Final Preflight Check
Finally free to go. One last check over the gear and I'm ready to head off. I decided to go one practice run of 8 day trip with food and boat to ensure things were ok to go.
F@#$%, final complete tally of the gear was 35 kgs without water. I can comfortably man handle it and wear it around, but I know it is too heavy and a test walk of 500m validates that. I've been training with a much lower weight of 25 kg I'm not going to be able to complete the trek to the source and Poplars in one trip... Time to reassess things.
Google doesn't come to my aid. I know it's about $130 for a shuttle from Jindabyne to Thredbo, that's on a short trip on a tarmac road, what would a ride into the middle of nowhere on a 4wd cost!? It's too late to start trying clubs for someone to hitch a ride with, it looks like I'm going to need two trips in. Deflated, I sit down and contemplate if things are still feasible...
Just Do It
I wake up with the Nike marketing moto and decide to just go with the two trips and not to delay the trip any more knowing that the area dries up over summer. Quickly checking, the pack weight with the boat is 26 kg without water, I can definitely do it.
Quickly visiting my brother and sister on the way down turns into a half-day work detail volunteering to help my sister setup some semi-permanent tents for her nature conservation project. It's getting close to 5pm and I've only just crossed into NSW. This could be a long trip down. I put my trust in my navigation app and blindly head off following backroads south. Random rest area at 1am (2am AEDT) for the night.
Up with the sun rising, I continue down to Thredbo, arriving around 3:30pm (4:30pm AEDT) the following day.
2019-12-14 (Day 1)
Climbing to the roof of Australia
Original plans were to do a single day hike around the circuit, but with all of the delays I was itching to get moving. Quickly checking with the info office about any possible crime issues (reg. car packing in random places) and polices regarding bush camping, I head off. There is apparently very limited issues with crime there, and I intentionally had allowed the car to look very dirty to make it look cheap. Back country camping is also permitted with some restrictions.
With a light overnight pack with a bivy & one day's food, I start the walk up at 5:10pm (all times now in AEDT). With the lifts closed, the trails are fairly deserted and the day is pleasantly cool but with an overcast sky casting a moody light. With the church bells randomly ringing in the distance, the old burn damage and the cry of distant crows it feels slightly apocalyptic, I can't help but think of the GoT episode of Targaryen and King's Landing (spoilers / nsfw). It was strangely foreboding...
The tramp up is fairly easy but steep. I can see why there are no footprints heading up the climb, just down. I pass 4 groups heading down, before getting to the plateau. I seem to have Mount Kosciuszko all to myself and take in the views of the last remaining snow caps and mountain meadows filled with the early summer flowers. The crispness in the air reminds me of home, and I can't remember the last time that I couldn't recently smell smoke after our horror fire season in QLD / Nth NSW.
Nearing the top and getting close to sunset, I see a Sydney couple camping on the main ridge towards Muellers Pass. They join me and another cyclist to watch the cloudy sunset. In the twilight hour, I descend down the ridge to make camp and cook a meal.
2019-12-15 (Day 2)
Party at the summit
The bivy works well but not so well with the summer weight sleeping bag with the passing clouds drifting across the ridgeline. Convection heatloss was considerable and I regretted only taking a single underlayer up. I slept fully clothed. I first woke up around 2am, unsure if it was the cold, moonlight or random flash from meteors waking me. In the distance I see someone trekking around Mt Townsend (2,209m Australia's second highest peak), and wonder why they are up and about at this time. Sunrise finally started around 5:15am and I head for the summit. Low and behold, I find a large group of star gazers at the summit, maybe 45 people? I was glad I decided to follow the regulations and not bivy right on the summit itself! Before the sun had a chance to rise, the star gazers made their way off the summit and I again had Koscie to myself. Using an artic trick of boiling water the night before for breakfast using a thermos, I sat down and watched the sun rise with a hot cuppa and even some hot porridge.
After an hour or so, I start the journey down. I pass a pair of Swiss tourists that were a bit perplexed seeing another walker on the summit trail at 6am, and a few more as I descended down the Dead Horse Gap Trail. True to it's name, there was a large mass of dead Snow Gum Trees creaking and grinning in the wind and crows squawking in the distance, but there was also a lot of life as the gums were regenerating from their base. I saw my first snake of the journey, a full grown alpine copperhead basking in the sun just off the track. True to their gentle nature, it quickly scurried off before I got close.
After arriving back at Thredbo, I make a trip down to Tom Groggin. There seems to be enough water flowing, so I take that as a greenlight and head back to the Cascade Trailhead and get ready to packhorse the kayak in. With the kayak and 7 days food, I estimate that I've got about 26 kg without water, 28 kg with. It takes a bit over 3 hours to get to the Cascade Hut which is about 10 km along the trail. I feel absolutely stuffed when I get there. I am not sure if it was the heat, poor night's sleep or simply the additional 3 or 4 kg in the pack, but I sit down and zone out for an hour to rest before setting up camp for the night. Some weekend warrior hikers and anglers that I was chatting to at the trailhead were the last humans that I've seen, and the place seems to be truly remote compared to the summit experience last night. Around the creek across the plain a family of brumbies can be seen munching away. Graceful animals, I can see why some people like them, but I'm also wondering why there is so much horse scat around.
2019-12-16 (Day 3)
Horses, figuratively and literally
After waking up with the sun, I decided to sleep in a bit for the long walk ahead. I finally arise at 8am before leaving at 9am. I soon see another team of wild horses, then again a couple more at Tin Mine Huts, and more on the trails. Other than the constant snorting of horses, the day was fairly uneventful, but the lack of water is starting to become apparent. I found a couple of litres was not really enough, and most of the streams are either dry or trampled into bogs. A seep going across the road before the snow gum trail was gratefully utilised. I continue on and make camp a km before the Pilot Creek Trailhead. The body is not really liking being a pack horse! I've definitely consumed too much water and realise I'll just have enough for brekky and will likely need to get to the Murray to get more. It's only 7 km as the birds fly so I'm not overly concerned.
With signs of horses everywhere and piles of scat up to a half metre high, these cute additions to the environment are not looking so cute anymore. Once you start to look closely it soon becomes apparent that these majestic animals are in fact really destroying the alpine environment. There are tracks everywhere and most of the small streams have been trampled into bogs. And the flies are terrible around the meadows with high horse numbers, especially the nasty little horse flies that suck your blood!
Please, before supporting any of the lobby groups, visit this pristine area yourself with an open mind on the topic. Do you want to conserve a very special place in Australia's ecosystem or allow these animals to convert this into a high country station for horses?
2019-12-17 (Day 4)
Hard Learned Lessons
Up at dawn, I make decent time down past the Pilot CK Trailhead and continue down the ridgeline. The firetail becomes grassier and there are a lot of fallen trees over the trail. Within a couple more km, the trail terminates at a small rocky outcrop. So much for the easy trail down to the Poplars that was marked on the VIC park maps I found. The Brumby trails make the bush look fairly manageable and I start marking my way down. Plan is to stick to the main ridgeline, following the spur directly down to Limestone Ck rather than the Poplars.
At 11:30am, I stop for a rest and finish off the last of the water I was rationing from the day before. Definitely starting to get dehydrated. As I pick up my pack, my MSR stove falls to the ground. What the... the top lid of my pack has been ripped open. Panic sets in as I realise I have also lost a dry bag that contains my wallet and I drop my pack and start backtracking. The bush was extremely thick here, and I quickly realise that this was a stupid move. I turn around after maybe 25m. However with the dehydration, I was slightly disorientated and nearly miss my pack on the way back down. Any further and I would have lost everything 50km from the nearest road. Definitely never leave any of your key gear when doing anything solo! I keep heading down.
After another hour or so, I leave the ridge for the valley in hopes of finding some water on the way down. It is fairly difficult steep terrain and I stumble a few times scrambling down. The stream bed is trampled flat by the horses and is dry. Some signs of moisture give me hope. It's about another 30 minutes before I find a rocky section that the horses couldn't navigate and find a tiny pool of filthy looking water. I place my trust in the water filter and get maybe a 50ml of water. I must have been really dehydrated as that gives me a significant boost of energy. Within 30 minutes I make it to the Murray and jump in to both cool off and drink. I stash the boat with the spare food I was carrying, giving myself 2 days food to get back to the car.
Original plans were to go up to the source from here, but with the lost bag I'm hoping heading up would find it again. Having hydrated and filtering 2.5L I head back up the way I came down. It's effectively impossible to accurately reverse the trip and I resign myself to not finding the bag. As I pass what is about the 5th Red Belly Black snake today, I start to contemplate what else was in the lost bag. Wallet, new 360 camera ($250), personal hygiene things including toothbrush, toilet paper, as well as spare batteries, headlamp ($175), oh crap, the PLB ($450) and first-aid kit. With low cut boots, the only snake protection are my merino leggings and lose thin cotton pants. I feel the anxiety levels rise as I realise that I am only on day 3 of an estimated 6 to 10 day itinerary, but with only 2 days food, 1 days water left now. Only thing to do is to push on, taking additional effort to scan for any snakes. I'm also starting to notice the first signs of rubs that could turn into blisters. Spending so much time in the water and softening my feet up may be coming back to haunt me, and I have nothing to treat these with. Just to make things more fun, the smoke haze is particularly bad with very low visibility and I can't get any bearings on the 1 in 100,000 map that I was carrying, plus that this map isn't really detailed enough to navigate by the local topology. My backup GPS unit is showing a low power levels so I'll have to use that sparingly. Luckily there was nothing tricky with my route up.
I had no luck finding my bag, but being extra vigilant I was lucky enough to see a young yellow eyed whip snake as well as a few hidden red-belly or copperheads. I had some luck finding my head net that I also lost on the way down. At least the flies wouldn't drive me crazy. I continue on back all the way to the first water seep that was crossing the Cowombat Track and camp there for the night. I arrive right on dusk. What a day... 8am to 7:40pm with only a 30 minute rest at the Murray River
Lesions learnt were:
- 1:25,000 map is warranted if your heading off-trail. Smoke haze cut visibility to about 1 km.
- Double secure everything. The top flap of my pack was the only thing that didn't have a secondary clip or string holding it secure. It was also the only thing that was not being crushed under the weight of the kayak, so this was why I used it. It was the first time that flap failed in 15 years, but this single failure cost me approx. $1,000. Normally this bag would have been safely deep inside the main pack compartment.
- Take enough water to get through to safe water sources. I've seen 0.5L per hour activity in moderate heat, 1L per hour in hotter conditions recommended. I should have been carrying double what I had.
2019-12-18 (day 5)
Joy of blisters
I get up early and I'm on the track by 6am hoping to push it out all the way to the car with some time left in the day to call up the bank about my lost wallet.
Break at Tin Mine Ck for brekky and I'm lucky to find a needle with the compass. I can use it to pop two deep blisters on my soles to prevent them from growing. Nothing other than waterproof notepad paper for dressings that doesn't really work. I keep pushing to the road with periodic blister maintenance stops as the other rubs blister too. My feet were in a fine state by the time I got to the car, but I had more pressing issues. $4.35 in change, 10% battery on the phone and 350 km fuel in the tank, this could be tricky to sort replacement cards or even food if I can't get any money out!
Ringing the bank doesn't help with both the call person and their supervior saying that I was f'ed without any ID and that I should get friends or family to drive 1,500 km down from QLD to pick me up. Having just hiked 33 km with untreated blisters I nearly lost it with them, but I just ground my teath and insisted in getting details of the nearest branch. There really was no plan B. Knowing Albury was the destination, I head down to Tom Groggin to camp for the night. I should make it with some fuel to spare, just.
2019-12-19 (day 6)
Enforced rest day to sort things and let my feet recover a bit. Not really much to say other than I had no issues with the banks, just had to answer enough questions to prove that I was the real owner of the account. Luckily a replacement card from my personal account. I picked up a basic PLB that was on special and a cheap replacement headlamp. Special shout out for the teller at Costello Rural, Corryong VIC. You're a bloody legend!
Oh year, it was incredibly hot in the mid-40's and everything was so tinder dry. I arrived back at camp to be informed of a total 7-day fire ban, not even gas stoves were allowed. So I made some cold nachos (beans, chips, cheese & avo) that tasted so bloody good after the rationed food I was having on the trail. After chatting to the neighbours, I carefully organised everything for the next leg, from Cowombat Flats down the Murray to Tom Groggin. This was the real unknown factor in the trip.
NSW government were pre-emptively calling a state of emergency. But things were not as dry as what it was like in QLD / Nth NSW when the fires there got out of control, so I decided to risk it and stick to my plans.
2019-12-20 (day 7)
Mind over matter
Even with the late night (10pm) and a restless sleep, I'm up before 5:40am. First task is to treat my blisters and see how much they have recovered. The pain from walking for the first few dozen metres were like walking on broken glass, but focusing on other things reduces the pain, eventually. Leg 2 is on! I pack and walk out to the road to start hitching for the Cascade trailhead. Just 3 minutes later I'm pickup by my neighbours Lisa & Tim who decided to head up the Dead Horse Gap. Great start!
Once on the trail, I am instantly meet with a few teams of Brumbies that are grazing on the fragile peat bog grasses. There were even a couple of rusa deer stamping their feet before running off. Definitely the first person on the track today!
I get to the top of the Bobs Ridge before stopping to do the first of multiple blister maintenance checks for the day. Using cotton wool with a dry antiseptic powder to speed to harden these up as much as possible. In 3 days I'll be in the water. The pain seems to get higher and higher with each stop / treatment, but I seem to be getting better blocking that out.
Just a short way down from the top of Bobs Ridge, I am carelessly throwing my walking poles wide and disturb a small copperhead onto the trail. I notice just as I'm about to stand of the poor snakes head, and manage to push down on my poles to hop up. We both look at each other in surprise for a moment before the snake rushes off the track.
The rest of the walk was relatively uneventful as I made it to Tin Mines Creek Bridge where I camp for the night. Having learnt from the previous trip, I filter 4L of water for the next leg of the trip at the creek, just in case the seep just before the snow gums trail is dry. I am really hoping that there is water at Cowombats Flats if not before!
Arriving at camp early, I had time to contemplate things. Today was hot, maybe in the low 30's and I've probably drunk 10L of water. Tomorrow's forecast is for more of the same. Feeling slightly dehydrated, only taking 4L could be a bit of a risk. While the Murray was running where I dropped my kayak off, I was unsure where this water was actually coming from. All maps show that Limestone Ck is the largest of the basins in the upper Murray area, and that's 30 km away. I could not see any sign of increased smoke, albeit that would be hard to tell with the smoke haze already coming in from fires from both VIC and NSW. It has definitely dried out more in the last couple of days and I really shouldn't be walking here in these conditions. And I'm starting to contemplate trying the Murray Gorge solo as the flows going to be too low for any commercial operators. I wonder if I have a high risk tolerance at the moment or is I'm just being reckless!
2019-12-21 (day 8)
My adopted Australian spirit animal and Murray River source(s)
I am up early after the early night. I realise that I have hardly used the touch at all this trip, rather my circadian rhythm is definitely in sync with the sun. I find this slightly strange coming from the IT world where your use to drinking strong coffees into the small hours of the morning. It is definitely a lot cooler first thing and that is some relief before the head of the day kicks in. My blisters are definitely getting better with the fastidious treatments, and these were way less painful today as I head out.
I make quick time today, only stopping once to top up my water at the seep before the Snow Gums trail. There were a few others coming down off the Pilot but I don't bother stopping for these. I'm at Cowombat Flats by 11am and get ready for a walk up to the source. Lesions learnt for the gear drop means I will be taking up basic supplies with a few days food. The joys of solo adventure...
The Murray River effectively started from a spring right at the intersection of the tracks at the border. Within 200m upstream, it was completely dry. The streambed is still easy to follow but shows a lot of signs of being flattened by the horses. At least the horse trails make it extremely easy walk up to the Black-Allen line.
The scrub seems to be a lot healthier as you approach the line. With minimal interest in finding the stone cairn marking the border, I happily took this as a sign not to waste time finding a pile of rocks, rather to spend more time exploring the various dry tributaries. It was a bit boggy in places near the line, I wonder if this was where the original explorers defined this as the source? I walk around the scrub to avoid starting additional new game trails for the horses to use and miss the unofficial marker that is used to indicate the source. I only found out about this after coming back home, apparently it is here: 36° 47' 49.3" S, 148° 11' 48.3" E
The smallest (E) and longest (N) tributaries splits into a number of smaller arms, but all are bone dry. It is the second longest arm (WNW) has two active seeps, but only one that is flowing enough to obtain some water from it. Maybe 100 ml per minute flow. Could this be the true source? The second seep was moist and I meet up with another Red Belly snake. It watched me for a bit, then casually slithered off into the bushes. With the frequency I'm seeing these little guys, I think it's a sign that they have decided to adapt me into their family. They will be my AU totem animal.
After exploring for a bit, and a bit unsatisfied about not having found any really obvious source*, I head out directly west onto the Cowombat trail to head back to Cowombat Flats. I returned to Cowombat Flats and decide to make camp for the day even though it was still very early. I was a bit surprised to see another hiker walk up from the south around lunch time and wave out to him. He was walking the Australian Alps Walking Track solo and a bit surprised to see me too. He walks over and we have a chat.
Ant was from Sydney and like me, this was his first major solo expedition and he had just quit his job, I just walked away from my business. He's just by past a section of the trail due to a fire near Omeo, restarting from Limestone Ck. He also told me about a dry cold front coming over this evening. With that in mind, I decide to move camp away from the trees and into the open field near a small pond. I guess the horses do create good firebreaks by eating everything. Ant heads off exploring as I chill and rest my feet. We break bread over a meal and watch smoke haze come in, Late in the afternoon, the cool change comes through and there is no lightning & the smoke clears a bit. Thankfully with no obvious immediate fire risk, there is no need for a fire watch through the night.
* This will be true for most river systems. The Codamine River, the basin's true source, starts from an obvious spring that you can see from the road. Other systems have a clearly defined geographic feature if they don't go all the way to the end of the tributaries, such as the Mississippi River which is defined as Lake Itasca rather than from one of the peat bogs the feed the lake itself.
2019-12-22 (day 9)
The journey begins
While Mt Kosciuszko and the exploration of the dry upper sections near the Black-Allen line were part of the overall complete trip, actually starting down the flowing Murray River makes it feel like I am finally truly starting the trip that I have been planning and preparation for the last 3 months.
I accompany Ant down the Murray along the Pilot CK Trail for about 200m until the Pilot Ck itself meets the Murray. I farewell him and head to the confluence. The small trickle of the Murray is much boosted by the Pilot Ck. I briefly ponder about Limestone Ck which is definitely longer, but does Pilot Ck also pit the upper Murray if the climate dries out more!? Should the source be defined by an ephemeral or perennially water source? The upper sections of the Murray could easily become more ephemeric if the weather of the last decade becomes the norm.
I don't ponder for long and start down the creek along the streambank. This proves to be fairly difficult and slow going with the pack and Kayak paddles. I quickly change strategies and start wading in the Murray instead. This was way easier and I only left the creek about a dozen times on the way down. Mostly to bypass large log jams, but I was initially bypassing any ponds deeper than my waste to ensure that the gear in the pack wouldn't get wet. I did had dry bags, but the gear wasn't yet packed into these yet. After bypassing a couple of these deeper pools, I remember the Army advert with the troops holding their packs over their heads as they traversed deep rivers. So I tried and this worked a treat. I think the deepest pool just made it up to my chin, so being 183 cm (6'), this must have been about 170cm (5'5") deep. Twice I needed my rock climbing skills to traverse the cliffs beside two small waterfalls that fell into deep pools. Again, if I had packed my gear into dry bags, I could have simply done a small cliff jump off each of these. Both about 1m to 2m jumps.
Overall the upper section of the Murray made for a very pleasant day. There was a mix of streambeds with fine gravels or small boulders, cool pools and rocky parts in steeper narrower sections as it cut it's way down the cliffs. The terrain around the river is mixed scrub mainly, with fairly sparse trees. Log jams were fairly common, but there were well worn Brumby trails nearby making these easy to bypass. The highlight of the trip was my first encounter with a small Tiger snake sitting on a log jam that I wanted to hop over. It wasn't aggressive but also didn't really want to risk getting wet if it moved out of my way. It took a couple minutes to convince it to move so I could hop over the jam. This and the other Tiger snake I saw were so young that they looked very petite and similar to tree snakes. Apparently there are no other snakes with this stripping. The tiger is the fourth most venomous snake in the world and is responsible for nearly as many bites and fatalities as the Brown snakes. Maybe some additional care was needed. I also disturbed about 5 Red Bellies that were basking on the banks. One seemed to panic and made a heck of a commotion moving away. Unsighted, I stayed very still before hopping up a nearby boulder where I saw it trapped by a small bank. One tap of my walking stick and it paniced again but this time it managed to climb the bank and it disappeared deep into the push at full speed. A small Marsh snake was also seen hunting frogs and a noisy family of yellow-tailed black cockatoos chatted to me as I passed through.
I make camp beside the kayak drop point, glad it was safe from both humans and animals. I saw recent human tracks about half way down the gorge and again crossing the river a few times around the Limestone Ck confluence. Was someone else doing the trip? It was difficult to judge the age of the upper footprints (damaged vegetation), but the lower prints were definitely freshly made within the last 24 hours. I make a cold tea, having run out of gas making the morning coffee. Couscous and Tuna, cooks in 3 minutes or in 10 minutes cold. It tasted surprisingly good and slightly different to the cooked version. Most of the food I brought allowed me to go stoveless if needed. Albeit uncooked oats are not recommended! I hear a couple of muffled shouts in the distance. I guess there must be someone at the Poplars, maybe the upper prints were really old and the lower prints were from someone trying to catch themselves a meal. They would have been likely disappointed, I had only seen small trout fry in the river to date.
2019-12-23 (day 10)
Drag of a day
I wake refreshed and get ready for what should be a fun paddle down to Tom Groggin. Little did I know about the past trips down this section and I knew nothing about flows other than the last few years have been low even with record snowfalls.
I have brekky and blow up the boat. I hold my breath while checking for any holes that might have happened on the way down or by animals when it was stashed by the river. Nothing! I drag it down to the river and strap in my pack. I'm off. The first 50 m was very pleasant paddling down to the first rapid where the kayak bottoms out. Bugger. Out I get and I drag it down into the next pool which was much shallower. I don't have much hope as I hop in and it bottoms out instantly. A bit frustrating, but I start dragging it down the pool and next rapids only to find the next pool was also too shallow to paddle too. This continues all the way down to the Poplars where I pop out to assess the situation. Maybe 1km in just under 1 hr. I don't have my notes in front of me, but I vaguely remember it was about 45 km, or about 5 full days at this rate. Surely it wouldn't be this bad all the way down? Concerned about what could be downstream, I push on.
I'm fairly stuffed by the time I reached the Kings Plain Track, just 7 km into the journey and about 7 hrs in. Things definitely had not gotten any better, but at least they hadn't gotten any worse. It's been fairly demoralising so far and my frustration levels were super high, so I'm not sure what kept me motivated to keep going, but I decided to push on. I had some hope things would improve when the Tin Mine Ck joined. I make it a couple more km before collapsing on a small beach. About a quarter of the way down, so maybe four days. Five days food left and six days before the family call in the search party. Four days to backtrack as I don't like the idea of trying Davies Plain track (est. 2 days) without knowing anything about it, and bush bashing up these steep hills does not look appealing.
A few log jams but I could haul my kayak over these. Single portage on a rather large log jam about 2 m high, albeit I actually just un-tied and walked my pack around before hauling the kayak up and over.
I filter some water for a dinner and I get a visit from another Tiger snake (remembering I'm thinking this was a small harmless snake). It was swimming down the river and makes a beeline straight for me by the shore and just watches me. Kind of cute but slightly perplexing. I use a stick to tap near it and it swims out and then turns back in to come into the shore to stare at me again. Additional taps don't even nudge it, and I have to use the stick to gently flick it across the river. The current takes it downstream and it seems to have got the point and doesn't attempt to come back.
Stupid sandals are starting to cause me rubs. Keen Clearwater Waterproof Hybrid Sandals to be specific. They are made with a fairly stiff plastic and don't soften in the water. Darn sales rep at Wild Earth talked me into them for the "toe protection" over normal Teva's. Not very happy about this at the moment, I hope tape will stop these from getting worse.
I finish tea and jump into the bivy early. That's me for the day.
2019-12-24 (day 11)
Place one foot in front of the other, repeat
10 hours dragging the kayak today, well maybe 9 hr 30 min dragging with 30 minutes paddling. Most frustrating day yet. I'm carrying the pack again as it makes it easier to drag the kayak down the shallow rapids. Finding it slightly safer using two walking sticks to avoid slipping on the boulders that seem to be getting bigger and that makes walking in the river more difficult and potentially more dangerous. These are all covered with a fine layer of silt and algae. For most of the day, I had my head down and focused on simply stepping forward while dragging the kayak.
Limited highlights were from a couple of the deeper stretches early in the morning where I spotted two platypus and one native water rat (Hydromys chrysogaster). Around lunchtime, I picked up a large yabby or other freshwater crayfish, about 20cm long. It would make a nice change from Tuna, but being so early in the day, I decided to let it go. I get a nasty pinch as I put it back into the water and nearly reconsider putting cray back on the menu for dinner. I let it go. Really not much to say other than I'm glad that I was alone in the middle of nowhere so that no-one heard my yells of frustration when the kayak got stuck for the millionth time on another boulder! Also the tape doesn't prevent the new shoe rubs from getting worse and they are fairly raw now.
Passing Tin Mines Ck saw a significant increase in water flowing, but I only go another km or so before camp. Not sure what difference it is going to make yet. Bush seems more healthy here. There are some nature trails, but these are much smaller to the Brumby trails up the top. These must be from deer.
2019-12-25 (day 12)
What a difference a 1/4 cubic makes (9 cubic ft)
The flow from the Tin Mines Ck was significant and I'm finding dragging the kayak much easier. Estimated that I dragged the kayak for about 80% of the day though, but even the tiny bit of paddling was a bit of a life saver for my sanity. I also make more progress, from averaging 1.3 km / hr, I'm up to 1.8 km / hr!! I made it past the Leather Barrel Ck. Frustration levels decreasing, enjoyment level increasing.
I saw another platypus early in the morning and starting to be able to enjoy the beauty of the river and terrain more. What a difference paddling is over staring directly down at boulders as you stubble your way down the river. I also see some deer grazing along the river banks and even spooked a sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) to run out across the river in front of me.
I was absolutely oblivious to the date and I didn't realise it was Christmas day. All of my original plans had me out of the park before Christmas so I had not even considered tracking the date during my visit here.
Front row seat!
The additional water from Cascade and Leather Barrel Creeks as well as a few that are running from Davies Plains on the VIC side are definitely helping. Averaging about 65% max speed capacity for my kayak at a massive 2 km / hr now. I also get some fun small rapids that were unexpected, even got out of the boat to scout out a couple, including a 2m wide Chute that ended with a 1m drop down. This is more like it!
An hour or so down the river, I witnessed something straight out of an African safari. I was paddling down and a deer bursts out of nowhere into the creek in front of me. I'm about 10 m away but it is completely obvious to me. Moments later I discover why, with three dingos running out, two from the NSW side and one from the VIC side. The leader tries to bite into the doe's hind quarters, but in the deeper water, the deer seems to have the upper hand and manages to kick off the dingo and nearly runs into me. At this point all 4 animals see me and two of the dogs back off into the bush. The pack leader is not impressed and casually wonders up and stands over me from a rock on the side of the river. It either has no fear instinct of humans or its veins are still flooded with adrenaline from the hunt. The doe just stomps the water, its alarm call. After a minute, the dingo wonders off and I'm left alone with the deer. From a fight reaction with the dingos, the deer seems to have frozen after seeing me and just stands there catching its breath while periodically stomping with its front leg. It has some minor cuts to its rump and one ear is ripped, but none of the injuries appear to be too serious. After a few minutes, it gets a second wind and runs off into the bush. Not something you see every day!
Around 1pm I turn a corner and I know I must be close. 200 meters in front of me is a 4wd parked in the river and the family are sitting in the river cooling down. One way to keep your cool on a hot summer's day. I say hello and am fairly amused at their perplexed reaction knowing they want to ask where the heck I came from. I keep going. Pass a few more people randomly in the last km down to the camp ground and I let my guard down and start to relax. Within minutes I turn my ankle, something that I have been concentrating so hard for the last 5 days not to do. Like my uncle use to say, accidents are always most likely to occur with the last few minutes of your destination. How right he was. Luckily it isn't too bad, and no action required other than a few minutes resting my ankle in the cool waters of the river. I continue on to the camp and drag the kayak up onto the shore near where I had parked.
The campground has filled up since I was away. From 6 to about 100 groups. I had parked my car beside one of the choice locations and was pleasantly surprised that it was still free. I binge eat some chips and drunk some Staminaid. I started to feel a sensory overload being make in civilization. It wasn't anxiety or anything, but it was really bizarre feeling. A mild hallucinogen-like feeling mixed with some dizziness and depression or fear-like emotion that was creating a strong feeling of isolation. Maybe it was the relief of making it safely back, a carbohydrate surge, or I really don't know! Trevor and his wife who are camping beside me, pop over and starts chatting. They have been here for nearly a week and were wondering about the mystery Mazda that was parked beside them. Clearly I must have also looked to be in a bit of a state and I was offered a can of Solo (a sugary lemon flavoured soft drink) that I gratefully accept. The additional sugar rush was nearly overwhelming. Maybe it was the sugar? Is this what a sugar hit is like when your 5 years old? I manage to keep it together while talking and I set up my tent. Thankfully, my body chemistry is definitely starting to normalise again.
Some additional research points to a combo of Corticotropin and weightloss as probably factors for this reaction.
Corticotropin, specifically Corticotropin-releasing factor, is part of the body's normal stress response but is also been shown to be released by social isolation.
Weightloss, I hadn't weighed myself before or after, but I had lost enough to be visually noticable by everyone that saw me before and after the trip. While I had 8 days food supply for this leg, this was a fairly hard rationed amount and had supidily eaten some of the additional snacks at Limestone Ck. A rough kJ tally;
- Oats 570 kJ
- Energy bars 2,100 kJ
- Couscous & Tuna 2,000 KJ
- 4,670 kJ (1,116 Cal)
So about 30% of the energy requirment for "extremely active" activities. I'd say dragging a kayak over rocks falls into the category!
Once settled, I head out to Corryong to top up supplies. Still totally oblivious to the date, I'm totally perplexed that everything is closed, including the petrol stations. Only the visitor information centre, pub and IGA are open. I pop into the info centre and discover why... it's Boxing Day. I discover that Rafting Australia still do raft the Murray Gorge and that there is also the Harrington Track that traverses the gorge. I stock up on a few supplies from the IGA and head back. I didn't really restock much as the IGA doesn't have a great range of good camping food. The petrol station that was open earlier in Khancoban was closed. Crap, only 200 km range left in the tank. Should be enough I think, as long as I don't loss my replacement bank card.
Rest day #2
I make a supply run to Jindabyne after doing a food audit and I am slightly short. I'm going to attempt the gorge, which is 25 km and another 25 km flat water after that. Worst case scenario, 5 days but I'm expecting less. One day spare in case hitching doesn't work out and I'm forced to walk the trail back (40 km).
A dry storm rolls though with just a few raindrops and you can hear the rumble of thunder in the distance. I hope there haven't been any dry lightning strikes. Trevor's wife keeps coming over and offering me small treats like chocolate. She's so sweet. They had left Batemans Bay NSW to escape the smoke that has been affecting the town for weeks. I didn't grab any contact details, so I am really hoping that they and their house are ok after the bad fire that came though after New Year's Eve, destroying a number of houses of the town and cutting off the residents there.
I do my best to dry treat my battle warry feet. Blisters are fairly good, but the rubs are showing signs of infection. Just a couple more days. My left ankle is definitely slightly swollen from the turn yesterday. Luckily nowhere bad enough to stop the trip, but maybe worth some tape tomorrow.
Murray Gorge in a Duckie
Up early and find that most of the camp ground is still asleep. I quickly pack and head out into the river with a few butterflies in my stomach. Since I was originally considering a paid rafting trip, I haven't even read the guides for the gorge. All I knew was that it was mainly some class 3 rapids with a couple harder class 4 rapids. Some of the longest class 3 runs in the country if I remember rightly. What could go wrong...
I find a few fun small rapids as I traverse down towards Murray Gates with mostly long deep pools. People seem to have found camping spots all the way down to Grassy Flats Rd and pop out into the Murray from the most random places. It's that time of year! I soon leave the paddocks of Tom Groggin Station and get back into fully forested areas and once past Grassy Flats Rd I am truly alone again for the third time in this trip. True solitude is hard to find now days.
I paddle for about 13 km wondering when I'll hit the more serious sections of the gorge. With every small rapid I went through, I wonder if I was already in it but didn't notice because of the low water flow. As the river swings westwards, I finally get to what I believe is the Murray Gates, fairly mellow in the low flow, but the next 4 km down to Hermit Ck definitely have a lot more life in them, before these start to mellow as the river slowly levels out through the remainder of the gorge.
With the low flow I could mostly read and run the river and only had to scout out a couple of drops. Wrapped the kayak once above the gorge and once just below Hermit Creek (second of the harder rapids). The occasional broach and swam once after flipping the kayak. Both the long class 3 sections were like a maze of small boulders to navigate, and I had to zig-zag my way down what were likely class 1/2 rapids. Both would have had a fun pour over drops to exit, but in the low flow the only path through was a 10cm sieve between large boulders and I had to drag the kayak over those. Only one true portage on the way down to bypass a log jam. There was really no choice for what path to take down most of the time, you either paddled or dragged, but I did find and sneak past one narrow gate that seemed to have a possible nasty hole that could have pinned me it I got caught. Generally the inflatable was less responsive than I desired, but it happily bounced off rocks / boulders and pointed itself back down the right path with minimal effort. At times I felt a bit like being in a pin-ball as I bounced my way down some sections.
It is fairly obvious why it is not recommended for solo trips like mine, especially with zero experience, as the river would be much harder with a higher flow and it would be much more dangerous. The 5 km section between the gates and Hermit Ck would be extremely difficult to traverse along the banks, it is fairly steep country and fairly healthy with thick bush. No Brumby trails down here. By the time you get to Hermit Ck as the river swings north, there is one more short and hard rapid, before significantly easing off. At that point it would be easy to get onto the Harrington track, but unless you lost your boat and swam down the gorge, there would be no reason to leave the river at this point.
I make camp just before the Bunroy Ck takeout spot. I wonder to myself if that the end of the rapids now as I make camp and allow myself to unwind after the last four or five hours of intense concentration needed to navigate the gorge safely. Overall this was one of the most fun days on the trip, maybe 99.9% paddling and just 0.1% dragging. I had ditched tape dressing on my blisters / rubs for thick socks. This must have looked really strange but really worked a treat. I wish I had considered that at the Poplars, no actually I wish I hadn't brought the Keens in the first place! I'd been better off just wearing my hiking boots from Cowombat Flats.
Phase one complete!!!!
The cicadas must have been confused with the smoke haze and the moon as they start screeching at 5am. I find it impossible to go back to sleep as they continue their chorus through to dawn. I get going by about 7:05am.
There is one more significant rapid at the take out, but these slowly mellow out completely. The bush starts to loss it vibrancy and the flies / horse flies start to become common again as you near the end of the gorge. I am guessing that there is either a dairy farm or or horses just around the corner! I only see a couple of deer and a single wallaby in this final section, definitely nowhere as healthy as the more remote gorge.
Farmland, people and cows, lots of cows. Definitely time for the head net again. I pity the poor cows that have about 500 flies feeding off their tear glands. Before long I start to find cow jams in the water. It seems like there is absolutely no fencing to keep the animals from the water and the cows, particularly those that are being milked, are walking into the river to cool off while they chew their cud. Definitely no environmental protection here as the Murray changes from crystal clear waters into an opaque greeny brown muck around these sections. If you needed read between the lines, the cows spend half the day shitting directly into the water, and must inject enough E. coli to cause even Adelaide issues which is 2,500 km away.
This change in the water quality appears to trigger an almost instant change in the rivers fauna. From one or two healthy Brown Trout per pool, you now get a half dozen Carp per pool. Most of the carp seem to feed in the shallows. And the streambeds are lined with Willows and Poplars that grow into the river making for living sieves along the banks and even fully across the river in places. Definitely something to watch downstream when the current increases, these sieves can be fairly dangerous. And the drone of water pumps irrigating the fields becomes a constant background noise.
Besides the negatives, the country looks a lot like the NZ high country. Golden brown hillsides with willow and poplars everywhere. Born and raised in Central Otago in my early years, it makes me a bit home sick. I continue on and follow the river as it snakes it way across the landscape. Around every 5th corner I seem to find a caravan or tent with holiday makers enjoying their short holiday break. I do wonder if they know of the 1,000 cows upstream that are polluting the water. I am finding that I am having to drag the kayak a fair bit, but nowhere as much as the upper section. I make it to the Swampy Plains River confluence at 6:20pm and the Murray River instantly changes from a high country creek to a real flowing river. Shortly afterwards, I make it to the Bringenbrong Bridge right on 7pm. Just under 12 hrs on the river today. Too late to consider hitching, I unpack and organise what to take with me while hitching and what to stash. And it gives me a chance to dry a few things out. I can actually carry almost everything, which is great as if I can't get a ride, I will seriously consider the Harrington track to get back to Tom Groggin Campground!
I have the rest area to myself. I cook tea and rise my dishes in the river before setting up the bivy for the night.
The butterfly effect
I get up early and make breakfast. Already packed from the day before, I start hitching early, around 7:20. With the road heading due east, this idea wasn't planned out that well. Before 9am, the sun is directly in the driver’s eyes and they will struggle to see me. And the roads are not particularly busy, maybe 10 cars per hour and mostly locals heading to work. I think aiming for around mid-day to catch the tourist traffic would have been better. I get a ride with a local to Khancoban (15km), shout out to Gary for this! This gets me to a store and the parks office to talk about plan B, the Harrington track. They confirm that there are no transport options, and to even consider walking that track, I would have to cut across back over the ridge towards Biggara, maybe an additional 10 km added to the track distance from here. Looks like I will have to hitch from here. Daniel and his mum Marianne pulled up opposite to where I was hitching in Khancoban. Little did I know at the time, but they were driving out to ring up their insurance company about a car warranty issue and this was where they first got mobile coverage. They eventually sort it and offer me a ride to Geehi Flats campground, which I gratefully accept. Only 22 km away now, and I'm right next to the Bicentennial National Trail as a fall back. Within just a few minutes, a couple avid fishers pop out of Geehi and pick me up. They are headed for Tom Groggin to check out the river there. Maybe this is why you never see hitchhikers, you seem to get a ride incredibly fast!
Arriving back at the campground, I quickly pack up and get ready to head north. I really wanted to get back since the first leg had taken a week longer than originally planned; 4 days manually pack muling the kayak in; 2 days dragging the kayak in low flow; as well as the day to Albury to replace lost gear. I was a bit concerned with the knowledge that we were about to be hit another few high fire danger days. Warnings were for a slightly lower fire danger rating than those I naively ignored from the week before when I done the main push to complete the source to Tom Groggin leg. My plans were to drive to about dusk, and finish off the trip home the following day.
It bloody hot and windy once I leave the park. The car thermometer tells me it in the mid 40's. My navigation app again sends me along back roads again, but I'm heading north, so that is a good sign. I can see large storm clouds in the distance. I double take after seeing some Firies on active duty in full kit preparing their units. It's a large fire out norwest! Still seems to be a long way off and I cross my fingers that my route doesn't take me any further west. Luckily it doesn't, but I get directed onto smaller and smaller backroads as the sky becomes darker. A slightly nervous 20 min period driving before I hit blue skies again. I wasn't fully sure about where I was, but I believe this smoke was from the Dunns Road fire.
Soon I start to cross major roads again and make good time north. I think my careless decision to wash my dishes directly in the Murray River yesterday has come back to bite me, and I'm fighting a bad case of the trots by about 3pm. I decide to continue on rather than car camping, at least till my gut settles down a bit. By the time I arrive at Moree, I feel a bit better but also still fairly awake, and I decide to push on home.
Home was only 4 hrs away of what should be easy night driving. Little did I know that there were a million mobs of Roos between Goondiwindo and Warrick, and unlike most, they were still easily spooked and actively running onto the road. Eventually I make it through without incident, and get into more forested hilly country. Then a large male runs out of nowhere from the left and I have no time to react before hitting him. Both front air bags pop and I'm forced off the road. Assessing the damage, the impact killed the Roo instantly and has made a seemingly minor impact to the front grill and bonnet. Radiator appears to have been slightly pushed in, but there are no leaks and the fan seems to be running smoothly. Being in the middle of absolutely nowhere, no wallet nor ID other than a single bank card, I decide to continue on and thankfully make it back without further incidents. Reflecting back at my decisions, the last 50 / 50 call was the decision to wash my plate in the river rather than wiping down / boiling water to clean these. If I had simply wiped these down, I would have followed the exact same path all the way to about Orange where I would have stayed from the night.
But I'm home safely and all I can do now is to sort out my car and get ready for the next leg. While much longer, I have a feeling it will be a lot less eventful than the first few legs!
Update (14 Jan)
It was a fairly painless no fault insurance claim. It will take another week or two for the claim to pay out, but I may just get a cheap bomb now rather than waiting. I still deseparately need to train and in reality, the next car only needs to do a small handful of short trips and two long trips to Adeliade and back.
It has delayed all training and I'm also behind a number of vital jobs around the house that I need to complete before I head off on leg two.