Packrafting the Charismatic Colo River, NSW

Rapid Russian roulette
In our inflatable packrafts we drift towards the final set of rapids of the day. Although out of sight, we are warned of their impending presence by a gurgling rumble that resonates through the ravine. The current hastens us forward but the water’s surface is still smooth as marble and the shallow sandy riverbed is crystal clear. It’s inexplicably calm; native birds cheer us along, but all of a sudden the stream accelerates and we need no further encouragement for, unable to resist the river’s momentum, we have reached the point of no return. Its rumble turns to a loud roar. Whitewater appears ahead but most of the watercourse slopes down and is obscured from our position. Someone nervously shouts, “Argh mate, what have you got us into this time!?” before turning his complete attention to the task at hand. Just as the tips of our crafts reach rough water, the full magnitude of the turbulent descent is revealed to us four novices. Senses sharpen, seconds slow, allowing time for the gamble we’ve played to dawn upon us; blind to the safest paths until it was too late.
Cast adrift
Richie leads down the right side, handling it well until he is abruptly pinned against a boulder. He is powerless to escape the river’s pressure, which builds up against his vessel and tips him sideways in slow motion. Taking the same line, I career past Richie, nudging him with my boat, dislodging him and allowing the river to flush him out. Dan is immediately behind and also makes it through intact.
Only Idi remains. The three of us watch as he charges down the middle, dodging trees and uneven stone blocks. Progress at first but then the unpredictable river steers him forcefully towards a rocky cluster. Idi counter-paddles but there’s no point, he is surrounded and out of options. His face contorts with the realisation of his predicament. The inevitable capsize follows. Moments later he surfaces among frenzied waves that throw him around like a leaf in a storm, before jettisoning him into calmer waters, where Dan is able to lend a hand. Despite the close call, Idi is in good spirits, as are we all, exhilarated by the experience.
Practice makes perfect
We regroup on a small patch of sandy shoreline and find a high vantage point from which to observe the wild rapids we’d just encountered. Immense quantities of fresh water squeeze through this narrow corridor of the Colo River on their way to the Hawkesbury River and ultimately the South Pacific Ocean. The kinetic energy before us is inspiring and after examining better routes, we portage back to tackle the same rapids again. Taking different lines each time and feeling that same uplifting thrill as we did on our first.
The riverbank makes for a comfortable lunch spot where we reflect on the journey thus far and how we came to be travelling through this remote and beautiful wilderness environment in such perfect conditions.
Every cloud has a silver lining
During the past two weeks, a persistent wet weather system had settled over much of the state, including the Colo’s catchment area. The grey skies and frequent showers felt like scenes from London, not Sydney. But there was one benefit. Exploring the Colo River had been on my mind for more than two years and the rains were making this possible, by transforming it from a dehydrated trickle into a surging stream. Religiously, we monitored its height through the Bureau of Meteorology, and once it started to ease, from severe flood levels, we knew it was our time.
A few days later we are descending Bob Turners Track into one of the world’s largest gorges, where few people visit. What a privilege to be here. The walk is pleasant and soon enough we meet the river. We blow up the Alpacka rafts and take them for a ‘test spin’ by paddling upstream towards King Rapid, which is the river’s toughest rough water segment. We get very close but are repelled by the gushing outflow and cannot find portage options.
Back at the base of Bob Turners we fasten our backpacks to the front of our cargo carriers and travel downstream. At times we enjoy the faster pace and physical workout that comes with consistent paddling but we are also content to meander along, savouring the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world around us. The ebb and flow of our approach is occasionally interrupted by rapids that turbocharge; first one, then another, followed by the finale, which is by far the tastiest of the day.
Ending with serenity and speed
The rest of the day continues in much the same way sans rapids. In this secluded sanctuary we let the river guide us – all four rafts tethered with cord – floating around broad bends, under overhanging trees and around islets composed of dense plants. We stretch out, as does time itself, feeling a sense of calm pervade the canyon. An irresistible meditative peace engulfs the mind. Perhaps an hour goes by but our pace is too slow to continue in this way. We snap out of the trance and hightail it to the finish at the Upper Colo River bridge, 9.5 hours and 31 kilometres after heading out.
Two years in the making – the wait was worth it!
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