Packrafting the Alum Cliffs

I’d been meaning to get out on the river with my father. We had done some rafting together but nothing multi-day. He’s very keen on his photography and I thought that the Alum Cliffs section of the Mersey River would be a good adventure. I put the word out to see if anyone else was keen, and Grady from the university rafting club put his hand up. With a small but keen crew of 3 paddlers in total we drove north ready for action.

Ute loaded with rafting gear
I think we remembered everything…

We got the rafts inflated and packed our camping gear in to dry bags, strapping them to the front of the rafts. Before long we were on the Mersey River. We started slowly running through some basic paddle strokes and techniques. Neither of the other guys had any experience in packrafts so I talked through basic paddle strokes and river features. The river was quite shallow in places and we spent some time on complicated manoeuvres to avoid rocks. One of the packrafts started to leak air and the day was getting on. Not wanting to be stuck in a gorge with nowhere to camp we pulled over and called it a day.

Packraft near the river
Not a bad spot to camp at all.

We set off in the morning after a hearty breakfast of muesli ready to tackle the gorge. The cliffs rose up on either side of us and the river steepened somewhat. It is clear that at high water levels things would be pretty hectic. At the low flows we were dealing with it was quite relaxing paddling.

One paddler in a pack raft, heading through low grade rapids
Fun, low stress whitewater.

We arrived at a section of class 3/4 whitewater. After scouting it out I decided to run it while the other guys set up safety. It was a nice fun section of rapids that required some technical manoeuvres to avoid some tight boulder sieves. The rest of the crew were not a fan of it (understandably, not a good section for beginners) so we walked a bunch of the gear down and stopped for lunch.

Pack raft approaching more difficult rapids
Things were getting a little more tricky…

After our break we got moving again. The river still had some exciting rapids to throw at us and there were a couple of swims but nothing scary. Given how low the water levels were we had to work quite hard to make progress and everyone was getting a bit tired. There were quite a few areas that we had to walk due to the river being shallow. Hauling lots of heavy camping gear was beginning to wear everyone down.

People carrying packrafts
Carrying rafts is hard work!

Soon it was starting to get late. I pulled out the maps and Grady and I had a chat about our options. If we’d had a more experienced team I would have been willing to don head torches and push on. The river had well and truly flattened out and it was just easy class 2 rock dodging to go. That said as things stood the crew were pretty tired and not very keen to be paddling in the dark so I located the nearest track that goes close to the river on Google Maps and we pushed on with renewed vigour, a more attainable objective in our sights.

Paddling on the flatter section of river
With a greater sense of urgency we pushed on to get to our revised get-out point.

With almost no light left we scrambled up off the river in to a scrubby wet area that supposedly should have a track nearby. After quickly locating our head torches I left the guys to get in to some dry warm clothes while I scouted out the egress options. It was a pretty miserable uphill scramble to get off the river and for a moment I was worried that the maps were inaccurate and everything was overgrown. With relief I stumbled upon a perfectly serviceable gravel road!

Map of the river that was paddled
This map shows our route and revised walk out point.

I ran back to the rest of the team and we grabbed the minimum equipment we needed and set off on our unplanned 15km trek back to the vehicles. Luckily everyone was fit and determined, we made good time and by around 23:00 we had arrived back at the car. After a 4 hour drive we were back home at the terribly uncivilised hour of 03:20. Another epic misadventure complete!