Exploring the Kimberley river with no name

By Kevin Casey April 9, 2015
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The Remote River Man investigates an unknown waterway in the farthest reaches of the Kimberley in Western Australia.

FROM THE AIR, our landing spot looked the size of a postage stamp – a tiny slab of smooth sandstone perched at the lip of a vertical 40m drop. As the helicopter approached I realised this flat rock was four-metres wide. At the side of the gorge a thundering waterfall cascaded down the face of a rust-hued cliff. Below, a deep, placid pool shimmered.

The pilot put us down, helped unload my gear and vanished from sight within 10 minutes. I was alone at last, in the middle reaches of one of the last unexplored rivers in Australia.

When I completed Australia’s first major packraft expedition in 2010 – a solo, month-long paddle down the King Edward River in Western Australia’s north, an unnamed river on the map caught my eye.

Due to its isolation, I suspected the region hadn’t seen a human footprint since its traditional owners, the Gambera people, had walked its landscape nearly a century ago.

Early stages of the journey in the Kimberley

My starting point was a spectacular set of waterfalls 12km from where the river empties into the Timor Sea. The lower falls drop cleanly off the escarpment into a deep, round pool about 150m wide, occupied by huge sooty grunters and a shy freshwater crocodile. The upper falls skirt around rock ledges and pour into another pool from the side. Opposite this picturesque cascade I made my first camp.

Inside my 90-litre expedition pack nestled a 2.2kg packraft, a handy addition to the arsenal of any serious river wanderer. It performs the most wonderful magic trick: when you hike, the raft lives in your pack. When you paddle, the pack lives in your raft. Combined with a four-piece carbon-fibre paddle, it makes virtually any swamp, creek or river on earth accessible to a fit and determined explorer.

I had packed the usual food staples – cereal, powdered milk, dried fruit, nuts, soup powders, pasta, parmesan, fresh garlic, muesli bars and all the rest, selected on the basis of maximum nutritional value for weight. It would be a three-and-a-half week journey down to the river mouth and back, so I carried a separate dry bag to hold extra food and also a waterproof daypack to house camera gear and other must-stay-dry items.

I would be able to supplement pack rations with bush tucker. Hibiscus flower buds, waterlily seed pods and wild passionfruit were on the vegetarian menu, and for protein, the never-before-fished waters hid fat sooty grunters in the larger pools. I was surprised to discover that one of my favourite Kimberley snacks was completely absent; for some reason, not a single cherabin (the common Kimberley yabby) dwelled in this entire river system.

Before I could put the raft to use I had to climb out of the rough gorge country and find flatter terrain. The greatest threats to my moving packraft were sharp submerged branches and the spiky trunks of pandanus trees lining the river.

Crashing into these at speed in a strong current has the potential to turn an inflatable craft into a pincushion. Vast swamps of these prickly plants would appear out of nowhere, forcing me to find a portage route around them, or even abandon the idea of rafting entirely for the rest of the afternoon.

From hiking to rafting

During the first few days the raft got very little action and my boots did the work instead. Shouldering a 30-kilo pack and gripping a food bag in one hand and a camera bag in the other, I trudged along the banks, struggling over the rocky sections. Supplejack vines were a frustrating, natural tripwire.

Almost a week into the journey I finally reached paddling heaven – a series of long, skinny pools with little current, that would be as easy to paddle back upstream as they were to glide down. For the first time I started to see sandy beaches too, which made ideal camping spots.

When exploring unknown rivers, a topographic map can only tell you so much. The most critical point in northern Australia is knowing where the cute little freshwater crocodiles end and the explorer-munching salties begin. Being upstream from a waterfall or rapids provides some peace of mind, but I’m well aware that during the wet season some rapids vanish completely under the increased volume of water.

Just because a big crocodile can’t climb up a waterfall during the dry season doesn’t mean it didn’t already swim over the top of it when water levels were higher. In the case of this river I had pored over maps and studied satellite images until my eyes ached, and was confident I would be okay for a while yet. Nonetheless, I still had a very thorough look around the big pools on the way down before climbing into the raft.

Rock wallabies bounded along the cliffs and small groups of brolgas soared above me as I paddled. Mertens’ water monitors and white cockatoos greeted me at rest stops. Occasionally entire downed trees blocked my passage, stretching from one bank to the other.

I stuck to the smooth water; running surging rapids and sailing over the edges of falls are antics for rafters with spray skirts, no gear and considerably more white-water experience than I have. With a heavy pack strapped to the front of the craft to balance the weight, I could not afford to lose control. My mantra was “when in doubt, drag it out”.

When the paddle-worthy section of the river ended it was replaced be a beautiful gorge, with shallow step-ladder rapids walled in by massive stone blocks, some larger than two-storey buildings. There were plenty of big overhangs providing refuge from the 39ºC heat and blazing sun, but some looked precariously balanced. The last thing one needs while eating lunch is a 40-tonne slab of solid rock landing on your head.

When I got to the final set of sizeable freshwater rapids just before the mouth of the river, I decided not to push my luck with large reptiles any further. I put away the raft and set out to trek the last stretch down to the sea. I left camp carrying just a knife, flint, fishing gear and some drinking water.

Close crocodile encounters 

I expected the last few kilometres to be flat and easy, but soon encountered a boulder-strewn obstacle course. Eventually I rounded a bend and saw the mangroves, with a small natural bridge of sharp rock marking the tidal rapids separating river and sea.

I stood on a low cliff above a clear inlet and looked down into the water as the tide moved in. Schools of unidentifiable, large fish bumped and jostled out in the middle of the bay. Closer to shore a mangrove jack cruised the shallows, eying me suspiciously, then something larger came into view at the edge of my vision. The shape and sheen was familiar – big barramundi.

A three-and-a-half metre saltwater crocodile came by to check me out, before retreating to the opposite bank. Within minutes I had a suitable lunch-sized barra hooked on a lure at the end of my handline. I built a small fire on the cliff, let it die down to coals, cooked the fish whole and enjoyed a fitting reward for reaching the river mouth. Knowing I soon had to make the return journey upriver to reunite with the helicopter, I savoured the moment.

Glancing up, I noticed the crocodile had disappeared from the opposite bank. Stepping quietly to the cliff edge and peering down, my suspicion was confirmed – it was motionless three metres directly below me, hiding amongst the submerged mangrove roots. Okay, I thought, I can take a hint. I finished my meal, tidied up and started back south the way I had come, along the River With No Name.