Photographs by Harry Whaite 1912 - 2011

 

 

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The Challenge of the River

Daring the Nymboida in an Iron Canoe

By jean johnston (River Canoe Club of N.S.W. and Sydney Bush Walkers)

from The Bushwalker 1938

 

WE came from Sydney up through drought stricken western districts where every one stared at our dust covered canoe, borne on a trailer behind the car.

Our objective was Nymboida, where we planned to commence a canoe trip down the Nymboida or South River, to its junction with the Clarence which we intended to follow to Copmanhurst. Jock Kaske had loaned us his fifteen foot iron canoe, the "Trail-blazer," that veteran of many trips. And it was to carry Frank English, my husband Bill, and myself, with ten days' stores.

We stowed our food into four airtight kerosene tins, our garments and sleeping gear into proofed bags, and packed all into the canoe. Everything was covered with ground sheets and lashed well in.

We left Nymboida on Monday, 6th April, on what was to be the most eventful canoe trip we had undertaken. A fourteen foot weir below Nymboida necessitated a semi-portage, and then we were away.

The river ran swiftly, a three foot fresh the week before ensured a good depth of water, rapids were plentiful and gave us many thrills. The current was at times so strong that it took us under low hanging trees by which we were brushed out of the canoe to float downstream till we could land and bail out.

On the second day we struck trouble by attempting to shoot a rapid that really needed to be treated with more respect. We lost a paddle, some eggs, and a lot of time. But this did not deter us from treating all the rest in exactly the same way.

On the third day out we met our first serious obstacle, that is, the first we treated seriously. Here the river took two bends within a hundred yards, with falls on each bend. The first we negotiated by roping but the second we portaged round. This portage took time but was rendered quite easy because of the yokes which Jock had made for the canoe. These screw onto the gunwales and enable the canoe to be carried upside down on the shoulders.

Thrilling Rapids

Below these falls the river descended into a gorge, which provided some thrilling rapids next morning. We got a_way early, as rain threatened and we had no wish to be caught there with storm water coming down. About ten w_e left the gorge and floated into a long pool where the Mann River came in on our left. On the hillside above was a most picturesque little bark roofed shack, covered with vines. It had been built and was inhabited by Bert Fenny, an Inspector of Stock, who treated us with true Australian hospitality. Reluctantly we left his place late in the afternoon, getting through the Bridal Falls below it without any difficuly.

For a while the country was more open and next morning we came to the first settlement on the river—Jackadgerry. There is a wine bar at Jackadgerry, and the boys went up to sample what they fondly hoped would be local vintage. It wasn't, but nevertheless, somewhat fortified, and rejoicing also that we'd been able to obtain some more solder, we essayed to shoot the local rapid just to show how it should be done— and we were all thown out.

Here we were told that there would be no more bad rapids, but we came across a wicked looking one that afternoon. Practically all the water in the river plunged into a fissure, about ten feet wide between! rock walls. Bill wanted to shoot it. Frank and I didn't. Eventually the boys got the canoe through by following a small channel, dragging where necessary. We camped that night at Hanging Rock Station.

Under Sail

When we left next morning we had on board a weird arrangement of two poles and a kite shaped tent lashed together, which on the first long pool became a sail. With a strong wind behind us this gave us more speed than our three paddles. It gave us plenty of fun too; being erected in the bow with Frank in charge and Bill using his paddle at the stern as a rudder. When approaching a rapid Bill would call for the sail to be lowered. The roar of the water prevented Frank from hearing and we would just sail down the rapids, endeavouring to dodge rocks and trees, while'Bill made frantic efforts to keep the boat head on into the current.

Eventually we took down the sail and then came upon a rapid which nearly finished the trip. While deciding which channel to take we were caught in the main current which whirled along and landed the canoe broadside on to a couple of rocks. With the tremendous force of the water holding her there the boys had partially to unload the gear on to a rock in midstream. Scarcely able to retain a footing, they heaved with all their strength to get her once more into the current, and then to reload and float down to a place where they could land and effect repairs. In the meantime, I perched on a rock with swift deep water between me and the shore, and waited to be rescued. The strength and force in the water

frightened me. Repairs took some time to effect, but we were able to reach the Junction by four that afternoon. Apparently there had been rain on the Clarence as the river was muddy and higher than when we had come down it two years previously.

We pulled the canoe well up and tied her to a tree and left her there, as we wererfo spend the week-end with the Cruickshanks at Dumbudgerry Creek Station, three miles up the Clarence. We arrived there at tea-time in a storm of rain.

The Rivers Rise

This was on Saturday, and all that night and the next day and night it rained, as it can rain on the North Coast, so that we were not surprised to find on the Monday morning when we returned to the Junction, that both rivers were up and were still rising. The Nymboida had risen about ten feet and the Clarence five.

Fortunately someone had moved our canoe farther up the bank, and so we set out on what was to be the most exciting part of the trip, negotiating the gorge in a flood. About a mile below the junction all the water from both rivers cascades over a series of falls, which are anything up to fifty feet high. All the water meets and runs through a narrow rock-filled channel between high granite banks which imprison it for about a mile and a half.

We had to portage round the falls, and the difficulty was to find a place where a descent could be made down the steep rocky banks to the river. We were running just behind schedule, so to avoid a long and weary portage the boys put the canoe in the river at one of the few spots where it was possible to do so, with more than half the gorge still to negotiate, but below the last fall.

It was then just on dusk. The river was ugly, the water being about twenty-five feet above normal level and rising as we watched it. A rising river is more dangerous than the same level of water when the river is dropping. The boys lashed everything well in and pushed off, while I scrambled along the bank to view their progress at a spot where the river took a slight bend which created large waves and eddies.

As was expected, they filled up at this corner, and went overboard, each clinging to an end of the canoe, and were compelled to let the current take them where it willed.

Wreck of the "Trailblozer"

Then disaster! The bow caught in a crevice, and Frank sprang on to a ledge intending to pull up and bail out, but the force of the water caught the stern and the forward bulkhead started to give. Bill let go while Frank pushed the boat out into the stream to prevent further damage.

There we were, Bill and the canoe in the river, Frank on one bank and I on the other. With darkness coming on I stumbled downstream after them. Bill had a bad time, being caught in strong surges and whirlpools, travelling the best part of the gorge under water and very nearly drowning. Frank made good time over the two miles of rough country that brought him opposite the Winters' homestead. There he yelled for half an hour before they heard him and one of the lads came over to him in a flat bottomed boat which only held one. Frank had to swim the river behind the boat.

Bill and I fared better. We lit a fire and got warm and dry and then set off downstream for the homestead. Our goods now consisted of camera, money, matches, shirts and shorts—and we were very hungry. We met Frank and Ralph Winters who had come looking for us on horses, and soon we were sitting down to an enormous meal in a large warm kitchen. Although the Winters, who had lived on the river for years, assured us that we would never find the canoe again, in the morning we set off upstream to look for it. We found it too, caught in a back eddy inshore near the foot of the gorge. The ropes, with which the paddles were tied in, had caught round a submerged tree and held it there. Not much damage had been done. Nothing was lost. Our food was dry and some of our clothes, and the rest dried while Frank and Bill mended the canoe. About four we were ready to set off again.

A fierce rapid below the Winters' caused us to lose a lot of time. The flood waters ran so strongly that each narrow place in the river was just a series of big waves. Our only course was to keep close to shore on the shallow side. In doing that we were generally among trees, which, at the pace the river was running, gave us some anxious moments.

Gordonbrook Falls was another nasty place, and so we halted before the next falls on Sir Earle Page's property, Heifer Station. We reached these just on dusk and we had had enough of flooded rivers in the dark.

In the morning I went on to Grafton in the cream lorry to pick up the car and bring it back to Copmanhurst. The boys finished the trip as planned, doing the thirty odd miles from Heifer Station to Copmanhurst in three and a half hours. Bill was swept off by a low hanging tree but ^wam after the canoe and caught up while Frank was doing his best to keep it from broadsiding. Then, at Lilydale low-level bridge which was under water, they had an exciting moment crossing the trough between the two submerged railings at a speed, according to the watchers, of fifty miles per hour.