Review: Adventure – white water canoeing
Place: Nymboida River (Hull’s Farm to Buccarumbi) – approximately two and a half hours drive South from Byron Bay
Distance: 16.3 K paddle
Guides: Nymboida Canoeing Centre – Senior Instructors: Gray Stride and Gaye Foster – Assistant Instructors: India Morris and Courtney Bryce
Water Craft: Wobbegong 4.3 M
Socrates and son take on the challenge of kayaking on the beautiful Nymboida River with the assistance of the crew from the Nymboida Canoe Centre. Their conclusion? If you have never tried shooting rapids at least once… you’re nuts!
Years ago, my son Levi and I spent a day riding inflated rubber inner tubes down the Nymboida Creek rapids. It was a blast! The man-made rapid course being shallow, easy-grade rapids and safe was as fun as hell… but not exactly challenging. We promised ourselves that one day we would come back and join a group led by expert instructors on the wild Nymboida River itself and take on some natural rapids in a canoe. This week we did just that! Here is what happened.
We arrived at the Nymboida Canoe Centre at eight-thirty as instructed. After fitting out of personal floatation vests and helmets the entire group of eight participants (under the supervision of four instructors) came together to discuss safety, learn about correct use of equipment and to see dry-land demonstrations of various paddling techniques. With basic instruction out of the way, we were all loaded into a bus to be transported to the starting point of our day on the river. As the day consisted of sixteen kilometers of paddling and white-water negotiation on the main river we had a twenty minute bus journey on winding dirt roads through fine cattle grazing country and beautiful natural bush to get us to our starting point.
On reaching Hull’s Farm, our beautiful rocky beach starting-point, the canoes were unloaded and launched, then participants were partnered-up and assisted in taking their places at the front and rear ends of each canoe (our vessels were two-seaters). In a quiet section of water near the launch point, just before heading down river to attempt our first rapid, the instructors led us through half an hour of practicing the various paddling skills we would require throughout the day. We also learned that the forward-seated paddler used significantly different paddling techniques to the rear-seated paddler (the forward seat’s role being more of an engine and the rear seat being more of a rudder for the craft) when negotiating the boat through fast-moving water. The lead instructor then gave us all some very specific instructions on how he intended to guide us safely through each rapid section and emphasized how important it was for us to follow his instructions and guidance as closely as we could. When participating in an adventure like this it is great to know that, in the end, it is your own skill and effort that is going to bring you safely through the hazards but at the same time it is important to know that there are experts with you doing everything they can to ensure that you get things right!
Then we were formed up into single file, spaced about four boat-lengths apart, and sent on our way paddling steadily towards our first challenge. Levi and I both heard the grumbling and gurgling sound of the rapid well before we actually saw it. The first rapid section was approached one boat at a time with each craft been called into the rumbling white water with a single blast from the leader’s whistle.
When our turn came I confess that that my heart-rate increased just a little as we headed for the white water. Around five meters before we actually reached the churning wash of the rapid we could feel the craft come into the grips of swiftly moving water. It’s a strange sensation to be in control of a vehicle at one moment then to deliberately paddle the craft into a place where the river is attempting to wrench control away from you. Once you are five meters from the rapid it’s much too late to think, “O-oh, I’ve changed my mind… I think I will come back later”… because once you’re in it, there is no backing out! We paddled into the fast moving water and felt ourselves whisked along to the place where the water seemed to fall out from under us.
I shouldn’t make this rapid sound too dramatic. It was just a teeny one. The easiest one we would face all day. But that being said it was a great introduction to that addictive feeling of throwing yourself into the grips of nature… nature that wants to fight with you… and quickly learning that it was your job to wrestle control back.
Being an easy grade one rapid every boat made it through the boiling water with a minimum of fuss. Other than the fun of taking on a rapid for the first time and the thrill of travelling down the river at speed while dropping through a maelstrom of rocks and white water the main lesson learned was that the canoeist’s role is not a passive one. If one allows their shock and awe to distract them from paddling strongly (to both power and steer the craft) the river remains in control and making it through the rapid becomes a matter of luck rather than skill.
Despite having learned this lesson (and thinking that we had learned it well) we showed just what pathetic, puny creatures we were when we came to the first grade two rapid only a few more hundred meters down the river. The guides did a fantastic job in ensuring that we had every chance to succeed at our first real challenge… the Fisherman’s Hut rapid. The lead instructor left his craft on the bank then carefully made his way out into the middle of the torrent so he could point to a spot precisely where he thought it would be best for us to take the first drop. He also sent his senior assistant instructor ahead and asked her to position herself at a place in the water some distance down-stream so that we not only had a potential rescuer in place but also a target that we could aim our crafts towards down the line of the river most likely to be safe.
Each craft was to take on the rapid one at a time with enough space between the boats to enable instructors to ready themselves for any possible rescue that might be needed. Levi and I were first to attempt the rapid. A sad attempt it was. We both paddled towards the first drop with excitement and enthusiasm. The moment the canoe dropped over the edge, the shock of the feeling of weightlessness and the sudden increase in velocity, caused us both to back off on our strong paddling causing the canoe to waddle and wobble on, out of control, for a few seconds. By the time we had both started to paddle again and were rattling along at high speed, we found ourselves heading towards an ill-placed tree that was overhanging the gurgling banks of the river.
Levi, thinking that he was about to lose his head, was forced to duck and stop paddling and I, feeling the craft out of control, stopped paddling too. Silly move, that. The next thing we knew we were upside down and bouncing down the river, separated from our craft. When the white water settled back into a slow moving river, the assistant instructor was right at our side helping us to gather ourselves together, helping us to find our paddles and helping us to manoeuvre our boat to the bank where we could empty it of water and prepare ourselves for the next challenge.
At the bottom of this first grade two rapid we also had a perfect view of our fellow participants going through the same trial that we had attempted. One or two did a great job and made it through without a blemish. Others made similar mistakes to ours but still managed to make it through the rapid without tipping over more by good luck than by good design. Still others made as big a mess of it as we did and needed the assistance of the instructors.
So… the first big challenge was out of the way. Some had done well. Others had done poorly. But every one of us had had a ball. Levi and I agreed that even though it would have been fun to make it through the rapid with the boat and us on top of the water, it was also fun to be thrown from the craft and swished down the river amongst the rocks at an enormous rate to be deposited safely in a calm eddy with enormous grins on our faces.
The sixteen kilometre paddle down Nymboida River continued in a similar manner over the next six or so hours. A few hundred meters of paddling in still water… followed by negotiating an easy rapid to build up our skill and confidence… then attempting a more challenging rapid under the careful and watchful eyes of our guiding instructors. Throughout our journey, with all its successes and failures, two things remained constant.
Firstly, the activity was enormously pleasurable. The sensations of speed… of dropping… of being buffeted… of rocking… of turning… of being grabbed by fast-moving water and thrown around seemingly out of control are all just plain exhilarating. It’s all superficially like being on a theme park water ride… only it’s real. Your adventure isn’t a ride designed by engineers for you to sit and enjoy passively and safely. The adventure is created by nature and the challenge is for you to deal with it as best you can!
Secondly, the activity is satisfying. You learn new physical and mental skills. You need to apply those skills at every moment of the journey… and walking away from a sixteen kilometre journey with dozens of challenges along the way and doing it through having learned and endured is enormously satisfying! While the river wants to control you with all its power you learn to rest control back through skill, knowledge and your own wiliness.
Throughout the journey the instructors called a halt to all activities at regular intervals so that participants could cool down, regenerate and relax with swims, lots of drinks and lots of food. Balls were thrown, water fights were had, gorgeous landscapes were admired, exciting local animal life (fish, fowl, reptilian, marsupial and domesticated) were discussed and sun-screens were reapplied. At one point we admired a local eagle family. At another we observed the frenetic activities of red, blue and green dragon flies. Water dragons were laughed at. Turtles pursued. Fish observed. As is the case with most adventures, it is not just about the adrenaline-charged fun. The Nymboida rapid adventure is also about nature. The river. The country. The animals. The wildness.
After seven hours of exhilarating and challenging activity we finally paddled our canoes into Buccarumbi where the bus was waiting to carry us back to the canoe centre. Buggered, burnt and bitching about the heat most of us were glad to finish the trip but also thrilled to have been part of it. One of the younger participants claimed that it was the hardest day he had ever had in his life! Well, he must have had a pretty sheltered life to this point. That being said, for all its fun and excitement, it’s not a doddle.
The trip down the Nymboida River is exhilarating, challenging and bucket loads of fun. It also provides an opportunity to learn a whole new set of both physical and mental skills. Despite the fact that, like any other worthwhile adventure sport or activity, there are some risks involved the instructors go out of their way to make the journey as safe as it can possibly be. Along with the fun of learning to guide a canoe through fast moving and falling water the day also gives you the opportunity to explore and observe nature at its best. Finally, the Nymboida excursion also introduces you to a new sport… one that might just get you in… and provide a launching pad to a whole new world of sport for you. I, for one, am keen to try again.
When you book a trip on the river make sure that you get a full list of instructions on what you will need. My tip is to wear long shirt sleeves and long trousers (I didn’t do this and boy I regretted it)…. and bring a hat to wear under the helmet provided. Six or seven hours on the river means you will need as much sun protection as you can get. Without taking precautions and reapplying sun screen all day long you will fry. Don’t worry about the long trousers and shirt being too hot. You will be regularly swimming in your clothes (whether by accident or by design) and the wet fabric helps to keep you cool. You will also need lots of cold water… and snacks too.
Any adult or teen with average fitness will manage the sixteen kilometres with no problems. You might have a little muscle soreness the next day but that will just make a great a reminder of the wonderful adventure you have had. If you currently enjoy a completely sedentary lifestyle then you had better check with your doc first before taking this adventure on. Failing that, do yourself a favour and get down to the local gym and start a fitness program. It would be pretty annoying for yourself, for your fellow paddlers and for the instructors if you get half way down the river and realize that you are done with and need help to make it to the finish.
Everyone should have a crack at paddling on a wild river at least once in their lives. At worst you will end up a bit sore, hot and tired but pleased that you had the experience. On the other hand you might just discover that this is the sporting life you want to live from now on. This may just be the start of a new life’s passion!