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The Herbert River

Paddling towards one hell of a horizon line - trying to keep the kayak straight and on the right line. Sudden acceleration matched by a rush of adrenaline. My helmet straining at the strap. Finally relief and exhilaration. That's how you do a 10-metre waterfall! It's day 3 of the Herbert Trip in Far North Queensland - a long way from chilly Melbourne and all the phone calls, e-mails, meetings etc. to organise the trip.

The Herbert River, between Cairns and Townsville, is described as one of two classic extended river trips in Australia (the other being the Franklin in Tasmania). We'd already notched the Franklin on our paddles so we were keen for the Herbert experience. The 'adventure' started long before we arrived at Melbourne airport with kayaks, paddles and bags full of paddling and camping gear, food, clothes and sundry other items. For all the challenges of organising this trip see 'The Making of the Herbert' at the end of this article.

A pile of kayaks and gear cluttered the pavement outside Rosie's Backpackers. Walter, Paul and I waited for Pete to let us in. It was Saturday evening and we'd just arrived in Cairns. Rosie's had been recommended as a good base for our Herbert River trip. This turned out to be the case and Pete was certainly very knowledgeable on contacts and cheap places to get a meal. However the standard of the backpackers was a bit of a shock to us. The place had recently been painted but this included painting over rotting doors and enormous quantities of silicone repairs. Our fellow backpackers obviously felt the need to cover every flat surface with (if female) various haircare or facecare products and (if male) unwashed clothes. Paul found that it was easy to tell if it was night or day by looking at his young Irish female roommates. If they were asleep it must be daytime.

On Sunday evening Mark arrived to make up our paddling crew of Paul Sorrentino, Walter Muller, Mark Francis and me (Alison Boyes). We ended up at Johno's Blues Bar for the ultimate backpacker experience, 'The World Famous Gong Show' (as advertised). It is hard to guess how old Johno is as you suspected that he's led an extremely hard life. Johno finally got the 10 p.m. show started about 11 p.m. after hand picking the judges. And we mean 'hand' picking. The judges were young, blonde, American girls with names like Louise from Louisiana. The judges assisted a surprisingly steady Johno singing 'The House of the Rising Sun' while performing a handstand on a director's chair. I could only hang in there until 11.30 but Walter and Paul stuck it out until one of the contestants performed a heavy metal number.

Monday and last minutes shopping, final decisions on what to take and what to leave behind and loading kayaks and gear. Mr T Coaches, together with a picture of Mr T on the front are our transport. It really is a hell of a long way from Cairns to the start of the paddle at Cashmere Crossing. The road up from Kennedy is particularly bad and at one stage our top speed is 20 kph. We finally arrive at the river about 4.45 p.m. Just in time to make camp before darkness descended.

As we relax eating our evening meal Paul casually enquired about the quantity of our toilet paper supplies. We had already had this conversation in Cairns and had advised him to obtain his own supplies. The full consequences of failing to do so now dawned on him. He was on his own. For future reference apparently paperbark is superior to the paper used to wrap seafood mix (even after it has been dried and cut into user-friendly pieces).

In the light of the morning we were able to have a look around. The Herbert at Cashmere Crossing is quite a small river and was decidedly low. The surrounding countryside is grasslands dotted with stations and their numerous cattle. Nearby were the remains of a homestead together with a small graveyard.

We packed the kayaks, eventually finding room for the 50 metre rope Paul insisted on taking. The paddle from Cashmere Crossing to the Herbert River falls was described as flat but with some good rapids. The map showed falls at Glen Eagles so we had some expectations of a leisurely paddle with some fun rapids. Fairly quickly we struck sandbanks and mazes of trees. Huge rock slabs blocked the river channeling water into a maze of trees. The only blessing was the lack of current minimised the risk of getting stuck under a tree. Between the tree mazes were long flat pools. But there were lots of birds including kingfishers, cockatoos and swans. We even saw some crocodiles sunning themselves on a sandbank. Fortunately they were 'freshies' and vanished into the river as soon as they saw us coming. There were lots of waterlilies, something I'd never seen on a white water trip before. We camped the night a few kilometres short of the main falls on a beautiful sandy bank. Walter out did himself making falafel in pita bread with humus and spicy couscous for entrée.

Day 2 and we know we have the main falls and the portage around the falls ahead of us. The river got rockier as we approach the falls and consequently some rapids at last. The river is so low that at times it is difficult to find a line down the rapid and on occasions impossible. Immediately before the main falls we came across a large waterfall. This was definitely not paddleable and we portage around it via a large pond. Walter feels the need to have a go at fishing in the pond and with his first cast catches a fish. This augers well for future fishing but we still had a long way to go. The next waterfall is about 4 metres and looks paddleable. We had been warned about a rapid called 'Laundry chute' with a hidden nasty boat breaking rock deep within it. This fitted the description and so reluctantly we portaged around. A short distance later we reach the Herbert River Falls.

There were serious gravity vibes coming from the falls as I crawled to the edge and looked over. They are a total of 60 metres in height and mark the start of the main gorge. While we had a 50 metre rope with us we were not about to absail down so it was the portage track for us.

Getting out of the river valley was easier said than done. Walter and Paul found a good spot to haul the boats out. We set up a z drag using Paul's 50 metre rope (O.K. so we did need it) and Mark and Walter provided the muscle power. Well, someone had to supervise. Above the valley was the camp from the 'Survivor' television show. I hadn't seen the show but the location was fantastic. There were sweeping views of the river valley and surrounding hills.

The grass made it easy to slide the kayaks so we set off dragging the kayaks to the start of the descent. The track was down a steep gully with lots of rocks and lots of gradient. We knew we were on the right track by following the plastic curls on the rocks. Finally we were back at the river and in the gorge. What a gorge, huge shear cliffs of pinky rock dominated the river. In contrast the river is a still deep pool as we paddled the short distance to the night's camping spot on a large sandy bank. Walter and Mark make the most of the location and the temperature by going for a swim. Apparently Walter forgot his bathers.

Day 3 Our progress has been slower than we'd anticipated so we agree to an early start and get away at 8 a.m. (Yes, that did include Paul) Straight into the first portage of the day. The river flows over two very nasty and very large drops. The portage isn't that easy either. Mark's rock climbing skills came to the fore and he set up a rope to lower both boats and people down the 20 metre cliff.

Finally into some rapids to have fun in. The first was a narrow chute leading to a 2 metre waterfall that ended in a compulsory roll. Great fun. There were several ledges with good drops to practice our 'boofing' technique. And lots of 'pinball' rapids, rock mazes with kayaks for balls.

Now we'd arrived at the 'highlight' of the Herbert, two 10 metre waterfalls. Both were said to have deep pool and be clean. We climbed up to look at the first and to discuss the line. Paul told us 'we had rocks in our heads' and promptly picked up his boat to start portaging. Walter said he'd promised his wife not to go first down anything dangerous. So it was up to Mark and I as to who was going to go first. For all you males out there you'll be relieved to know that Mark volunteered to go first. I followed close behind and finally Walter thundered down the drop. We floated in the pool hugging each other and laughing. What an experience. We were hooked, now for the second waterfall.

We climbed up to look at the second waterfall. Rocks were visible on the left hand side. On the right hand slide a film of water flowed over the rock ledge. If you ended up on the wrong line it would be difficult to make a correction. Discretion was the better part of valour and we dragged our boats around the falls to join Paul for lunch.

The Herbert is a 'classic' pool - drop river. Between the rapids the pools are like a swimming pool with no perceivable current and waterlilies growing along the banks. More rapids and portages followed before we found yet another great camping spot. While I started preparing the meal Walter and Mark tried their hand at fishing. Walter quickly caught two fish using a lure. This gave Mark some bait and he soon added to the tally. Mark started experimenting with different baits. For the record smelly cheese doesn't work and neither does a lolly snake's head, even a red one. The final tally was four fish. I put two in the Thai green curry and we baked the other two in the coals, delicious.

Day 4 and still a long way from our destination at Blencowe Falls. We got away by 8.30. The river was now very wide and strewn with boulders. Someone observed that there are more stars in the sky than rocks in the Herbert River but it was close. Where early the water flowed over ledges now it spread out around the rocks. We picked out way down trying to find enough water to get down without getting out of our boats. Occasionally the route petted out resulting in a drag over the rocks. Sometimes there was a bigger portage where boats were lowered down huge rocks. There were some fun rapids in between with good drops. It was a bit like steep creeking without the water. It was amazing how much gradient the river has. You could imagine the river being quite intimidating at a high level.

Walter found a narrow tunnel into a pool totally hidden by rocks. We managed to fit all of us in our kayaks in there. We also managed to talk Paul (despite his fear of heights) into a 3 metre seal launch instead of yet another portage. Finally at 4.30 we called it quits for the day. We could see the electricity towers near Blencowe Creek but we were still a few kilometres short of our destination. We found yet another great camping spot. This river certainly has some of the best camping I've seen. Paul rang the helicopter pilot he'd been negotiating with. The good news was that he could pick us up the next day. The bad news was that he was only free at 4 p.m. There was no way we would be getting back to Cairns tomorrow night. We rang the bus driver and put him off until Sunday and cancelled our accommodation in Cairns.

Day 5 and a leisurely morning as there was no rush to get to Blencowe Creek early. The river seemed to narrow and we had some fun rapids before we reached the powerlines and then the junction with Blencowe Creek. There was a message from the pilot on the satellite phone. He was available to pick us up. We quickly secured the kayaks and soon the helicopter appeared. He landed on a large flat slab at the junction. Walter and I were the first to be lifted up to Blencowe Creek camping ground. The views from the helicopter were fantastic. Certainly a great way to end the trip. The rock strewn river continued into the distance so we knew we'd made the right decision to finish at Blencowe Creek. The pilot then dropped off the kayaks and finally Mark and Paul. Our transport wouldn't be there until the next day so we spent the afternoon drying gear and visiting Blencowe Falls.

We'd planned to be back in Cairns by Saturday night so hadn't planned another meal. We collected all our spare food. For entrée we had biscuits and eggplant dip or Romano cheese. For main course we sampled creamy cheese and bacon risotto with left over salami, Thai lime and coriander rice with tune steak and finally spicy Mexican rice. Not a bad feed for emergency food.

Col, the driver arrived about 9.30 the next morning and drove us back to Cairns for our final feed together. We then went our separate ways. Paul back to Melbourne and work, Mark to Brisbane, Walter to Hamilton Island and me to Port Douglas. The adventure was over.

The level had been low and the logistics difficult but the Herbert is a spectacular river with dramatic features and beautiful camping sites. Definitely worth seeing and experiencing.