, estimated time to get to your destination, elevation, trip meter, and the list goes on.

These style of units are ideal for kayaking and general outdoor use (small, lightweight, waterproof). When considering one of these units look carefully at screen readability — how easy is it to see and button location — can it be easily operated and can it be easily mounted (if required).

The second group of units add additional features; in-built maps, longer track logs, more waypoints to name just a few. More features generally mean more dollars, but I’m sure we’re familiar with this concept! Specific units in the range include the eXplorist 400, 500 and 600’s (RRP$675-$950), Garmin’s eTrex C range (RRP$529-$619), GPSMAP 60 range (RRP$539-$899) and GPSMAP 76 range (RRP$439-$899). The prices quoted are for the units only and options like mounts, carry cases, detailed maps all come at an additional cost.

The type of maps that you can load into a GPS is restricted to those provided by the manufacturer of the GPS. That means, for example, Magellan Maps can only be loaded into Magellan GPS units. Similarly Garmin maps only into Garmin GPS units. Magellan has BlueNax XL3 (RRP$399) marine charts covering all the east coast and Garmin has BlueChart covering either all of the east coast (RRP$249) or half of the east coast (RRP$145). Having maps this detailed that cover all the marine charts in your region in the palm of your hand is quite remarkable.

So what things should be considered in purchasing a GPS unit for kayaking? First off the unit should be easy to use, there’s nothing worse than buying something that turns out to be frustrating to use. It will soon get relegated to the gear bag. Operating buttons should be easily accessible. The screen should be clear and easily read in bright sunlight. These are all characteristics that have to be seen before a decision can be made. No amount of reading can substitute for a good “hands on” visit to your local GPS dealer. In addition, the unit should be waterproof. Most outdoor units are waterproof to IPX7 (able to be submersed to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes) and we would recommend a small piece of tape over the unit’s data port to minimise corrosion. Remember, waterproof does not necessarily mean it floats!

Mounting your GPS in a safe but convenient location is important. An Aquapac tied down or a RAM mount bolted on are good options. Both companies have extensive ranges of products.

Connecting a GPS to a computer has a number of advantages so this ability should be towards the top of your “must have” list of features. Like most software companies, GPS manufacturers from time to time release new versions of the software that runs inside a GPS unit. These updates are provided free on the Internet and can be easily loaded into your GPS unit via a computer cable attached to your PC. In addition, waypoints and track logs and more detailed maps can be easily uploaded and downloaded to and from your GPS. This makes it very easy to record your trip on your GPS, download it your computer and email it to a fellow kayaker. “Here, load this into your GPS and have a great trip!”

Trip mapping with a GPS requires the use of a laptop computer or Pocket PC, loaded with a mapping program and electronic maps. But then again there’s always paper with a hand drawn mud map.

Buyers check list

  • easy to read screen
  • easily accessible buttons
  • computer connection

Common terms

  • Accuracy — recreational GPS units are accurate to about +/- 5m
  • Waypoint — a location that has been recorded in a GPS, eg camping spot, fishing hole, turnoff
  • Track log — electronic snail trail of where you have travelled
  • DGPS (Differential GPS): A system of land-based radio beacons that broadcast signals to help increase the accuracy of GPS positioning. Available in Australia in coastal areas only.
  • NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association): NMEA developed the standards allowing GPS units to communicate with other electronic devices, eg Laptops, radar etc

Specific product information

Garmin eTrex (RRP $257)

Small light-weight unit, suitable basic navigation. Has tracklogs, waypoints and numeric information display.

Garmin eTrex Legend Cx (RRP $529)

GPS unit with bright colour screen Has ability to load more detailed maps.

Garmin GPSmap 60CSx (RRP $899)

Advanced GPS unit with bright colour screen, electronic compass, altimeter, sunrise and sunset times. Has ability to load more detailed maps.

Magellan eXplorist 600 (RRP $950)

Full colour unit with vibrant easy to read screen, rechargeable battery, electronic compass and barometer. A basic map is included but has the ability to load detailed maps via SD card.

From the Editor [68]

By Sue Webber

Winter’s over and it’s time to get back on the water. I’m looking forward to the long weekend get together in Woolgoolga from 29 September – 1 October. I hope to see lots of paddlers exploring the Solitary Islands Marine Park. I know I’m biased because I live here but it really is a great spot to paddle.

This issue of the magazine is smaller than usual and I think that reflects the cooler weather over winter. I’m always looking for more articles and photos for the magazine. Trip stories are good but I’d like to have some other articles too. Why not write a short piece on your favourite bit of gear, or how to take good photos from your kayak, or lightweight meals you can cook on a trip, or anything else related to kayaking. Give me a call or email me first if you’d like to talk it over before you start writing.

I’d also like to see more advertising in the magazine because this helps to pay for the printing and postage. I’m looking for someone to act as advertising manager for the magazine. It isn’t a difficult job, you just need to contact potential advertisers a few weeks before the magazine deadline and ask them if they’d like to advertise, then follow up to arrange the delivery of their artwork. If you have some time and would like to help, please contact me.