By HANS SCHMIDT
“Expect mosquitoes, sand flies and March flies. Take plenty of repellant and sunscreen”. Owen’s warning nearly put me off the week-long 230km trip down the Murrumbidgee. No one said anything about rain. Gradually all eleven participants arrive at Nanangroe Reserve to a steady drizzle. Although Claudia and her 2½ year old twin boys won’t be paddling, the other eight still make up the largest group ever to take part in an expedition of this duration: Michelle and Owen, the trip leader, Cecilia and Geoff, Brian and Wendy, Peter, Claudia’s husband, and little old me.
Over dinner beside a roaring fire we decide on short day trips, with cars waiting at each campsite. Claudia kindly agrees to help shuffle cars, speeding up this process considerably.
“With the help of the current we should make the 30km by lunchtime”, quips Peter next morning. Breaking camp with two young boys in tow is no mean feat, so it’s 10.30am by the time we push off onto the muddy river. Signs of the recent flood are everywhere. Uprooted trees in the water, large branches and grass deposited high up in the river gums lining both banks.
Owen carefully guides us through the numerous rapids, slowing our progress to a crawl. Sea kayaks are understandably reluctant at being coaxed around tight bends, tree trunks and rocks ready to devour fragile hulls. To our credit, only a couple of us take a tumble all day. Lunch time passes with 20km still to go. The final kilometres into a stiff south-westerly, a low sun turning the water into liquid silver, are sheer agony. After six hours on the water shoulders ache, arms feel like lead and I’m numbed by the day’s happenings; please let it be over.
Over a cup of tea Brian and I discuss mutiny. Today wasn’t the fun we had signed up for. Tomorrow’s planned 42km promise to be sheer hell. Owen listens to our gripe and points out the options open to us: exactly zero. Resigned to our fate, Brian has the next day off and Geoff needs the day to get his car fixed. Locking your key in a car equipped with an immobilizing alarm system in a tiny country town is definitely to be avoided. The local auto electrician, not too fussed by Geoff’s predicament, promises to look at it later when he’s not so busy. I wonder if gentle Geoff risked a quiet expletive. If he did, by late afternoon he’s in full control while dealing with a broken tent pole.
The remaining five get an 8.00am start next morning. The river narrows; the current pushes us along at a good clip past tall she oaks and river gums. Birdlife is spectacular this early in the day. The raucous shrieks of cockatoos wheeling overhead become even noisier with the appearance of a pair of eagles. On our approach, flocks of large shags roosting in she oaks become agitated. Suddenly a bird drops dead into the water and disappears into the murk, then another. Another hits the water just metres from Michelle. We can’t help laughing at this odd spectacle. It’s raining shags! Adult birds are evidently trying to divert attention away from their young. Nothing could look more ungainly than this dead-bird-bluff. Michelle and Wendy decide to dedicate a Dropped Bird trophy to the person getting dunked the most on this trip.
Later, hundreds of ducks rise from the water and disappear around a bend ahead. I never tire looking at the magnificently patterned bark of the huge gums lining both banks. The odd fallen giant lying on its side revealing its root ball cause me to avert my gaze, much as when a gust of wind lifts a woman’s skirts. Some things are not meant to be seen. We reach our camp, somewhat worse for wear, around five o’clock. The twins, though quite reserved, love the attention as we watch them eating their dinner with gusto. Something in their behaviour makes me squirm; what’s that about? My packet noodle dinner being truly forgettable, I head for bed.
After the first day’s paddle Owen, leading in his unobtrusive style, steps back as we take turns leading the group through each new rapid. Confidence builds quickly as our skills improve, resulting in much speedier progress. Rarely giving orders, Owen makes suggestions and asks for opinions in order to reach consensus. A great teacher, he knows when and how to present useful information. Intensely private, yet open and approachable, he’s a bit of an enigma. Moving through camp, limbs swinging as though attached by rubber bands, he’s the most relaxed person I know. I can’t imagine a more effective trip leader.
A few hours into day three brings us to the junction with the Tumut, whose waters are noticeably colder. The extra water lifts the current to at least 3km/hour. Our increasing fitness makes each day easier now. Just as we enjoy the faster waters, shooting down a rapid curving right, a huge log-jam or strainer bars our progress. For once, I’m last to enter a rapid and have time to react to the confusion ahead. Peter is caught under overhanging willow adjacent to the strainer, others have managed to park in a quiet eddy. I head for the by now crowded eddy just as Owen reaches Peter. One wrong move and he’d be caught and forced into the log-jam by the powerful current. No boat would survive that. Those in the eddy paddle upstream, cross the fast flowing main channel and make it into a bypass. Owen, moving hand over hand through the willow until out of the clutches of the fierce current, has his hands full extricating Peter. Soon we’re all cruising downstream again, aware of how close we’d come to disaster.
Gundagai Common, with hot showers and proximity to shops, is a welcome break from minimalist existence. Brian parks four metres from a tree, just the right distance for my hammock. Living out of his truck, I’ve been granted a generous amount of space for my gear. He boils the water while I supply the tea bags. A nap after lunch, then into town for afternoon coffee and some provisions. Later I join Wendy and Brian for dinner at the bowling club. The Thai stir-fry is great, with enough left over for a hearty breakfast next morning.
While pleased with my increasing fitness, I’m amazed at the stamina of our women paddlers. Slight of build by most standards, they’ve been keeping up with us men, but without the complaints; and then there’s Claudia. She surely is remarkable. Entertaining her sons Nikolas and Jonas all day, she builds camp in the afternoons, cooks dinner, gets the boys to bed, up early for the car shuffle, pulls down a large tent, then does it all again. A day’s paddling sounds like a romp in the park in comparison. Claudia, I dip my lid.
My habit of paddling way out front, waiting impatiently for everyone to catch up and promptly scooting off again into the distance, has been worrying me. Antisocial show-off comes to mind. Recalling the twins’ attention seeking, it falls into place: I’m just like them. The morning of the fifth day Cecilia asks if I would do it all again. Looking up into the open faces of my companions, any doubt disappears. “Yes, I would”, I reply, fighting back tears. It’s not about who’s fast or slow, expert or beginner. It’s about taking part, about valuing each person’s contribution both on and off the water. Knocking myself out paddling is okay, comparing myself with anyone else is not. With that insight my attitude changes, and for the next three days I have a ball.
Nikolas and Jonas have lost their initial reserve. Waving us off each morning, they greet us happily on our arrival at the new camp. Cecilia sings and tells them stories, Michelle and Wendy show them lots of interesting stuff while Claudia’s busy moving cars; we’ve become part of their family. Not a spoiled bone in their little bodies, they’re a delight to play with and just watch being boys.
We complete the 42km double section Wattabadgery to Green Flat to Oura Beach Reserve in six hours plus rest stops. Apart from me reversing onto the only rock in the middle of a long stretch of flat water, requiring minor repairs at camp that evening, today is all smooth paddling. Cecilia and Geoff move one step closer to winning the Drop-Dead trophy by just, well…falling in.
We’d been warned of the “Gummi Race” taking place today on the final 9km stretch into Wagga. I heard the bull-horn starting the race around 10am while still a couple of kilometres away. A high-clearance bridge formed the starting gate around which numerous strange looking craft were getting ready to join the fun. A powerboat headed straight for us manned by police. “The river is closed today for the races”, we’re informed by a constable.
My heart sinks as I contemplate the ramifications of that statement. After promising to keep to the right hand bank, moving in single file, we’re allowed to proceed. Gummi is German for rubber. Any craft is allowed in the race as long as it’s kept afloat by inner-tubes. Craft designs abound, from plain tubes of various sizes to large platforms with sun shades and elaborate seating arrangements. Most are moving only just faster than the current, promising to make this a long race. No one seems to mind; a great time is had by all.
Owen puts on a rolling demonstration for a large group of spectators and camera operators on the left river bank. I follow suit, fluffing the first attempt, getting up by the skin of my teeth on the next. Soon we arrive at Wagga Wagga Beach, not much of a beach but crowded nevertheless. Carefully inching past swimmers of all ages, we land for the final time.
A week on this river has left a mark on each of us. I can only guess at its effect on my companions, but know I’ll never forget them or the river. Its exciting rapids, obstacles, changes of direction and long quiet stretches mirror life itself.
Then you drop off your perch.