Travel Writers: The River Wild

by David Kovacic

Location: Yarra River, Victoria, Australia

The brochure described it as a gentle canoe paddle down the Yarra River at twilight. Ideal for beginners, which is what we were. What eventuated was a battle with the elements. And just between you and me I’d say the elements won.

It had rained steadily that week, and while it had eased up a little on the day, it was still raining. With storm clouds still hovering we rang an hour before the trip to confirm. “Yeah! No problem. It’ll be fine” was the reply. Filippa and I exchanged dubious looks then headed to our rendezvous point.

When we arrived we were issued with our safety equipment; life jackets, helmets and head lamps. While donning the safety equipment I risked a glance through the rain at the river. The water level looked high and the current fast. With a look that clearly said “what the hell are we doing here” I glanced at Filippa who was looking at me mouthing the “F” word. We had both came to the same conclusion. We were goners.

After a brief tutorial on canoeing and paddling techniques we climbed into our canoe and slid into the water from the muddy bank on the outskirts of Yarra Glen.

The first 20 minutes were quite easy and I was just thinking that there was nothing to this canoeing caper when the river began to narrow and run faster. To make matters worse the fading light made it difficult to see and avoid the logs and branches overhanging the river.

And then it happened. We clipped a submerged log that propelled us into a clump of overhanging tree branches. We quickly lost our balance and capsized, plunging into the dark, murky depths of the river. The icy water shocked me and a few choice
words escaped my lips as I surfaced. After being carried by the current for a distance we both managed to make it onto a cold and muddy river bank. Our guides retrieved our canoe and paddles, and after slipping in the mud a few times we managed to scramble back into our canoe and back onto the river.

It was dark by now but we progressed confidently for a few kilometers down the river until we came to an obstacle blocking our path. A tree had fallen across the narrow river, possibly as a result of the recent rain, and the only way past was to navigate through a small gap to the left of the tree. But to get to this opening we needed to paddle across the fast running current to a position behind another clump of branches.

After maintaining our position while the canoes ahead of us made their way through the opening, we ready for our attempt. We paddled steadily across the current towards the gap. Then out of nowhere another canoe came from behind and careened into our rear side, knocking us sideways and wedging our canoe against the tree blocking the river. With the fast current pushing side-on against us, our canoe began to rotate and Filippa and I realised what would inevitably happen next. The last thing I heard before I rolled back under the chilling water was a stiffled, “Noooo! Not again!”

On surfacing, Filippa managed to climb onto the tree and waited for help. Current aided, I ducked under the tree and drift downstream until I found a clearing and was able to crawl onto the muddy bank. Shivering uncontrollably on the freezing river bank, I was told to wait while our guides retrieved our canoe, paddles and of course, Filippa.

Filippa was eventually towed through the water at the end of a rope to my position on the bank and our canoe and paddles brought to us. Exhausted, we climbed back into the canoe and made it back to our final destination without incident where a welcome cup of hot chocolate awaited. It was an exciting journey, but we survived.

Now, would I go canoeing again, you might ask? Hell yeah! But next time I’ll make sure I go when the river and weather are not laughing at me.

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