The amazing Kimberley Canoe Experience (part I)

Imagine being in the Australian outback, sleeping in the bush under the open sky, gliding through pristine emerald waters in a Canadian canoe, watching nature pass byNo people, no sounds but the birds playing, the gentle strokes of your paddle and an occasional plop from a crocodile, sliding off the river bank to seek refreshment in the river. And sometimes, no sound at all… Our Kimberley canoe experience, part one!

Canoeing on the Ord river was something we had planned to do, months before making this trip through Western Australia. The Ord is a 320km long river, meandering through some of the most gorgeous scenery of the East Kimberley. We had read about a company called ‘Go Wild Adventure Tours’ on the internet that organizes self-guided eco-noeing canoe trips on the Ord and since then, we were determined to book a tour with them.

In Kununurra, time is on your side

When coming from the Northern Territory and entering Western Australia, you get a nice welcome gift: two hours worth of extra time! We had no idea about the time difference until we noticed the clock in the visitor centre in Kununurra. We spent our extra hours booking the Eco-Noeing tour, doing some food shopping and finding a space for the night at the Hidden Valley Caravan Park. The Caravan Park is about 300 meters away from the Eco-Noeing meeting-point, which is the only advantage if you ask me. It’s the biggest disappointment so far accommodation wise, because prices are high, space is limited and people were loud the whole night through. Unless you’re planning to visit the Hidden Valley National Park which is right behind the caravan park or unless you have to get up early in the morning like us, I suggest you go elsewhere for the night.

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Red dots from left to right: Kimberleyland Caravan Park where we stayed after the canoe trip, Visitor Centre where we booked the canoe trip, Hidden Valley Caravan Park where we stayed the first night and the Eco-noeing site where the meeting point was.

Our overnight canoe adventure schedule

  • 6 am: meet at Eco-Noeing site where our ‘Paddle in Paradise’ adventure starts.
  • Self guided paddling in a 2 person Canadian canoe, on the upper Ord river for approx. 14 kilometers.
  • Spend the night at the environmentally designed Cooliman camp, secluded in the bush.
  • Day two: another 9 kilometers of paddling ahead. Along the way we can stop, walk and swim as much as we like.
  • Around 4pm: the ‘Crocodilly’ boat picks us up for the 23km cruise back to Kununurra. Along the way we’ll see the sunset before returning through the wetlands of Lake Kununurra.

Meeting Mister Maka

At 6 am sharp the next morning, we head to the Eco-Noeing site and owner Maka waves at us as we park our car. He’s exactly how I would imagine an outdoors Aussie to be: brown cowboy hat, open toe slippers, a giant cuppa coffee in one hand and two dusty but visibly happy dogs following him around with wagging tails. And as we’ll later find out, he’s also the kind of man that can tell the exact time by the position of the sun and make his hat stay on his head with remarkable ease, even in a boat that goes 80 kilometers an hour. The canoes are already attached on the trailer, so all that is left to do is organize our stuff for the next two days on the water. Maka looks amused as we struggle to fit our gear in two watertight barrels (camera’s, toiletries, sleeping bags, food supply etc). “It’s our first time”, we confess. “No worries”, Maka chuckles. “I’ve seen worse!”

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The man of the hour: Maka

The shortened tale of the Ord River dam

After a 55 km drive in a rickety van (Maka: “The air-conditioning will start working after we’ve arrived”) from Kununurra to Lake Argyle, we make a stop at the Ord river dam before heading down to the actual river. To make a long story short: before this dam was built, the Ord river was either flooding in the wet season or too low in the dry season, so the amount of water available for agriculture was never quite right. To solve this problem, two dams were constructed: one is situated at Lake Kununurra, to retain water and allowing it to flow to irrigated farmland. The town of Kununurra was built around the dam. The second dam was built further up the Ord river – right where we stopped the car, 55 kilometers south of Kununurra. This is how lake Argyle arose. It’s one of the largest man made water reservoirs in the world but it looks so natural! The dam maintains the water level of the Ord River and of Lake Kununurra, to meet with everyone’s needs, including those of mother nature. You can find the complete story on the Lake Argyle website: www.lakeargyle.com.au/ord-river-irrigation-scheme

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A quick stop at the Ord River dam and Lake Argyle
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The peaceful lake Argyle
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The Ord river dam

The final advice

Before taking off, Maka gives us his final advice.

  • Always wear your lifejacket
  • Cover your shoulders and wear a hat (it’s 40+ degrees out there…)
  • Don’t hang onto any branches
  • Leave crocodiles and other creatures be
  • Don’t paddle underneath a pack of flying foxes (otherwise you’ll get ‘wet’)
  • Always paddle into the waves if you don’t want to turn over
  • Follow the leads on the topographic map – it’s waterproof!
  • Drink plenty of water, even if you’re not thirsty
  • Remember where you put the emergency satellite phone

Push three for snakebite

The emergency satellite phone is quite an exciting little instrument to carry with you. It has three buttons.

  1. The ‘Happy campers’-button: if we push this button, Maka gets a text message from us. It means we’re not staying at the planned camping spot (we either haven’t reached it in time or we’ve passed it already) but we’re all right and we’re camping somewhere else.
  2. The ‘Pick me up’- button: this button means nothing serious happened, but we’ve had enough of the paddling and we want to go home. Maka then gets a text message with our geographic coordinates to come pick us up.
  3. The ‘Snakebite’-button: the least you can say, is that a snakebite is taken very, very seriously around here. With this button not only Maka, but every emergency service in Western Australia gets called in. Whoever’s the closest will fly, drive or sail to our exact location in just a matter of minutes. How exciting and terrifying at the same time…

Drinking water? You’re floating on it!

All that’s left now is tying up our gear to the canoe: the food esky with a 10 kilo block of frozen ice in there, the tent, the sleeping bags, the watertight barrels. “What about drinking water?”, we ask Maka, realizing we didn’t bring enough to drink for the next two days. He smiles and points at the river. “You’ll be floating on it!” Apparently, the water of the Ord river is so pure that you can drink it. “It tastes great!” Hard to imagine, coming from a country where most of the rivers are so polluted you can’t even see your fingers when you stick your hand in the water. Heck, in some rivers you can’t even see the water… “There just aren’t enough people and animals living around the Ord river to actually pollute it”, Maka explains. After he observes and approves our basic paddle techniques (“If you can master a quick u-turn you’ll be all right”) we’re ready for take-off.

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Or starting point, right next to the Argyle dam

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Into the mild wild

If you have seen the movie Into the wild and you remember the kayak scene: this is how it feels to paddle your way through the Kimberley. Well, apart from the fact that the Ord river is a little less rapid than the Colorado river and we also didn’t get chased by the police… The first 5 kilometers consist of easy paddling through a gorge. The cliffs are so impressive that we hardly notice there’s faster water ahead. In a matter of moments, the river narrows and the flow picks up. The fast waters are so exhilarating that it seems like the ‘rough’ part is over in a heartbeat. We don’t even come close to the paperbark trees on the sides, which apparently is a good thing since they are ‘hazards’ according to our map. Not sure why, maybe snakes love to hang in them or their branches cause nasty cuts? As soon as the calm returns, we hear (and smell) black flying foxes. They are a type of big fruit bat hanging in the trees, producing funny squeaky noises and fighting over who gets the best spot in the tree. Pretty impressive sight! After this, the river narrows again and makes a few sharp s-bends. We remember Maka saying that is the place where the most capsizes occur, but we stay upright! We have lunch at a small sandy beach on the left side. This is where our ‚u-turning’-skills came in handy!

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Imagine…

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Taking a break at a small sandy beach

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Going for swim – no need to take off your clothes, they dry up in a second.
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Back on the river

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Maka to the rescue

With approximately one hour to go before it gets dark, we’re starting to wonder where the camp is. The next bend takes forever (we later hear that kayakers call it the ‘endless bend’) but then just as we’re convinced we missed our camping spot, a small motorboat approaches us from the opposite side. It’s Maka and his dogs. “I collected some firewood for you for tonight”, he says. He tells us to hang onto his boat and gives us a ride for the final few meters to the Cooliman camp.

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Starlight camping and cereal box on fire

There are about five wooden platforms at the camp to put on a tent, but we’re the only ones there for the night. At first we’re excited to have the whole camp to ourselves, all secluded in the bush. Soon enough though, reality kicks in: there’s a lot to be done before it gets dark like setting up the tent and light a fire (nobody told us to bring matches) and we’re no scouts, that’s for sure! We raise our tent slash mosquito net on the ‘Starlight’ construction under the open sky. That was fairly easy, but half an hour later, we’re still trying to make a campfire… We try lighting up small branches at the gas kitchenette but as soon as we get to the campfire area, the fire is dead. Pretty ironic when you think about it: everything is stone-dry right now in Western Australia and there are fire warning signs all around, but we can’t even make firewood burning… In the meantime nature seems to take over and we hear strange noises all around. The darker it gets, the louder and the closer they seem to be…  Our only light-source is a poor wind-up flashlight as we make one last attempt to get the campfire working, with an empty box of cereal as a new found ‘fire catalyst’. Finally the wood starts burning! We discover that the noisy monsters crawling and jumping around in the dry leaves are big toads. Which is a big relief if you know that there are also lizards, crocodiles and goannas out there. Bush camping is exhausting, terrifying and magical all at once…

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The dining area
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The barbecue area on the left. There’s a neat eco-shower in the back, too
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In case you were wondering…. The eco-toilet!
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Hauntingly beautiful

Click here for the next chapter: The amazing Kimberley Canoe Experience Part II