Janet has been planning a Shoalhaven River trip for a couple of months now, and together we’d got as far as planning a scouting trip, where a small group would go down and check out the access, conditions and come back with a trip plan for a larger group. A scouting trip date had been set but then work commitments and other events had clashed. We’d just started to find a new scouting date when the email arrived in my inbox.
Travis from Paddle and Portage Canoes was putting out a call for canoe paddlers to join him for a three day trip on the Lake Yarrunga. He’d lined up a video crew to shoot a promo video for his canoeing business, showcasing various elements of the genre from touring and whitewater to marathon racing. He was looking for friends who had Wenonah Canoes to come along and show off the range of options available. If you didn’t have a boat, Travis had plenty to spare.
This was an immense stroke of luck. Lake Yarrunga, where the Shoalhaven river is held back by the Tallowa Dam, was exactly the spot where Janet had been planning her trip, and now we had the chance to get a guided tour with paddlers who regularly paddled in the area.
It was going to be a Monday to Wednesday trip which seemed impossible given what was going on at work. Initially we figured we could sneak away on the Monday for a days paddling to get a look at the location without causing too many problems for me at work. That would at least give us a chance to scout the get-in, parking and general conditions for a later trip. Then Kate decided that it was one of those opportunities that we really shouldn’t turn down, so I cleared out my annual leave balance, delegated all responsibility to my team at work, and announced that I was going off the grid for three days. if the world was ending I could be reached by SatPhone, maybe.
We spent most of the week organising our camping gear, making lists and crossing things off, trying to keep the gear to a minimum. Most of Trav’s friends are outdoor education guides who spend half their lives in the bush with nothing than a swag and a glint in their eye. It sounded like it would be a Bear Grylls convention. From the invite list, the only other civilians on the trip would be the camera crew and even that was doubtful, they seemed to have spent time filming in the Amazon. Our camping gear since kids had swung towards car-camping with a focus on comfort over packability. Our first trial pile of gear wouldn’t have fitted in the car, let alone the boat. After a few false starts and a quick trip to Kathmandu, where there was a sale on, we had a pile of gear that looked vaguely reasonable for a couple of nights away in the bush.
Meeting Travis in Robertson on Monday morning, we discovered there would be around twenty paddlers joining and leaving the group at various times during the three days. Some were bringing kids and would only stay for a day, others had trips to lead late in the week, and would be leaving us on Tuesday. About eight of us would be staying for the whole trip.
For three days and two nights we paddled the waters of Lake Yarrunga. I’m not actually going to give much away here, because I think it will spoil it for everybody. But it’s fair to say that If I had more leave in the bank, we wouldn’t have gone back to Sydney on Wednesday.
We camped on the riverbank of the upper Shoalhaven, half way to Fossickers Flat on the first night. The campsite was a collection of flat tent spots set back from a sandy beach.
With the camp established a few of the Bear Grylls stripped down to their cargo shorts and paddled out from the beach for some canoe games and a chance to show off for the camera. The entertainment included gunwale bobbing where two paddlers stand at opposite ends of the boat on the gunwales and then seesaw the canoe until one of them is thrown off.
Travis and one of the female Bear Grylls then demonstrated a unique reentry methods which starts with two paddlers facing easy from the sides of the boat, holding onto the gunwales and doing a backward summersault into the boat. You’ll have to wait for the video to see that one. Maybe Sam can try it on his ski.
All of this activity was interspersed with a lineup of paddlers attempting to paddle “The Esky”. “The Esky” is a miniature canoe, provided by Wenonah as a shop display and beer cooler. It’s about five feet long and has the handling characteristics of a champagne cork in a wave pool. One of the Grylls made it look easy, but rumour has it that he’s been practicing for some time and he’s also a damn good paddler. The rest of us variously capsized as soon as the bottom left the beach, sank it in a homage to the titanic, or simply went around in circles. After several spectacular failures, I managed to paddle it out into deep water and get it back to the beach, declaring that success was stepping out rather than falling out. It was great fun.
During the night we discovered that the “track” we’d pitched out tent beside was actually a animal trail, a point reinforced by an hour of “probably a pig” eating grass beside our tent between 3am and 4am. Still, we’d fared better than one of the guys who’d “probably a pig” run through his tarp covered bivvy while he was sleeping.
Kate and I left the group early on Tuesday to scout upstream towards Fossickers Flat. And a real toilet. With a door.
On the way up, Kate spotted some tiny jellyfish in the water around us. They were about the size of a bottle caps and translucent, and there were hundreds of them over a couple of km of the lake. We were both surprised to find that there was such a thing as freshwater jelly fish and after returning to civilisation it turns out they’re quite rare as well.
In the middle of the week, on a lake with no powerboats, at a campsite 15km from the nearest access road, you can be truly alone. We had a great swim in the warm shallow waters where the river meets the lake.
All along the lake there are flat grassy spots of various sizes above the water line which can be used as camping spots. The Bear Grylls said there are around fifty obvious campsites around the edges of the lake and probably countless others for the more adventurous. A couple of the larger spots include toilets. There are a number of spots with makeshift rock tables and quite a few with rock lined fireplaces. Wood gets a bit scarce around the well used sites, but there was plenty within a few minutes paddle of every site we passed.
The Bear Grylls broke camp about an hour after we left, heading back to the dam to swap crews with some of the incoming Bear Grylls.
After taking a couple of photos, we put our heads down and double timed it back to the dam, arriving just as the last of the Bear Grylls were pulling in. One of the coolest things we noticed on the way back was that there were trails of bubbles on the surface of the water. We were probably 20 minutes behind the others when we first saw them, but they were an unmistakeable paddle pattern left by the group in front of us. The lake was so still that they just sat there like canoe footprints.
After checking out the river below the dam, the group decided to shoot the whitewater segments on a small grade 2 rapid a few hundred metres below the dam before heading into the Northern arm of the lake and our second camp at Sawyers Spur.
Scouting the rapid from the bank, it was obvious that the rapid was very shallow and rocky. I decided to grab my camera and take photos from the bank rather than tempt fate by coming out of whitewater retirement in front of a film crew. There were plenty of paddlers keen to take up the challenge and we spent a few hours watching the Bear Grylls run the rapid in various combinations of paddler and boats. My reservations were confirmed when two of the Bear Grylls glanced off a rock, turned sideways and wrapped their canoe around a rock at the bottom of the drop. A bit of excitement and relief that a plastic canoe can survive almost anything. Trav’s Wenonah canoes include plastics, but not the polyethylene plastics we’re used to. They’re made from Royalex, a laminated plastic renowned for being light and nearly indestructible.
Back at the dam we refreshed our water supplies from the vehicles and paddled 5km up the lake to Sawyers Spur, an exposed point on the lakes edge which would catch the prevailing wind in the night, but furnish a spectacular sunrise in the morning if the weather was clear. The weather didn’t favour a spectacular sunrise, but that didn’t detract from the beauty of the location. We had a fantastic camp dinner sitting on the waters edge with the water lapping around the canoes.
The nights entertainment was provided by a couple of possums which had clearly become too familiar with humans for their own good. While nobody was giving anything away in the morning, there was definitely a hiss and a squawk followed by a large splash in the middle of the night, somewhere in the vicinity of one of the Bear Grylls who was sleeping rough under a tarp.
We finished the trip on Wednesday shooting some footage of race paddling near the dam with the film crew trying endless takes and camera angles to capture the intensity of canoes in full flight. That session was probably the funniest as the white water and touring paddlers tried to come to grips with the sit and switch style of paddling used by marathon racers. Most canoeists paddle single side, using a j-stroke to maintain a straight course. Marathon paddlers by contrast use a fast switch from side to side to compensate for the turning of the boat. We had an early advantage because we normally paddle sit and switch. Paddlers new to the technique learn quickly that the switch is remarkably similar to throwing your paddle away with one hand and catching it with the other. The last half is really important.
Even the mens doubles were hard pressed to catch us in a head to head sprint for the imaginary line. When they started to get the hang of it, we treated one team to a paddle load of water in the face as they tried to slip out from behind sprinting towards the camera.
The three days on Lake Yarrunga goes down as one of our most enjoyable paddling experiences of the last few years, the location is fantastic, the company was entertaining and we returned to Sydney feeling completely relaxed and recharged.
The lake is an easy still-water paddle. The only difficultly you might experience is the wind which can funnel down the long reaches of the lake making for slow going against the wind.
There are areas of dead forest where the trees that existed when the lake was formed in 1976 have drowned and you can paddle through the ghost forest. The years haven’t been kind to them and they’re not as dense as they appear in some of the old guidebook photos I’ve seen. I guess eventually they’ll be gone completely. The trees are easy to avoid and paddle around although it’s kind of cool to paddle slalom style through the middle of the remaining ones. They don’t represent a significant navigation hazard with no moving water around them.
The further you get from the dam, the less competition for campsites you’ll experience. it looks like it can be busy during weekends and parking might get tight in the car park adjacent to the dam. I’d thoroughly recommend making it an overnight Saturday-Sunday trip. The distance from Sydney would suggest a mid-morning start on Saturday and mid-afternoon finish on Sunday. You’ll need water for drinking. The water in the lake is clean and fresh, but there are signs about not drinking the water unless it’s boiled. Most of the campsites are in amongst the bush so your tent site options can be limited by the size of your tent. The larger open sites are the ones likely to be popular.
Ruddered boats would be fine in most areas. The lake is forty metres deep at the dam and deep over most of its length. We didn’t run into shallows until we were well into the narrows of the river. Sea kayaks and estuary touring boats would be ideal. Unless you’re doing an up and back training sprint, leave the skis and racing boats at home, take your time and enjoy the scenery. It really is spectacular.
It’s at this point that I have to extol the virtues of the humble canoe. I love my canoe. I loved it before the trip because it’s big and black and made of carbon fibre. It’s eye catchingly beautiful and everybody who saw it on the trip thought it was magnificent. Before the trip I loved it as a thing. A beautiful blend of craftsmanship and modern materials, 18’6” of kevlar lined carbon fibre with Ash wooden gunwales. After the spending three days touring in it. I’m in love with it for a different reason. It’s load carrying capacity is immense. The pile of gear that we unloaded from the car just vanished into it. We’d planned on leaving the big Esky in the car and taking a small one in the boat with us. After we’d packed the gear, we had so much space left that we put the big Esky in just because we could. On the first overnight, we chose the metal camp stretchers over the folding chairs. When we stopped back at the dam to load up more water on day two, we grabbed the chairs as well. Despite carrying almost everything we’d packed into the back of the car, we still had room to lug out a sack of rubbish we picked up around the campsite. And most surprising of all, the handling of the canoe barely changed as the load increased. When we go back, we’ll be paddling the canoe again.
Our biggest sea kayaking bags are about 35 L. The canoe swallowed storage bags, Esky and barrels, totalling around 400L of gear.
As one of the Bear Grylls said to us when we were packing. “You can tell a canoeist by the size of their dry bags.”
Here’s a slideshow of photos from the trip