The Paddling Bucket List

By Justin Walker 26 November 2014
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It was a tough call, but we’ve picked them: the top dozen destinations for paddlers in Australasia. Discover the most beautiful coasts to kayak, the wildest rivers to raft and the most tranquil lakes to canoe

Abel Tasman Coast New Zealand

MENTION NEW Zealand’s South Island and most people think of the Southern Alps, but for paddlers the main attraction is the north-west coastline’s Abel Tasman National Park. The Abel Tasman paddle can be tackled in either direction, with the start/finish points of Kaiteriteri, at the southern end, and Tata Beach, tucked in the north-west corner.

The paddle takes in coastal landscapes (with Kahurangi NP’s snow-capped peaks in the distance). Lucky paddlers may also have close encounters with seals and dolphins. AGA senior contributors Dallas Hewett and Derek Morrison did the trip in the shoulder season – when the crowds are less – and highly recommend it. The rewards: a sense of isolation and connection with the coast.


Wilderness Coast New South Wales

THE REMOTE coast of Australia’s south-east corner, from Bermagui in the north to Mallacoota in the south, offers tremendous paddling. The big-bopper is the multi-day epic from Eden’s Twofold Bay, in NSW, south to Mallacoota, in Victoria. Adventure guru Huw Kingston elaborates:

“The Eden to Mallacoota paddle is the most remote and committing sea kayak trip relatively accessible to paddlers from Sydney to Melbourne. Over 100km between cafes means you need to go fully supplied. Paddlers need to be prepared to wait out bad weather and big swells. The rewards are a feeling of remoteness, stunning coastlines of caves and beaches and great camping.”

Less experienced paddlers can explore Merimbula, Pambula or Twofold Bay, each in a single day. Look out for migrating whales, penguins, seals and dolphins.


Hinchinbrook Island Queensland

THE HINCHINBROOK Island area is sea kayak heaven, with options including a circumnavigation of the island (about five to seven days) or paddling further afield to take in Agnes, Goold and Wheeler islands. Michele Eckersley, of World Expeditions, explains:

“The appeal of paddling Hinchinbrook is the scenery and the sense of being under your own power. Some of Queensland’s highest mountains [Mt Bowen is one, at 1142m] are on Hinchinbrook, and they make a spectacular backdrop at kayak level.  We loved paddling up onto deserted beaches and wandering in to cool off at the beautiful waterfalls and waterholes at the island’s southern end.”

Those who prefer shorter trips can undertake an overnighter to Sunken Reef Bay, do a quick loop around to the bottom of the island’s eastern side (take a peek at the huge cliffs near Hillock Point), then turn back to the mainland.


Southwest National Park and Port Davey Marine Reserve Tasmania

WITH NOTHING but your kayak between yourself and Antarctica, it’s exciting paddling on Tassie’s south-west coast. The World Heritage area has a real “world’s end” feel to it. It’s difficult to get to (if you don’t go on a guided tour, you will have to get yourself and kayaks transported by air) but worth it once you’re on the water. Bathurst Harbour’s sheltered bays provide great day trip opportunities, such as exploring the Narrows (a channel joining Bathurst Harbour with Port Davey), while based out of one camp (the area has top campsites).

The more adventurous may explore further out into Port Davey and its marine reserve, where you can – if conditions permit – circumnavigate the Breaksea Islands. Be prepared for wild weather: the Roaring 40s, the powerful winds that run between 40 and 50°S, roll straight through Port Davey. We’d recommend staying at least seven days, allowing for the weather and the fact it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Myall Lakes National Park New South Wales

THIS NATIONAL park has great diversity: wide rivers, small lakes, huge lakes, narrow creeks, tidal rivers, islands and more. NSW’s largest coastal brackish lake system has campsites accessible by boat (such as Brambles Green, Freshwater and Joes Cove) and many offer the rare east-coast luxury of a westerly aspect with sunsets over water. It is a large park, so unless you lob in during peak summer holiday season, you can easily find a secluded campsite right by the water.

This, combined with a warm climate, white sand and huge paperbark trees hanging over the water, makes Myall Lakes NP an idyllic canoe-camping venue year round. Try exploring the wetlands in a canoe, then nosing further into Boolambayte Creek and Pipers Creek (in the lower section of the Myall River). The Myall Lakes area is exposed, so keep an eye on forecasts for incoming windy weather. And don’t forget a tide chart if you plan to paddle up the lower Myall River.


Shoalhaven River New South Wales

THE UPPER Shoalhaven River Gorge (upstream of Tallowa Dam) is one of NSW’s most scenic waterways. The river is a narrow strip at the bottom of steep hills, topped by 50m+ cliffs. For families, the section above Tallowa Dam is ideal. An overnight adventure is a great way to introduce kids to canoeing.

The Lower Shoalhaven River (below Tallowa Dam) is beautiful, with long, casuarina-lined, flat-water stretches, punctuated by short races of Class I to II standard (water level dependent). The river spends most of its journey at the bottom of a wide gorge, which opens up as the river becomes tidal and meets the sea near Nowra.


Snowy River New South Wales/Victoria

AN ICONIC adventure, the Snowy is a brilliant and challenging paddle trip. Most paddlers put in below McKillops Bridge, where it is worth pausing to contemplate how powerful the Snowy can be – it has reached the base of the bridge a few times when in flood. For canoeists, the McKillops to Buchan River confluence is one of the more popular trips, but we’d recommend following the Snowy all the way to the ocean at Marlo.

A true epic, this trip covers the gamut of paddling conditions as the Snowy shifts from calm, flat water to Class II, III and IV rapids. The reward is the chance to camp 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 (you will need to portage the gnarly rapids) and Campbell Knob are a few stand-outs on this journey. One of the true epics.


Fiordland New Zealand

THERE IS much to see and do in this part of NZ’s South Island, but a paddle on one (or all four) of these waterways should be at the top of the list: lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, and Doubtful and Milford sounds. Lake Manapouri is often described as NZ’s most beautiful lake, with more than 30 islands, plenty of quiet bays to explore and brilliant beach camping. Paddling Lake Te Anau – a glacial lake – you will have more islands to explore.

Milford and Doubtful sounds offer great kayaking and AGA editor Justin Walker has paddled both. “Milford is far busier but the crowds are relatively dispersed and don’t stop chance encounters with seals and penguins,” he says. “Doubtful Sound is the true wilderness experience, though, surrounded by high cliffs and numerous waterfalls. You can opt for a day paddle, but multi-day adventures are the best option.” 


North Johnstone River Queensland

REMOTE, STEEP and technical. Consistent Class IV-V rapids, with names such Mordor, Mineshaft and Misjudgement. Four to six days, deep in a canyon, surrounded by World Heritage-listed rainforest. Yep, the “NJ” is the physical incarnation of rafting’s dream list – easy to see how it rates as one of the world’s top 10 rafting trips. Add in the potential to spot everything from indigenous burial sites and 50m waterfalls to bird spiders and saltwater crocs, and you’ve got a great adventure.

AGA senior contributor James McCormack rafted the NJ and reckons there isn’t much that compares on the adrenaline scale. The ancient landscape is relatively unspoilt and the campsites are perfectly located. The North Johnstone’s remoteness means there are never too many craft on the river – you may have it all to yourself.


Nymboida River New South Wales

ONE OF Australia’s most popular guided rafting destinations, the Nymboida has something for all skill levels. The one-day trip may seem too quick at first glance, but it’s worth noting there are 25 Grade III-IV rapids in the 9km, so you’ll be plenty occupied, as AGA editor Justin Walker discovered.

“My wife, Rachel, and I did the one-day trip on our honeymoon. Loads of rapids, some great swimming holes and we both survived unscathed – and still married!” Guiding companies also offer a two-day journey (from Platypus Flat to the Junction), plus a 50km, four-day option that travels downriver from Platypus Flat to the township of Nymboida. Like the North Johnstone, the Nymboida is a natural-flow river, so its grading changes depending on water levels.


Franklin River Tasmania

RAFTING (or pack-rafting) the Franklin is the iconic Aussie whitewater trip. Thanks to conservationists’ hard work in the early 1980s, the Franklin was never dammed, so you get the full wilderness experience. It encompasses everything from Class I to unraftable Class VI rapids and tough portages. AGA senior contributor Bill Hatcher describes it perfectly:

“The Franklin River contains the best aspects of a challenging multi-day whitewater adventure. But what really sets it apart is it’s a river journey through the most beautiful and remote wilderness in the Southern Hemisphere.”

During the course of the 125km journey, the river drops around 1400m, through epic scenery, including old-growth rainforest, caves, steep cliffs and the narrow, deep gorge of the Great Ravine. It helps to be reasonably fit for the paddling, but more so for the portages. The Franklin River is worth all the hard work. One of the world’s best!


The Kimberley Western Australia

THE LARGEST STATE in Oz has some of the biggest whitewater – and epic coastal paddling – based around the spectacular Kimberley region. Hard-core whitewater paddlers can take on the big three: the Moran, King Edward and Fitzroy rivers, while the more laid-back can kayak the massive Lake Ord or, if you’re up for some ocean-based adventure, join a guided ocean ski trip that runs north from Perth to Broome, enjoying beautiful clear water, loads of marine life and some awesome coastline (and seafood!). It’s a long haul to get there, but the remoteness – and high adventure – will ensure you never forget the wild northwest.