Packrafting the Fitzroy – 5/5

Fitzroy 1 Intro Fitzroy 2 • Fitzroy 3 • Fitzroy 4 

Today, our fifth on the river, we expected to break out of the clogged-up side streams of the last two days and get on the deep, open channel which led right through Geikie Gorge national park, not far from Fitzroy Crossing.
After breakfast the log jam which had defeated us last night was easily carried around and after a couple of hours lifting over and squeezing under other blockages (left), we turned the last Big Bend and spied the northernmost outcrops of the Geikie Ranges in the distance (right). This was the last of the few landmarks on the route and though the bridge was still 40km away, it marked the beginning of the final leg, just as the Gap had marked the end of the Leopolds. As if on cue, the rock changed again from the sand-smothered granite we’d been on since leaving the King Leopolds three days ago, to limestone which gave Geikie’s flood-scoured gorge walls their distinctive appearance.
The river spread out and lost its depth, and as we picked our way over gnarly limestone rapids not unlike the Ningaloo‘s shores, Jeff’s floor got snagged and went flat. It was smoko time anyway, so while the water boiled he repaired his boat one more time.
As far as we could tell the park’s northern boundary began at 18°S, but as you’d expect in WA, paddling in it was not without its restrictions. The DEC website stated private boats were only allowed on the river before 7.30am and after 4.30pm so that the daily boat cruises wouldn’t be disturbed by people bombing around for free. At our paddle speeds, keeping to these times would be difficult, let alone getting through the 18km-long park before nightfall, because camping was not allowed either. All visitors to Geikie drive in, almost all to do the one-hour boat cruise. Aside from a couple of short walks, that’s all there is to do, even though it’s clearly a great place for paddling. As with kayaking the Ningaloo Reef, we were again expecting ranger problems due to our unorthodox arrival and mode of travel. If the Ningaloo Reef NP regulations had no category for sea kayak touring, you can be sure Geikie Gorge had no equivalent for packrafts coming down from the King Leopolds. Our transit would require a sympathetic head ranger; something of an endangered species up north, if my experience during the guidebook years was anything to go by.
At least we’d seen from the plane that the river cut through Geikie in a deep, wide channel with minimal shallows. For me in the nippy Alpacka that was great news, but hours of unbroken paddling would be a drag for Jeff in his sluggish Bestway. Mid-morning a hot northern wind rose up and Jeff was quick to rig up a sail, (left) but its effect was negligible; the only way forward was to dig or settle back and drift on the quarter-knot current. To our left and right, sun-bleached water marks reached ten metres up the cliff walls (right), demonstrating how high the Fitzroy rose during the Wet.
It was lunchtime, but with little flat and shaded land between the cliffs and the bank, we rocked up on a slither of an island capped with fresh green grass that no cattle had managed to reach. Later I realised I’d taken a picture of the very spot from the plane (left). While Jeff got the billy on, I emptied the Yak for a rinse and then went for a quick blast across the open river. Without its load the Alpacka skimmed across the water like a pebble.
Have a go in it” I said to Jeff when I got back. He did and of course loved it.
I shouldn’t have done that. I really shouldn’t have done that“, he realised. It made getting back is his squidgy pool toy all the more galling.
Back on the water, up ahead a motorboat was gunning towards us. Here comes the ranger; we’ve been spotted and our trip could end right here. But our paranoia was premature, it was just a bloke heading out to his favourite barra hole by some sunken trees. He explained we were in an unofficial access window tolerated between 11am and 1pm, between the two daily tour boat cruises. He also warned us that the head ranger was a grumpy sod. No surprise there, so we decided better not to get bogged down in explaining ourselves on the sat phone, while at the same time planning to make the most of the Fossil Downs land on much of the east bank for which we did have permission. Before we’d flown out of Fitzroy we’d tried to track down the ranger’s office in town to inform someone of our plans. We couldn’t find the place, but heard later there was no one there most of the time anyway.
As we entered the main part of the gorge, up ahead we heard the blaring of a guide giving his tour-schpiel from the cruise boat. People looked to be taking pictures of us which meant now we’d be seen for sure. They’d be waiting for us downriver, hands on their hips, but we decided we’d deal with that when it came. We’d talked our way out of it on the Ningaloo; we could do the same here. It’s not like we were drunk and churning the place up in jet skis.
Without any overhead canopy to shade us, the full heat of the afternoon pressed down and Jeff was feeling it. After some 20kms we came to a big sandbank where crocs buried their eggs. Seeing a curve in the cliff line (right), Jeff could bear the paddling no more and set off on foot (left) to cut the corner. At the far end I came ashore to look for him but he was still way back. The day’s heat bounced off the glaring sand.; great for incubating croc eggs, but it reminded me that had we actually done much open country walking (as we’d expected) we’d have had a tough time of it. Wading or paddling, the surface of the river felt a good 5-10°C cooler, even out of the shade. The combination of the cool water surface as well as constant splashing kept us swathed in a temperate micro-climate which made the whole experience infinitely more tolerable. The few portages we’d taken over boulders or sand banks over the last few days had been brief reminders of how hot it actually was out there, and later that day we were told the temperature had topped out at nearly 39°C (102°F).
Unless he was training to be an Indian fakir, it didn’t look like walking across the scorched sand bank had been any kind of respite for Jeff, and he flopped back into his boat. As on the first day, I suggested I tow him for a bit and this time he was too weary to resist. He reposed on his water sofa as we set off to explore the main east wall of Geikie, where eons of seasonal flooding had carved the former subsea reef with scalloped and fluted Gaudi-esque forms (right). We glided under overhangs (left) and nosed into caves and web-drapped fissures which bigger boats couldn’t reach. As we bounced along the eroded undercliff, enjoying a break in the pace, up ahead a babe in a red kayak came into view. As we got close she started chuckling.
“I hope you’re not laughing at us” I said with a stern grin. It was Ingrid, the Cool Ranger, probably the only person north of the 26th parallel who was remotely impressed by our packboating achievement so far. “Good ON-ya guys!”, she said as we filled her in on our adventure, and she meant it too. We gloated modestly at this unexpected attention as she fired off questions about our boats and a trip she’d often thought of doing herself. On the way out we’d actually spotted her red kayak from the plane, beached on a bank somewhere upriver. Turns out she was one of the dreaded park rangers, but despite six months on the job was still keen enough to use her days off to see how far she could get upriver in her SoT. And this wasn’t just any old SoT, but an Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro – a boat I’d considered buying myself for our stay in far northwest Scotland earlier in the year. Compared to most SoT tubs, the SP is a long, slim and sleek-looking boat – much admired by spray skirt-dodging hardshell connoisseurs as being the most sea kayak-like of SoTs. No stranger to her own outback adventures, she quizzed us about our run down, while a fellow ranger glided over to deliver her fishing rod in a dumpier O.K Frenzy, the more usual door-wide slab of SoT plastic. Ingrid had caught a two-foot barra hereabouts just a few days ago, so there were fish to be had here after all.
After a long chat it was time to move on; the sun had just about set. She explained that up ahead was a big sandbank on the left where another river joined the Fitzroy. That was out of the park so we could camp there as long as we liked. Buoyed on by the hope of a fresh fish supper, Jeff trailed his lure until half an hour later we bounced into the sankbank at twilight, barefoot and fishless as usual.

To the Bridge
Jeff had well and truly had it with his Bestway, and the previous evening had talked about walking the last 15kms back to the van at the aerodrome and putting back in at the bridge. By dawn he’d come to his senses. After all he’d nursed his malformed lilo over a hundred kilometres, past sleeping crocs and charging bulls, over boulder fields and under fallen trees, patching it as he went. For whatever reason, yesterday had been a hot slog and the novelty of his achievement had long gone stale, but he knew he had to see it through to the end – or at least give it a go. If nothing else, he had a film to finish!
He suggested I go on ahead to the bridge, walk to the aerodrome and come back with the van, by which time he’d be arriving himself. And so at 6am we set off for the final 20-kilometre leg which I figured I’d complete by noon. Although there was no let up in obstacles – more log jams, frequent sand shallows with quicksands, as well as headwinds – by 9.30 I’d reached the original ford which gave Fitzroy Crossing its name at the end 19th century.
My watch had packed up days ago and for some reason the last topo map was printed on toilet paper and had quickly disintegrated.  An old guy was walking his dog over the ford and as I lifted my Alpacka over the concrete rim I asked the time and how far to the bridge – groaning when he said about 4 or 5 kilometres. Oh well, about another hour then. I’d attacked this final stage without a stop in one last burn up, but after 16kms I was fading. It was hot and I only had a 750-mil bottle of water. Having passed a dead animal and other rubbish, I didn’t fancy the river water down this end, and now the river was no longer wild, I was keen to get the job over with.
Another sandy, shallow bend. I hop out to wade, sink over my knees in quicksand, crawl out, stagger on, get back in to paddle a bit, ground out and go through the whole cycle again. Jabiru storks carved the airwaves overhead and Brolga cranes danced about on the sandbanks. There were a lot more roos bouncing up and down the banks here, too. But never mind the wildlife, where was that bridge? Surely around this bend… that one… or the next, until finally there it was, less than a mile away (left). Road trains sped across, oblivious to the tiny raft below with its paddler, up to his hips again in quicksand.


Presently a shadow passed overhead, but it wasn’t a flood-battered river gum or a rustling cadjeput; it was the bridge on Highway 1 which ringed the entire continent of Australia. Worn out and parched, I filmed a final, slurred p2c and headed for the steep bank to pull the cork out of the Alpacka one last time.

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