Tale of a river: paddling the Snowy

Kayaking the Byadbo Wilderness section of the mighty Snowy River takes you back to an earlier age as you join the flow of this famous waterway through a remote and wild landscape.
By Justin Walker April 23, 2020 Reading Time: 13 Minutes

Mention ‘the Snowy’ and invariably most Australians recognise that colloquial term as describing one of this country’s mightiest waterways: the Snowy River.

Starting its journey high up in the alpine country of New South Wales and finishing it by spilling into the Pacific Ocean at Marlo, near Orbost, just over the border in Victoria, the Snowy River is revered for its awesome paddling and the fact it – and its surrounds, are rich in indigenous history and culture.

It also resonates in this country’s modern history; it is the integral part of one of this country’s largest engineering feats – the Snowy Hydro Scheme – albeit at a hefty cost to the river’s natural flow-rate. 

Ask any canoeist, kayaker or rafter about ‘the Snowy’ and you’ll nearly always cop a reverential “Ooohhh” or “Aaaah” as part of the reply; even at its far lower post-Snowy Hydro water levels the river sits high on Aussie paddlers’ bucket-lists.

For these water-borne adventurers, the most popular journey down a section of the Snowy River starts at the (relatively) easily accessed put-in at McKillops Bridge (in Victoria’s Snowy River National Park) and finishes at the Buchan confluence in East Gippsland.

Venture further upriver, however, deep into steep and rugged gorge country, and you will discover a lesser known and more wild section of this famous river. Paddled by very few, for those who do, it offers a purer experience of what it is to paddle a remote waterway rich in wildlife and culture…

Something secret this way is

The Byadbo Wilderness (along with nearby Pilot Wilderness) is in Kosciuszko National Park’s southeast corner and is around 350,000 hectares in size.

The Snowy River winds through this wilderness for roughly 70km and is littered with rarely seen – and thus relatively unspoiled or damaged – indigenous cultural sites of the Ngarigo people.

It is part of a bigger something that I have come to experience; the chance to spend five days paddling the river itself, along with the opportunity to learn more about the eons-old indigenous occupation in this remote part of Australia and, last but not least for this former south coast boy, to escape the craziness that is living in this country’s largest capital city. 

Richard Swain (who, along with wife Alison, is the owner of Alpine River Adventures, the only guiding company permitted to run trips in this section of the Snowy) and fellow guide Chris Cahill are leading myself and four other paddlers on this water-borne adventure and it doesn’t take very long at all to be imbued with the laid-back attitude that Richard and Chris possess once we all meet up at the small alpine town of Dalgety.

A few coffees and bacon and egg rolls, followed by sorting of gear, kayaks, and food, and it begins. Well, in a way…

Arriving at the put-in point for five days on the Snowy is an adventure itself. It’s a couple of hours’ driving through the vast Monaro region of southeastern NSW, before reaching the township of Delegate, by which runs the river of the same name.

From here, continuing northwest, we start to get a real sense of remoteness; a narrow bitumen road soon transforms, firstly, into a dirt road, then into a rougher track as we weave between pine plantations (while keeping an eye out for kangaroos, red-tailed black cockatoos and emus – we do spot a male and some chicks) on the way to the gate that leads to Duncans Fire Trail.

This literal gateway takes us into Kosciuszko NP proper and comprises an early highlight of this adventure: the steep descent to the river is a test of 4WD driver skills, with the narrow, off-camber and rough dirt track that, after about 15 minutes of careful negotiation deposits us beside a small beach abutting the Snowy’s calm waters.

Alpine River Adventures’ Richard Swain offers some advice on paddling tips and techniques before the team heads off down the river.

With the flow

You don’t just jump in kayaks and head off downriver on a five-day paddle adventure – and especially not this culturally significant one.

We firstly pack our gear, food and water, then pause while Richard ‘introduces’ us to the Snowy. He lets the river know we are about to jump in by spreading sand gathered on the riverbank across the water as an introduction – a courtesy call, if you like – from us to the Snowy. It is also a signal to the river’s native residents, such as the platypus, echidna, fish, white-bellied sea eagle and the ubiquitous black swan, that we are about to enter their home. Richard doesn’t pressure us to do the same, but nevertheless we all do. Somehow, it just seems so right.

The put-in point – a very calm body of water –emits that sense of ‘country’ that Richard mentions occasionally throughout the five days; down here, surrounded by steep cliffs and house-sized rocks jutting out of the water, there is a definite feeling of taking a step into a simpler, far more peaceful world than the one we left very early that same morning. Here, the river’s flow governs life and time.

A massive boulder dwarfs guide Chris Cahill in the upper section of the Byadbo Wilderness section of the Snowy River.

The time before

Floating on the Snowy River today, you would never think that you’re only experiencing around 10 to 11 per cent of its previous natural flow (the targets from the early 2000s Snowy Watery Inquiry of staged flow targets – dependent on water savings elsewhere in the Snowy Hydro Scheme’s catchment areas, and weather – of 15 per cent by 2009 and 21 per cent by 2012 have never been achieved).

My father, among others, remembers the pre-dam Snowy from childhood rabbit-hunting trips in the region; camping beside parts of the river that were ‘as wide as the length of a football field’, and flowing far faster, with far more volume and yep, far louder, too.

Floating through this narrow valley on the first day, though, with the original watermarks higher up the shoreline and cliffs, allows my mind to envisage how powerful the Snowy must have been running at full throttle.

Sitting in seemingly robust inflatable single kayaks, the only thought that came to mind in terms of what it would have been like to paddle the river back then was: fast and furious –no doubt accompanied by a healthy dose of barely controlled fear. 

That fear is something that Arthur Hunt and Stanley Hanson would have no doubt felt in 1937 during the two months they spent completing the first canoe descent of the Snowy, from Jindabyne to Marlo, in – of all things – a diminutive 11.5-foot pine canoe.

It is stating the bleeding obvious to say it must have been an incredible experience, and probably best summed up in a quote from Hunt (courtesy of Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape, by George Seddon) when he writes: “The banks were masses of boulders, with the sides of the gorge rising sheer in some places for hundreds of feet. Our hands cracked and bled, Stan’s back was worse, the canoe was leaking again – altogether we had a pretty rough time.”

An early headline act 

The Snowy puts on a show from the get-go; we’re not more than around 30 minutes downriver when we spot platypus. Day one and I am already fully stoked. This magical experience was repeated daily, with the third day on the river – once we were out of the steeper gorge country – the big one; we counted more than thirty on this day alone; a heartening sight for any fan of the famous monotreme.

It wasn’t only all-action on the water, either; two white-bellied sea eagles shadowed us nearly every day, scouting for young cygnets on the river. These little’uns managed (in the main) to stay out of sight of those majestic birds of prey. Considering all that the river, its surrounds and its inhabitants have copped over the decades, it was heartening to see native wildlife thriving. 

The first day’s paddle was relatively short, allowing us plenty of time to figure out our own, often unique, way of manoeuvring the kayaks while still managing to take in the surrounding rugged landscape which was, in the first few days, dominated by steep, rugged cliffs and narrow sections of river. 

Our first day saw the running of rapids with our fully laden kayaks. And by ‘fully laden’ I am talking around 150-170kg, comprising food, gear, the occupant and additional water. Richard and Chris’s kayaks are carrying even more, as well as our unique ‘fridges’ – basically large drybags filled with bottles of frozen water that worked incredibly well. These fridges kept the food fresh the entire time, which was itself impressive, and only topped by the fact this also meant we didn’t have to consume (or should that be ‘suffer’?) dehydrated meals – each night was fresh food cooked over a fire. Yep, it sure was tough…

The kayaks carried all the gear needed for five days in this remote section of the river.

The river runs free

Between the trip to the put-in, mastering our kayaks and the actual act of paddling, pulling into our first campsite seemed to take only a few minutes.

Each campsite Richard uses along the river is high on the banks to avoid any chance of being swept away by a flash flood, and – coincidentally – to provide expansive views of the river.

The first camp is pristine but still just an early tease; as we would find out, each camp along this route would be more spectacular than the last – no easy achievement

The second day dawned quiet and calm, with no hint of what lay ahead. That soon became apparent, though, with us arriving at the beginning of the Grade III Snowy Falls rapids.

Depending on conditions – and skill-levels – paddlers may get the chance to run the these rapids. That comes with a heavy emphasis on ‘chance’, due to the fact that, depending on water levels (and confidence), these rapids can be incredibly fast, and if you miss the turn into the eddy pool’s calm waters you will become very closely acquainted with the rapids’ namesake waterfall: the seven-metre high Snowy Falls.

It is at the lip of the waterfall that the river’s flow is split by a large boulder, with a narrower channel to the left, and the more voluminous wall of water to the right. It’d be a hairy ride, to say the least. 

Chris Cahill punches through a section of Grade III rapids just before Snowy Falls.

Richard gives us the option to run the rapids, but one at a time so he and Chris can be ready, if needed, to throw a rescue line. The guides show us the chutes and drops we need to aim for (and those to avoid) and then it’s on and – incredibly quickly – it is over.

It’s only when you’re in a fast-moving body of water that you get an appreciation of its true power and the furious passage through this set of rapids enforces just how potent the river can be. It was a blur of frantic paddling, fast balance and directional corrections, along with an overload of adrenalin. In short, it was an absolute hoot. 

After collecting ourselves in the eddy, laughing with both relief and excitement, we exit our craft and scramble over the rocky shelf to the left of the waterfall, pausing to take in another reminder of nature’s absolute power.

A previous flood had left a large mass of dead trees brutally shoved to the left side of the falls, the stark grey-white trunks covering the rocky terrain, testament to the immense grunt of a high-running Snowy River. It is along here that paddlers need to often walk; to get below Snowy Falls it is necessary to portage the kayaks. This involves dragging each kayak to a rocky side-channel, then lowering them one-by-one, down to the pool below the waterfall. Depending on how long this takes Richard then decides on which of two campsites the group will stop at.

Thankfully, with a bunch of burly blokes on call, the portage down the face of the rock chute is quick, which makes the decision to head to the farthest of the two campsites a given.

The decision to portage a set of rapids – or, in this case, a waterfall – is always made with safety as the main focus. Here, Chris starts the process, dragging the first kayak down a side chute off Snowy Falls, with help from the rest of the team above.

It is well worth the extra hours on the water, which quickly went by thanks to rapids to run and getting to spend time paddling beside Richard as he fills me in on the indigenous links and stories that are so tightly entwined with this river. The quieter sections mean learning about different song lines we are following, as well as indigenous names of the native fauna. It is unique in every way, and a precursor to an even richer one the following day. 

Those before us

A shorter day allows plenty of time for exploration of the river and its cultural significance to the Ngarigo people of the Monaro region, with a men’s business place located not far from the river’s edge after an hour or so of paddling.

Following a small ‘cleansing ceremony’ (lighting of some fungus by Richard before entering), there’s the chance to explore this very sacred site. On the ground there are a number of cutting tools (Richard explains how they were made, what type of rock was used) still present, along with canoe trees bearing the tell-tale shape where past aboriginal people carved out their watercraft.

Also evident are smaller scars on the trees where coolamons (small dishes or baskets) were carved out. We find remnant yams, growing under and against the rocks in this area. It’s rugged, dry country here but was not always so; big fires over the past decades, plus equally sizable rains, combined with erosion have washed most of the topsoil away, evident in the fact we can see the root section of a lot of the trees.

Richard believes this area was an initiation site, where young indigenous males became men. The whole site retains a sense of spirituality; unless you know the exact location, you’d never find it, allowing it to remain relatively undisturbed. Add in the fact we move through different song-lines during our journey – from female to male (interestingly, you do seem to notice a change in the landscape, wind, and river when this occurs), and it’s a brilliant enrichment of cultural knowledge.

Richard is a fountain of information regarding the many Indigenous sites found in the Byadbo Wilderness section of the Snowy.

As much as it is very remote, the landscape itself is not totally undisturbed. Feral animals are a clear menace; hard-hoofed animals, such as deer, pigs and horses have had a notable impact on the landscape, with vegetation close to the river reduced to non-existent.

Horses, especially, have left their mark. This feral intruder’s size, weight and the sheer numbers found in this region (even in the steepest areas, but more so once the river valley widens; we saw a number of large groups on the last two days), make for a damaging combo in this fragile environment. Surprisingly, even though deer and pigs are part of a culling program, horses are not. It’s a decision that, regardless of admiration for the animal, is simply crazy in this circumstance, once you see the damage first-hand.

A cheeky reminder of nature’s power

It is easy on the Snowy to be lulled into the relaxed tempo of the river – especially as we are blessed with glorious weather for four of the five days. Richard  is a firm believer in there being no rush –I couldn’t agree more; I am in no panic to leave this place – so each morning’s breakfast and breaking of camp is at a nicely sensible time and pace; rarely are we on the water before 9.30.

The first four days blur into this nomadic routine, with a few hours on the water followed by morning tea, a few more hours paddling followed by lunch, then another hour or so before reaching camp.

In between we continue to build our rapid-running skills, have a laugh at less fortunate party members who cop an occasional dunking, and float along with the current, keeping pace with mottled-grey cygnets who join our kayak convoy for a few minutes. It’s a steady and satisfying immersion into Snowy River life. 

The kayaks are dwarfed by the rugged landscape that the river travels through. This camp was on day three, and offered a sublime swimming spot as well as this view.

Completing that immersive feeling is a simple task, too; swimming in the river is a must-do. Surprisingly, the water is not cold. This is due, in some part, to the fact that unlike most dam-release-controlled rivers, the released (Jindabyne) dam water is drawn from the top of the dam, not the (colder) bottom, which is more common in dam-fed waterways.

The campsite on day three offers the most sublime river-swimming experience you’ll have on the Snowy, with the river splitting into two braided channels below camp, for the perfect place to swim. 

Maybe a tad less refreshing (but way more exhilarating) is this five-day epic’s finale. Our final morning dawns dark and grey – the first time in the whole trip we haven’t seen the sun – and the wind has come up, quite strongly. As in, it soon transforms into a full-throttle headwind, smashing down the wide river valley into our faces – and the bulky fronts of the kayaks.

Then, the rain starts. It’s epic, with forward progress reduced to less than walking pace. Still, everyone stays smiling; after all, where else would we rather be? Here, in the alpine wilderness on one of the country’s iconic rivers, or in an office, listening to the drone of inane conversation? Yeah, me too.

The sun teases the crew from behind a mountain range as they paddle into a massive headwind and driving rain on the last day of the trip.

The rain punches over us most of the day – as does the wind – but it is just, really, a precursor to the Snowy’s ‘fond’ farewell to our crew. For that, the river has left the best til last…

There’s never been a set of rapids with a more apt name. Indeed, Wet Cheeks – a Grade III rapid – promises all in its name. For us, it’s the ultimate opportunity to apply all our paddle skills garnered over the previous four days. Wet Cheeks does, indeed, succeed in splashing both sets of – ahem – cheeks as each of us drop down its small chutes, and then twist and turn around, over and past the sizeable rocks strewn haphazardly along the river. Impressively, we all stay upright – and smiling.

After this final adrenaline rush, we have a chance to solidify the memories of our past five days of awesome paddling, cultural enrichment and wildlife spotting, as we float slowly through a rock-bordered channel of the river before pulling in at a small beach adjacent to Halfway Flat campground.

With the Snowy River sprawling out and then bending around the beach before disappearing out of sight, continuing its journey to the coast, this location provides an endpoint that also offers enticement of more – especially for this writer. After all, there’s still plenty more of the Snowy just around that bend – or back up in the mountains…


Fact File

Alpine River Adventures runs five-day trips along the Snowy River through the Byadbo Wilderness. Places are limited to six people per trip. Anyone with an average level of fitness and above 12 years of age is welcome. Paddling experience is handy but not essential. For more info, see: www.riverguide.com.au