Condamine Gorge to Warwick
Flooding? What flooding?
After a wet week, I finally picked up my new car yesterday, an old Subaru Outback. Given it had a minimal 7 day warranty, I decided to take it for a test ride up around Warwick and back via Killarney to see my sister. This was my first introduction to the flooding across the dividing range that had been going on for nearly a week. This drive also took me along the upper sections of the Condamine River. The Condamine was navigable!
Even with only the old inflatable kayak, I decided to try and give it a go. This was the original trip I had considered undertaking back in 2015 while camping with family along the banks of the upper Condamine River. With another forecast rain event Thursday, I estimated that Friday was likely the best day for departure. I didn't want to leave earlier in case I got caught below the potential flood waters. This gave me 2.5 days to plan, organise and pack for the trip.
Race to the water
The rain was not as heavy Thursday night and Friday morning as forecast, but the river gauges were still showing a decent flow down the Condamine. It was well below flood levels but still much higher than normal. I headed out late Friday morning towards the upper gorge. I hit a temporary hurdle just a few km from my brothers' camp where I came across a locked gate. I back tracked up and had a chat to one of the local farmers and he was happy for me to bypass without rising any alarms (big fines possible if I got a ticket doing this).
I finally put in about 4pm and got in 3 hrs paddling downstream. Even as a small creek, I only had to drag the kayak over a couple small bouldery sections and two portages over downed trees. Maybe around class 1 - 2, but the inflatable did get caught in a few sieves and I had one swim. Like the Murray, these short whitewater sections were going to be some of the best paddling highlights, and the local environment of the healthy gum forest and rocky cliffs made this section special.
The kayak was also having a bit of a hard time. One of the small drags had put too much pressure on the canvas and ripped the seam and this was progressively getting worse. After a couple of hours the seam gave way completely and the bladder squeezed out like a balloon. I had some spare 8mm cordage for portages that I used to tie the outer canvas back around the inner tube and this helped reshape the kayak back into shape. Rough and inner tube exposed, but it was still holding together enough to continue. Late in the day, the floor inner tube got a puncture and that started a slow leak too. Luckily it didn't add that much to the overall buoyancy, albeit slowed the speed slightly. I pumped it up occasionally and kept going. Since the river course was close enough to roads all the way down to Chinchilla, I wasn't worried about a complete inner tube failure so I kept going.
It was getting dark when I lost my pack overboard for about the third time. While retrieving it, I lost my footing and was caught in a strainer that sucked me under. Maybe it was not a good idea to keep going past dusk! Nearly completely out of the gorge, I set up camped on the river bank with one eye open in case it rained during the night.
Past Killarney and into a drainage ditch
I had mostly pleasant paddling down the lower gorge. The river was flattening out and rapids were few and far between. I spotted a couple of Platypus in the pools, one surfacing right beside the kayak. The water dragons became a lot more common as I made it into flats. Most reacted to hearing / seeing me by jumping into the water, only to realise that I was actually on the water and they would panic and swim back to shore before scurrying up the banks again.
Barbed wire fences became common and it required a lot of care with the inflatable kayak. I managed to either lift up the fence and carefully glide the kayak under, or those that were damaged in the flood water, to glide over the wire. It seemed to be the tree changers, the less experienced weekend farmers that constructed the worst and most dangerous fences across the river that were typically destroyed in the flood, while the real farmers downstream made simple and easily replaced fences that seem to handle the flood waters much better. The latter were much easier to traverse.
It took most of the morning to reach Killarney, where I stopped to get some tie-downs (cam buckles) to replace the rope that was holding the boat together. This seemed to help avoid getting as many snags. As I left Killarney, the stream became narrow and the banks became tall and much steeper. Water depth was almost always deeper than 1.75 m / 6 ft. The river zig-zagged and log jams became very common. Even with the great flow, the next two days paddling were extremely slow. While I could drag / lift the kayak over many log jams, portages were required on a regular basis and the steep muddy banks made it extremely difficult to exit the stream.
Nearing dusk I found a spot where the bank wasn't overly steep where I was able to scramble up the muddy bank to make camp for the night.
Twists and turns
I had the feeling of being lost in a maze of log jams all day without seemingly making any progress towards Warwick. These were even more common than the day before.
The strategy that I used on the log jams was to pull the logs out from the jams till I could get the boat through, or to do a tricky portage around the jam. The former was like playing a game of Jenga at times, desperately waiting to pull out the log that would make the jam disappear downstream with the current. While this was usually much faster than a portage, this was slowly shredding the skin on my hands as I handled the coarse she-oak (ironwood) bark with wet hands.
The day started badly with a short 50 m section where the banks were almost vertical with 3 large log jams in quick succession that I had to exit the creek to bypass. The banks were close to vertical and each step that I made in the soft dirt seemed to crumble away. To add insult to injury, a 4th log jam just around the corner that required another portage. It took close to an hour to traverse the log jams in this section. Luckily these become less common during the day, but enough to ensure that minimal progress was made today.
I was still close to some farmhouses as it was getting dark, so I set up a hidden camp in the long elephant grass. Cold dinner of couscous and tuna.
Finally a river
Another fairly slow day due to the amount of log jams from the flood. Both weirs and concreted fords became more common in this section. Generally these were not overly difficult to traverse, but the odd portage was needed. There was one particular nasty drop off directly onto rocks that was about 1.5 m high.
I stopped at Craike Rd Bridge and managed to arrange a few supplies from my sister who was driving by doing her weekly shop in Warwick. It really was water that I wanted. The stream water was really too muddy to filter, and I felt slightly nauseous drinking the boiled water. Much better to get 15 L fresh water! I got some fresh fruit for good measure. Being mid-afternoon, I decided to call it a day and try to fix up the kayak. Sadly, the puncture repair didn't hold on the PVC tubing and I couldn't fix the floor inner tube.
Nearing the end
As I turned northwards, the river opened out with the she-oaks being replaced with river gums. It made for much nicer paddling with minimal log jams. The narrow sections were much nicer than those paddled upstream and while the water level was dropping quickly, these sections were still quick in the ducky. There were also a lot of long deep pools that were a bit of a slog in the inflatable kayak that was not designed for speed. The banks were still fairly muddy from the recent flood that made the less common portages difficult still.
By the time I crossed the Warwick Killarney Rd, the river was mostly wider and deeper now. Enjoyable paddling with minimal flow. Being latish in the day, I made camp early just before the build-up of houses upstream of Warwick.
Up early and arrive at Warwick at 9.30am. I get some super glue to try to repair the kayak puncture and a few more fresh supplies. I'm still optimistic about pushing as far downstream as possible, Dalby or further would be a target even in the slow kayak. After finding a nice spot downstream of Queens Park, I pull the boat up and fix the puncture.
After waiting an hour for the glue to dry, I pump the boat up only to find a second more major puncture where the valve rubbed through the opposite site of the tube, about the size of a 10 c piece / dime. So another patch and another hour of waiting. This time it seems to have done the trick, albeit I'm not really trusting that super glue is going to hold together that well, time should tell.
Sadly, I never found out how well the patches were going to last. I did make it through Warwick and into the countryside, however the inflatable kayak had a fatal run-in with a sharp branch and popped. I barely made it to shore before it deflated completely.
I call in a pick up and start contemplating how to tackle the next leg.
Surat to Bourke
After a 3 week delay, there was no longer any flow seen anywhere between Warwick and Condamine Township. As such, I started from Surat, which was the next town downstream.
The Unexpected River
I was ready to set off after about two weeks, over planning the Condamine to Culgoa stretch of the system due to the remoteness and high potential risk. Sadly the water level was dropping rapidly and already there was no flow anywhere between Warwick and Dalby. Flow was enough to start at Chinchilla, but I couldn't find anywhere with long term parking for the car and had warnings from both the local information centre and the police not to leave the car unintended anywhere due to a spike in stolen cars. I decided to wait another week and caught a ride with my brother who was making the trip down to Wentworth for work. By Sunday, flow had stopped at Chinchillia and Condamine, and even Surat was starting to look low. I was concerned about starting from St George, which would throw me directly into the longest and most remote section without any knowledge of what was in front of me. Luckily it rained at Roma and it pushed up the flow at Surat.
Arrived at midnight and couldn't assess the river till the morning. Up at dawn and was pleasantly surprised at the gentle flow. This gently helped propel me down the river with an extra 1 or 2 km per hour. No wind, sunny and pleasantly warm, it was a fantastic way to start back on my journey.
Only a km or so down I hit the first weir and quickly realised the hidden dangers on the river as it had a particularly nasty hydraulic jump that would have sucked me under like a rag doll. There is a reason these are known as drowning machines! With a perfectly level lip on the weir with no spray, it was hard to see and luckily I heard it in time to move to the side of the river. Visually I would have only seen this very late and it would have been a struggle to react in time to avoid the drop. This was one of the three low head dams between Surat and Bourke that I had to navigate, there are others along this section of river, but all were submerged by the high flood waters.
The nature of the river changed below the weir and the current picked up slightly. Longish flat water sections with 2 - 3 km / hr flow were separated with short narrow faster falls. You had to stay alert to navigate around any downed trees as the canopies act as fairly nasty strainers. Luckily, the water was high enough to clear any fallen logs and there were no log jams. Average speed along this section was the fastest at nearly 9 km / hr.
Flow 35 cumecs and rising. Peaked at 96 cumecs 36 hrs after leaving Surat
After what was likely the muddiest campsite ever, I continued down the river. Mud was a feature on almost every campsite and river exit from Surat to Bourke. It was impossible to avoid. The only variation was the stickiness and depth. As a guide to how sticky it was, I didn't clean the mud off my paddles one morning and even after an hour's paddle, the mud was still sticking to my carbon fibre blades!
While I seemed to be catching up on the higher flood flows throughout yesterday's paddle, the water level had fallen about a foot overnight. It still had a decent flow and great depth.
Over the course of an hour or two, the nature of the river changed from a relatively fast creak to a slow river. While I was still nearly 100 km from Lake Kajarabie, the high dam water level had banked the water back about half water to Surat. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos were particularly common and noisy today. They weren't the smartest though, as I got close they would set off with noisy alarm calls and fly about 200 m downstream only to repeat the process as I caught up to them again.
Once past Eagle Bend, you really start getting into the wide flat waters of Lake Kajarabie. The birdlife really picked up too. This is an artificial lake and there were 1,000's of dead trees that provided great nesting grounds for a wide array of birdlife. The maps were absolutely useless here with the high water level, but for the most part it was easy enough to follow what would have once been the old riverbed.
I camped on a low island in the middle of Lake Kajarabie. Even though the lake was at 103%, this island was definitely flooded just weeks before, but with a falling water level, I felt content to stay here for the night. I think this was one of my favourite campsites of the entire trip.
It was becoming even more difficult to navigate Lake Kajarabie due to the high water level obscuring the normal shoreline. I nearly took a wrong arm of the lake on at least two occasions. I had to resort to the GPS unit a few times to confirm the right direction to head. While you would eventually find your way, a wrong turn could add an extra hour or two onto the trip.
I was glad I was in a plastic kayak here too as I couldn't count the number of times I hit submerged logs along the way. While normally it would just bounce over or broach hard onto an edge, occasionally you would come to a screaming halt as you grounded on a trunk. The lake water had hardly any visibility due to the inflow of the flood waters so it was impossible to see these submerged hazards. Due to the submerged trees I avoided trying to do sneaky shortcuts and tried to stay on the main channels.
There was a significant portage required to get past Beadmore Dam. I initially took the kayak out beside the picnic area above the buoy line on the eastern side of the dam. As the road turned away from the river, I scouted out the dam and quickly realised that I shouldn't have gotten out so soon. There was a closed boat ramp with unlocked gates that allowed me to cross without unloading the kayak. It was about another 300 m to the put in point below the dam. I only scouted the left side and this is likely the best side to tackle the dam.
Even with the high flow release, the next few km below the dam were the shallowest of anywhere that I saw during this trip. The river snaked through low scrub and decent flowing branches quickly ran dry with a lot of shallow rocks hidden under the muddy water. I was forced to backtrack at least 3 times to find deep enough flowing current to continue. Again I was glad that I was in a plastic kayak as it took a bit of a hammering along this section.
Finally meeting up with the headwaters from the St George weir, it was easy paddling. At St George, I restocked up on some supplies of fresh food albeit I still had 2 to 3 weeks supplies of dry food. With my water purification systems untested in the muddy flood waters, I also stocked up with 30 L of water hoping this would get me to Weilmoringle.
There was another major portage around St George weir, ~200m. Being late in the day I only made it about 2 or 3 km down the river before making camp on the gravel shoreline. There was a significant amount of broken glass to avoid.
Flow was 100 cumecs.
The river had risen more than expected and the kayak was partially in the water when I woke in the morning. I'm glad I was in the habit of tying the bow line onto something every night!
After hearing the rapids all night, I finally discovered the source of the sound. A short grade two section. It was difficult to say if this was natural or if it was part of a submerged weir. There was a nice line straight down the middle, but a 5 m fully laden sea kayak wasn't really on with the amount of rocks. If I had tried and gotten into trouble, I would have been risking damage to the kayak and potentially even my life on the strainers or capsized without a helmet on. Luckily there was an easy sneak to avoid another portage.
For the most part it was relatively easy flatwater paddling for most of the day down to the Culgoa and Bokhara river heads. However there were times where the river would channel and occasionally become tricky to navigate. Missing the main flowing channel once caused a bit of grief as I had to tackle shallow flow with multiple log jams. I managed to make it through without backtracking / portages, but it was definitely much harder. This 2 km side trip took maybe an hour before meeting up with the main channel again. This is potentially what the river would be like with a low flow. Not pleasant nor recommended!
As I got close to the main divide I started using the GPS to ensure I didn't miss the Culgoa turn. In hindsight, this wasn't necessary. The Bokhara River was nearly completely blocked off with trees and would have been easy to miss without tracking where you were on the map. The Culgoa River is the only likely possible route to follow even in these high flows. Camped at divide wondering what the next section would bring.
Flow was 130 cumecs, up from 100 cumecs from the day before.
Portage required just 500m downstream over a weir. Complete unpack to get the gear and boat over a barbed wire fence. This was the first of two weirs for the day, I was able to wheel the kayak around the second weir without unpacking thankfully. I saw a lady fishing at Cubbie station and got a simple "hello" without a second glance. Maybe it is common for kayakers to paddle past in the middle of nowhere!?
After yesterday’s detour down a minor channel, I was taking no chances today and was checking the GPS unit every time there was a major split as well as taking the time to assess where the major flow was going. While most of these channels were short diversions, some were much longer.
There was a noticeable decrease in birdlife and an increase of goats. Fly levels were unchanged.
Flow was around 50 cumecs, slightly ahead of the release from the Beadmore Dam seen the day before.
Which way to go?
The river was becoming a maze today. It would branch out and slowly the flow reduced then the branches would come together again and the flow would increase. Occasionally branches just seemed to disappear into the surrounding floodplains never to return. There were more downed trees and log jams today, but none required any portages.
Pulled up to camp only to find a sea of mud. Looking around I found a single dry spot that was big enough for a tent, but looking up I saw three dead trees all leaning directly over this spot. I decided to kayak down to find another spot a few hundred metres down the river. Little did I know at the time, but I had taken my life jacket off and left it hanging up at this first camp site. The second site was higher and I set up for the night.
I had my first attempt using Alum to treat the water. Never having used it before, I used a full tablespoon and left the water overnight to settle. In the morning a quick boil to treat the water and a taste test revealed a horrible salty taste. I still had heaps of water from St George, so I wasn't too phased as I poured it out onto the ground.
Flow was around 50 cumecs.
Crossing the border
I really was "back o’Bourke" now, well almost. The river gums lessened and were slowly replaced by Brigalow-Gidgee woodlands. The height of the banks were decreasing, or maybe the height of the floodwaters were increasing maybe? Like yesterday, it was still like a maze of channels in places, but I was slowly getting more used to this and was finding it easier to take the correct channel, most of the time.
I was about 3 hours down the river when I realised that I didn't have my life jacket. I couldn't believe it. I forced myself to double or triple check the camp site for gear / rubbish every morning, how did I miss it? Then I remembered the campsite shift from the night before and I realised what I'd done. I wanted to kick myself and I knew that I had gone too far to even contemplate going back for it.
While the Acacia was now the dominant tree in the area, there were still just enough of the taller river gums surviving to mark the course of the river. This would prove invaluable in the coming days to define the path of the river. The national park surveyed 24 mammals, 170 species of bird, 29 lizards, seven types of snake, and 15 types of frog, but I was finding the woodlands nearly completely devoid of life, well devoid of anything other than goats.
After a morning paddling along mainly isolated woodlands, it was surprising to see the build-up of houses and sheds around Brenda station, including a flyby of a farmer in his mustering copter. I push on for another few km before making camp for the night. I tried playing with the Alum for water again, but still used way too much Alum and it was too salty.
Into the floodplains
I have definitely caught up with the flood waters now. It was pleasant paddling down a wide flowing river for the majority of the day and the river spread out into the flood plains on a regular basis making it feel like an inland sea at times.
As noted already, the river gums were important markers to define where the river was going, and usually you could see the main flow snake its way in the general direction of the river gums in the distance. If you missed the main flow, you would quickly start hitting submerged logs and / or mud and you would be forced to backtrack into the main channel. It was actually mildly frustrating at times when you wanted to take a straight line shortcut but you would be forced to snake left and right through the most indirect path that was 3 to 4 times longer than a direct path across.
I set up camp early and finally nailed the use of Alum for water purification. I was actually starting to run low on water and while there was still a slight salty taste, it was drinkable. Second lesson on water treatment, use a lid when boiling it over open flames. The water picked up a fairly smoky aftertaste!
It was hot work treating the water and this inspired me to take the first swim of the trip. I think this may have been my first ever swim in brown muddy looking water, but it was surprisingly pleasant after a week without a shower and definitely refreshing.
Weilmoringle is a tiny remote indigenous community of less than 100 residents in far western NSW. It rarely makes the news except for the occasional flood that will isolate the township, or maybe with a rare tour by politicians in times of drought. With the high floodwaters I was able to paddle right up to the flood banks beside the main housing area. You can tell the locals are having a hard time at the moment with the current drought making farm work scarce. It was a fairly hot day, and I couldn't see or hear anyone except for the background hum of the odd air-conditioning unit. One of the locals was out watering his garden and he happily let me fill up my water containers. It was really nice to be able to chat to someone else after over a week on the water with no social interactions. He cheekily suggested a lot of paddlers make it down past the town, naming Marks (2017) and the Condamine boys (2011) trips past. After 30 minutes or so, I head on down.
Below Weilmoringle the terrain changes slightly and I was able to take a few shortcuts rather than being forced to follow the main river channel. Like the Culgoa floodplains the river had mostly broken its banks but there was more variation of height unlike the floodplains that were perfectly flat. This allowed for deeper shortcut sections. The main danger of the shortcuts were fences. If the water wasn't deep enough and you did find a fence, you would be forced to portage over or backtrack. I generally avoided doing these unless I had a clear view across the shortcut down to where I thought the main river course was flowing. That was usually estimated by one of the few river gums that stuck its head out over the lower Acacia woodlands. And unlike the floodplains above, you started getting more defined shorelines again. Normally the flood waters would stretch out between 500 m and 1 km.
Being the 9th day on the water without a proper break, I felt very lethargic today. I found a nice campsite, and stopped early. Enough time to heat up some water and take a swim and a shower to wash off the mud and dirt. It was so nice to feel clean again! I also play with the Alum again and nail the process.
It felt like déjà vu today. Paddling left and right down through a similar flooded landscape. I was taking more ambitious shortcuts and often hit shallow ground that forced me to paddle back up against the current to the main flowing channel. I really wanted to stop and rest up, but also wanted to push on to the Darling River.
I saw my first ever emu in the wild. There were a pair drinking by the water's edge, but they spooked easily and sped off across the paddocks. Wallabies seemed common and I didn't see a Kangaroo all day. I saw my first cow today too. I had expected to see more livestock travelling on and off through farmland all trip. Low stock numbers were likely due to the ongoing drought and many farmers would have destocked their herds.
Onto the Darling
I did a big water cook up this morning. I managed to completely refill my water supply, enough to get me to Bourke hopefully. It is a time consuming process having to boil a couple of litres of water at a time, then wait for it to cool slightly before starting the next pot. I finally hit the water around 8:30am.
The morning paddle was similar to the previous two days, but it definitely had more of a farmland feel to it. It felt that I was getting back into civilization even though there wasn't actually much increase in farm houses yet.
After around midday, the river was slowly channelled back into a river and the banks slowly started to increase in height again. It may get rather repetitive if these banks block out the view all the way to Wentworth!
I finally made it onto the Darling River at about 3pm. The Barwon River is definitely the more major river, but the majority of the flow seems to be coming from the Culgoa River. I quickly discovered the need to change my paddling technique to generally stick to the outer edge of the river channel to follow the flowing current. The other main change was that Black Cockatoos appear to have replaced the Sulphur crested cockatoos.
The Darling has much higher banks again at about 8 metres above the main river, similar to those last seen at Surat. It is going to make camping harder. I find a spot where I can pull the kayak up out of the water and make camp for the night, sharing the spot with a family of wild pigs that didn't really seem to care that I was there.
The beginning of the end
I was planning to have my first full rest day today, having made it out of the Culgoa safely, but as the campsite isn't overly nice, I pushed on.
The morning was mostly spent chasing Pelicans down the river while tracking left and right trying to follow the current. Birdlife in general was picking up a lot again since leaving the floodplains, Pelicans, Kites, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and a wide variety of various parrots were all common.
There were a few people fishing at Mays Bend, the first people that I had seen since Weilmoringle, but I just wave and continue on my way. Mays Bend is a free camping spot with no facilities at 30° 2' 23.6" S, 146° 1' 23.9" E. From here there is a slow build-up of houses before Nth Bourke and limited camping spots until you are well past Bourke itself. I later found out there is a rest area at Nth Bourke and that apparently has a toilet block too.
Since I was planning to stop and resupply at Bourke in the morning, I paddled past Mays Bend and struggled to find a camping spot away from houses. I finally found one just upstream of Nth Bourke. After struggling a bit to get the kayak up out of the water I started to set up and this was when I got a text from my brother.
He was asking if I wanted to be picked up and this came as a complete wtf moment. While I was on the water, the world had finally seen the horrors of the coronavirus, and he had been glued to the news all day. Tasmania, South Australia and the NT had closed their borders and Queensland had just announced it was doing the same. Having portrayed a zombie apocalypse in a police state where I was going to be locked in South Australia all winter if I continued, I took up the offer to get picked up. So I repacked and headed towards North Bourke where I stopped at the rest area. My brother decided to drive up that night, doing an all-nighter and I drove back to Ipswich the following day.
In hindsight, this was totally premature. I could have kept going and the 14 day self-isolation period in South Australia would have been done on the river, and upon arriving back into Queensland, I'd just have to self-isolate again for 14 days. As soon as I discovered this after getting back, I tried to reorganise going out. Bourke is about the worst spot logistically to get to. It will require a boat drop-off, and if I can't leave the car there, to drive down and park the car at Wentworth before busing back to Bourke.
I finally managed to find a place to leave my boat in Bourke, and a long term parking spot in Wentworth, but literally minutes before I left, the place that I was going to use for parking in Wentworth had to cancel, and this stopped me from returning Tuesday.
So the trip is over for the time being and I am suck in Ipswich waiting to get the green light to continue...