By Xavier Anderson
We woke late, tired and sore from the gauntlet yesterday. When we did rise, I went down to river-my fingers crossed- and looked at the flow. There was enough for a packraft! I don't think I could've taken the heartbreak of walking any further.
We pulled out our whitewater gear, which had been sitting at the bottom of our packs for the past five days - the remaining weight in the hiking packs seeming much more manageable after. It took us a while, but we were finally on the water at 11:00. We floated leisurely beside the banks of the river; at the same pace we were walking yesterday (before the ascents killed me). For the first time that trip, I relaxed. I was back in my comfort zone.
All three final days on the river were a welcome change. It felt like an entirely different trip. Even with Jason paddling with one blade -after he lost the other during our bush-bashing - we made good progress.
We still didn't see any other people either. Just lots of deer. We would be floating around a bend, then be startled by a loud HONK and splashing water as a deer would dart along the river and up the steep valley. The honk sound just like the WORD, and the first few times I heard it from a distance, I thought it was a car horn going off.
It was interesting that we only saw deer in the last couple of days. The valley was really steep down in that section: sometimes rising to a snow dusted peak. It seemed that the feral horses preferred the flatter areas up top, while the feral deer took over the more inaccessible parts of the park.
Other than the feral animals, this section of river was stunning. Golden wattles, with their yellow flowers, lined the bank in sections; frogs could be heard amongst the reeds; and carved limestone formed impossible architecture in the river.
As we continued down towards Tom Groggin, the rapids increased in size too. Most of the time, they were small class I or II gravel races, but further down, there were some fun and decent ones in there too - giving us wild smiles that paddlers get after a great rapid.
Unlike the hiking, the paddling section went fast. The last day was only a short one. There were a series of fun drops in a mini-limestone gorge and then, before we knew it, we were at Tom Groggin - our pickup point.
We were supposed to pick up a food drop here and keep going through 'The Gates’ but being two days behind left us out of time. We had to go back to the real world: to our commitments.
As we waited for Meredith to kindly pick us up, we broke into our food drop. We spent the afternoon drinking beer and eating pringles in the warm spring sun. It was hard to believe that just a day ago, we had been lumbering through thigh-deep snow.
Despite the source section bringing me - literally - to my knees, I couldn't help but feel optimistic about the rest of the river. Especially when the pringles tasted so good. Only 2420km to go.