We had been sitting on a rock shelf, beneath the blistering Kimberley sun, with a major section of enticing whitewater next to it. It is a relief to finally get back in the water.
The size of the rapids this wet season has me surprised. I make the call to run this section as a ‘wolf pack’ with myself leading the safest way down the furious whitewater. Travelling in a group means that I am right beside the two rafts and two kayaks, ready to help if someone flips their boat. The two four-metre rafts are heavily loaded with five people, two weeks of food, shelter and everything else we need to survive the self-supported trip through the ultra-wilderness of Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
The Fitzroy River is the highest volume river in Australia and I can believe it today. I see a tree getting washed down the silt-laden chocolate-brown water, and as the sweat drips from my brow, I exhale and peel out from the eddy (a slow current that runs beside the main flow).
As I enter the main current, the rafts and kayaks are close behind. I complete the main move in the rapid between two large crashing waves, paddling over crests that are almost twice as tall as the rafts. I look over my shoulder nervously to see one raft and two kayaks safely behind me. Before I even have a chance to breathe a sigh of relief, a big wave breaks over the top of my head and another hits the second raft. With no mercy, the raft stands on its side and then quickly flips, throwing the five paddlers into the water.
“Eddie Out” I scream over the thunderous roar of the wild river. I watch like a hawk as the river sucks people, paddles and the raft under water. As they resurface, the relentless water smashes them down again. The upright crafts scramble to find an eddy while the upside-down raft, gasping rafters, and equipment resemble a yard sale spread down the river waiting for a moment of relief.
The first priority is life and I scream at resurfacing rafters to swim hard to the other raft. I can only count four helmets as the upside down raft approaches the next rapid. I paddle over to find Wom, the missing paddler, clinging to the capsized boat.
“Are you are okay?” I ask. He pants for air and tightens his white-knuckle grip around the rope on the raft. Conscious and responding, he follows my instructions to take some deep breaths. He needs all the oxygen he can get into his fatigued body because the lip of the next rapid is less than 20 meters away, we are in the middle of the flooded torrent and there is no way to get the exhausted paddler to safety before the next onslaught of crashing waves.
I realise I’m not much use to anyone if I’m in the same predicament as him, and I need to paddle on. “Hold on tight, mate,” I instruct him, warning him of the oncoming blitz of rapids. “I will see you at the bottom, hold on mate.”
I paddle away from the raft and make the safe line down the rapid. Once we’re all at the bottom, I paddle straight back over to the topsy-turvy raft. Wom is still holding on, conscious but less responsive than before.
There’s another rapid approaching and I need to get him to shore, fast. “Let go of the raft, hold onto the back of my boat and kick hard,” I yell. I have to repeat myself three times before he responds. I paddle as hard as I can with an 80 kilogram anchor holding on for his life to the back of my boat in the turbid fast-moving water. When we reach the shore, Wom is shaken to his core, but thankfully, he is breathing.
The raft is still caught in the current and as it runs into the next rapid, a massive wave power-flips it the right way up. I stare in disbelief – somehow, all the equipment is still strapped into the boat. As far as catastrophes go, this is a successful one, with all heads accounted for and the equipment still intact. In wild terrain like this, on a two-week expedition that requires us to be self-reliant, losing half the food, equipment and transportation for five people would result in an evacuation. Organising a helicopter to pick up half the team is not what I had in mind today, so I have no choice but to paddle like crazy to catch the raft.
It’s wet season in the Kimberly and during this time of year the road system is limited, cut off by the cyclonic weather system and daily torrential downpours, so the only way to get access is by air. It’s taken a five-day delay and a three-hour light aircraft flight into an Indigenous Australian community 300 kilometres upstream from our current location to get here. We still have at least another 150 kilometres of river ahead of us. We are deep into the middle of one of the last true wilderness landscapes on the planet.
With the runaway raft secured to a nearby tree, I signal for the rest of the team to come down and meet us. Fifty metres on, we find an ancient sacred site of the land’s traditional owners. The sheltered rock face is estimated to be at least 17,000 years old and is decorated in Gwion Gwion images. This is arguably some of the oldest rock art in the world and that notion is not lost on me. I take a moment to recognise the honour of standing on ancient land, almost untouched by time and home to one of the oldest living cultures on the planet. It’s a privilege and experience that I struggle to describe in words.
Adding to the wonder of this landscape is its life-force. The land comes alive in the wet. Freshwater crocodiles follow us down rapids, while whistling kites, wedge-tail eagles and red-tailed black cockatoos circle high above us. Barramundi, bream and turtles glide through the river, and frogs, monitors and rock wallabies hang out on drier land.
For the local Indigenous communities, Wandjina are the spirits of the clouds and rain. They are the creators of life, and a symbol of fertility, rain and the wet season. The legend says that Wandjina have no mouths so that they may not pass judgment, but when the electric, thunderous clouds of the Kimberley wet season erupt with booms and cracks of the most terrific lighting you’ve ever seen, they are sending a message. Images of Wandjina can be found on remote rock faces and caves throughout the Kimberley.
As the river crashes against the banks and waves collide with a wild ferocity, it becomes very clear that Wandjina is demanding our attention, and if we are to survive, we ought to heed the advice.
The severity of our location is clear to everyone in the group, and there is a sense of relief as we roll into camp, ready to re-energise our bodies after a hard day on the rapids. Happy to be safe and sound, with our equipment intact, we settle down for a feast of popcorn and fish cakes.
As the sun dawns on a new day, it’s clear the team is still driven by both the exhilaration and the fear of yesterday. No one more so than Wom who, despite his brush with danger, shows no hesitation to get back into the action for the remaining 150 kilometres of river we have yet to travel to reach our final destination. Thankfully, today’s journey is far less aggressive and as the mighty Fitzroy cuts through the King Leopold Range, the fast-moving rapids turn into a vast body of water which, at times, can spread to 14 kilometres across the floodplains.
Golden orb spiders and goannas are forced into treetops to take refuge from the rising waters, as the river navigates the never-ending labyrinth of back channels, branches covered in webs and sandy islands.
Our rafts drift toward Fitzroy Crossing. The experience of exploring the isolated wilderness of this region is every bit as powerful as the rapids that have just pushed us here. Eliminating the distractions of modern life has offered us a sharpened focus on our surroundings and the opportunity to bask in the glory of this outback kaleidoscope. With heightened senses, clarity and a bond that can only be formed by a perilous experience like this one, the team reaches the end of our river-run in the small town of Fitzroy Crossing, each of us leaving undeniably moved by our brush with the mystical Fitzroy River.
It’s believed that those who drink from the mighty waters of the river will continue to be drawn back to this land, and it’s without question that I’ll return to the world’s last truly wild landscapes to again hear the sounds of Wandjina and the Fitzroy.
Mornington Wilderness Camp is a conservation area set up in 2001. You can stay on the station and learn more about the local area from the experts.
Follow The River Expeditions run limited positions on the Ultra Wilderness Rafting Expeditions in February on the Fitzroy River.
Costs start at AU$5000 departing from Broome.