My thoughts are back home with my wife and 8-month-old daughter. This is the first time since the birth of my daughter that I have gone on one of my adventures. I have chosen the Wollemi wilderness over my wife and daughter. I have left my daughter wondering – Where is that person who baths me at night and plays games and reads to me before dinner? Where is that person who holds me when I cry and kisses me good night? And my wife; She must be worried that I might not return. What if he gets hurt? What if he drowns? Is he okay? And while my wife worries about me I worry about my family. What if something has happened to my little girl? What if they were in a car accident because I wasn’t there to drive them around safely? What if… In the world we live in now I really do wonder where the real dangers lie.
It has taken courage to venture into the wilderness alone but it takes simular courage to admit that I’m lonely. I am starting to feel that I’d like to finish my adventure and make my way home. Maybe it’s because for the first time in my life I haven’t spoken to or seen anybody for days. Or it might simply be that I miss my family. Whatever the reason, my mind is set and I point the kayak in the direction of home and push off from the sand.
The Wollangambe River ahead is a good indicator of how much water is flowing through the Colo. As I paddle into view of it my suspicions are correct. There is a lot of water. The sandbank I have camped at on several of my other times down here is totally submerged. The Wollangambe is flowing strong but I wouldn’t say it’s flooding. The water is clean and doesn’t bring any of the foaming water that floods often produce. The added water will surely make for an exciting day on the Colo. I sit in the kayak munching a muesli bar at the foot of Wollangambe River. Looking up into its reaches I think of the Wollangambe as another place full of adventure. Another river I want to traverse sometime in the future.
From the Wollangambe the Colo changes into stretches of long pools, the longest being about 1km. The pools become wider and deeper, often hiding large boulders beneath the water surface. A kingfisher, with its bobbing head, stares from a safe distance. I can hear the roar of rapids ahead. The sound is exciting. I know what’s ahead.
I have arrived at the largest rapid on the Colo River which I know as ‘The Perennials’ – it is marked on the map as a perennial rapid which is the name that has stuck with me over the years. It is also known as ‘King Rapid’. This rapid is a large and long rapid and has earned a Grade 4 to 5 rating. ‘Grade 1’ is the easiest of rapids and ‘Grade 6’ is virtually impossible to pass. I will not attempt to paddle it. Besides, I’m on my way home, not the hospital. The sheer velocity of this rapid makes other rapids along the river look tame. I have seen a photo of a person kayaking down and I was impressed. Anybody who is brave enough to take on such a rapid is either highly trained or just plain crazy.
I pull up beside the rapid for lunch. I remove most of the gear from the kayak to carry it to the bottom of the rapid. I remain here for an hour to relax and to allow the sun to evaporate the moisture from my camera gear. I find remnants of an old inflatable dingy wedged between some rocks. Surely the occupants of this vessel didn’t try and go down the rapid. Perhaps the dingy met its fate back up river on another rapid and has just settled here. I remove it from the water and find a place for it in my kayak. I have a general rule about rubbish in these kinds of places. What goes in must come out, along with any other rubbish I find; of course within the limitations of my own carrying capacity. Once I came across a beer keg marooned high on the riverbank; unfortunately it was empty. I rolled it back into the river to allow the next flood to carry it out.
Last time I was at The Perennials I slipped, fell and injured my leg. A hematoma the size of a golf ball appeared and was painful enough that I needed to rest. Luckily for me, just below the rapid lies an oasis. It is one of the most beautiful camping spots along the river. A large sandbar makes for a perfect place for any person who wants or needs a place to rest. There is plenty of room to set up camp on the sandbar. On the other side of the river there is a small sandstone ledge to jump off into the water. Or if I choose, I could laze around in the small cave and seek shelter from the hot sun and reflect on my thoughts or have a midday snooze.
Back in the seventies the Colo River was under threat of being dammed. Luckily it did not proceed and this beautiful and still significantly pristine wilderness was spared. But natural beauty is always under threat from something. For the Colo of the present day it is noxious weeds. Its inaccessibility makes it a challenging environment for volunteer conservationists to carryout weed control. One conservation group known as The Friends of the Colo has successfully removed most of the Willow trees from the river. If left unmanaged, the willows, that are a Weed Of National Significance, would slowly destroy the river by changing the formation of the riverbanks, displacing native vegetation and so affecting the flora and fauna and diminishing the areas world heritage values. After controlling the willows Friends of the Colo have taken up the challenge of number of other weeds, including Cape Ivy, Lantana, Tobacco bush, Tree of Heaven and Honey Locust. They do not worry too much about the annual weeds like Noogoora Burr and Farmers Friends as they have extensive seed sources higher in the catchment and come and go on the exposed banks with the raging flows on this Wild River. Even Blackberries although a problem in a few fertile spots do not seem to spread through the poorer soils in the wilderness area.
Mining companies have also played a role in causing irreversible damage to land bordering the national park. They have damaged underground aquifers, caused surface subsistence and collapsed many cliffs. They have polluted the Wolgan and Wollangambe Rivers that run through the park. I find it hard to fathom why governments allow mining anywhere near the Wollemi, a World Heritage listed area, when evidence clearly shows it is environmentally damaging. It’s interesting that countries across the world try hard to have places restored back to their natural and beautiful state to qualify for a World Heritage listing and yet invasive human activities such as mining still continue to impact on natural environments, undermining the authenticity of such an honorable listing.
Being alone on this river gives me lots of time to think about anything and everything, especially when paddling long stretches between rapids. Progress is fast and the rapids pose no threat to me or my kayak. Two hours after leaving The Perennials I reach Bob Turner’s Track, a nice long walking track leading to a camping ground next to the river. And for the first time in five days I see life forms resembling that of my own. Day hikers have descended to enjoy the tranquillity of the river against a backdrop of lush green vegetation and a bluish sky. From the water I talk to an overseas couple who are curious about my adventure which I am more than happy to tell them about. After a good chat I continue on, passing another group of people and with a quick wave I’m gone. From Bob Turner’s the river changes from long pools of water separated by rapids to a river of slow shifting sands. There are only a few rapids left and long deep pools are a thing of the past. It has been many years since I have ventured down this section of the river and I continue the journey based on memory as I have forgotten the map for this section.
I arrive at the last rapid of the river which appears to be a bit risky for me to paddle through at this stage, so I choose to guide my kayak through with the rope. All goes well except at the last point of the rapid where the kayak presses against a large rock and fills with water. I wade in to release the kayak but struggle with the powerful force of the water. The revised procedure is acted out and I remove most of the items, starting with the camera bag, from the kayak. I try in vain to pull the kayak clear and opt to reverse my actions. I push and allow the water to take hold, and without much effort the kayak is taken away. As the kayak is freed I am not. The kayak rope is looped around my leg, pulling me into the rock and the water is trying to push me under. As I try to pull back on the rope fear sets in. I know I might be in serious trouble. I struggle to hold the tension for a few seconds but the force is too great and the rope starts to slip. I let the rope continue to slip and after a few metres of feeding it out, it’s gone. The kayak is free and has now entered the pool below and is floating away. I swim out and retrieve it and then gather the rest of my belongings, which once again includes searching for my lost tripod. I place everything on the bank including myself. I sit there for a while reflecting, dwelling, trying to comprehend what just happened.
The rest of the afternoon is uneventful and just the way I like it. No more rapids to scare me. No more tangling with ropes and no more searching for lost tripods and paddles. I’m carried quickly and quietly by the current, brushing occasionally over the sand, which breaks the silence around me. In the air I can smell farms and cattle. My heightened sense of smell is strong and I feel overwhelmed. I am floating back to a realm of reality. I am moving from a world of peace, with only the laws of nature, to a world with much greed and pretence. If it wasn’t for my family I miss so dearly I would turn around and go back to the world I just came from and stay a while.
By late afternoon I reach Upper Colo Bridge, my finish line, but nobody is there to wave the chequered flag. I didn’t arrange for anybody to pick me up. I take photos of myself here and say a few words for the video. My journey has officially finished but I am not yet home. A car pulls up on the old timber bridge and a guy gets out to ask for directions to the nearby camping ground. My hopes are dashed of hitching a lift back to town. Within a few minutes another car stops on the bridge and I waste no time and ask for a lift. I’m in luck. I gather my things and jump into the back of a ute which takes me all the way to the train station, the driver is a guy of utmost generosity.
On the train I’m amused by the stares of commuters. I’m dirty; I smell; I’m unshaven; I feel like I don’t belong here and I probably don’t. There is too much noise and too many people. Looking out the window I see too many cars and too many buildings. I want my river back. I want peace and quiet. I want to hear the birds sing, and listen to the wind blowing through the gorge. I want to listen to the frogs at night and sleep under the stars. I want to eat breakfast while sitting on the sand, and eat lunch under a tree. I want to be back in the Colo – in the place where the river runs wild.
I arrive home excited and bursting with stories to tell my wife. But she sends me straight to the shower like a child who has been playing in the mud. I look in on my little girl. She is sleeping. I will have to wait until morning or for a midnight feed before I get to hold her in my arms.
I talk well into the night until I’m overcome with tiredness. My body is sore. It craves for a soft bed. I lie down and close my eyes. My mind is still excited but I am totally drained of any feelings for more adventure – for the time being…