Discovering Bandrarl Ngadu
Australia's Greatest Wild River
by John Sinclair *
View thestunning images of the Expedition via Mogens Johansen/The West Australian Australian Newspaper
Although few people in Australia would have heard of Bandrarl Ngadu, it will soon become as famous as Tasmania's Franklin River as its wild and scenic beauty and rich cultural and biological treasures become more widely known.
There is a proposal to Dam and destroy this place of cultural and natural significance. You canexplore the background to this trip and this lamentable proposal.
Hidden away in Western Australia's Kimberley region, Bandrarl Ngadu is a huge river with an exceptional combination of qualities including raw, majestic beauty, great antiquity, spectacular diversity and incredible power. While most know the name Fitzroy River, because it is located in one of the remotest parts of Australia, few have been privileged to see it. Those few who have travelled through the Kimberley on Highway 1 and crossed it at Fitzroy Crossing could have no appreciation for the of the wonder of the river north of the highway.
Until February 98, I had only ever experienced of Bandrarl Ngadu from the periphery. I had seen the more sluggish river to emerge from the lowest gorge where it carved through the Devonian reef which has been there for 500 million years. The upper tributaries, the Barnett and the Manning, which I crossed in the Dry season, gave no clues as to their magnificence in the wet. Even when I began the marathon ten day canoe trip on the river I had no conception of the outstanding natural quality waiting to be discovered.
I was bowled over by the beauty of the place. Until I made this expedition, I had previously thought that Lawn Hill Gorge was the most beautiful place in all of outback Australia. Bandrarl Ngadu has a beauty to rival Lawn Hill which is far more extensive, continuing for almost three hundred kilometres.
The Bunuba people, whose territories extended across the Kimberley in about a 200 kilometre radius north and west of Fitzroy Crossing know this river as Bandrarl Ngadu from Melaleuca argentea, the most spectacular of the three species of paperbarks to line its banks. Almost every feature of the natural landscape had an Aboriginal name (and often a story) in pre-European Australia. Names would be assigned to hills, waterholes, even particular rocks or parts of rivers. Rarely though were whole rivers named because they usually flowed through the land of a number of Aboriginal groups.
The Bunuba had the injustice of seeing their name "Danggu", where Bandrarl Ngadu carves though the 530 million year old Devonian limestone reef renamed "Geikie Gorge" after thousands of years to honour of a British geologist who never even visited Australia. It seems fair that we should apply the original and more appropriate Bunuba names where possible. I therefore prefer to use Bandrarl Ngadu rather than the more traditional appellation of Fitzroy River.
World Heritage Values
It is difficult to fairly compare World Heritage areas and select one above the other. However when one gets down to specific features, such as mountains or forests or rivers it is slightly easier to make comparisons. Before I had seen the upper gorges of Bandrarl Ngadu, I had never considered it for World Heritage although I had seen many other parts of the Kimberley with outstanding attributes. As far as rivers go, I have seen most of the more famous known "wild" rivers including the Murchison, the Franklin, the Gordon, the Nymboida, the Shoalhaven and others but I have not seen any that could match the Bandrarl Ngadu for sheer sustained and diverse majestic beauty.
While leading annual safaris to the Kimberley I have seen some remarkably stunning country. Bandrarl Ngadu is like a series of gorges like Manning and Galvans Gorges with variations extending for many kilometres. Where Bandrarl Ngadu carves through the ancient sandstone of the Phillips and King Leopold Ranges there are weathered and crumbled, twisted and contorted rocks which probably existed before the Kimberley subcontinent collided with Australia more than 1830 million years ago. Colours range from almost white to pink, oranges, reds and ochres. The rocks provide only a backdrop onto which finer detail is etched as every bend in the river reveals a new vista. Numerous waterfalls cascade over the sides of the vertical walls of the many gorges to further empower the largest stream in the state. There is the rock art from many generations past which full of mystery. We can only ponder on its meaning and significance. The vegetation changes constantly. Etching the river banks were a variety of paperbark melaleucas with pandanus, freshwater mangroves and Leichhardt pines. Sometimes these also grew in mid-stream. In shallow sections where there was not permanent water there were lots of Gutta Percha trees.
The river has probably carved its way through the ancient sandstones in roughly the same course for at least a billion years. Despite our preoccupation with paddling, we could still see many art sites where these old rocks were decorated and painted for thousands of years by a people who were dispossessed of their land within the last century.
To round out the exhilarating experience there is the chorus of exciting sounds throughout the journey. Birds which are less common elsewhere are darting into the water and singing, the water is constantly audible ranging from a whisper to a chatter over the stone to a roar as it drops metres at some sites.
The river and its riparian environment are alive with a rich variety of animals which swim, slither, crawl, hop and fly from microscopic to the rock wallabies and large euros who stared imperiously down at us from the tops of the cliffs. We ticked off 15 species of frogs. We lost count of birds but noted some extraordinary sightings such as probably Australia' only large population of ospreys to be living so far from the sea and presumably living entirely off freshwater fish. Our journey left us with a determination to follow this up with a full scale biological survey to carefully record the wildlife in one of Australia's least disturbed natural areas.
In 1994 that Willigan (Joe Ross), tracked me down and suggested that he could provide a richer cultural component to my Kimberley safaris. Willigan is a person who oozes both charisma and leadership. He is dedicated to improving the socio economic status of his people in the Fitzroy Valley. Over the period since then we have spent an increasing amount of time together and formed a close friendship. Willigan had surrendered a $50,000 per year job in the mining industry only a few years earlier to return to his home community where he now works for a pittance to improve its socio economic status.
Over these years I have also seen a remarkable transformation in Fitzroy Crossing. In 1993 a huge flood almost wiped the town out. Since then the mountains of empty beer cans have gone. The community is tidier and cleaner. Now one rarely sees a drunk lying about. The people have established a greater sense of community pride. Fitzroy Crossing is a town which has pulled itself up by the bootstraps in just a few years to be a shining example of how a large Aboriginal community could develop a new self esteem.
So when last year Willigan told me that he and most of the Fitzroy Crossing community was opposed to the damming of the river to provide water for an irrigation scheme hundreds of kilometres away I realized that this was a potential disaster for the people. The social impacts are too severe to be contemplated and I realized that this was a project which should never proceed beyond the wild dream that it is.
Willigan told me how his love for the river had been kindled by his experience canoeing down it with one of his mining mates in 1988. My ears immediately pricked. I said that if he was prepared to do it again I would go with him and arrange to have a documentary movie made. To ensure that his journey had high media profile, I would get another friend, Dr. Bob Brown, who had led the campaign against the damming of Tasmania's Franklin River to join us. This would enable him to publicize Aboriginal concerns.
There were several hurdles and obstacles to making the expedition happen. The first was that we would have to tackle it in the Wet season. In the Dry season from early May until late November even the mainstream dries up to a mere trickles between the deep, long and crystal clear pools. These are very photogenic but the there wouldn't be enough water for a long journey such as ours. Water based expeditions need to be done from mid-February to mid-April. While the water is more turbid in "the Wet," it has much power to help push the craft through. Only in February could the smaller upper tributaries be relied on to carry enough water on which to navigate our small craft.
Although temperatures in February are in the high thirties on a daily basis, this wasn't a severe problem as we had a fast flowing river just an arms length away in which to cool our bodies. Our main problem was from the impact of the ferocious sun on our skins.
Although there were plenty of volunteers for the journey few had any canoeing expertise.
Then we had to overcome a huge financial hurdle. It cost several thousands of dollars for a expedition of this kind and we could not obtain sponsorship. Each canoe was worth over $1000. When I was drew a blank in seeking sponsors, Willigan told me not to worry. He organized fund-raisers to buy the canoes. With the aid of the local rock band, the "Fitzroy Express", the money to pay for the canoes started to mount up as the deadline was drawing ever closer.
There were originally to have been only six canoes and twelve people, but somehow this had grown despite our best efforts to keep numbers to the minimum to make the whole operation more manageable. When we assembled at Mt. Barnett on 13 February, there were 7 large canoes and a small kayak.
The canoes were all named after the various Aboriginal language groups which are spread along the mighty river.
The team that crewed them came from all over Australia. Ages ranged from 15 to 58. It represented a diversity of expertise, experience and backgrounds from the urban and professional to the men with great outback experience. Within days this disparate group evolved into a remarkably efficient, harmonious happy team despite the hardship and sheer physical exertion with intensely high temperatures daily.
Leading the team in Gooniyandi was Willigan. He is 6 foot tall all muscle and still plays football. At 37, he was ten years older than when he had first made his original epic journey. I had not previously fully appreciated his athleticism, canoeing prowess and competence. He had canoed many of the rivers of the Northern Territory's Top End while attending college in Darwin and his capacity to maneuver a canoe, maintain balance and make critical decisions quickly left us in awe. His co-paddler was his nephew, Milgen (Victor Marr). Milgen had less than 30 minutes notice that he would join the expedition when "Bottle" (Stanley Jangarry) could not make the start. With two older brothers Victor plays guitar in the "Fitzroy Express" band.
Senator Dr. Bob Brown and his Tasmanian mate, Paul Thomas, paddled the Bunuba canoe with remarkable caution and skill. They survived seven days without a capsize. Because Bob was the medical man and carried the First Aid they travelled in the rear. Bob said that although they didn't overturn, he had a few spills. I must say that I doubt that any other Australian Parliamentarians who would subject themselves to such sustained discomfort and such grueling physical ordeal to discover what was at stake in an environmental controversy so far from home and creature comforts.
Two representatives of "The West Australian" newspaper showed that gallons of sweat go into a story like this over ten days as they pushed and shoved and mostly paddled Kija. and helped the whole team get through. Mark Drummond, the journalist, is of Kiwi origin while his partner, Mogens Johansen, the photographer, is of Danish origin. Both were young and strong and incredibly fit. Mogens had done a bit of canoeing in the South West. They survived with very few spills and enough material to fill a book let alone one good feature story.
Walmatjarri carried film producer Steven MacGregor and his camera gear, very vulnerable items in these conditions. Steve is based in Alice Springs where he works with CAAMA. Needless to say, Steve's knowledge of canoeing was limited to the "regattas" in the dry river bed of the Todd and he was not sure at the start of the trip whether we were going to be canoeing up or down the river. However, by the end of the trip he had become very proficient and a great paddler. Despite his lack of experience, he had strength and hauled heavy camera gear and filmed as well as paddling and celebrated his 31st birthday along the way. Perhaps it was because he came from the dry heart of Australia that Steve was the only person out of 16 to escape being involved in any capsize. Initially to provide the muscle and power Steve was accompanied by the strongest member of the team, Don Cruttenden although in the latter part he created a great team with Yoadabange. Don is a school teacher who has taught for several years in the Kimberley at the Wananami School (Mt Barnett) which was our base prior to setting out and Fitzroy Crossing for over 6 years. "The Don" was the strongest and fittest member of the team who plays football and trains on weights. We all appreciated his power at the portages or when our strength was failing.
Way Way (Damien Ross), son of Willigan, at just 15 years of age was the youngest of the team. His crew mate and helmsman in Mandala was Girngirni (Sam Andrews) not that much older. They were both from Fitzroy Crossing and were keen to discover more of the land which their forebears had known so well. Both smiled and laughed the whole way through and kept up the pace with experienced veterans and still had time to take off to chase down goannas and catch fish to augment our tucker supply on the way. Girngirni was keen to point out where we entered his traditional land and its delineation although he had never been there before.
Another young Bunuba man Shannon Shaw (18) and Ian Morris (47 on Day 4 of the journey) crewed Nyikina. Ian gained fame for his work in helping people to better understand and appreciate both the natural and cultural values of Kakadu National Park. Ian is one of my closest friends and the best all round naturalists and interpreters of the environment of tropical Australia I know. Neither Shannon nor Ian had much previous canoe experience but unlike me by Day 3 they had mastered the art and by Day 8 they were tackling the largest rapids paddled with great success.
Last but not least of the seven big canoes was Ngarinyin . My crew mate, Yoadabange, (Patrick Chungall) had never been in a canoe before. He belongs to the Ngarinyin language group but is married to a Bunuba woman from Fitzroy Crossing. His father's land lay downstream from Mt. Barnett. Since he works as a stockman throughout the dry season at Mt. Barnett, he had more intimate knowledge of the land for the first part of the journey than anyone else but it was land which he had previously mainly seen from horseback.
Some years ago I was assigned an Aboriginal malk (skin). Although the name changes with different language groups, malks are universally understood throughout traditional Aboriginal Australia. In Kunwinjku from Kakadu my malk is "Wamut" which means a wedge-tailed eagle. In Bunuba it is Jawangarri. It is the same malk as Yoadabange. This means that he is my classificatory "brother". Girngirni called me "Jabi" which means grandfather. There are special relationships and responsibilities for each malk to the other 15 malks. By virtue of this I was related to more than half of the people on the journey in a very meaningful way.
Despite my close classificatory relationship to Yoadabange, I had none of his skills for riding rough horses and staying in the saddle. I got thrown out and capsized more than anyone else. Riding the rapids was a far call from all of the canoeing I had previously done. At age 58 and a bit over 100 kg., I was by far the oldest and the least fit. It was embarrassing the number of times the journey was held up while Ngarinyin or parts of our gear which had floated off were retrieved.
The last but most important person on the trip was Hugh Sullivan who paddled a kayak which didn't seem to have a name. Hugh aged 28 and rippling with muscles looks like the perfect athlete he is. He is a passionate devotee to canoeing and rough water. There seem to be few challenges which deter him. He has paddled around the Kimberley coast from Wyndham to Broome and successfully challenged most of Australia's best known wild rivers. When he got wind of our trip he was enthusiastic to go. While at first I was diffident about increasing the size of the flotilla I soon came to realize how indispensable his skills were for a group of mainly untrained and unskilled canoeists. It is fair to say that without his incredible attention to safety and detail it is extremely doubtful whether such a long expedition could have succeeded. It was a joy to sit back and watch him with grace and balance glide down the same rapids that we had spent half an hour manhandling the canoes; rapids we felt were too dangerous to attempt in our craft and with our lack of experience.
In addition were the two relief crew who flew in to take over Bunuba canoe for the last four days after Bob Brown and Paul Thomas had headed off to Canberra. David Wheatfill is a young, fit school-teacher from Fitzroy Crossing, while Kali Balint is a craftsman from Broome. Despite living on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Broome, he had a lot of previous white water canoeing experience. He was the third member of the team to celebrate a birthday on this trip. He had his 27th on the penultimate day of the journey.
We non Aborigines had problems with sunburn despite our best efforts. We were all conscious of the sun on our faces, backs and arms but any unprotected area, particularly the knees and backs of hands were vulnerable.
Day 1:With the assistance of Ngarinyin elders Billy King, Dilngarri (Peter Thompson) and Phillip Duckhole ("Cracker") we got the canoes and gear from the Wananami School down to the river. We had our photos taken and said farewell to the only people outside our group we would speak to for the next 7 days. We began the trip quietly on the Barnett River. After eventually launching the canoes near the Kupungarri community at 9.00 am, we were swiftly floating on clear water through an arcade of paperbarks at about 6 km per hour. The trees arched right across the river and we floated as though gliding down the aisle of a cathedral as the Melaleucas supported an ethereal roof but we still managed to get severely sunburnt. The river skirted a long towering escarpment for 30 kilometres until it reached what is known as the Hann River which we now appreciate is the main part of what is known further downstream as the Fitzroy River. During this first day we travelled quietly and calmly, covering 35 kilometres and making our first camp at a rock ledge above our first roaring waterfall and our first portage. There was only one rapid and everyone survived that without a spill, of which I am still very proud.
Day 2: This was our slowest day by far as we entered previously unknown gorge which the Aborigines know as Ungadintha. As the river plunged though here we made 14 portages and paddled down two other lesser rapids or falls. We travelled only 6 km for the day. It was a massive effort and one which revealed for the first time the unexpected stunning beauty of this place which we had never anticipated. We stopped out progress abruptly at about 4.00 pm, not because of sheer exhaustion, but because Willigan had observed an extensive gallery of Aboriginal art in a rock shelter which has not been previously recorded. The fact that so little of the rock art sites of the Kimberley are well documented is a result of the massacres and forced evictions of the Aborigines which occurred in the Kimberley which were euphemistically referred to as "dispersal" or "punitive raids". I was cook and found myself preparing dinner in a site which for thousands of years previously had been a living shelter for other Australians although our fare that night was pasta. Some of the Bunuba boys though had caught a good haul of catfish which they roasted in the fire. It was a feeling of spiritual rekindling of this very lovely and very special site. Since our expedition Willigan told me that he is planning to take a group of elders to these and any other sites he can get them to during the Dry Season of 98 to record the sites and their special significance.
Day 3: We started off still descending the waterfalls, cataracts and rapids as the river carved through the ancient red sandstones of the Phillips Range. When I had been to the Kimberley previously, I had visited some stunningly lovely places such as Manning Galvans and Adcock Gorges as well as other gorges, all in the Phillips Range. This river was like a continuous replication of these places with elaborations and embellishments which extended for kilometres. As we were finally clearing the Phillips Range, a fresh stream entered from the west (as did most of the tributaries) with a waterfall right at the junction. We stopped for lunch. We then had a longer paddle to log up 13 km for the day. I lost count of the portages but most were managed without having to unload the canoes and our time for each portage was reduced from 30 to 15 minutes on average. We camped at a pleasant sandy camp site under the shadow of the Phillips Range. I was so exhausted after cooking dinner that I slept on a green ants nest. I only discovered my folly when I awoke with ants caught in and stinging my eyebrows and eye lids. However, the bites to my back made me uncomfortable for another whole week. I later added a scorpion bite, as well as many burns, bruises and blisters to my growing list of discomforts and pain.
Day 4: By the fourth day there was a weary blur of "do what must be done" without pausing to consider the scale of the effort involved. I lost count of the portages and rapids and spills as we negotiated the wondrous Moll Gorge. The attractive scenery inspired us to keep seeking new vistas and we were never disappointed. Finally, we came out of the gorge into some more open country with fewer rapids and portages. We paddled as long as we could before finally collapsing onto a clear open sand bank beside the river. It was Ian Morris's birthday and I produced a cake and candles. Our lunch supplies were rapidly diminishing. Luckily goannas appeared on the scene. While there were many craving eyes spotting goannas at various places along the river bank, most survived thanks to the commands of Willigan to keep on paddling but today he relented and two were taken and tasted by all. It is a very interesting tucker. I cooked up a spicy soup and some rices of the world and baked a couple of dampers for the following day's lunch. We had traversed 25 km for the day.
Day 5: Due to the numerous obstacles our progress had been slow. We are now well behind schedule with only 79 km behind us. What had begun as an estimated 220 km trip, was now reckoned by closer scrutiny of more detailed topographic maps to be almost 300 km. We had still yet to reach the Fitzroy River (as defined on our topographic maps). We decided on an extraordinarily early start with the ambition of covering 50 kilometres for the day. It was to be a marathon effort. It wasn't a good day for me as the cook as I was feeling nauseous for the whole day although it didn't affect my paddling. There were lots of smaller rapids with no big portages. We had to weave a course through a network of channels and in places with strong rushes through thickets of trees. Despite the experience of four days, my stability in the canoe was not improving. I was continually being the boat most likely to spill. In one spill however, Ngarinyin was broadsided and buckled a little on a tree and it was during that this episode that the bag which contained all of our few precious pots and cooking utensils exploded spilling the contents into the murky and fast running river. It was a loss which increased our discomfort. When we measured it carefully we had covered 58 km that day. We arrived at the junction with the Little Fitzroy River just on dusk. We slumped into the roughest and least pleasant camp sites yet but I was oblivious and collapsed to leave everyone else foraging through the larder to create an imaginative dinner of tuna and rice and sweet chilli sauce.
Day 6: I woke feeling better and ready for the fray. By now we were really convinced that we were canoeing Bandrarl Ngadu. We has been of the opinion that four days on the Hann River was only a preliminary to the Fitzroy River. Then seeing that where we had been was in fact the mainstream, we felt even better for what we had accomplished. It was not too far down from the junction that we encountered the dramatic Wallaliyan Gorge. This is where Bandrarl Gnadu slices through the Sir John Range. Here we made several big portages as the river dropped several levels like a drunk falling down a staircase.
There is one absolutely mind boggling 20 metre high rock tower which appears not much more than a metre in diameter, which spirals like a stretched coil spring. Huge sandstone blocks look as though they are defying gravity. Since our return we have learnt the barramundi dreaming story associated with this stunning formation. The expedition has revealed much as well as stimulating a quest to recover as much of the oral history about sites along Bandrarl Ngadu. The culture which was so dislocated is reviving and sites of significance are being re-identified.
We had just finished a big portage in the morning when a helicopter appeared. It was dropping in Dave Wheatfill, the first of the replacement crew members who were to take over Bunuba when Bob Brown and Paul took off early next day to head off to Canberra. This left us in the embarrassing position of having more people than there were seats or safety equipment. Since I was deemed by Willigan to be still on "light duties" I was became a passenger. Whenever we came to a portage or rapids, (and there were many that day) I was put ashore and had to walk around them. This was not always easy as the gorge had very high, near vertical sides in many places descending right to water level. It was from these sides that many of the falls tumbled into the gorge below with clear spring water. We discovered another art site in this gorge which is one for further investigation. We made fair progress during the day of about 12 km making 11 portages and paddling another 11 rapids. We camped that night on a spectacular rock ledge beside one of these falls. The rock temperature remained very hot throughout the night and we needed insulation from it to get any coolness.
It is clear that there is an urgent need for many further investigations of this wonderful area and during the day we began formulating plans for undertaking a comprehensive interdisciplinary study of the fauna, flora archeology and geology to describe what precise natural and cultural values are likely to be affected by any changes to this region and its land use. By the end of the day as we applied our minds to the environs and the study we came up with a number of plans which will see this survey done within the next few years.
Day 7: The day began with Kevin Oscar's chopper dropping in early to begin ferrying photographers around, bringing in fresh supplies, taking out the Tasmanians and bringing in the last of the relief paddlers, Kali. While all of this reshuffling was going on the canoes were slowly progressing downstream still in Wallaliyan Gorge with some makeshift crews. We were out of the range and the river drops became gradually less severe. We paddled down 18 rapids and made 7 portages. We had just cleared our last significant portage when Gooniyandi capsized and jammed young Milgen's leg under a rock causing him a lot of pain. We took the precaution of evacuating him with the chopper while it was available but that left us with one crewman short.
After lunch there was another drama. Ngarinyin, my canoe, hit a tree midstream and then wrapped itself completely around it. The bow and the stern were touching and the frame was bent. It was yet another of the countless spills that I experienced. It took more precious time to retrieve the canoe try to straighten it and then make slower progress. I quickly recognized that if the expedition's objectives were to be achieved it would have to be without both Ngarinyin and me. We maneuvered the canoe several more kilometres down to a landing to Mornington Station where some fresh supplies were waiting. It was here that while Ngarinyin was being cannibalized for some vital pieces needed on other craft and food stowed that I left the flotilla to walk to Mornington Station.
I farewelled the mob at 4.30 pm and after a 30 second glance at the topographic map to memorize my bearings set off following two wheel tracks through the spinifex for some 10 kilometres with several storms brewing about and the darkness about to rapidly descend. They were determined to put in at least another hour's paddling that night.
As I walked, I realized that I was walking through the centre of the largest part of the zone to be flooded if ever a dam is built ad Jhidjhid Ghia. And as the lightning flashed I observed that this was a valley with a death sentence hanging over it. Every living thing here would be affected by one decision. The view was reinforced as I retraced the journey in a four wheel drive the following day to retrieve my gear and the battered Ngarinyin . Later as I flew over the area to get back to Fitzroy Crossing I gained some idea of the immensity of the area which would be drowned. Its biggest impact would be upstream of Jhidjhid Ghia in an area which only a handful of people have seen and where there has been no comprehensive survey of the values which would be lost. These may only be known after any decision to build a dam is made.
I covered the 10 kms to Old Mornington Camp in two battered old and unmatching odd shoes which were in the process of what I have now come to know as "discombolbulating". The blister which had burst the previous night was red raw but I was almost oblivious to the pain and determined to cover as much of the track as possible in the rapidly fading light. I arrived at the camp to find it in total darkness. I had expected a reception from station dogs but there was no sound. I shouted and was relieved to hear voices emerging which indicated someone was there. I was lucky. Since the topographic map I had studied was printed some years earlier, a new homestead had been built more than 45 km away from the Tourist Camp I had stumbled into. This is normally abandoned for the Wet Season between November and March when few tourists venture into the Kimberley. Luckily the owner-manager, Michael Curr, had a couple of intrepid guests present who had flown in to photograph our small flotilla at Jhidjhid Ghia and so he was awaiting their return before flying them out and going back to the homestead.
With some fresh hot roast meat on a couple of slabs of bread I was ready to collapse. However the conversation turned to the impact of the dam and I mentioned freshwater sharks. Within minutes I had discovered that I had stayed with Michael Curr's brother family along the Saxeby River in the Gulf Country twelve years earlier while hunting down the story of Australia's little known freshwater sharks. These certainly occur at Danggu on Bandrarl Ngadu. In fact the environmental impact downstream of the dams right out into King Sound may be even more adverse than either the impact on the inundation area or the cultivated areas.
Next morning after much more yarning and gathering a lot of background information about the dam, the exploding Kimberley tourist industry and sundry matters, retrieving my personal gear left at the river, we drove across to the new homestead where the aircraft was located, and took off for Fitzroy Crossing.
Mike Curr's experience as a pilot and his intimacy with Bandrarl Ngadu showed as we flew over Wallaliyan Gorge where so many tough portages occurred and then followed the river down to Jhidjhid Ghia looking for my mates to alert them that I had survived. They were all standing ashore at the proposed dam site as we flew a great circle above them. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera to capture that dramatic moment as they reached their main objective of the journey.
Back in Fitzroy Crossing with a day to rest, recover and to organize some relief for my weary comrades, I felt that I could now relax and reflect and gather my thoughts. What I had thought was a mission to focus on the opposition to damming Bandrarl Ngadu now had a new focus. This was to inform the world about an unbelievably wonderful, primitive and wild river deserving of World Heritage status for its wild beauty alone.
In the meantime my colleagues were still sweating in temperatures in the high thirties and weathering a storm while negotiating through Jhidjhid Ghia. They sought refuge from both heat and the fierce rain under the water of Bandrarl Ngadu. On Day 7 they had paddled a total of 26 km. On Day 8 they clocked up a further 46 km.
Day 9 was a marathon effort. I was saved as my mates in the canoes logged up 62 km to arrive in the dark at a camp site in Danggu. Luckily that night with the help of the police and friends I had organized some rest and relief. We met them up the gorge with a few cold cans, some chocolate and a barbeque. Because virtually all the crockery and cutlery had become casualties of capsizes along with an unbelievable assortment of other personal and group equipment, most of the fare turned into finger food.
As we lay there under the stars at night we had intimate recitals of one of the Bunuba songs which Danny Marr recorded with Paul Kelly, "Raining on the Rocks". Everyone was exhausted but still too high on the adrenaline of achievement to let themselves fall asleep. Under one of the brightest canopies of stars, I can recall that last satisfying night which we wanted to last forever.
On Day 10, I returned to Fitzroy Crossing to await the group's arrival with much anonymity. Everyone lined up once more for the final thrust of 18 km into Fitzroy Crossing where the most of the Fitzroy Crossing District High School's children and much the town's population were lined up on the bridge to greet weary paddlers at 1.00 pm precisely. I greeted them from the bridge and later participated in the festivities at Fitzroy Lodge that night but it was anti-climactic compared with the experience we had in the field.
The grand achievement in statistical terms may not seem exceptional. Over 290 km of river were covered, 65 rapids were shot (not including the many fast water races where there were many capsizes) and there were a total of 58 portages. The expedition cost over $20,000 to organize and stage but our discovery of a previously hidden and unknown treasure made it worthwhile. Although I only covered 75 percent of the total expedition I shed kilograms in weight and enjoyed the greatest adventure of my life on what really is about to be recognized as Australia's greatest wild river — Bandrarl Ngadu.
* John Sinclair has been a leading conservationist in Australia for over 30 years and is best known for his campaign to protect Fraser Island from sandmining and logging. He is a United Nations Environment Program's Global 500 and a Goldman Environmental Prize winner. He is General Manager of GO BUSH Safaris which specializes in trips to Australia's World Heritage areas.