by Scott Rawstorne
I am the first to admit that I don’t have a hell of a lot of experience in whitewater. The first reason for this is there isn’t much of it in my home state of New South Wales. The second is that many years ago I was pinned under a log when I capsized a canoe on the Snowy River and I have been more than a bit wary of snags in fast moving waterways ever since. A lack of nearby whitewater paddling opportunities stopped being a valid excuse when I moved within easy driving distance of the longest whitewater trail in Australia – the 195 kilometre long Clarence Canoe & Kayak Trail. As far as being overly cautious about snags goes, I had become sick and tired of telling myself to “take a concrete pill and harden up princess” so when the opportunity came to hit the Clarence Canoe & Kayak Trail with some capable paddling buddies I grabbed it with both hands.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anais Nin
The trail is named after the Clarence River but it actually starts on the Nymboida and tumbles into the Mann before finally tracing the Clarence to the coast at Yamba. Pete, Claire and I decided to put into the Nymboida River at Pollack Bridge in Nymboida and take out at the Mann River Caravan Park in Jackadgery three days later. The Mann River Caravan Park is a convenient place to end a trip because the proprietors provide a gear hire service and the owner Lee Scarlet is more than happy to drop you and your equipment at your chosen starting point for a very reasonable fee. Most people start two day journeys from Buccarumbi or one day trips from Ramornie but we wanted to see more and stay longer so we began further upstream.
Clarence River Tourism are working on an informative guide to the Clarence Canoe & Kayak Trail. This has not yet been published but we managed to get our hands on a draft copy. It contains cautionary information which you should definitely take into consideration before you set off. Here is a paraphrased extract.
“The Clarence Canoe & Kayak Trail is not a beginners’ river! It is a grade 2-3 whitewater trail with some sections containing rapids of grade 4 difficulty… You will need intermediate-experienced canoeing/kayaking skills and an average fitness level with some sections requiring up to eight hours paddling time to complete… Some sections of the trail pass through remote inaccessible country making any rescue attempt during an emergency extremely difficult. Most of the trail has no or very limited mobile phone coverage. All party members should have previous outdoor experience, and if in the event of a medical emergency the skill to deal with the incident until medical help arrives… Deaths have occurred on the trail, but none associated with an experienced group.”
Another important factor that needs be taken into account is the water level of the river and it sometimes isn’t possible to know what that will be until a day or two beforehand. Too little and you will have to drag your gear over lots of rocks. Too much and there could be mayhem. Our target range was 1.0 to 1.4 metres in the The Mann River at Jackadgery. It was 0.7 metres when we were planning our adventure but thankfully rain brought it up to 1.2 metres just before we started and that’s where it stayed.
We arrived at the Mann River Caravan Park a day early so we would be ready and raring to go the next morning. Lee Scarlet not only agreed to take us up to Pollack Bridge at 7am, his ripping yarns kept us amused for a good portion of the remaining daylight hours. Evening entertainment was provided by a family of frogmouth owls that swooped and chattered around our campsite while we ate dinner.
Day 1 – Nymboida to Buccarumbi
Gorgeous pinks and oranges filled the sky as the sun slowly lit up the Jackadgery countryside and the riverbank where our trip would end 4 days later. It was a brilliant way to start the trip.
Lee’s morning shuttle service departed on schedule. We were joined in the Troupee by Xavier and Matty who were excited to experiencing whitewater for the first time. We strapped their Australis Bushranger canoe to the trailer with my Dagger Alchemy and Pete and Claire’s two Current Designs Pacificas and hit the road.
Xavier and Matty only had two days to spare so they were starting a little downstream from us at a private property on Frickers Road and that’s where our adventure really began. After waving goodbye to the lads, Lee drove us slowly back up the steep dirt track that had taken us down to the river. Everything seemed to be going well until about two thirds of the way up when the tyres lost traction. Soft mud had filled the tread and there was no way we were going any further unless we could take a run at it. Lee tried to roll back down the hill for another attempt but the kayak trailer had a mind of its own and started to slip off the edge of the road. There was now no going backwards and no going forwards. Was the day over before it had begun?
Luckily Xavier and Matty had not yet departed and with their help we managed to “bounce” the trailer back onto the road. Lee then reversed all the way to the bottom, threw the Troupee into gear and gunned it. There were some minor slippages along the way but he conquered the hill and we were back on track.
Pollack Bridge carries Armidale Road over the Nymboida River at Nymboida. There is a track in James Cartmill Memorial Park at the north eastern corner of the bridge which leads to a series of steep rock steps at the river’s edge. It has to be said that launching here is not straightforward. We had to use ropes to lower our fully loaded kayaks down to the water. My boat in particular seemed to weigh a ton. Note to self: consider taking dehydrated food next time instead.
We zipped down a few small rapids before coming to the Nymboida Weir. This is considered a compulsory portage and it is very tricky to negotiate. We had to lift our heavily laden kayaks onto a concrete wall on the left hand side and then slide them as gently as possible through the rocks and trees into the water five to ten metres away. This was done using ropes tied to both ends of the boats. Eventual reboarding was done by swinging into the cockpit from a low hanging callistemon branch.
According to my GPS there are 28.5 kilometres between Pollack Bridge and Buccarumbi. It took us 6 hours to complete that distance, negotiating heaps of rapids and gliding through long pools along the way. I portaged twice to avoid low hanging branches and managed to take a bath in a Grade 3 rapid known as Jaspers Falls. Claire also came out once but Pete stayed dry. Most of today’s trip was Grade 2 or less but there were a lot of rapids where it was difficult to see a line from the top to the bottom and catching an eddy in a kayak over 4 metres long is about as straightforward as bouncing a ping pong ball into a moving glass of water.
This part of the Clarence Canoe Trail is surrounded mainly by cleared grazing land but a thin row of callistemons does a great job of hiding a lot of that. Little black cormorants, pied cormorants, ducks, swallows, pheasant coucals, spangled drongos and white-faced herons were visible around the waterway and we also heard the distinctive calls of black cockatoos in the distance.
It is easy to tell when you have arrived at Buccarumbi because there is a low-level bridge across the river which is the first that you see after leaving Pollack Bridge at the start. The camping reserve is on the left just before that.
The current Buccarumbi bridge replaced a much bigger one which was built in 1875 and eventually destroyed by flood in 1946. The remains of the old bridge can still be seen here. A sign in the camping reserve says that this was the main road between Grafton and the New England Tablelands before the Gwydir Highway was completed in 1960. Incredibly there were once “two hotels at this location, one on either side of the river to cater for travellers when the river could not be crossed.” It is a lot quieter than that now. We only saw a handful of cars and the sole amenity is a lonely toilet block.
The day had been overcast and there had been some rain squalls but thankfully these cleared for long enough for us to make camp at Buccarumbi and have a relaxed dinner. While the camping stove was weaving its magic I lay back on a hiker fly and watched a huge number of small birds darting this way and that in the evening sky. Pete estimated that there were “several thousand” of them and surmised that they were probably martins munching on high flying insects.
Day 2 – Buccarumbi to Ramornie
A highlight of our night at Buccarumbi was the sound of koels calling to each other through the darkness. A lowlight was the discovery that the seam sealing job that I had done on my tent was grossly inadequate. Suffice to say that the arrival of several showers resulted in significant internal drippage.
The dampness was forgotten as soon as I left the tent. Laid out before me was a beautiful river valley panorama refreshed by morning dew and softened with low hanging wispy cloud. I grabbed my camera and made my way down to the water to capture the moment.
The clouds soon melted away and gave us a morning filled with brilliant sunshine. There were smiles all round as we raced under the Buccarumbi bridge into the first rapid of the day. This was followed by first of a series of long glassy pools where our touring kayaks felt right at home.
The flat water was punctuated regularly with Grade 1 and Grade 2 rapids. Some of these were bigger than the previous day but it was generally easier to pick a line. We negotiated most of them successfully but I portaged two rapids because of inconveniently placed fallen trees and Claire and I both managed to go for another swim.
My dunking took place on a rapid called the M&M Muncher which is known for its narrow channel and tricky rock configuration. My hugely bulbous helmet which has been a subject of ridicule and the butt of many jokes became my new best friend as it bore the brunt of an underwater boulder attack.
We must have been having fun because the 4 hours it took us to paddle from Buccarumbi to Ramornie seemed to go a lot quicker than that. We had to check and double check with families swimming in the river before we were convinced that we had reached our final destination for the day at Ramornie. The kids tried to egg us on into running the next rapid so they could watch but we told them that would have to wait until tomorrow.
Ramornie is on the inside of a right hand bend in the Nymboida River. We were greeted by a rocky shore that stretched back 20 metres in some places. It was dry now but the smooth rounded shapes of the loose stones and pebbles were a sure sign that this area is regularly underwater. To be on the safe side, we made sure our kayaks were well above the waterline before setting up camp.
The place that paddlers call Ramornie is the Nymboida Camping Area. This is the only visitor area in the Nymboida National Park and it is accessible from the Gwydir Highway via Ramornie Forest Road and T-Ridge Road. There is an expansive river flat with plenty of room for camping and a drop toilet on the plateau above. It is clear that space would sometimes be at a premium but there were very few people here today so we had our pick of the best sites. We settled on a well grassed rise with a sensational view of the river and a shady spot for our kitchen. A couple of rain squalls came through later but these were no match for the shelter that Pete created for our communal area.
Anyone who paddles regularly knows that spending time with friends away from the distractions of everyday lfe is a great way to get to know other people really well. That feeling of comraderie is magnified even further when camping is added to the mix. Pete, Claire and I spent a relaxing afternoon chatting, enjoying the serenity and going for an occasional swim.
We soon discovered that we weren’t the only ones enjoying the pleasantly warm river water. Every now and then a turtle would delight us by popping its little head above the surface for a quick look around before quietly disappearing again.
Another more elusive creature that inhabits this area is Australia’s rarest fish, the eastern freshwater cod. The NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) says that the Mann & Nymboida Rivers “are home to the only wild breeding population of eastern freshwater cod in the world.” Fishing for freshwater species such as Australian bass is allowed between November and July but the eastern freshwater cod is protected by law all year round and should never be kept.
The kids who were egging us on earlier suddenly arrived with their parents and a couple of cheap inflatable kayaks. There is vehicle access to both the top and the bottom of a single rapid at Ramornie. The family spent the rest of the day paddling down that and driving the boats back to the start for another go. I think their smiles may have been even bigger than ours were at the beginning of the day.
Day 3 – Ramornie to Mann River Junction
Breakfast was taken on the rocks beside the river. We sipped tea and watched with hushed enthusiasm as the morning light gradually picked out every spotted gum and grey box tree on the hillside opposite. The NPWS enthuses that “The Nymboida River National Park protects more than 27,000 hectares of woodland, moist and dry forests, rainforest and eucalypt forest. It forms part of a larger area of reserved land that includes the World Heritage listed Washpool and Gibraltar Range National Parks.” We were in no hurry to leave. Can you blame us? Besides, our next campsite at Mann River Junction was only 13 kilometres away.
The soundtrack for the daylight hours of our stay at Ramornie was provided by bellbirds. Their tinkling calls sound enchanting to us but they are actually a warning to other birds to stay away from the forests in which their favourite food is found. Tim Low, the author of ‘Where song began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world’ explains that their non stop chirping is a wall of sound which deters other species from coming in to dine on the sweet bell shaped lerps which psyllid bugs create to protect themselves from predators. The result is a disappointing loss of species diversity.
Thankfully there are still many other types of birds in this area and one of my favourites accompanied the start of today’s on water adventure. We had heard glossy black cockatoos on the previous two days but this was the first time that they had made an appearance. Three of them loped laconically through the air beside us as we picked the path of least resistance through the first rapid. Other birds to grace us with their presence today included a white-bellied sea-eagle, a wedge-tailed eagle, an osprey, black cormorants and white-faced herons.
Most of the rapids between Ramornie and Mann River Junction are Grade 2 and below. However there are three Grade 3 rapids at Exhibition Falls, Demolition Derby and Tombstone as well as a Grade 4 at Cunglebung Falls. Cunglebung was the first. It is described as a “two stage drop with the entire river narrowing across a 2m drop into a very turbulent rocky and aerated chute.” Lee Scarlet had told us that this was a compulsory portage on river left and we all heeded his advice.
Exhibition Falls was the next rapid where a portage decision had to be made. Pete said that he had portaged it last time he was here but was going to take a run at it today. Claire decided to follow his lead. After taking a long look I decided to portage. I asked Pete which way he had gone and he pointed to a long rocky flat just before he disappeared down the chute.
I dragged my fully loaded kayak for about 350 metres in the direction indicated by Pete spurred on by countless distant “cooees” but I could not find any way through the callistemon scrub so I turned back to where I had last seen the two of them. I thought I might have to bite the bullet and run Exhibition Falls myself but an easy portage magically appeared on river left. Maybe I should have looked a bit harder before setting off on my fruitless 700 metre detour?
When I finally found Claire & Pete they gushed about how easy and fun Exhibition Falls had been and how I would have had no trouble running it. I was too exhausted to respond but I silently vowed to follow them into the next Grade 3 at Demolition Derby no matter what.
Pete dived into Demolition Derby with his usual unbridled enthusiasm and predictably came out the other end unscathed. Claire went next and I followed when she was about halfway down. I probably should have waited. She came out near the bottom and her boat quickly got away from her. Distracted by the drama (that’s my story anyway) I allowed my kayak to get side on to the flow and it flipped over as I dropped off a ledge. I got out of the boat without any trouble but it didn’t float away like I hoped. I was stuck underneath both it and the water. Memories of my Snowy River misadventure came flooding back. Thankfully it didn’t take too long for me to push the kayak off and come up for air. Although it did take a fair bit of effort to get to the bottom of the rapid and heave myself back on board. I was definitely starting to look forward to a relaxing cup of tea at Mann River Junction.
You are probably thinking that there is no way that I would run the third Grade 3 rapid at Tombstone. I am not sure whether it was because I had some left over bravado or because I couldn’t be bothered with another portage but I charged in like I eat Grade 3’s for breakfast. The result? No problem. Just call me Rush Sturges.
The Mann River Junction camping area is very basic. You have to make your own path through the scrub and walk 100 metres with a shovel if you want to go to the loo. However there are several excellent places to set up a tent and the views are stunning. The only people you might see are other paddlers coming downstream but that isn’t likely to happen and if it does they will usually float right past. They don’t know what they are missing. This is a fantastic place to spend some quality time.
Mann River Junction is the place where the Mann and Nymboida Rivers meet. While the Mann is the smaller of the two at this point the combined river takes that name from here until where it runs into the Clarence River further downstream. The surrounding landscape is steep and adorned with beautiful boulders and sheer cliff faces.
Before leaving home I had promised Pete that I would join him on a bushwalk from this campsite but the obvious gradient of the slopes combined with the energy sapping events of the day had given me second thoughts. Claire joined Pete on the climb while I laid low, took photos and went for a swim. They later raved about the magnificent view from up there but to be honest I had no juice left in the tank and was more than happy to just rest.
Day 4 – Mann River Junction to Jackadgery
A good night’s sleep recharged the batteries for the final 11 kilometres of our paddle from Nymboida to Jackadgery. There are no annoying alarm clocks to wake you up out here. Instead we were roused by the distinctive sound of a channel-billed cuckoo flying overhead. Pete was full of beans as usual and decided that a seal launch was the best way to get the show on the road.
The first rapid of the day was the “boulder strewn” Grade 4 at Bridal Veil. This was in sight of our campsite so we were out of the boats almost as soon as we got in. We knew that this rapid could be portaged on river left by wading and sliding your boats through the rocks and it was agreed that this would be the safest approach. Thirty minutes later we were finally back on board and ready to recommence paddling.
Five kilometres later we were faced with the prospect of another Grade 4 rapid at New Zealand Falls described as a “two stage drop with main falls (1.5 – 2m) dropping into a turbulent and aerated pool surrounded by large rocky outcrops.” All three of us portaged this on river right.
As on previous days there were an assortment of Grade 1 and 2 rapids in between the big ones. Most of these were fairly doable but there were some fun drops as well. Surprisingly, Claire and I both managed to stay upright for the first time while Pete did exactly the opposite. We think he deliberately capsized to make us feel better.
The surroundings became visibly more agricultural as the day progressed. Pelicans and spangled drongos joined the roll call of native birds that we had seen on the trip. The finishing point was easy to find because it is on the left just before the Jackadgery bridge.
It was very nice to have cars, showers, cold drinks, chippies and ice creams waiting for us in the Mann River Caravan Park at the top of the hill. We packed up, congratulated each other on a successful trip, grabbed some refreshments and started wondering where the next adventure would take us.