The Mighty Murchison
by Giles 'let me on that
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Cyclone Bobby's path over Western Australia in February, 1995 ,resulted in a deluge of biblical proportions over the catchment area of the Murchison River. Groups of paddlers from Swan Canoe Club and other Perth clubs were able to paddle the rapids of the gorge over three weekends after the cyclone had passed through. The river had risen 3-4 metres by the end of the first week, by 7 metres at its peak during the second week, falling to 3-4 metres again by the end of the third week. Though winter rains sometimes make the gorge paddleable, the river had not been this high since the 1940s, according to the Park Ranger. The sediment laden waters could be seen well out to sea.
The river ahead is like the ocean during a winter storm, waves peaking up steeply, white caps tumbling from their crests. Steep rock cliffs rising skywards from each river bank frame the view. This is the Murchison river in flood, deep in the Z-Bend Gorge.
Buffeted rapidly downstream by the strong flow of coffee (white, no sugar) brown water, I look for an eddy to retreat into. However concentrating too much on the safe eddy and not enough on the waves swiftly approaching me, I get broadside on to a breaking one. I am upside down, it is dark and disorientating - visions of undercut rocks lining the river fill my imagination and are soon joined by the warning words of fellow paddlers 'There are some places on the Murchison, especially in the Gorge, where a swim could have serious consequences. I go for my roll - set up, use the wave, sweep out - and I'm up, so quickly I surprise myself. Safely into the eddy I catch my breath and regain my bearings.
The build up to our trip down the Murchison river began in late February when Cyclone Bobby deluged the Eastern Gascoyne in rain. This is where the normally dry river has its headwaters. From here it makes its way east towards the Indian Ocean, slashing a deep gorge into the gently undulating red sandstone of the Kalbarri National Park. By the time of the State Slalom Championships at Harvey the reports from up north were that the river was flowing solidly and some paddlers were getting decidedly itchy about the prospect of paddling it. During the following week the rumour factory really kicked into overdrive; stories about 30 foot waves, bombproof roll minimum required, fifty year high water levels, 16 foot eddy surges, impenetrable stoppers stretching across the river spread around the Perth paddling community.
So it was with some trepidation that we set off up north on Friday afternoon. Six and a half hours and one kangaroo later we arrived at the Z-Bend car park. I must admit that having survived John Day's dirt road driving I felt I could take anything the Murchison could dish up. Geoff Hughan's car it seemed had had similar feeling about its owner, and had decided at a roadhouse to head up north without Geoff and his merry gang. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, a thoughtful bush took it upon its self to single handedly restrain the runaway car. At the Z-Bend we slept out in the open, under a multitude on stars, with the strong rumble of the river soothing us to sleep.
By morning the Swannie complement had grown to 11 paddlers and we rose early in order to inspect the river from the Z-Bend lookout. It certainly looked like a raging torrent, but since it was a couple of hundred metres below us it was hard to gauge the scale of the water. Since the river was at a dangerously high level we decided that on Saturday we would paddle from Fourways (this is at the downstream end of the Z-Bend) down to the loop, a distance of about 20 kilometres. After the obligatory car shuffle shenanigans we started the steep walk down to the river, it was a hot day and reaching the valley floor and its associated water was a great relief. The river from here was an awesome sight: it was wide and fast flowing with standing waves stretching a long distance upstream. Actually getting onto the water was more awesome; the river felt so full of life and movement it was like a strange sprawling monster. A quick practice roll in an eddy and then out into the flow to try a ferry glide - weird water, so lively and unlike anything I had paddled before.
Some of our group put in above the Fourways rapid - a meaty drop with some decent standing waves. We all joined up a little way downstream at a fantastic seven foot (the author's view is final concerning wave heights and seriousness of rapids, no correspondence will be entered into on this matter - unless you think they were bigger than I did)! surfing wave, what a buzzzz, Mike Collister pulled off a superb loop (shouldn't have told anyone it was an accident though Mike).
We headed off downstream, swiftly carried by the current so we hardly had to paddle. The rapids were mainly grade 2 with some good surfing waves to muck around in. The surroundings were beautiful; rock cliffs with coloured layers indicating the region's sedimentary history, bright green leaved gum trees on the river bank or forming mid-stream obstacles and a cloudless sky. At one of the rapids we managed to see a rare marsupial in action; a BCE throwropus maximus was spotted running down the river's edge with his pouch at the ready, unfortunately his quarry, a lesser spotted paddler and accompanying upturned green boat were making rapid progress downstream out of his reach. After a lunch stop in the shade of a rock overhang we made good progress down to Nature's Window: a naturally formed rock window high on the ridge top which marks the beginning of the loop. The eight kilometres around the loop turned into an impromptu expression session. As we gently floated along with the current, standing in and pivots whilst out of your boat became the norm as people strove to impress the judges (a pair of wild goats on the river bank) - uncontested winner was John who managed to stand in his boat with his shorts around his ankles (not a pretty sight - though Virginia may disagree?). At the end of the loop Nature's Window again comes into view, here was the get-out point. After a steep climb up to the car park and the retrieval of the cars, we made our way into Kalbarri for the night.
Since it appeared that the river had in fact peaked on Thursday and was now in retreat we decided that we should attempt the BIG stuff on Sunday, with a paddle from Ross Graham Lookout down to Fourways, a distance of 28 kilometres, including the famed Z-Bend section. After an early start we were on the water by 9.30, and it was with some apprehension that we paddled off downstream.
The first five kilometers down to Hawk's Head Lookout was straight forward with just the occasional stretch of relatively gentle white water to acclimatise with. A little further and a loud roar indicated that we had reached our first main rapid, Serpents Tail, and what a pearler it was; at least 200m of big waves as the water accelerated between the rocky river banks. Inspection from the bank showed two features on river left to avoid; a small stopper and further down a semi-exposed rock. A line straight down the centre-right gave a great ride, whilst the professionals stopped to play on the midstream waves.
The Serpent's Tail marked the beginning of what was a continuous series of large rapids to the end of the trip, interspersed with the occasional pool, it was therefore difficult to differentiate between them all. However who could forget the next one which had an six foot stopper (remember no size arguments!) stretching across the current, one by one we punched through and paddled on down through the standing waves. Virginia, always the showoff, insisted on completing a tail loop as she cleared the stopper and finished off with a smart roll. Next up was Goanna's Tongue, a 6 foot drop which had a big central V shute. As people paddled down and broke through the wave at the bottom of the V they looked very insigniicant, at the mercy of the surging water. The last rapid before lunch was a joy to paddle, it seemed like a kilometre of standing waves to bounce our way through. At the bottom was a superb ender spot - so many places to play but so little time, we could have spent a day at each rapid.
After lunch we soon reached the Little Z-Bend, here the river banks steepen into a gorge and the river twists and turns mimicking its elder brother further downstream. A rapid in this section had a humungous haystack wave just below its drop. Judy, another of those incorrigible showoffs, hit the wave at full pace and took off - airborne, without air traffic control clearance.
The entrance to the Z-Bend proper greeted us with the gnarliest stopper I've ever seen. The mother of all stoppers was a deep curling wave which looked more menacing due to its brown colour. Fortunately there was a route on river right which allowed us to skirt around it and then enter the main flow and its associated waves. These were the waves which from hundreds of metres away at the top of the gorge had looked relatively innocent - down amongst them they were far from innocuous. Mandy can testify to this, as when she was tossed over by a wave, before she could go for her roll she was literally sucked out of her boat and then her bootees were sucked off (good riddance I say - I'd smelt them) her feet.
Paddling down through the Z-Bend was a superb experience, hemmed in by the layered rock cliffs, carried swiftly downstream on the current. Though sadly only a couple more rapids to go. Firstly Killerfang Falls which at this high water level didn't live up to its reputation (more like Pussycat Falls), giving us an easy route down on river left missing completely the three nasty stoppers. Then down to Fourways rapid and our get out point.
What a joy - everyone felt like going up to the start and doing it again. However after obligatory group photos we were faced with a steep climb out of the gorge and a 2 kilometre walk to the cars. Then 6 and a half hours back to Perth and bed (didn't recover physically until Wednesday - mentally not sure if I ever will). Thanks go to John 'I'll only paddle it if it's BIG' Day who did a tremendous job of guiding our group down the river.
Other trip members were: Geoff 'where's my car?' Hughan, Mike 'it was an accident' Collister, Robin 'my knees hurt' Bell, Matt 'what a joy' Thompson, Mandy 'big water muncher' ?, Virginia 'I'm not quite ready yet Johnny' Proud, Judy 'space shuttle' Cransberg, Kate 'surfer girl' Collister, Sandra ' anyone for an icecream?' Fraser.
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