In early October I was in Kununurra, in the East Kimberley of WA, for my medical elective at the local Aboriginal health service.
Kununurra is extremely hot this time of year (unlike the rest of the year, when it is only very hot), so we took the opportunity to go on a 3 day canoeing trip down the mighty Ord River.
Prior to the building of the Ord River Scheme, the river was dry for most of the year. Construction of the Argyle Dam (upstream) and the Kununurra Diversion Dam (downstream) during the 1960s has created a roughly 60km long section of river with a year-round water supply, which is quite unusual for the Kimberley. The dams also drowned an area which was (and remains) rich in social and spiritual significance for local Aboriginal people.
Day 1: Argyle Dam to Cooliman camp (23km)
Day 1 begins just below the Argyle Dam, an impressively small structure which holds back the largest lake in Australia.
After a quick safety briefing we were set loose in our big double canoes.
The first 5km passes through a series of tight gorges, where the river is flowing but there are no real technical challenges.
After 5km there are a couple of slightly faster corners, pretty similar to the small gravel race on the way upstream to Burke Road.
The current then stops as the river backs up behind the Diversion Dam, which is still about 50km downstream.
The rest of day 1 is an easy paddle through a series of gorges. Locals say there is a freshwater crocodile every 10 metres along the Ord, but we only managed to see one in the whole day. Despite their large teeth they are quite shy creatures and nothing to worry about. The more dangerous saltwater crocodiles are not found in this section of the Ord.
The overnight camp has everything you could need.
Day 2: Cooliman camp to Stonewall Creek camp (7km)
Today is quite different. A number of creeks drain into this section of the river, and you can paddle up them to find beautiful pools full of waterlilies. You can leave your boat behind and follow one creek to a beautiful pool surrounded by 60m cliffs.
Day 2 finishes at a camp next to Stonewall Creek, which drains the Argyle Dam overflow channel. During peak floods the channel discharges more water than any other river in Australia, but when we paddled up it was very still, with lots of pelicans, black cockatoos and sea eagles along the banks.
There is a beautiful spot to see the sun set just above the camp. There is also a great tent platform under an enormous Boab tree which is worth the short walk from the main campsite.
Day 3: Stonewall Creek camp to Kununurra (23km)
Day 3 is much tougher than the first two days, and many people decide to finish early. If you are keen it is worth persevering to see a different section of the Ord.
After a couple of kilometres paddling through a gorge, you are out into the burning sun with absolutely no shade and a prevailing headwind.
There are a lot of plants growing in the water, which are beautiful to look at as you pass over but do slow you down a bit. If you push on there is an impressive rock art site at the base of Elephant Rock, a few kilometres before the finish at the town boat ramp. You are given a GPS beacon to carry, so if the thought of a cold beer becomes too tempting you can press the button to be picked up early.
This was the highlight of my time in the Kimberley, and Macka at GoWild Adventure Tours provides a fantastic service which I can’t recommend highly enough. Next year there will be direct flights from Melbourne to Kununurra, which will make it even easier to see this amazing part of Australia.
In June there is also a dragon boat race down the whole length of the Upper Ord, which would be a very different way to see the river. Unfortunately I’ve fulfilled my quota of canoe paddling for the next decade, so will need to leave this challenge to somebody else.