Outback Paddler

Australia’s interior has a reputation for being dry. This has led many to believe that it is no place for kayaks. As someone who loves seeing the world from the water I refuse to accept that could be true, so I set off into the outback in search of more great places to paddle.

My goal was to complete an eleven day exploration of the waterways of western Queensland that would take me as far as Mount Isa in the north, Eulo in the south, and as many places as possible in between.  Thankfully Holeproof Explorer saw the merit of my endeavours and provided welcome assistance in the form of a generous Ready to Go sponsorship.

Lake Dunn

Day 1: Ravenshoe – Lake Koombooloomba

The first day of the trip started at Mission Beach where I had just completed an amazing seven day Hinchinbrook Island adventure with Coral Sea Kayaking. My paddling destination for the day was Lake Koombooloomba, near Ravenshoe in the Atherton Tablelands.

I stopped in Ravenshoe for supplies and was delighted to find they had decorated the town with an ocean motif in my honour. When I grabbed the microphone to express my gratitude I was told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t expecting me at all. Embarrassingly I had simply arrived in the middle of their “Water World” themed Torimba Festival of the Forest. My kayak blended in perfectly but this wasn’t the water world I was looking for.

Koombooloomba is a man made lake surrounded by the lush rainforest of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The distinct wet and dry seasons of this region result in dramatic annual fluctuations in water levels. I arrived at the end of the dry season to find it just 25% full. There was still plenty of room for a paddle and I enjoyed a slow meandering glide across glassy and surprisingly clear waters.

Lake Koombooloomba Paddler | Ravenshoe

The most noticeable residents of the rainforest are the birds. Their bright banter was an uplifting musical soundtrack for my day. However I was aware of the possibility of more sinister creatures lurking in the shadows. Locals say that prowling these woods are both a big cat and the Malaan Monster, a frightening creature with the head of a pig and the body of a man.

Those brave enough to leave the main road are rewarded with the Misty Mountains walking trails, and the natural beauty of Tully Falls, Millstream Falls, and Little Millstream Falls, but there is another danger. “Unexploded ammunition may be found in this area.” I was grateful not to find any suspicious looking items.

Little Millstream Falls

Day 2: Einasleigh & Charters Towers

The previous night had been spent in a very reasonably priced tourist park in Mount Surprise. I was the only guest, apart from the family of green tree frogs who had taken up residence in the amenities block. I fell asleep to the sound of mangoes falling from a nearby tree and woke to the sound of galahs looking for a morning feed. The sun pushed its first rays under the saloon style door of my hot shower and like Nina Simone, I was “Feelin’ Good”.

I had heard that it was possible to paddle the Copperfield Gorge at Einasleigh but this had been difficult to confirm. I managed to contact the local publican by email but he could only tell me that his barmaid had once mentioned two French tourists who had kayaked from the ominous sounding Crocodile Hole to the waterfall and  “thought it amazing if not a little spooky”. The sheer mystery of it all made it impossible to refuse.

Copperfield Gorge carves a course through the south east edge of the Undara lava field. It had an undeniable rugged beauty and was well worth the testing drive required to get there. Paddling might be possible during the wet season but there was no way I was going to be able to launch my boat here today.

Copperfield Gorge

Rather than give up my Einasleigh hopes completely, I asked a bloke standing beside the road if he knew of anywhere that might be better for kayaking. He directed me to a section of the Einasleigh River just up the road.

The sight of three brolgas at the launch site enhanced my already positive mood for the day and I literally bounced across the sand to the river’s edge with my kayak in tow. Then things changed… I started thinking about crocodiles. First a nearby log sank slowly and deliberately from view, then I remembered the publican’s reference to “Crocodile Hole”, then I saw the tell tale sign of a trail of bubbles approaching my boat. I was out of there!

Einasleigh River

I drove to Charters Towers with the hope of paddling there but quickly put the car into reverse when I saw the bright yellow “WARNING, ACHTUNG: Crocodiles inhabit this area – attacks may cause injury or death” sign near the water. On the way out I stopped to chat with a camper about the croc. situation. She made out that I was being a wimp for leaving so quickly and told me that another guy had been swimming there on an almost hourly basis. I wouldn’t be persuaded. I was already visualising the evening news reporting my disappearance with her sobbing distraughtly “I can’t believe it. I told him it was safe.”

Day 3: Cloncurry – Chinaman Creek Dam

Today’s long drive to Cloncurry was a lesson in managing road trains. Trucks towing two trailers can be up to 50 metres long and hard to overtake. The difficulty is magnified when there are five of them in a row, and that’s what I encountered on more than one occasion. Fortunately, there were also long stretches of straight road on this leg so I managed to negotiate them successfully.

I passed through Hughenden and Richmond, two of the towns on Australia’s Dinosaur Trail. Richmond’s famous Kronosaurus Corner had been on my “must do” list ever since I knew I was coming to this part of the world and I couldn’t resist stopping for a photo.

Kronosaurus

The distinctive visual features of Chinaman Creek Dam are red craggy rock formations and a myriad of smaller red termite hills that point up out of surrounding low hills. The dam also attracts a huge variety of birdlife. There were the usual suspects like cormorants, darters, ducks, pelicans, rainbow bee-eaters, corellas, white necked herons, pee wees, jacanas, hawks, and straw necked ibises. However, there was one in particular that caught my eye. The glossy ibis. It is described beautifully in Michael Morcombe’s Field Guide to Australian Birds as a “small dark ibis with glossy iridescence and highlights of bronze, green, or purple sheen”.

Chinaman Creek Dam

Cloncurry holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Australia. The method of measuring the sizzling 53.1 degrees celsius record involved the use of a beer crate and has since been brought into question, but I can testify that it was searingly hot. The bag of jelly babies that I had waiting in the car for my post paddle snack were liquified by the heat of the 40 degree day. I know, I know, I shouldn’t have left the babies in the car.

I was using Camps Australia Wide (6th edition) to plan my accommodation for each night, and it led me to the Fountain Springs rest area west of Cloncurry. I was feeling a little concerned about staying there because the news headline for the day involved an unsolved 30 year old missing persons case involving a traveller who had disappeared in the area. The sight of a burly dude lurking in the toilets and peeping out every now and again didn’t help. I was as jumpy as a crayfish in a restaurant fish tank, and downed several plastic cups of cask red after he left to calm my nerves.

Day 4: Mount Isa – Lakes Moondarra and Mary Kathleeen

“Welcome to The Isa. Now you are a true Australian.” So says the billboard on the way into town. There’s a big part of me that agrees with that sentiment. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t fully appreciate how lucky I am to live in this country until I had seen the outback. You won’t hear me shouting “oi, oi, oi” at an international sporting fixture, but I am very proud to be an Australian.

Lake Moondarra

Moondarra has big barra… and sooty grunter, and sleepy cod, and longtom, and catfish, and archerfish.  The Lake Moondarra Fishing Classic brings the who’s who of the angling world to Mount Isa to see who can land the most impressive specimens. Also vying for their share of the spoils are cormorants, egrets, and fresh water crocodiles. I saw a freshy coming in off the bank a short distance away but I wasn’t concerned as I hadn’t seen any of the distinctive yellow “ACHTUNG” signs and swimming is actively encouraged.

The North West Canoe Club is based at Lake Moondarra and they have great facilities. I was excited to discover their showers, particularly as there had been none at the previous night’s campsite. My only wash for the day had come courtesy of an Ekko Magic Wipe and the temperature had again hit 40. However there was a mozzie in the ointment. Big signs warned of Murray Valley Encephalitis (MVE), “a potentially fatal disease spread by mosquitoes”. This wasn’t official MVE season but I had a lot more ground to cover and wasn’t prepared to take the risk.

A lunch time finish at Moondarra made it possible for me to go looking for Lake Mary Kathleen. Information about it was sketchy and there were no visible signs pointing to its location and that made it very enticing.

I played a hunch and turned into an unmarked dirt track near the eastern branch of the Leichhardt River. Just over a crest I came to a chained gate with a bullet holed sign lying face down at its side. A closer inspection revealed that this was the entry to Rosebud Station and visitors were welcome as long as they stayed on the roads. I followed those instructions and soon started seeing signs for the lake.

Lake Mary Kathleen is a shining example of reward for effort. I saw inquisitive kangaroos in the eucalypts, delicate jacanas among the water snowflakes, flocks of rainbow bee-eaters and red winged parrots, and even a jabiru. It was incredibly secluded and quiet too. This well kept secret was one of the high points of my trip.

Lake Mary Kathleen

Day 5: Mount Isa – Lake Julius

As unlikely as it seems, Mount Isa was proving itself to be a kayaking mecca and there was still a Lake Julius paddle on offer. Julius is 90 kilometres from the highway on very rough roads. My car was one hub cap down before I started my adventure and I lost two more today. I also managed to bottom out several times on the rounded rocks of dry creek beds.

Lake Julius is nestled in a picturesque valley lined with red cliffs, eucalypts, bushy paperbark trees, and occasional palms. Glassy inlets blushing with gorgeous lily flowers drew me in with their seductive charms. I had the starry-eyed uselessness of a boy after his first kiss.

Reality came with a thud. A thud on the bottom of the boat. I initially put it down to one of the submerged trees that you find in man made lakes, but then my attention was drawn to the water near my right hand. A fresh water crocodile was looking up at me. The tip of its nose was no more than 10 centimetres away and seemed to be coming closer. Despite having heard the statement “freshies are harmless” many times, and having seen people and crocodiles swimming together in the waters of Lake Moondarra, this one looked like it had my fingers on the menu. It was undeterred by my initial yelp, but a subsequent roar into its face sent it packing. I didn’t hang around either.  The fight/flight switch was set to flight and adrenaline charged paddles sent water flying in all directions as I sped back to the ramp.

Lake Julius

The next paddle was at Isisford and there was a lot of ground to cover between here and there, so I decided to travel as far as I could before settling in for the night. By chance rather than design, I eventually found myself at McKinlay’s Walkabout Creek Hotel. I soon discovered that the bar scenes in Crocodile Dundee were filmed here. Unfortunately there was no sign of Mick. I would have loved to have shared my croc story with him.

Day 6: Longreach

There was no kayaking today. I had tried to find a good place near Winton and was given various pieces of advice but I didn’t quite manage to put the puzzle together in time. I have since discovered that the Old Cork Waterhole on the Diamantina River 125 kilometres from town is very nice. Queensland’s Central West has other great places to paddle too. On an earlier trip I had been fortunate enough to explore Lake Dunn near Aramac, The Broadwater at Muttaburra, and the Thomson River at Longreach. Paddle guides for each of these locations are contained in The Paddler’s Guide to Queensland and available for member download from the Global Paddler website.

It was still a memorable day that started with a magnificent ruby red sunrise and ended with the best meal of the trip at a friend’s place in Longreach. Emus, bustards, and brolgas all came to the roadside during the drive. An unexpectedly bold group of brolgas seemed to know they were a tourist attraction and had taken to busking outside the front door of Winton’s Visitor Information Centre.

Sunrise | McKinlay

Day 7: Isisford – Barcoo Weir & Oma Waterhole

An early rise saw me dodging ‘roos at first light. You hope they will stay off the road and out of your way but that isn’t always the case. I was proud never to have hit any in the lengthy time I had spent on country roads researching my books and acting as a representative of Perception Kayaks Australia (now Watertoys Australia). Sadly I can no longer say that. A young eastern grey bounded out right in front of the car and I had no time to react. It is hard to take positives out of a situation like this, but it was a relief to find that it had been killed instantly and didn’t have a joey in its pouch.

Following my Lake Julius experience, I wasn’t too excited to see a bold sign at the town perimeter declaring Isisford to be the “Home of “Isisfordia Duncani” ancestor of all modern crocodiles in the world today.” Holy crap! In reality, the scary sounding “Isisfordia Duncani” lived here a long time ago, I hadn’t heard any reports of massive beasts living under the water, and I certainly didn’t see any. It was a relief to know that I wouldn’t be winding up in the vegetarian hell of the Isisford carcass pit.

Isisford Carcass Pit

There are two paddling opportunities at Isisford – Barcoo Weir and Oma Waterhole. Neither was excessively long so I resolved to do both. Kayakers aren’t the only creatures attracted to consistent bodies of water, and these two were alive with  spoonbills, hawks, herons, egrets, ducks, cormorants, darters, kingfishers, and turtles. Oma Waterhole’s dedicated fishing park points to there being plenty of underwater residents as well, although the guy dangling a line from the shade of his coolibah tree seemed to think otherwise.

Barcoo Weir

I could have camped in Isisford for the princely sum of $2 a night, but I had to make tracks if I wanted to paddle in Cunnamulla the next day, so I drove on to Tambo. One really pleasant thing about driving in the outback is the friendliness of other people on the road. Occupants of other cars will more often than not give you a little wave. Today a young dude in a red ute gave me a different greeting and it wasn’t the Barcoo salute. In a defiant display of individuality he flipped the bird. I’m sure his Mum would be very proud.

Day 8: Cunnamulla – Warrego River

There were countless emus wandering the plains between Tambo and Cunnamulla, and the sight of several of their babies was a particularly special treat. An enormous wedge-tailed eagle also flew low beside my car for a stretch.

If visiting Mount Isa made me a true Australian, then visiting Cunnamulla was sure to bring out the larrikin in me. Take a listen to the song Cunnamulla Fella by Slim Dusty (or read the lyrics here) and you’ll see what I mean.

Cunnamulla is an Aboriginal word meaning long stretch of water and that’s exactly what I found behind the Alan Tannock Weir on the Warrego River. I didn’t see any Cunnamulla fellas, but there were a couple of Cunnamulla bellas. True to the friendly nature of their town’s catchphrase “where the handshake’s stronger and the smile lasts longer” they even offered to help me carry my boat.

Warrego River | Cunnamulla

Day 9 of my trip was to see me paddling at Caiwarro Waterhole in the Currawinya National Park. I looked for accommodation close to there and discovered Eulo. The population of this little town is estimated to be “50 people & 1500 lizards”. I had heard of the Lizard God of Uluru, but never the Lizard God of Eulo, so you can imagine my surprise to find a statue dedicated to this little known deity on the main street.

Big Lizard | Eulo

The Eulo Hotel offered hot showers, cold beer, and a television on which to watch the World Cup semi final between the Wallabies and the All Blacks. What more could I ask for? There was also a canoe out the back, which prompted me to ask whether my plan to paddle at Caiwarro was a good one. The answer was a question. Do you want to go fishing? When I said no they said that the Paroo River in Eulo was just as good and only a stone’s throw away.

Day 9: Eulo – Paroo River

Two thumbs up for local knowledge. My paddle on the Paroo River was excellent. Trees overhanging the river made it sheltered and shady. Fallen branches and a series of alternate paths created an obstacle course that seemed designed to keep me on my toes. No portages were required but I wondered if that would always be the case.

Paroo River | Eulo

Day 10: St George – Balonne River

I had been informed that there were two places to paddle in St George – Lake Kajarabie (Beardmore Dam) and the Balonne River upstream of Jack Taylor Weir. My plan was to paddle on Kajarabie but upon closer inspection discovered that the ramp into the lake is on private property and you need special permission to use it. I didn’t have enough time to knock back a few beers with the owner, so it was the river for me.

A quick look at Google Earth showed that the Balonne River follows a straight south westerly path from Kapunda Fishing Park to Jack Taylor Weir. I started from the weir with the aim of completing a return journey that covered that full stretch. A strong north easterly made for a tough start to the day. Nevertheless, I pushed hard into the wind knowing that it would be with me on the way back.

Balonne River | St George

Despite my best efforts I never quite made it to Kapunda. I was initially disappointed but when I later put a ruler on the map I realised that I had actually completed 20 kilometres. The full 28 was always going to be too much.

Day 11: Goondiwindi – Macintyre River

My final paddle for this trip was at Goondiwindi, which I found to be a town full of friendly and informative characters. The lady at the Visitor Information Centre directed me to the boat ramp and suggested what turned out to be a lovely paddle; the baker who told everything I would ever need to know about Macintyre River levels; the canoeist out fishing for yellowbelly who had also become the unofficial and unpaid garbage collector of the waterway; the dog-walking local who told me the fishing rules; and the tourist park owner who gave me a history of flooding in the area. Also friendly but not quite so informative were three stray cats who were intent on sharing my dinner the night before.

The Macintyre River at Goondiwindi has played a significant role in Queensland history, having been on the border with New South Wales since Queen Victoria gave the thumbs up for Queensland to become a self-governing colony way back in 1859. My paddle guide for this amazing place is available now from the Global Paddler Online Store and Global Paddler members can download it from www.globalpaddler.com.au for free.

Historic Border Bridge | Goondiwindi

After 21 days away from home, I was REALLY looking forward to seeing my lovely partner Janelle and having all the creature comforts of home. For the last time, I asked my GPS Navigator Madge (Magellan… Madge Ellen) to show me the way.

8 thoughts on “Outback Paddler

  1. Maureen Buckingham says:

    Fantastic read as always Scott. Well done. You wouldn’t catch me anywhere near crocs of any kind. I like to admire them from a distance and preferably with a fence between them & me!

  2. Thanks Scott, had a good laugh and enjoyed reading about your adventures. Some great photos too. Every time I read one of your guides or articles andsee where you have been I start to think I need another few lifetimes to see and paddle in all of these places. Not sure if I want to go anywhere near the crocs either!

    • Thanks Claire. Yes, there are so many possibilities. The general consensus is that the freshies are ok. I would paddle at Lake Julius again, although I might not venture into any secluded inlets during the nesting season. 🙂

  3. Andrew Ranucci says:

    Captivating reading Scott. The Crocs almost feature more than Kayaking!! Having Kayaked with fresh water crocs at Lawn Hill in outback QLD I agree it is freaky. Well done on a great read.

  4. Great story Scott – more places to add to the list.

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