Paddling into the past: Byadbo Wilderness, NSW

By Mark Watson April 6, 2017
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This adventure down the Snowy River into untouched wilderness transports paddlers into an ancient past.

RICHARD ‘SWAINY’ SWAIN PAUSES and crouches by the cool flowing water of the majestic Snowy River. He glances up at a remote and rugged Byadbo Wilderness where primeval native cypress forests cling desperately to the precipitous granite slopes high above. It is a gnarled and unforgiving country, the likes of which spawned Australian bush heroes such as Banjo Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River, but this ferocious terrain holds a placid heart beyond it’s hostile facade. For eons it was a Garden of Eden to one of the oldest cultures on earth, the Monaro people of the Byadbo Wilderness, offering food, shelter and nourishment for the tribes hidden within this south eastern pocket of Australia.

Swainy contemplates his surrounds while quietly collecting some river sand in his hand. He gently scatters the fine white grains into a slow swirling eddy before him. It is a part of ‘welcome to country,’ a respectful gesture asking the creatures of the river if they mind us joining them on this natural pathway, and in a practical sense it offers the galgun (eels) and djamala (platypus) time to find a quiet pool well away from our kayak launch point.

It is a connection and respect for ‘nadgan’ (Mother Earth) he explains to me. We are about to enter a very special part of Australia, a remote region rarely visited by non-indigenous… or anybody for that matter. We will discover artifacts last handled thousands of years ago, bivy alongside ancient Monaro campsites and, if we tune in to the environment around us, we will once again learn to breathe and experience ‘Mother Earth’ of which we are all a part but all too often forget.

But it is the breathing I’m finding difficult; we’ve cinched up PFDs, ratcheted helmets and are now practicing our paddling skills after experienced kayaker and river guide Jase has given us a whitewater rundown. It appears The Snowy may not be a serene experience after all…

snowy river paddling adventure

Local Cooma resident Bob is on a personal journey to reconnect with the land he calls ‘home’. (Image: Mark Watson / inciteimages)

Ancient songline

The ancient Byadbo immediately takes hold of all who enter and it only takes two paddle strokes before the swift current sweeps my craft toward a week of wilderness camping.

The snow is still melting on the main range but the microclimate within the Snowy River Valley is vastly different to the cold plains high above. On the water the air is warm, and native animals are unafraid. We’ve already been stopped in our tracks by an albino gungwaun (emu) only moments after Swainy’s mention of the creature being his native totem… maybe a coincidence, maybe something more.

The Koora Koorai (wind spirit) is calm and peaceful as we set off and a large dhurrawarri (water dragon) looks on from a warm river rock as our group of seven glides by. Even the djamala (platypus) bob to the surface to welcome us to their home. “Can you feel it?” asks Swainy. “The country sings!”

“On the right track, along a songline, the birds sing, the wind is calm and the air feels positive. If you veer off track the hairs on your neck stand up and things just don’t feel right until you reorganise and get back on track,” he elaborates.

There is something tangible in what Swainy describes, something that makes sense. As I glide amongst the mighty house-sized granite boulders of the upper Snowy, with only the sound of the river to accompany me, there is little doubt this land holds something more than what my mere five senses offer me.

As I wend downstream I appreciate that for the Monaro this connection to Mother Earth, these songlines, have been a part of life and lore for thousands of years. I wonder if this same appreciation was recognisable to a determined Angus McMillan, a Scottish settler in the 1830s who battled the Byadbo and surrounding mountains to the Victorian coast in a search for pastoral land. Or was it acknowledged by Strzelecki as he explored the region in the 1840s, or by surveyors McCabe and later Townsend, and more… nearly all who were turned back by the wildness.

snowy river paddling adventure

Jase and Swainy carefully lower kayaks laden with all our supplies off a ‘gentler’ chute of Snowy Falls, the gateway to the Byadbo Wilderness. (Image: Mark Watson / inciteimages)

The merciless terrain and river’s reputation continually arrested those who dared venture too far and thus much of the Snowy remained relatively uncharted territory for nearly 100 years after European settlement.

In 1937, however, Arthur Hunt and Stanley Hanson tackled the river from Jindabyne to the coast in an 11ft 6in pine canoe. Their objective was described by a local bushman as “a complicated form of suicide”. An extract from The 1939 River Canoe Club Of NSW on the Hunt and Hansen trip reads: “… when I first thought of doing a canoe trip down the Snowy, I mentioned it to Mick O’Malley. Mick was born and bred on the Monaro. He’s 6ft 4in, weighs between 16 and 17 stone and if he tells you something you can take it as being fairly correct. He went straight to the point: “Don’t be an adjectival fool, Arthur; If you go down there you’ll never come back. Why there are places there the blacks have never seen.”

Whilst the modern day dammed Snowy is far from the untamed river it once was, this remote region certainly sounds like no ‘paddle in the park’. At camp that night, I muse over what the coming days might bring. Fortunately I am able to contemplate such musings with a white wine in hand, a brilliant moon overhead and while reading Hunt and Hansen extracts by a warming campfire.

Swainy recounts the djamala dreaming as the moon continues to rise, and it is not long before I climb into my tent, all the while wondering what will be delivered beyond the Byadbo gateway. I eventually fall asleep to the rumbling of the river and images of a mythical platypus looking down from the hills above.

Wilderness time capsule

I rise the next morning to the sound of Swainy’s clapsticks and smile when I see Jase boiling the billy for coffee. Over breakfast we revisit last night’s djamala dreaming when a subtle realisation dawns on me that I am now privy to possibly one of the oldest fables in existence; such stories have been passed from generation to generation for millennia. Sat under a warming sun it is easy to accept the Snowy for all its apparent peacefulness and forget its rather tumultuous history. But even the dreamtime tale of djamala ends with our monotreme friend being speared by the dingo people right near this very spot. The Snowy was deeply impacted by European settlement and the Monaro population was decimated through disease. Then came the introduction of sheep and cattle, the damming of the alpine rivers, an inundation of weeds, habitat destruction by feral animals and a political battle for environmental flows.

snowy river paddling adventure

Swainy expertly negotiates the bottom stage of the Snowy Falls to avoid a long portage bypassing this striking landmark. (Image: Mark Watson / inciteimages)

Fortuitously the remoteness of the Byadbo Wilderness allowed a time capsule to remain amongst the turmoil of the surrounding lands. There is little doubt feral animals, super fires and a near-ceased (one per cent) natural water flow affected even the remotest river valleys over the past century, however the return of up to 15 per cent of the Snowy’s flow over recent years has improved the health of this area considerably. The gateway to this pristine part of south eastern Australia is the Snowy Falls and as the mist continues to rise off the water we set off towards a distant rumble on our second day on the river. Two black swans lift off from the water in front of us and glide side by side down the valley just as I settle in beside Swainy for a chinwag.

“I’ve always had a link to the Snowy,” he reveals. “I have a photo when I was a baby from the first time they let the spillway go, back in 1970 I think.

“I began guiding The Pinch back in the ’90s but for 40 years they let less than one per cent back into the river. I remember looking upstream and wondering what was there. I always wanted to go but there was never enough water. It wasn’t until 2012 when they (Snowy Hydro) let water out that paddling upstream became possible, but there was no information, nothing in the guidebook. Even the NSW Canoe Guide stated: “If you go down there can ya let us know?” It was really weird; all the animals just stood and watched us. The platypus came to look at us… we saw 10-12 platypus at once.”

Our conversation fades as the roar of the falls grows louder but it is clearly evident Swainy’s passion for the river, combined with his indigenous heritage and 25 years river guiding, means it would be hard to find a better soul to lead our team into the Byadbo. I look back to see Pauline, Sandra and Ella, three Sydney nurses who have a yearning for the unexplored. Behind them is Cooma resident Bob, who’s on a journey to reconnect with the land he grew up in, and at the rear is our tail guide Jase. It’s a good crew.

Uncharted waters

The Snowy Falls is sight to behold. Jagged rocks jut from the river and water cascades 30m to the river below. To the right are the thundering main falls and to the left are two chutes that redirect the flow around a gnarled central island. The upward swirling mist in the air is a daunting sight and as we approach, we eddy out well in advance of the fast flowing water. A safety line set across the river sees a nervous ferry of the boats one by one before Jase and Swainy lower them down the least scary chute.

We could have battled a long portage of a rock-strewn creek to avoid the falls altogether but lowering the kayaks off the falls seems truer to the river, more direct, less hassle and definitely more adventurous. Nearly four hours later we realise maybe we should have chosen ‘option B’ but finally Jase lowers the last of our vast rubber vessels to Swainy who rides the chute out to where we are all able to join the river once again.

snowy river paddling adventure

Ella gets the adrenaline flowing as she negotiates one of the few grade three rapids en route to our daily campsite. (Image: Mark Watson / inciteimages)

A number of further portages and grade two and three rapids keep us on our toes throughout the day. As the sun sinks the terrain steepens to gorge-like and we find ourselves in the remotest part of our journey. We drift on calm waters and eventually drag our craft up a steep rock shelf to settle in a picturesque camp surrounded by brilliant yellow Snowy River Wattles, iconic Kurrajong and enormous mingarl (grass trees). Small water dragons scurry from the rocks as I manage a breathtaking swim in the icy waters before another night under the stars.

With Snowy Falls behind us we are in little rush to depart camp and find time to absorb this unique country. It is here in the shadow of Mt Talbingo, 150 years ago, that surveyor Thomas Scott Townsend noted: “It is impossible to proceed along the banks of the river at this point, and appears to continue so for miles.”

We are now in uncharted waters and the peacefulness is mesmerising.

At river’s edge ripples from a djamala (platypus) bounce against tall bulrushes whose sweet stem is a tasty treat I discovered en route to camp yesterday. Opposite our rocky plateau steep scree slopes bulldoze their way to waters edge leaving a scar amongst the white trunks of the scribbly gums and dark branches of native cypress. The lush green foliage of the Kurrajong trees stands out against the more subdued khakis of the surrounding eucalypts, and occasionally a flash of brilliance appears; an azure kingfisher swoops down on unsuspecting prey.

Prior to European settlement, the Monaro people lived here for more than 20,000 years, trading with the Bidawal or Gunaikurnai of the lower Snowy and coastal regions for food and items not available to upstream populations. It’s easy to understand why: this ribbon of water was a gateway to the high country where rivers teemed with galgun (eel); fat and oil rich bogong moths hid in abundance in the rock crevices of the subalpine plains; and yams were harvested and cultivated.

Coming of age

Beyond the striated granite, peregrine eyries and red cliffs of the gorge, we follow our now constant companions, two great black swans. In a quiet unnamed creek, we make our way past a lazy red-bellied black snake waiting for frogs to gather on the riverbank where Swainy stops. Without fuss he lights some fungus and uses the smouldering candle to perform a cleansing ceremony, for we are about to enter a special place.

Quietly walking on, I take note of sharp edged artifacts strewn on the ground. The creek meanders through lush glades until coming to a partial clearing abundant with wombat holes. Here I take time to imagine life thousands of years ago… before us lays a large grindstone as clear as day as though it was left when somebody simply upped and walked away. Axe heads and cutting stones rest under trees and a rise gives way to what appears to be a landscaped rock garden.

snowy river paddling adventure

Swainy snacks on native yams as we discover a hidden yam garden amongst the banks of a tumbling tributary. (Image: Mark Watson / inciteimages)

“This is men’s camp,” Swainy reveals. “You can see what it must have been like for the Ngarigo. I was drawn to this place on my first time in Byadbo… I had no idea why. I have since spoken to the elders and I believe this is not just a campsite, but is a historic ceremony place where boys came to become men. This is a special place and quite possibly not visited since the last Monaro walked away many years ago.”

Our crew each respond with a respectful quiet interest and as we gaze over the pristine glade in which we now sit, we take the opportunity enjoy lunch in this far off distant patch of the world that has so much history but seems so untouched by humankind.

That night we camp at Budjan Bend (birdlife bend) where the great sea eagle soars overhead and the gunjug (swans) and moonbah (ducks) reside under Wildwoman Ridge. From the glowing embers of our campfire we keep watch for the siren-like maleema who lure men away, never to be seen again. Fortunately they do not appear.

Connection to country

After four days on the river our crew has changed. The banter of the first day has been replaced with a respectful silence and we tackle each rapid with more confidence, and possibly even more grace. On occasion, when the river gradient allows, I lay back on my dry-bag and let the water carry me downstream. I stare at the nothingness overhead and allow the warming sun and sounds of the Byadbo reboot my psyche. On one such occasion, I’m interrupted by a thrashing in the water and I look up to see two brumbies fording the stream up ahead. It is hard not to be impressed by such powerful creatures but the past days have highlighted the damage they are causing, along with the goats and deer we have also seen since exiting the gorge.

My notebook from our last camp reads: “It appears self evident the final step in rejuvenating this ancient pocket of land must be not only be the doubling of the present environmental flow to at least the promised 28 per cent, but also the removal of both destructive flora and fauna – including the mighty brumby.”

snowy river paddling adventure

The region’s wild brumbies are a majestic and powerful creature but shrouded in controversy owing to their damaging effect on this fragile environment. (Image: Mark Watson / inciteimages)

Our final night at Reedy Creek offers the luxury of a cascading brook with a chilly spa amongst smooth granite rocks. I lie in the cold water and briefly forget the issues the present day Snowy still needs to deal with. Beside the creek, yam gardens hide on the steep rocks paralleling the cascade and a spotted quoll scat sits atop a rock on the far bank. Fifty metres away I’m sure there must be another historic Monaro camp… it’s just too perfect here. Or maybe it’s 100m away, who knows, for this land still holds many secrets.

Our closing day on the river means crossing the biddi, an ancient songline where we will pass into Moyangal (Pinch Mountain) country. Immediately on doing so the wind swings against us. Koora Koorai (wind spirit) is talking to us, pointing us back to Mother Earth’s Garden of Eden, and asking us to turn around. It is tempting to give in to Koora Koorai’s will, but we have friends and family waiting for us in what now feels like a faraway land. Koora Koorai’s eventually abates and Swainy glances over to me. “Can you feel it? There’s a different light to the day, another vibration, we are in new country,” he says. As we drift past Jacobs Creek and toward Wet Cheeks, our final grade three rapid for the journey, I trail a hand in the smooth flowing waters and close my eyes for a moment. I breathe in nadgan (Mother Earth) and listen to the wind, the birds, the water and the trees.

Finally I turn back to Swainy and offer a knowing nod. I am beginning to understand this connection to country, this spirituality that is inseparable from our being. It is a part of us all. If only we can quiet our minds and open our eyes, it all begins to make sense. I think back to welcome to country, the sand on the water, and the clapsticks. “It gets me every time,” Swainy offers. I need say nothing… this time round I know exactly what he means.

The essentials

World Expeditions in conjunction with Alpine River Adventures runs a 5-6 day 70km Snowy River & Byadbo Wilderness Expedition. Places are limited to six people per trip and it’s suitable to all age levels from 12 years up with average level of fitness. Paddling experience is beneficial but not essential. The journey departs from and finishes in Cooma, NSW.

REX Airlines flies multiple times a week in and out of Cooma (Snowy Mountains) Airport, or there are daily flights to and from Canberra from all Australian Capital cities. 

Cooma is a 115km drive (1h 30m) from Canberra Airport.

We stayed at the Nebula Motel in Cooma.