Daring Dash Down the Darling

Tree curved into arch shape, with view through to a wide river and surrounding foliage.

In late May, seven PaddleNSW members made a daring dash down the flooded Darling River from Wilcannia to Menindee.  The trip was a once in a decade opportunity to paddle a fully flowing Darling River through the NSW outback.  The trip included Garry Cook and Sean Bromfield from Newcastle, Liz Winn from Coffs Harbour, Dee Taylor from the Blue Mountains, and Andy Singh, Rob Law and Amit Hergass from Sydney.

The 280kms river journey from Wilcannia to Menindee is described as a narrow ribbon of wetlands running through the dry and desolate red sands of the NSW outback.  The river, if it is running, sits in a deep 10 metre channel with steep mud walls.  Other paddlers describe it as a ‘concrete pipe’ to which nothing of the outside world can be seen.  Before Menindee, the river flows into Lake Wetherill and the Menindee lakes system, whose drought affected fish kills came to symbolize everything wrong with Australian water management in 2019.

Planning for the trip commenced in December 2020 with a review of the mini (5 metre) flood in 2020.  Based upon river flows, it was estimated a flood event passing through Brewarrina would give 6 weeks notice of a good flood flow for the waters between Wilcannia and Menindee.  Normally heavy January rains lead to flooding in March, with the last significant flood occurring in 2012.  With the plan imagined, paddlers made commitments, training continued, and we waited.  We waited across January – no rain. We waited across February – no rain.  It looked like this one in ten year opportunity, would take a few more years.  Then on 23 March, the rain bomb hit – 150 mm in Moree.  The trip was on.

Saturday 22 May was set as the departure date – based upon work leave for some.  From Sydney, Newcastle and Coffs Harbour, cars, trailers and kayaks started the 2500 km round journey.  The meeting point was near Dubbo, where members of the WomDomNom paddling team (Ivan and Bron) hosted our rendezvous.  Ignoring the mouse plague running around our feet, we consolidated into a smaller number of cars for the longer journey west.

We got onto the water in Wilcannia on Monday 24 May at 7.30 am.  The river had been running at 9 metres (minor flood level) for a week and was now starting to drop. The flow was worth 2 kms/hr which was greatly appreciated with the heavily ladened plastic kayaks.  There had been discussion about whether to bring plastic or our light fast kayaks.  It had been anticipated the river would be full of logs and branches flowing downstream.  But as this was the third and final pulse of the flood, the waters were surprising free of wood.  After our first 15 kms we attempted to stop for morning tea, but we were confronted by the almost impenetrable mud lip which posed as the river bank – too deep to step out, too slippery to step up – landing became a process of ramming a low section of bank and getting across the advantage line to a point where you could stand upright in the mud, without falling back into the river. Glad we brought the bumper boats.

For most of the journey, 9 metre flood meant we paddled above the surrounding countryside.  We could see the water flowing into the floodplain, down into a level lower than the river we paddled.  For us, there was no boring concrete pipe, but the cold and clear big skies of western NSW, the relief of Coolibah gums standing deeply in the flowing waters, the flocks of birds circling overhead.  Winds would whip across from the nearby badlands, adding a gentle rustle through the chorus of sounds of water in flow.  As the river ribboned across the t was obvious, we were paddling in a narrow ribbon of flood, across the most desolate and barren parts of NSW.

Wildlife along the way consisted of pigs being startled by the point paddlers, goats starring in contempt, kangaroos at a bounce, the perennial flocks of parrots and water fowl, the slow circles of raptors, and the heavy turn of the fat pelicans in line with the next river bend.  On the ground, we found the remains of the drought, an ongoing cemetery of Murray Cod, turtle, goat and kangaroo skeletons littered our campsites.

To cover the 280kms across five short days of approaching winter required dedication.  Early morning rises into the cold darkness, slipping into kayaks at first light, still too dark to see the mud covering everything, four 15 kms sessions , each with a break, if we can find a way off the river.  Then we arrive at our next campsite, just in time for darkness again.  Paddlers ground their 60 kms hard across each day.

On the fifth day, the river turns into a lake, broadening into a hard to navigate delta.  One river course is chose over another, and eventually the party come across the lock separating the river from the lake system.  A short but difficult portage opens the way for the final 13 kms paddling across Pamaroo Lake.  Now riverine paddling gives way to open water paddling, a constant wave striking the boat, testing the last tired resolve of each paddler.  The nearer the destination, the more pain the river extracts.  The final push saw paddlers enter the man made canal of Copi Hollows, into the desert oasis of the Broken Hill Water Skiing Club, where grassed camping areas, hot showers and cold beers await.

From a technical perspective the trip was highly successful.  By the time the group arrived in Mendinee, the river at Wilcannia had fallen 7 metres in 5 days, back to a tricking 2 metres.  We had taken advantage of the 13 days window for the 9 metre flood and chased it downriver.  We paddled 280 kms over five days as a fully self-sufficient group.  We safely drove the 2500 kms including 500kms on dirt roads to get to and from Wilcannia and Menindee.

But from a human perspective, the trip had more meaning.  Seven paddlers from across NSW, all committed to each other’s success and safety.  Seven paddlers whose origin story goes back to the WomDomNom of years past.  Seven paddlers supported by four other WomDomNom paddlers – Ivan and Bron in Dubbo, and Hillary and Ralph, who drove all the way to Wilcannia, to help us with the shuttle, to make sure this trip happened.  And somewhere in the grey nomad community, there is Leo and Lucy, who at one point of vulnerability offered a helping hand.  Some see life as a series of achievements defined by kilometres paddled, but I am swayed towards affirmations.  In this adventure, in this daring dash down the Darling, we reaffirmed our sense of community – our support, our safety, our success – will be remembered long after kilometres fade.

– Andy Singh

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