Conquering the Crossing Gorge

I had been in touch with a fellow packrafting enthusiast from interstate, named Kristian, he wanted to come down specifically to paddle a Tasmanian river. We decided over our online exchange that the Crossing River would be a good option. I knew almost nothing about it other than one paragraph of info I found online, and a picture of a gorge. What little information I had found made it sound rather straightforward and simple. Oh how wrong I was!

I hadn’t been predicting the state I would be in after the walk out from the Franklin trip I had completed immediately prior. I had a good bit of skin off my back from that as well as some form of infection on my upper leg which had swelled up dramatically. Given this I was rather hesitant about going ahead with the trip. Kristian had come a long way for the expedition and given it was only the two of us the trip was contingent on me going. I made come calls to a couple of medical help lines regarding my leg, none of which were particularly useful. Still undecided as to a course of action we decided to drive to Scotts Peak Dam, camp there and assess things in the morning.

People looking at a map
Planning our route. My fashion sense could use some work…

My condition hadn’t improved overnight but I decided I needed to go ahead with the trip. The only alternative was Kristian doing a lame bushwalk for a few days before flying out. I taped up my back, got my gear sorted and painfully put my overloaded 40kg pack on my back ready for the walk in.

The walk was brutal. Deep mud, combined with the weight and my injuries and exhaustion resulted in a very slow pace. Kristian was very patient and I just focused on getting through it. Attempting to endlessly pull your feet out of knee deep mud is very tiring and I spend most of the time alternating between considering turning back and trying to ignore the pain from my pack. It was a relief to make it to the half way point for a meal break.

Knee deep mud
The joys of mud… The width of my pack was an issue too.

Soon enough we were moving again. Now I was past the point of no return, which was not a particularly comforting thought, although it did provide relief from the endless thoughts about turning around. Kristian is a fascinating guy, he’s insanely fit (he’s done a bunch of Iron Man triathlons) and despite not having a lot of whitewater experience has done a lot of epic outdoors trips around the world. Grilling him about some of that manages to take my mind off things for a bit.

In comparing trail mix options I am impressed with the thought Kristian has put in to his own custom mix. He explained that his thoughts are that trail mix needs to strike a good balance between sweet and salty and his motley array of carefully considered ingredients work very well together. I should definitely put a bit more effort in to that in future.

We stop for frequent breaks where I collapse clumsily on to my back to remove my pack. When I misjudge this manoeuvre the pack falls over taking me with it and I end up lying hopelessly on my side attempting to free myself from the shoulder straps. Finally we made it to the point where the port Davey track intersects the Crossing River, our campsite for the evening.

Sitting down in the middle of a grassy plain with a pack
Carrying all this stuff was far from fun.

We were up early and made the decision to begin paddling the Crossing River rather than walking further. The only guide on the river we had read mentioned about some log jams on this section, but it was very light on detail. It looked deep enough and given how unpleasant the walking was we were pretty keen to get on river. This turns out to have been an exceedingly poor decision!

After 1km or so of paddling we ran in to an endless tangle of logs and branches making progress unbelievably slow. We attempted to walk through the scrub on the side of the bank which was equally difficult to navigate. After 3 hours of battling we admitted defeat. We deflated out rafts and began the slog out through the thick scrub. This was particularly tough with my pack being so wide and overloaded, often making forward progress seem impossible.

After an hour we finally made it out in to a more open area and a further hour of this saw us back to the track. We had essentially taken a 5 hour detour and accomplished nothing. We were exhausted and demoralised but we pushed on. Eventually we got to the point on the track were we needed to abandon it to once again locate the crossing river. This turned out to be very easy and with relief we looked down at a beautiful, wide river.

Carrying a packraft through a log-jammed river
This was about as easy as the section of log choked river got. It was so overgrown further down I couldn’t even get a decent picture!

At this point it was 5pm. Kristian was very keen to get on river and start paddling to make up for lost time. He thought that we should be able to make it through the first section of gorge to where the bank flattens out a bit just before the main section of the Crossing Gorge. I was not keen on this idea at all (entering in to a gorge just before nightfall is a pretty risky proposition) but I was too exhausted to put up much of an argument. We set off and began paddling. What began as flat water soon became solid class 3 whitewater as the river narrowed and steepened as it was forced though the gorge. Progress was relatively slow as we had to scout the rapids. It soon became apparent that Kristian lacked any experience or training with throw-bagging or whitewater rescue, which was a cause for concern.

River with whitewater and rocks
Nice and exciting rapids – the time pressure made things more stressful than they needed to be.

We made it to a section of river where the flow of the water was all going underneath massive boulders and required portaging. Night was falling and we were losing light fast. We climbed up a very steep section of rock wall and eventually got to a point where we could look out down the gorge. The only way through was a dangerous climb over some exposed rocks so we could then lower the rafts down using ropes. In the failing light I was very concerned about our ability to do it safely. I stalled to consider the possibilities, however Kristian wanted to go all-in and push on as quickly as possible. Once again against my better judgement we began the portage.

It worked, although it went far from smoothly with a bunch of our gear getting soaked due to the rafts taking a beating in the current. Our nerves were pushed to the limit and we ended up snapping at each other a bit as we were precariously balanced on a small ledge right next to the churning rapids. Realising that our failing patience was due to the pressure we were under, we exchanged a look of mutual regret before returning our focus to the task at hand. We finally managed to make it past the danger and with relief we jumped back in to our rafts, grabbing head torches and paddling on.

After a few more rapids the river flattened out. Knowing that this was our only opportunity to find a camp before we were in the next gorge we both were frantically scanning the bank. By some miracle we spotted a camp site (the only one for the next 20km it turns out). In the pitch dark and in the driving rain we set up camp and prepared a meal before getting to sleep.

River at nightfall
Not where you want to be as it’s getting dark…

We were up early and on river once again. There was definitely some tricky whitewater but it was generally nice. The scenery was amazing, with stunning cliffs rising on either side. Gorges are fascinating in that they always seem to fill me with a combination of awe and trepidation. Paddling underneath such magnificent cliffs is incredible but not having the option to walk off river if something goes wrong is always nerve wracking. It is a long day but soon enough we are through the gorges and everything opens up in to nice straightforward class 2 whitewater on the Davey River. There is almost nothing in the way of camp sites – we foolishly paddle past a relatively open beach on an island. Instead we ended up with a passable but scrubby camp further down the river.

The Crossing Gorge
My GoPro photos do not come close to doing the Crossing Gorge justice. A truly magnificent sight.

We slept-in a bit thinking that we were through the roughest part of the trip with only a relaxed flat-water paddle and a walk to go. In hindsight this assumption was foolish in the extreme. We paddled for several hours fighting some tough headwinds before making it to Settlement Point for lunch. We continued on now out in the ocean. The weather closed in and soon we were paddling in heavy rain. The swell picked up and the mist drifted in. Soon we could not see shore, which was a spooky experience. We made good time as the wind was now at our back.

Soon enough we were within sight of the narrow channel we needed to pass through to get in to Bathurst Harbour. The waves started to really pick up. I look over at Kristian and we exchange a concerned look as we realise the imminent danger of the increasingly sizeable waves slamming in to the cliffs. A large breaking wave headed for us and we both turned and started paddling like madmen for Wallaby Bay.

We were very lucky, just managing to make it to shore in time. If we had been a hundred metres ahead we would have been grabbed by the waves and slammed in to the exposed cliffs. We dragged our boats on to the desolate beach, the wind and driving rain was brutal and Kristian was shivering uncontrollably due to the cold. We walked a few hundred metres inland to find some shelter and figure out a plan.

Paddling packrafts in the ocean
The mist and rain wasn’t too bad; it was when the waves picked up that things really started to get serious.

Looking out over the windswept coastline it was abundantly clear that there was no way we’d be able to make it out via the sea. Kristian got warmed up and we decided that the only option was to walk out and attempt to work our way around the coast to reach more sheltered waters. Once again we donned our packs and launched in to the thick scrub. We climbed up a steep slope and made it on to the cliffs overlooking the channel. The view was magnificent. Unfortunately we couldn’t stop for long. Once again the walk was terrible, the frustration of endlessly getting my massive pack stuck in trees and branches was wearing me down, and once again my back was a problem.

Coastline
Coastline
The exposed cliffs we traversed offered an excellent view of the sea conditions we were so lucky to avoid.

After a good 2 hours of struggling we made it to Toogelow Beach. My relief at walking out of the thick forest on to the open sand was soon dashed as I looked at the massive waves breaking on the shore. There was no way we would be able to paddle off the beach.

It was getting late and we huddled around our map and GPS to figure out what to do. In the end we decided to camp on the beach. Regardless of our plan there was little we could do in the dark. We sat up eating dinner and calculating the distances we needed to cover. Kristian’s flight out was tomorrow at 5pm. We needed to cover (in the best case scenario) 2km of off-track walking, 8km of flat water paddling and another 11km of on-track walking in that order. Realising the amount of time this could take we set our alarms for 4am, ready for a hellishly tough day.

A bittersweet end to the day, beautiful views but a long way to go.

We were up early and I made sure to get a big hot breakfast before setting off. We launched into the climb out of the bay with determination but the dense scrub soon defeated us and forced us to turn back. Soon we were back where we started and already behind schedule. We modified our approach and waded up a creek that flowed down to the beach. This proved tough but much more successful, and after half an hour of pushing we finally climbed up on to the exposed hill tops where progress would be much easier.

We managed to make good time here and as we approached the beach we both silently begged for an easy descent as opposed to the sheer cliffs that surrounded much of the coastline. Our wish was granted and not only was it a simple decent, there was a path for us! We walked down and were greeted by a small plaque fixed to a tree – the grave of a man who had died on a whaling expedition long ago. It seems such an incredibly remote and lonely place for any form of human mark to exist.

Sign affixed to a tree
The tarnished reminder of a sailor lost at sea long ago.

The bay is beautifully calm, and fresh water runs from a small creek. Once again I am struck by how bizarre it is that we happened across this strange and remote place that no one would visit under normal circumstances. I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful for the turn of fate that saw me experiencing this remote and inaccessible area despite the hardship which came with it.

Bay with morning light
Once we were out of the scrub progress was much faster.

There was very little time to relax as we quickly got our rafts inflated and began our paddle. We made good time, stopping half way for some water and to quickly down a protein bar before pushing on. It was exhausting but I pushed as hard as I could, knowing that getting ahead here would make the walk out more realistic.

We made it to Joan Point ready for the last stretch of walking. I was completely exhausted but I forced myself to get my pack ready and move on as soon as possible. I knew I would be much slower than Kristian so I decided to get a head start while he prepared a meal. This turned out to be an exceedingly bad idea as in my exhausted state I managed to lose the path at a campsite around a kilometre down the track. With the GPS out of batteries I decided to ditch my pack and jog back to intersect Kristian. By the time I had done this I had already missed him. Now I was by myself and off the track.

Thankfully I still had my map. Realising I had no other choice but to once again resort to off-track navigation I plunged in to the scrub, aiming for high ground in an attempt to get some perspective over the terrain. After pushing for about an hour I made it to the top of a large hill overlooking the area. With relief I spotted the track winding off in the distance.

Now with a fixed point to aim for I picked up the pace and started pushing to get back on track. I knew at this point that there was little to no possibility of me making it back in time but I was determined to give it my best shot. The track was fine, much better than what I had been dealing with previously, and because of that progress was good. It wasn’t good enough though.

Walking through the wilderness
If it were not for the brutal pace I was attempting it would have been quite a pleasant walk!

I kept pushing but soon I was moving at a snail’s pace, too exhausted to push any harder. My focus switched from getting to Melaleuca in time for the flight to simply getting to Melaleuca. Thankfully just before nightfall I managed the latter objective and met Kristian at the landing strip. We did the whole man hug thing, both relieved that we made it. Kristian had just got there in time for the plane after running part of it. He’s an absolute machine. Even if I had not gotten lost there is no way I would have been able to keep up the pace he managed.

Despite making it in time Kristian hung back to make sure I was ok. He’d figured something was wrong when he hadn’t passed me within an hour or so. Soon realising that I must’ve missed the track he decided it would be best to push on and meet with the Par Avion guys (who run the flights) to see what the options were. As it turned out having us fly out a day late was no big deal so we relaxed, had a wash in the river and enjoyed a meal of random left over emergency rations we had packed. The extra time didn’t hurt, Melaleuca is a beautiful place and having the opportunity to decompress before being thrown back in to the rat race is nice.

Soon enough we were on our way back to Hobart. The flight was very scenic but I was too tired to fully appreciate it. Kristian and I parted ways at the airport and I got back home. After consuming an insane quantity of food and changing the dressing on my back I finally relaxed properly after what was a pretty epic trip.

Cooking area in hut
Sleeping in a hut was a nice change and a sort of halfway house on our way back to civilisation.

Comments

  • Sophie 8 months ago

    Wow, that is an amazing adventure, thank you for sharing. Beautiful photography also.