Anyone who is an enthusiast, no matter what the pursuit, has a bucket list. A list of absolute ‘must-do’ activities that have to be experienced before you die. High on my personal bucket list was the mighty Clarence River. I have now in part ticked that one off my list!
The Clarence is according to size and volume of water flow the second largest river system South of the Tropic of Capricorn. It flows from the Border ranges near Tooloom and empties some 395km later into the Pacific Ocean near Yamba. Along its journey South and East it collects water from 24 major tributaries including notably the Nymboida, Mann, Orara and Timbarra Rivers. It flows through country as diverse as rocky gorges and mountain ranges near its source to wide open flood plains dotted with farmlands at its mouth. It was the section below the rugged mountains of its junction with the Mann River that interested us and is the topic of this article.
When setting out on any journey through territory not previously experienced, it’s important to do good research in advance and make an achievable and manageable travel plan. Fortunately for our group there is a very detailed canoe trail map series published by the Clarence Valley Council and NSW Department of Lands (www.myclarencevalley.com) which provides maps, launch sites, camping and river conditions for 195km of the Clarence, Mann and Nymboida rivers. Our plan was to do a 2 day, 50 km downriver trip on the Clarence river from The Gorge campsite to Copmanhurst (sections 7 and 8 of the Canoe Trail Map Kit). This section involved traversing river conditions varying from wide slow-moving pools, class 1 shallow gravel riffles and some class 2 rapids. What more could you ask for?
We planned to break our journey with an overnight stay ay Lilydale Bridge campsite which means we had to carry enough gear to camp overnight and be completely self sufficient for 2 days on the water. Selection of paddle craft for this trip was very important. We needed a boat that was capable of carrying (in our case) gear for 2 people, manoeuvrable enough to handle class 1 and 2 rapids but also efficient enough to move at a reasonable pace along the long wide pools between rapids. We choose a 15-foot canoe for the trip, with the other guys paddling 13 foot sit inside plastic kayaks. We found both choices to have pros and cons, but on the whole good solid performers. So, with plan, gear and boats chosen, we set off on our adventure.
Our launch site was the popular camp site, The Gorge, located on the river just below the Clarence Gorge. To say the country side in this area was spectacular was very much selling it short. The drive into the campsite showed rocky tree lined ridges strewn with granite boulders that would make a diesel locomotive blush. It turned out to be a very an accurate preview of what we would experience on the water later that day.
Our leg for the day was a 30km run through some of the most spectacular country Australia has to offer. From putting in at The Gorge homestead we wove our way through crystal clear water dotted with huge outcrops of granite. The banks were lined with gums and bottlebrush trees and varied from gently rolling green hills to rugged cliffs. It truly was living up to our expectations.
The river was at first relatively easy to negotiate with a clear path between the large outcrops of grey rock and as we progressed further down stream and the frequency of these outcroppings increased it became more challenging. This was exacerbated by the low water levels on the river from the recent drought. This was particularly noticeable as we entered into the sections above Gordon Brook which contained a series of class 1 and class 2 rapids. The lower water levels meant that often a path through the boulders was not clear or contained insufficient water to clear the rocks on the river bed. We found ourselves having to line the boats through sections that would normally have been navigable. Whilst this did add some delay to the journey it certainly didn’t take anything away from the shear beauty of the river or the excitement of running a remote body of moving water. There were plenty of opportunities to have a laugh as one of the other boats in the group would suddenly lurch up after running up on a submerged rock the size of a council bus! The clear water made it hard to judge whether they were 2 inches or 2 feet below the surface.
The latter part of the day found us entering into flatter terrain typified by large slow-moving pools separated by shallow gravel riffles. Again, here the low water meant we were unable to travel over the rocky bottom without exiting the boat and dragging it for a few metres before re-entering and carrying on. The last section before Lilydale Bridge frustratingly saw an increase in these shallow gravel runs and meant we didn’t reach the campsite until just on dark.
Lilydale Bridge is a free campsite located right beside the bridge and along the bank of the river. It has flushing toilets and, in the section where we pitched put camp, plenty of shade from trees along the bank. It was quite busy being school holidays, however we had no trouble finding a quiet spot right on the river bank to hang our hammocks for the night.
The second leg of our journey was an easy 20 km run from Lilydale to Copmanhurst. The river here was similar to the last stage of the previous days paddle, and we found ourselves more regularly stretching out and getting the boats up to a good pace on the wide deep sections. As with the previous day the scenery did not disappoint and we saw an abundance of birds, turtles and fish. The clarity of the water made turtle spotting one of our favourite pursuits on this trip, and there were certainly plenty to spot!
This section is an easy class 1 paddle and would suit novice paddlers wanting to experience a longer down river paddle on moving water. The only thing to really watch out for are the series of railway iron posts in the river bend immediately before arriving at Copmanhurst. These are fairly easily avoided if you are aware they are there.
We arrived into Copmanhurst at 1.30 that afternoon after a relaxing day on the water and set off to retrieve our drop off car from The Gorge. By 5pm that afternoon we were back in the caravan park unpacking gear, enjoying a refreshing beverage and discussing which section of the river we would tackle next.
Based on our experience of these sections we most certainly will be tackling the other 6 sections of the Clarence Valley Canoe Trail. It is at this point that I need to stress that our party consisted of 4 experienced paddlers who had previously paddled on moving water. Some sections of the Canoe Trail are deemed suitable for experienced paddlers only and should be treated with respect. The river can be very unforgiving and is often in very remote areas where help could be many hours away. The preparation required is definitely worth the effort as the reward is paddling on some of the most pristine waterways in our country. For inexperienced paddlers there are a number of guide services running on the river which offer the opportunity to experience various sections in a controlled environment. I recommend you add this amazing river to your own personal bucket list! For more information about this trip and other similar locations feel free to contact One Tree Canoe Company at www.onetreecanoe.com.