Kayaking the Herbert River FNQ

By Matthew Newton 21 October 2014
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Paddling down Queensland’s Herbert River is a great way to test your courage. Not only does it offer fantastically frightening whitewater, but also the adrenalin-rush of confronting saltwater crocs larger than your kayak.

HE RAN TOWARDS us with an incredulous look on his face and simply said, “Cows, lots of cows!” Before we knew it, the scene was like the Running of the Bulls. I don’t know what they were running from or where they were running to.

But I did know I didn’t want to be in their way. Soon we were running as well – cows and idiots in river sandals running through the savanna of the Atherton Tablelands. We hid behind hopelessly skinny trees and watched a hundred or so athletic cows stampede by. As the dust settled someone said, “Shit, that’s never happened on the way to a river before!”

We were on our way to the Herbert River and were fast learning there was nothing ordinary about it.

The Herbert tumbles off the Atherton Tableland in far north Queensland and meets the ocean 130km north of Townsville. It is one of the country’s two finest extended whitewater journeys, the other being Tasmania’s famous Franklin River.

What the Herbert lacks in fame it make up for in true Queensland style. It compensates by making things big.

The trip started on a 20,000-hectare (that’s big) cattle property too many hours drive from Cairns. It was one of those places a fool from the southern states mistakenly believes he has arrived at when, in a cloud of dust, he rattles past the front gate. But as anyone who knows cattle country will tell that fool, he is probably only halfway there – and that’s the easy half. Finally, and with my spine an inch or so shorter, we arrived at a place called Goshen Station and the wonderful hospitality of Maxine and Ross Blennerhassett.

Survivor: Herbert River falls

When we arrived at Herbert Falls, we were reunited with our gear, which had been driven in on the back of a four-wheel-drive ute.

Herbert Falls was the location for Survivor II. During filming in 2000, 250 people set up a makeshift village above the falls. The series had a budget of $134 million and was broadcast in 70 countries. Thankfully, there is not much evidence of the scale of the production, and the idea that a bunch of US wannabes came here to find fame seems bizarre.

After ferrying rafts, kayaks and food down to the river, we camped at the top of the falls, not far from where the Survivor mob had their tribal councils and voted each other off the program. For us it was a pretty uneventful night; we were all still there in the morning. But when we made our way down to the river we discovered rats had been having a tribal council in one of our food bags. Then, to my horror, the rodents had gnawed through a 15-litre wine cask, at which point I wanted to do more than just vote them off the program.

One thing that makes the Herbert unique, apart from jogging cows, is the lack of a warm-up. Once you get on the river it is straight into the big stuff. Entering the river immediately below the un-runnable Herbert Falls is daunting. Within minutes the rafts float towards one hell of a horizon line marking the top of Dog Leg Falls, a double-stage drop.

Rafts must be portaged and lined down a cliff into a narrow pool at the bottom of the first part. Then they are hauled back out onto a huge slab of rock and lowered a second time back into the river below the main falls and directly above another considerable drop.

Kayaks have the option of running the falls. I was in a kayak. I had come a long way to be there and paddle good whitewater. I took one look at the falls and started walking.

The good thing about starting with the largest drop is that it makes the subsequent drops look more reasonable. The first few days on the Herbert there are plenty to go around. We spent the rest of the day paddling some fantastic whitewater before finishing at a sandy beach campsite.

The beach campsites scattered along the river are a gift. After a day of paddling it’s fantastic to spread out and relax on the sand. The beaches showed clear evidence of the floods that came in the wake of Cyclone Yasi. The Herbert catchment is almost twice the size of the Franklin-Gordon catchment in Tasmania.

Most of the rain usually falls on the lowlands near the coast, unless a weather event pushes it inland. Yasi travelled directly over the catchment in February 2011 and dropped 400mm – a third of Sydney’s annual rainfall – in 24 hours. The result was the second-largest flood since records have been taken. The river peaked at more than 15 metres, the height of a five-storey building.

A good rapid on the Herbert

The scale of the Herbert sets it apart from other rivers in Australia. It flows down a wide valley strewn with boulders and rock shelves that form big, long rapids and large waterfalls. These features give you a real sense of feeling small in the landscape, and a heightened sense of adventure.

The steep rocky slopes and cliffs that tower above the river are home to rock wallabies that defy gravity as they bounce up the rock faces to stay away from trouble. Trouble for a rock wallaby comes in the form of wedge-tailed eagles. They circle high above the ridge line and – as we saw one day while floating down an easy shingle rapid – occasionally swoop down and pluck hapless wallabies from the cliff.

Wicked Runs has everything a good rapid should. It is a long Class IV-V, which the International Scale of River Difficulty defines as long rapids; high irregular waves; dangerous rocks; boiling eddies; best passages difficult to scout; scouting mandatory first time; powerful and precise manoeuvring required; demands expert boatman and excellent boat and good-quality equipment. This is a very long way of saying it’s high on the shit-scared scale.

If you can’t whistle at the top of one of these rapids, you probably shouldn’t get in your boat.

The “wicked” part of this particular rapid comes in the form of a large, strong hydraulic at the very end of the rapid. Hydraulics (also known as “stoppers”) are formed when water pours over the top of a submerged object, causing the surface water to flow back upstream towards the object. This particular one could also be described as “very sucky”, which means if you end up in it you probably won’t be coming out for some time.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon when Eddie found himself in the hydraulic at the bottom of Wicked Run. It looked for all the world like he was going to be there for some time. Eddie was a mate from Cairns who had never been rafting before. We had invited him along because we like Eddie and it’s always good to ensure on these types of trip that you are not the weakest link.

Eddie was not alone – he was also there, strangely, with David Boon. “Boony” was attached to the helmet Eddie had borrowed from a mate in Cairns. He had started life as a plastic figurine at a local bottle shop. However, he had graduated to become Eddie’s mate’s good-luck charm and was cable-tied to the helmet.

Eddie was instructed to, “Rub Boony’s tummy if you get scared and he will bring you good luck.” It seemed as though Eddie, with his lack of experience, and the situation he was in, could use some good luck. At times, all I could see was little Boony surfing the whitewater, looking more like a cork in a tsunami than Australia’s greatest Test opener. To his credit though, not once did I see Eddie’s hand anywhere near Boony’s tummy.

Camping with Herbert River crocodiles

After about five days on the river we reached Blanco Falls, a spectacular 91m sheer drop, followed by a 230m cascade before meeting the river at the bottom of the gorge. This is where most groups leave the river. It involves a 2km slog up a ridge line. We had decided to keep paddling for another two days and avoid the walk. As we sat having lunch and enjoying the view, Bruce, who had paddled the river a number of times, casually said, “There are salties from here down.”

I didn’t pay much attention. I figured we were a long way inland and Bruce is known for winding people up. That night we camped on yet another perfect sandy beach. No signs of crocs and clearly nothing to worry about.

About midmorning the next day, we reached the bottom of a short rapid and slid into a long, flat pool. I looked at the sandy bank in the distance and saw a large log. I turned to Shaun, one of the guys guiding the raft I was floating next to, and said, “Am I crazy, or does that log look like a…” The log stood up and walked towards the water looking a lot like a very large croc.

The realisation that you are in the food chain affects people differently. I would like to say I was brave and nonchalant. However, there were too many witnesses for this to fly. I simply looked at Shaun and put my arms out, he grabbed me and pulled me up – still in my kayak – onto the raft and virtually into his lap.

In winter, saltwater crocs spend most of the day sleeping in the sun on the riverbanks. When disturbed by something larger than they are – which isn’t often – their reaction is either to take refuge in the water and wait until the threat passes, or to lie in wait until the threat becomes dinner.

This can be disconcerting for the river traveller. Convincing yourself that the croc, larger than your kayak, hurtling down the bank is actually trying to hide from you is no easy task. Throughout the afternoon we saw eight or so crocs slide into the river with – and close to – us.

I had never thought much about where crocs slept until late that afternoon when we pulled into a scabby-looking beach for our last night. Did they sleep in the water? Or on the bank? Was I going to get up in the night and trip over one on the way to the loo? I could see the headline in the Cairns Post: “Fool in river sandals mauled after tripping on croc!”

I was starting to think that north Queensland had too many large animals for my liking. One of the guys on the trip was a press photographer from Cairns. He had photographed a croc a few years before that had slid out of the water in the middle of the night and tried to drag a sleeping man into the water. The croc was stopped by a well-placed axe between its eyes.

There were two aspects to this story I found concerning. Firstly, it seemed to confirm crocs didn’t mind a midnight snack and secondly, I feared if the worst happened my natty little multi-tool would be unequal to the task.

The evening was spent arguing over whose turn it was to get the next pot of water from the now terrifying riverbank. In the morning, we were all still there.

There are few commercially run raft trips on the Herbert River. In many ways this adds to its appeal. It also adds to the logistical nightmare of organising a trip. However, it does mean you will most likely have the river to yourself. Except, of course, for the jogging cows, alcoholic rats and the sunbaking salties.