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Campground site and sunset

Katarapko: Murray river backwaters 19-21 November 2021

Six brave paddlers ignored the weather forecast of “showers with possible heavy showers” to drive up to Katarapko in the Murray River National Park for a weekend of camping and kayaking the backwaters of the Murray River. Fortunately the weather forecast was wrong, there were no heavy showers, just showers! Most of the group arrived Friday lunchtime, slightly delayed due to road closures and new roads that didn’t quite seem to agree with what the map showed.

Setting Camp

After setting up camp quickly we all jumped into the kayaks for an afternoon paddle. The river level was probably 2m higher than normal, due to strong flows in the Murray and an artificial flooding event that was in progress. As a result some normally dry creeks were now navigable. We took the opportunity to spend a few hours exploring Piggy creek before returning to camp. Highlight of the evening was waiting for Abelardo to arrive. Everyone was curious to see if he would navigate the route in the dark, never having been there before. Fortunately he arrived safely, having benefited from some last minute instructions.

Rainy Saturday

Two paddlers in the Murray River

Two paddlers in Katarapko Creek National Park

Saturday morning arrived overcast, but no rain to speak of. We headed up Katarapko creek to the junction with the Murray river, and then into Sawmill creek which was very navigable thanks to the high water levels. From there we turned right into Eckert creek and followed that up into Eckert Wide Waters Lagoon. By this stage the rain had increased to a steady drizzle. It was not unpleasant and we kept up a good pace as no-one wanted to stop and get out of their kayaks. We found the northern entrance to the Wide water with no problem, and kept paddling up Eckert creek.

The increased water helped with this, but also made it hard work going up the current. We reached the Murray and, since no-one wanted to stop for a break, immediately started on the downhill run back to camp. We made good time with a strong flow in the Murray helping us along. After a very scenic shortcut through the Ajax Achilles Lakes we arrived at Lock 4. Due to the good pace we had been making, this resulted in an enforced lunch stop as the Lockmaster was having his  from 1 to 2 o’clock.

After a hasty lunch (still drizzling, and everyone was starting to get cold) we passed the time warming our hands on a public electric barbecues.  Eventually the Lockmaster arrived and gave the bedraggled paddlers a bemused look. After remarking that he could think of better things to do that day instead of paddling in the rain, he let us through the lock. From there it was a short paddle back to the camp and a warm cup of coffee and soup, just as the rain started to ease up followed by a glorious sunset.

Perfect Sunday

Paddlers in Katarapko CreekSunday morning dawned with no rain in sight and none forecast. After rapidly packing up, we eagerly paddled back up Katarapko creek, and Sawmill creek back up the Eckert creek. This time we turned left to head towards The Splash, an area which is normally narrow, but due to the low lying banks, spreads out into a large floodplain when the waters are high. First problem was a road bridge which we normally paddle under, this time we had to get out and do a short portage due to the water levels. Not much of a problem now that the weather was cooperating.

The Splash did not disappoint, as the creek spread out and we were soon paddling amongst flooded gum trees and bushes, admiring all the bird life which was now making the most of the sunshine after a few days of rain. Too soon we re-joined Katarapko creek, and had a stiff paddle back up to the camp-site, and a long drive home, broken by the customary bakery stop.

Launch at Panka Point

Paddling the Coorong – Parnka Point to Goolwa Sun 31 October – Tue 2 November 2021

I had been very keen to paddle the Coorong after reading about Mike and Tresh’s paddle in January 2021. We replicated their Salt Creek to Goolwa trip as a three-day trip in the club calendar for late October. Just when we were about to cancel the trip due to lack of bookings Matt Eldred booked. After a phone call we agreed on a plan to paddle the northern lagoon from Parnka Point to Goolwa (approximately 80km). Neither of us had paddled this part of the Coorong. After my paddle to Cattle Point with Mike, Tresh and Peter McLeod on the recent Snake Pit trip, I was keen to explore more, hopefully without the 35kn winds!

Getting there

Sailing in the Coorong

Kayak with a sail in the Coorong with the dunes in the background

We had transport (kindly arranged by Matt) from Strathalbyn to Parnka Point at 7:30am on Sunday 31 Oct. The countryside on my early morning drive looked great and judging by the crops, appeared to have had good rainfall. I arrived to Strathalbyn just after 7.30am, and we were soon on our way via the scenic route and a ferry crossing at Wellington. Coorong Park Rangers Chris Hannocks and John Gitchem (thanks to our Meningie member, Julie Palmer for the suggestion) advised that the water levels were the highest they had ever seen. Didn’t take long to get everything transferred and we were soon on our way. Our confidence increased as we observed more water in Pink Lake as we approached Meningie, so hopefully Coorong levels would be good as well.

Day One: Sunday 31 October

Arrived at Parnka Point about 9.30am ready for our first challenge – would everything fit into the kayaks?! Maybe we were not travelling so light after all, good to have a bit of contingency! Yes Tresh, I took some chai tea along as well as a nice slab of home-made focaccia to go with the cheese, and Matt brought some Green Ginger wine.

Looked a lovely day ahead of us, with only a hint of breeze, unfortunately from the north. Launching was easy, we set off about 10.30am just south of the Parnka Point Boat Ramp. Couldn’t resist getting a photo of the sign warning that cars were not to proceed any further. Yep, the Rangers were correct; plenty of water in the Coorong.

Shed in the Coorong

Shed in the Coorong

We spotted a couple of fishermen launching from the boat ramp, so Matt took the opportunity to ask about conditions. They were headed further south but confirmed we wouldn’t have a problem navigating The Needles. We paddled towards the Parnka Point Campground (discussing car camping opportunities on future trips) until we spotted what we thought was Needles Island. We had a perfect paddling day with a clear sky and calm water, great for paddling unknown waters with the channel clearly defined and easy to follow. There were sandbars, but easily spotted and avoided. The shallower water was covered in algae which did slow our progress somewhat and had to be occasionally cleared from paddles and kayak decks.

I kept having flashbacks from Mike and Tresh’s report, dreading having to drag our kayaks through the limestone reef around The Needles. We brought Matt’s Delta and my Prijon, so the last thing we wanted was a sharp limestone reef. The Kayak Gods must have been on our side as we paddled over the narrow channel with at least 0.5m of water. The Needles is well marked with a pole on the SW corner of Needles Island, and sections of the reef were clearly visible during our transit. We spotted several small birds foraging on the algae weed mat formed around the narrow channel. We became mesmerised by the scenery and calm conditions until the paddle blades encountered numerous limestone bommies.

The channel continued to be very pronounced and easily navigated, a stark contrast from Mike and Tresh’s experience. Aside from the waterbirds, we had the Coorong to ourselves, having left the one and only boat we encountered at the boat ramp. Wind was from NW around 5 to 6kn, so my sail remained stowed, however Matt managed to get some assistance at times after we cleared The Needles. The wind dropped mid-afternoon and changed to SSW from about 3pm, so we set the sails and sat back to enjoy the sand dunes rolling past. Only had about 5-6 kn from SSW but getting along at 6 to 7 km/hr. I said to Matt, with the sand dunes rolling by, it reminded me of a trip down the Nile River, just didn’t see any feluccas.

Around 1pm we spotted Camp Coorong, with several shacks visible from our mid channel position. Also passed a few well-established homesteads around the area. We had considered this as a start point, but after confirming water levels we opted for Parnka Point to check out the islands of North Lagoon – Rabbit Is, Snake Is and Needles Is. The scenery continued to improve, if this was at all possible as we paddled and sailed further north. The vegetation looked very healthy from the water, especially around some of the little bays we passed. Judging by the number of reedbeds, and bird populations these were freshwater soaks.

Setting camp

Our plan was to overnight opposite Long Point, which we reached around 5pm, so we selected a nice sandy beach and headed for shore. Not much room for tents so decided to continue north. Good decision as we would have had to share the beach with mozzies and an echidna that eagle eyed Matt spotted trying to escape our presence.

We were now north of Long Point and heading towards Nine Mile Point when we spotted what looked like a clearing behind a perfect beach, so in we went to explore! Discovered a perfect campsite area with plenty of room for several tents (noted for future trip!). Looking further we stumbled on a couple of old footings, signs of previous habitation, so continued exploring back into the clearing. We were blown away when we spotted an old shack nestled in the sand dune vegetation. Judging by the etching in the concrete footings (followed up with information from National Library), it was owned by George and Andy Ross, mulloway fishermen in the Coorong during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s. From a diary left in the shack it seems that it is gradually being restored by a group called the “Secret Shack Society”. Very important to retain these old buildings that depict early life on the Coorong.

The GPS showed that distance from Parnka Point was 37km, so not a bad day’s paddling with good assistance from our sails.

Still plenty of daylight so unpacked kayaks and set up camp, feeling very elated that we had discovered this little hideaway and a piece of SA history. Spent the evening talking about the highlights of the day and all the paddle options such as Car Camping at Parka Point or Long Point and exploring the section of the Coorong in more detail. Some of the dunes we passed were just stunning I will let the pictures speak for themselves. A very enjoyable evening, made even better with some cheese, focaccia bread, glass or two of red and some of Matt’s Green Ginger Wine. A very clear sky, so plenty of stars and satellites, much better than watching television.

Day Two: Monday 1 November

Woken up by sunrise just before 6am then got the day going with a nice cup of chai! No sign of wildlife around the campsite but plenty of fresh droppings around, so wallabies must have been grazing during the night. We did notice plenty of the small white snails glued to the tents and also on our PFDs. Also, Matt is now a bit more careful about putting his PFD on after discovering an interesting centipede who found a new home overnight. On the water about 9am, looking forward to another great day and wondering what we were going to see. The original plan was to make for Snake Pit, about 20km paddle, but opted for a shorter paddle to Lousy Jacks and enjoy the afternoon.

Coorong coast line

Coorong coast line

Managed to get some benefit from the sails with the 4 to 5kn NE winds – all good practice, especially with the Pacific Action sail. With the 28°C day and light breeze it was perfect for paddling the Coorong, the dunes were getting higher and more stunning as we approached Cattle Point. With the sails doing most of the work we were just mesmerised by the scenery – calm turquoise water, contrasted by green reeds from the freshwater soaks with a backdrop of golden sand dunes against the rich blue sky – wow! Landed at Cattle Point about 10.30am, while telling Matt about my last visit with Mike, Tresh and Peter McLeod – no 35kn winds this time. Just like last visit we were welcomed by a large flock of pelicans and smaller birds on the Point.

While Matt went climbing the dunes, I spent time recording this stunning location in a few photos and watching three fishermen on the point pulling in their nets, I assume for Coorong mullet. Unfortunately, they left before I had an opportunity to beg for dinner.

Matt returned after an interesting walk, all excited after discovering a large soak in between the dunes, dug down about 0.3m and found fresh water – good to remember if doing a solitary walk on the Coorong. Lousy Jacks was only around the point so back on water for leisurely paddle having a good close look at the shoreline around Cattle Point.

Soon had the tuart gums at Lousy Jacks in sight and made a beeline for the beach. We arrived before midday and just after fishermen had left – campfire was still warm and fish scales left around unfortunately. We selected our campsites either side of the tuart gums and set up camp. And then the mozzies arrived, not unexpected at Lousy Jacks, luckily we came prepared!

Setting camp

After getting settled, Matt decided on a walk across Younghusband Peninsula in search of cockles – about 1.6km across at this point. After making sure Matt had his phone, I settled into our lovely campsite enjoying the view while I read the “European Heritage of the Coorong” that Matt had brought along.

I breathed a sigh of relief when he returned safely. Looking very proud of himself with a small container with large Coorong cockles. I thought that was our dinner, but as we didn’t come prepared to cook cockles Matt tried to catch us a Coorong Mullet – we must have picked the wrong spot for fishing, although the pelicans seemed to be doing OK. Back to the dehydrated dinner again!

Another great evening under the stars and counting satellites, but turned in earlier on our second night as we knew the last day could be a challenging paddle, depending on the wind assistance.

Up early, at least I was! Matt took a bit longer as he didn’t get much sleep. He was visited by a Bull Seal during the night calling out for a mate. He tried getting up shouting and shinning his torch but to no avail! Check out the pics, the seal can be seen near Matt’s kayak. As if that wasn’t enough, apparently, we also had a fishing boat shining spotlights looking for a spot to cook their midnight snack. I obviously slept well, didn’t hear a thing!

Day Three: Tuesday 2 November

Back on water about 8.30am for our final day’s paddle to Goolwa, about 30km. Wind was forecast from NE to 18kn and again on our beam so would have to work hard with the sails. Needed to make the Barrage Lock by 4pm, so had a bit of flexibility depending on winds.

Real contrast on the water compared to last two days, overcast day, windier and gusty which made sailing a lot more challenging with the Pacific Action. Matt managed much better and I used the sail conservatively, not wanting to capsize.

Ended up getting more assistance from wind than expected, although we pretty well used the full width of the Coorong to get the best wind advantage. Bit of fun with the sandbars but no major problems.

We made good time and reached the Barrage Lock with 10 minutes to spare before it closed for lunch at 12.30pm, had to do a sprint on the final leg to get there! Short wait for a boat to come down from upstream, but wasn’t long before we cleared the Lock and made our way up towards Goolwa. Matt was on his phone arranging for his Dad to meet us at the Goolwa Wharf. It was about 1.30pm when we reached the small sandy beach just before the Wharf.

Over the three days we paddled 78km and managed to explore the northern lagoon of the Coorong in perfect days to see the Coorong at its best. Average speed was around 6km/hr with max run at 12km/hr. Not bad considering winds weren’t the most favourable. Hopefully with the Hume Dam currently being at capacity, we will have more water coming downstream with good opportunities for conducting a Salt Creek to Goolwa paddle in the new year.

Many thanks to Matt for keeping me company and organising the car shuttles, and particular thanks to Robert and Don for helping out. Enjoy the photos and keep an eye on the calendar for the next Coorong Trip.