Canoeing the Snowy River
A multi-day paddling adventure with friends down the mighty Snowy River; it’s the stuff of childhood dreams.
I knew of the Snowy River long before I ever set foot in Australia, and I had longed to paddle it for many years before I finally did. Spring is an excellent time of year for it with the river flows typically higher thanks to the snowmelt in the mountains upstream.
I’ve got a group of mates who plan an annual Spring backcountry ski trip, but this time a paddling adventure took its place. Being geographically separated across three states, it took us months to agree on a date and put a plan together.
We chose the famous Mackillops to Buchan section of the Snowy River. This section begins at the historic Mackillops Bridge in the Deddick Valley region of the Snowy Mountains National Park in Victoria. It finishes at the junction with the Buchan River where the Snowy continues its journey toward the coast. This 76km section of the Snowy River winds through some breathtakingly beautiful scenery that continually changes as you travel downstream.
It also contains dozens of rapids with a few that reach as high as grade 3+ depending on the water level. Most of the challenging rapids can be portaged. However, it’s still a trip for the experienced, or those being guided by a professional. The sheer remoteness of this environment amplifies the severity of any accidents or mishaps. All five of us on this trip have years of experience paddling and guiding on whitewater rivers in various parts of the world.
We couldn’t agree on which craft we wanted to use, so we decided on an assortment. My mate, Steve, owns a raft so he and another decided they would paddle that. The remaining three of us swapped between two solo canoes and a whitewater sit-on-top kayak for variety. We wanted to try and be self-sufficient in our packing rather than loading up the poor guys in the raft. So each canoe and the kayak took as much gear as they could fit. This left the fellas in the raft carrying just our portions of the group food plus their own equipment.
We met up the night before departure at Karoonda Park in Gelantipy. Karoonda Park is a working farm and outdoor education centre that is also the home of their paddling operation; Snowy River Expeditions. If you want to plan a trip and don’t have access to equipment, guides, or vehicle shuttles, then they can help you with all of this. We hit the river early and, after a coffee on the riverbank, we were off.
Our plan was to have four days and three nights on the river. There are plenty of campsites along the banks, so there was no set destination each night. Instead, we just aimed to travel a certain distance so that each day was a substantial paddling distance without being too arduous. We had the added challenge of four days of consistent headwind and a flow level that was on the lower end of the scale. This meant that each day felt long, although the distance travelled wasn’t.
Our difficulties were utterly overshadowed by the fantastic topography of the river valley and the geology that we witnessed along the way. The rapids provided short bursts of excitement that were punctuated by long, flat pools where we would while away the kilometres over stories and great conversations.
Arriving into camp in the late afternoon each day gave us enough time to survey our surroundings, locate firewood, set up camp, and take in the sunset. One of the great things about travelling in canoes or rafts is the amount of space that you have to pack luxury items and food. Meal planning was allocated beforehand and, naturally, each cooking party tried to break out their best. The result was lavish multi-course meals and vast quantities of them. Nobody complained or went hungry. Sitting around the campfire on a sandy beach with a full belly and good company was as enjoyable as the paddling, if not better.
The whitewater encountered on the second and third days became much more exciting with higher grades. The rapids had names like Compressor, A-Frame, Gentle Annie, and George’s Mistake. Passing through A-Frame and then gliding through the impossibly beautiful Tulloch Ard Gorge was an absolute highlight for us all.
On day four the valley opened up, and the river widened out, providing gentle riffles and races rather than pronounced drops. In the early afternoon light, we reached the junction with the Buchan River and began hauling our gear up to our vehicles.
It’s always hard to leave a river after spending consecutive days travelling along with its flow. I felt myself wondering what would happen if we just kept paddling.
Luckily, our trip wasn’t quite finished; we’d planned to spend one last night together in the beautiful rural Victorian high country town of Buchan. After a celebratory beer and feed at the newly-rebuilt Buchan Caves Hotel, we settled into our accommodation.
We talked about making this trip an annual event. I genuinely believe that I could paddle this trip many times and never tire of it. Further research has turned up optional side trips and areas to explore along this stretch of river.
The fishing in the Snowy is apparently great too! Upon reflection, an appreciation for our diverse country emerged. Here, on this giant, flat, hot, dry continent of ours we could choose to spend the same calendar week paddling and swimming in this mighty river or skiing above the treeline across its headwaters less than 100 kilometres further North.
Photographs by Travis Frenay, Mark McLennan and Stephen Curtain.