Side Trip - Kangaroo and Shoalhaven Rivers
            by Canoe

After 6 days solid walking and a rest in Kiama, our legs were well and truly broken in and trip-fit. It was time for an upper body work-out; the first of our planned side trips being a canoe trip from Kangaroo Valley to Tallowa Dam and up the Shoalhaven Gorge. The Kangaroo Valley is strictly not part of the South Coast proper, lying to the west of the coastal range, but it is an essential part of the South Coast experience.

Looking east over the Kangaroo Valley

This fertile green valley is home to the picturesque village of Kangaroo Valley, well worth a visit, but better avoided on weekends when Sydneysiders descend in hordes as they escape the city. The valley itself is surrounded by a wild and rugged hinterland, best explored on water. We hired our canoe from the friendly folk at Kangaroo Valley Escapes, loaded our waterproof drums with camping gear and food for two nights and set out on a clear, sunny morning from beneath the old stone Hampden Bridge crossing the Kangaroo River.

The Upper Kangaroo River remains pristine, with small rapids and deep pools, overhung by tall eucalyptus and casuarinas. Accompanied by the call of whipbirds and the song of the golden whistler, we drifted past water dragons sunning themselves on boulders in the stream.

On the Upper Kangaroo River

Gradually the river widened and the flow slowed as we approached Bendeela campground and the effects of the Tallowa Dam began to be noticed. It was here that the 4 m drop in dam levels first became apparent; the bare rocks and exposed dead tree stumps appearing below high water mark. Soon we found the culprit, passing the Bendeela pumping station, where water had recently started being pumped out to supply thirsty and drought-stricken Sydney.


On Yarrunga Reach

The day became hot and still as we paddled on; cormorants, cranes and herons watched us pass by from their roosting spots on the emergent branches of long-drowned trees, a couple of wallabies grazed on the grassy banks, and a large tortoise headed from bank to water as we approached. The warmth and rhythmic water-tinkling of the paddles was conducive to long periods of silent reflection as we slowly headed down the Yarrunga Reach.

Eventually, 18 km downstream, we reached a secluded inlet that made a perfect campsite for the night; a site shared with gang-gangs, black cockatoos, an owl and a kingfisher. As evening approached, we lay back and watched the silhouettes of the bats zig-zagging across the opening above us as they hunted for insects. Eventually it darkened to reveal the magnificent clarity of a starry sky far from city lights.

We rose early next morning to a changed river. A "myst" had rolled in with plumes of vapour rising off the water (I say "myst" because the scene it created against the backdrop of sandstone walls and tall eucalypts was indeed mystical).

Breaking camp after a hearty (and obligatory) bush breakfast of bacon and eggs, we continued on into the low gorge of the Yarrunga Reach. The mist cleared as we detoured up a side stream to paddle amongst the stark beauty of the trees of the Drowned Forest. We shared the morning journey down a long reach with a group of backpackers on a canoeing trip, until we arrived at our lunch stop at Tallowa Dam, 10 km later.

The Drowned Forest

View back from Tallowa Dam

An hour later we were back on the water heading up the Shoalhaven Gorge with superb sandstone cliffs rising up on each side of us. Small pockets of rainforest trees in the wet south-facing gullies appeared amongst the eucalypts, acacias and casuarinas on the steep lower slopes of the gorge, the periodic "tinking" of an invisible chorus of bellbirds our accompaniment. The Shoalhaven Gorge is incredibly beautiful; at each bend in the river, the sandstone walls seemed to close in, taller and steeper.

In the Shoalhaven Gorge


Eventually we reached a flat, sandy and shady camping spot 10½ km into the gorge, facing the sheer walls of the opposite face and with a deep sandy channel for swimming (in contrast to the muddy banks that line much of the river). Another superb bush night passed, listening to the sounds around us and watching the Southern Cross as it rose over the edge of the gorge walls.

The next morning we noticed that the water level had dropped another 5-10 cm overnight - time to leave before the Sydney folk drink us dry. We retraced our route back to Tallowa Dam for a lunchtime pick-up and return to Kangaroo Valley.

Our upper body workout was complete; 49 km in a canoe in 2½ days; 15000 paddle strokes, with 1500 pumps on the water filter thrown in for good measure. We felt uplifted, physically and spiritually.