Packrafting the Drysdale River

Dulkara Martig and Marg negotiate some whitewater during their packrafting trip in Western Australia.

Dulkara Martig and Marg negotiate some whitewater during their packrafting trip in Western Australia.

I first heard about the Kimberley from Ben Weigl, during the first New Zealand packrafting meet-up in Murchison in January 2016.  Red rock, aboriginal art, crocodiles, amazing fishing, interesting and varied paddling, in one of the most remote corners of the earth.

We were an eclectic team of five from all ages and walks of life, brought together by our shared love of packrafting and remote wilderness travel.

Brad and Marg flew in from Anchorage, Alaska, excited for some sunshine after a long, cold winter. Sebastian, also known as ‘the French Dundee’, lives in Darwin and has been on several multi-week solo adventures through remote parts of Western Australia. Ben came from his home in South Australia and I flew in from New Zealand.

From Darwin, we had the option of driving 1000km or catching another flight to Kununurra. We did the latter. From there we chartered a small bush plane and flew another 1hr 15mins into the Northern Kimberley, landing on a dirt runway beside Drysdale River Station.

Rivers in the Kimberley are a jigsaw puzzle of rapids, waterfalls, stillwater and boulder gardens.

Rivers in the Kimberley are a jigsaw puzzle of rapids, waterfalls, stillwater and boulder gardens.

Our plan was to packraft around 150km of the Drysdale River before crossing the escarpment on foot to reach the Carson River and paddling as far as we could before the river got too small or we entered saltwater crocodile country. We had around 12 days to make it to Kalumburu, a town on the Timor Sea, where we were due to fly out from.

From Drysdale station we rattled down a dirt road in a truck to a calm pool by the river. A tree with markings on it highlighted how high the river could rise in the wet season.

I craned my head to look up at the tree and the station owner mentioned that the high water line this season was at least 20 vertical metres higher than the meandering braid we would start paddling. We’d timed our trip perfectly.

We started floating downstream through thick pandanus and paperbark with squawking flocks of corellas swooping ahead. Our first camp was a red rock ledge. We soon settled into river life with crickets singing, frogs croaking, birds chirping and freshwater crocodiles sliding under the water surface as we collected drinking water.

Solea Falls, along with a few other rapids in the lower gorge, forms a good geographical saltwater crocodile barrier in the Drysdale River.

The Drysdale is predictably random, a jigsaw puzzle of long stretches of stillwater, waterfall rapids and sections where water flows through dense pandanus groves, turning into class II wave trains before popping out into pools up to 7km long. We negotiated tree sieve rapids, larger drops and technical boulder gardens. Some sections were as flat as a lily pond, windless, and without current to help us along.

While scouting a steep, technical rock garden rapid, a large freshwater crocodile leapt out from under a rock Brad was perched on. “Whhhaaaooo did you see that?” Brad exclaimed, jumping back in awe. It was hard to know whether we should be more intimidated by the boulder gardens or the crocodiles.

We regularly stopped for shade and a swim, and to release some air from our packrafts, otherwise they’d pop in the hot sun. Most days we’d see freshwater crocodiles, usually two beady eyes on the surface before a big thrashing sound as they darted off into the pandanas. On our first day a Jabiru flew overhead, its big wingspan stretched out for us to see. A couple of days in we caught our first black brim. Each evening we set up camp on the sand or hot rocks and cooked on a fire.

A calmer stretch of water in the Kimberley.

A calmer stretch of water in the Kimberley.

On our fourth morning we saw our first cane toad, an invasive species that had only just made it to the Drysdale River. Poisonous to any animal that eats it, toxic in very small quantities, the cane toad has left a wave of destruction across the continent.

Brad later recorded: “Dulkara’s shriek made my heart jump. The ground in front of us seemed to hop in all directions. The cane toads in the track were thick and freaky, baseballs and softballs that were hard to tell from rocks in the moonlight until they moved just before we stepped on them.”

The Kimberley has the first sign of human impact in Australia, you can still find rock formations and rock art that is at least 12,000 to 17,000 years old, depicting spirits, festive scenes and other wanjanas.

The Carson is a totally different style of river, shallower and clearer. It’s narrow, winding it’s way through pandanas with fruit bats, freshwater turtles and loads of fish.

The Carson would spit us out close to Kalumburu. Without any natural croc barriers, salties were a constant possibility. Their main food source,  barramundi, isn’t up that far and the crocs typically only eat once or twice a year, generally in the wet season. Yet I still felt uneasy as the pools got bigger and we got further downstream. We opted to be conservative and take out upstream of the old Carson Homestead, where the river started getting bigger. It felt weird deflating our packrafts when travelling by packraft was so much more efficient than travelling on foot.

Myself and the two Alaskans opted to travel at night to avoid the intense midday sun. In Brad’s words, “Our night hike was a desperate move to avoid the intense heat. The day before had nearly done us in. Cutting away from the river cross-country over stony ground through head-high spear grass under heavy packs and an Australian sun that smote like a hammer had caused a collective meltdown. I had collapsed with tingly lips, dizziness, and an overwhelming apathy, bad signs for heat stroke.

A camp on the red rocks alongside the Drysdale River.

A camp on the red rocks alongside the Drysdale River.

We had been saved by a water hole where we lay fully clothed for two hours before heading back into the heat. My feet were now black and swollen, and a tinge of fear had crept into my mind. I’d been hotter, I’d gone longer and much harder, so why was I suffering so badly here in the Kimberley?”

We finished our journey walking 80km on old dirt roads into Kalumburu. Local children gave us surprised looks and asked how we got there. The road to Kalumburu wasn’t due to open for another few weeks, we were the first visitors in six months.

The local reporter wrote: “Word on the street early this Kalumburu morning was that a strange group of backpackers had arrived in town. I went to investigate and low and behold, I found a New Zealander walking out of the shower at the campground. On Thursday 26th April Dulkara Martig walked the final 20km stretch of the Kalumburu Road, making her the first tourist to arrive in town for 2018. She headed straight to the store for an ice cream!”

Dulkara MARTIG

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