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Australia is a dry country but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s also a country that is blessed with a high number of rivers to explore, with some states even having a series of dedicated canoe and kayak trails. Aussie river-runners, whether it is a family in a canoe, mates in kayaks and rafts, or those who just enjoy drifting on a SUP with the water’s flow, are spoilt for choice when it comes to memorable river adventures. Here are five of our favourites.

Upper Shoalhaven River Gorge, NSW

The little historic village of Kangaroo Valley, two hours south of Sydney, is a stunning travel destination in its own right but it also serves as the gateway to arguably the most scenic flatwater paddling destination in the state: The Upper Shoalhaven River Gorge.

The mighty Shoalhaven River flows 327kms from the Great Dividing Range, east of Cooma, dropping 865m to the ocean at Shoalhaven Heads. Toward the end of the river’s journey, its waters are impounded by Tallowa Dam just below its confluence point with the Kangaroo River. The resulting backwater is called Lake Yarrunga, which provides over 50kms of flatwater paddling with myriad campsite options along its shores. The Upper Shoalhaven River Gorge is in the western-most part of the lake.

Into the wild, floating on a mirror. Heading deeper into the Upper Shoalhaven River Gorge for a weekend of canoe camping. Travis Frenay

After a few hundred metres the dam is no longer visible, and the true beauty of the Shoalhaven Gorge lies before you. Multiple layers of towering sandstone cliffs sit atop impossibly steep hillsides leaving you feeling very small and insignificant compared to the landforms standing 600 metres above. The vegetation changes in each little gully revealing pockets of temperate rainforest species that thrive in the watercourses. Every slight bend in the river reveals a new cliff face to admire and, in periods following good rainfall, countless waterfalls streaming from the hillsides.

Wildlife abounds: Water dragons, goannas and superb lyrebirds are commonly seen, azure kingfishers regularly dart along the bank, and both wedge-tailed eagles and white-bellied sea eagles are almost a guaranteed sight as you glide along the waterway. More recently, dingoes have been spotted in the upper reaches of this waterway and koalas have been heard grunting at sundown. Laying on the floor of your canoe at night-time as you gaze up at the stars might be the most serene paddling experience you’ll ever have.

A big canoe group makes for a fun overnighter – or longer – when exploring the Upper Shoalhaven River Gorge. Travis Frenay

A night or two away on a canoeing trip in the Upper Shoalhaven River Gorge will leave you feeling awe-struck, probably exhausted, but totally refreshed and re-centred. The famous “Father of National Parks”, John Muir, said: “The rivers flow not past but through us.” This trip will remain etched into your memory the same way the river has etched its path through the sandstone.

Best time: All year round.

Guided option: Valley Outdoors and Kangaroo Valley Adventure Company both offer guided journeys on the river, as well as other outdoor adventures in the Kangaroo Valley/Shoalhaven River area.

The Franklin River, TAS

The “world’s best river trip” according to esteemed US publication, Outside, and you will get little argument from AGA after Editor Justin Walker journeyed down the river in early 2013 – he hasn’t shut up about it since. Picture this: Nine days on one of the world’s most exciting rafting rivers; beautiful and pristine terrain surrounding you every day; sublime campsites that tempt you to stay forever; and some of the wildest, fun rapids you will encounter. 

The rapids on the Franklin range from small, technical and tight, through to those that more closely resemble a waterfall. Justin Walker

The Franklin River can be paddled independently, either by raft or kayak. If you opt for the kayak, you must be a highly experienced paddler. Smart people opt for a guided rafting trip (see below), where they can take advantage of experienced guides and rafts packed full of all the gear – and food – you will need.

For the paddling fanatic, the Franklin just offers so much. It is a real journey, both in terms of how both the landscape and the river change character along the way, moving from benign flatwater sections to incredibly powerful rapids. It is here that the river reminds paddlers, through its sheer power, just how untamed nature still is, even in this sanitised modern world. 

From the benign start point on the Collingwood River, through to the savagery that is the unraftable Class VI Churn rapids, the Franklin never disappoints. The campsites are remarkably different – some nights you are sheltering under an eons-old rock overhang, on others you rely on just a tarp, dossed down beside your fellow rafters – but each one is right next to the river and allow you to listen to the sound of the river as it moves inexorably on. It’s the ultimate lullaby. 

The scale of the landscape you paddle through on the Franklin River is hard to put in to words. Tourism Australia

The Franklin requires decent fitness, with at least a modicum of paddling experience. Besides the fantastic rapids-running, you will also get the chance to explore some canyons along the way and visit the magical Lost World. 

Best time: Summer is the best for this Apple Isle epic.

Guided option: World Expeditions offers a guided nine-day Franklin River rafting trip.

Nitmiluk Gorge, NT

Paddling through Nitmiluk National Park’s pristine gorge system is a fantastic one- or multi-day Top End canoeing experience in the Dry Season (May-September). This water-borne journey can comprise a single day or a couple of nights camping further into the gorge system (you can bring your own canoe or hire one). There are many highlights, including towering gorge walls, swimming at one of the gorges’ pretty beaches, and the chance to spot some of the area’s native wildlife, including turtles, water monitors and the shy freshwater crocodiles (don’t approach a ‘freshy’; observe from a distance if you spot one). Park rangers survey the gorge system for saltwater crocodiles that have made their way into the gorges during the Wet Season and remove them before the gorges are opened to the public.

A day paddle through the gorge is great, but for a truly unique experience, tackle a longer overnighter for some sublime camping and more remote country. Tourism NT/Shaana McNaught

Nitmiluk National Park covers a vast area of escarpment country, including 13 gorges along the Katherine River carved from the ancient sandstone country.

Canoeing is permitted from the second gorge onwards. The paddling is not too strenuous – it will only be the short portages (carrying your canoe between gorges) that require effort. If you get too hot or tired, pull in at one of the many sandy beaches and take a dip in the refreshing water. NT Parks recommends the fifth gorge as the limit if you’re up for a day-paddle, but you can paddle further and camp at the fourth, sixth or ninth gorge (with the appropriate permit).

The serene, calm waters of the gorge allow for plenty of exploring, some swimming off some of the beaches and memorable wildlife spotting. Tourism NT

Day paddle highlights include Butterfly Gorge in the second gorge, with its short walk, and the nearby hanging gardens. The third gorge includes pretty Lily Ponds, a short walk to a swimming hole below a waterfall (usually still running in June). See for more info on the park, canoe hire and camping permits.

Best time: April-September

Guided option: Nitmiluk Tours offers self-guided one- and two-day canoe adventures.

Snowy River, NSW/VIC

An iconic paddle adventure, the Snowy is a brilliant – and challenging – canoe trip. Most paddlers put in below McKillops Bridge, in the northern section of Snowy River National Park, around an hour south-east of Jindabyne. Here, it is worth pausing to contemplate just how powerful the Snowy can be; it has reached the base of this towering bridge a few times when in flood. For canoeists, the McKillops to Buchan River confluence is one of the more popular, but we’d recommend (if you have the time) following the Snowy all the way to the ocean at Marlo, in Victoria. 

Negotiating the rapids before reaching the portage of Snowy Falls, in the Byadbo Wilderness section of the Snowy River. Justin Walker

A true epic, this trip will see you encounter the full gamut of paddling conditions: the Snowy shifts from calm flat water to Class II, III and IV rapids throughout its length. The reward for these challenges is the chance to camp right beside the river each night, in one of Australia’s most pristine wilderness areas. Little River Gorge (Victoria’s deepest), the scarily powerful Tulloch Ard Gorge (where you will need to portage the gnarly rapids) and Campbells Knob are just a few standouts on this journey. 

Pulling in for morning tea on one of the tranquil flat-water sections of the Snowy River. Tourism Australia

For those with less time, there’s a brilliant, guided option, through the Byadbo Wilderness, which is one of the river’s most remote sections. Travelling with Alpine River Adventures, you not only get to experience 70km of this amazing river, but learn about the area’s Indigenous heritage, all while spotting plenty of wildlife, such as platypus, sea eagles, and echidna. Oh, and the campsites – beside the Snowy’s sandy banks – mean an end-of-day swim is an absolute must. No matter which way you paddle it, for canoeists and kayakers, the Snowy is near the top of the list when it comes to must-paddle rivers.

Best time: All year for canoe/kayak (but can be dependent on water-flow levels); Winter and spring for rafting.

Guided option: Alpine River Adventures offers the excellent six-day Byadbo Wilderness adventure. If we could only paddle one part of the Snowy, this would be it.

North Johnstone River, QLD

Remote, steep, and technical, with consistent Class IV-V rapids – all bearing names such as Mordor, Mineshaft and Misjudgement, that hint at the challenges – over four to six days, deep in a canyon, surrounded by dense World Heritage-listed rainforest. Yep, this foaming behemoth, beginning high up in Palmerston National Park – and with your put-in point only accessible via helicopter – is the river-runner’s Everest. 

The many rapids along the North Johnstone all present their own unique challenges for paddlers. Matt Newton

It is easy to see how the ‘NJ’ consistently rates as one of the world’s top 10 rafting trips. The landscape is rugged to the extreme; the river’s powerful flow cuts through incredibly dense rainforest, with dark cliffs looming over hardy paddlers. On top of the paddling challenge itself, there’s the potential to spot everything from indigenous burial sites and 50m waterfalls, to bird spiders and, yep, saltwater crocs. 

AGA contributor, Matt Newton, has kayaked (in accompaniment with rafts) the North Johnstone and reckons there isn’t much that compares on the adrenalin scale, with multiple rapids each day needing careful scouting before being attempted (or portaged), along with having to keep an eye out for salties – especially if in the perhaps more croc-palatable kayak…

The difficult grading of a lot of the NJ’s rapids means plenty of scouting beforehand, to decide whether to run the rapid or portage. Matt Newton

As well as the incredible physical challenge, the river offers the chance to step back in time, with the ancient landscape surrounding the river relatively unspoiled (some of the trees near the river are estimated to be more than 3000 years old), and the campsites are perfectly located to soak it all up after a hard day on the water. 

It’s not all madness and mayhem on this river, with plenty of tranquil campsites, nestled deep in this World Heritage-listed region. Matt Newton

The North Johnstone’s remoteness also means there are hardly any other craft on the river at one time; if you’re lucky, you may well have the mighty NJ to yourself. It’ll be a lifelong memory, for sure.

Best time: April-June (rainfall dependent). 

Guided options: Currently, there are no guided trips down the North Johnstone River.