Packrafting the Thomson River, Gippsland #1: This is probably the best weekend trip in Victoria. It may be mid-winter now but soon you should be planning your wonderful spring/summer trips – and this should be one of them! You start this just downstream of the historic Brunton’s Bridge where the road of the same name crosses the river on its way to Happy-Go-Lucky and Walhalla. This road in turn is reached from the Cowarr-Erica Rd after leaving a vehicle at the picnic and camping area at Cowwarr Weir.
For a longer trip (add approximately 3-4 hours paddling time) you can start at Coopers Creek which can be accessed off the Tyers-Rawson Rd a couple of kilometres before the Walhalla turn-off or off the Walhalla Rd a couple of kilometres before the Thomson Bridge (shorter, better road) . I would allow three days for the trip from Coopers Creek (better four) and two days from Bruntons (better three). A plpeasant week would be even better. There are innumerable places to camp, great fishing/hunting, and lots to explore. Pick your weather. NB: It is quite cold down along the river, probably even 10C lower at night than the night-time temperature in nearby Morwell.
It is not a trip for novices. A number of people have lost their lives in this section of river over the years, and emergency services have had to conduct many searches. You need to be competent in Grade 2 and 3 rapids – though you can portage at least all the Grade 3 ones). You also need to watch the river height carefully.
The river is probably safest at a Gauge Height at Coopers Creek of about .3 of a metre, though it can be canoed at .2 (I have), when you would have to walk a dozen or so pebble races during the course of two days. This trip it was at .25. I had to get out of the boat due to insufficient water only once. I have done the trip at a gauge height of .5 metre a number of times. You need to be a very experienced paddler at this height when the river is really tearing along particularly in the gorge, and some of the larger rapids are very challenging. You need to be an Olympic class expert to canoe the river above this height. I have not and I would not.There are plenty of other things to die from, bed for example.
In these two posts I want to illustrate how to safely canoe this section of river over a couple of warm summer days. The most dangerous rapids can all be portaged, but the Gorge cannot be avoided – and it can be quite dangerous in high water and if there are log-jams.
All set to go.
Most of the river consists of long, tranquil deep leads such as these interspersed with Grade 1 rapids and pebble races.
The river starts out deceptively easily.
This early section is a good time to troll for trout if you have an waterproof cooler bag to keep them in for tea. I usually dine on trout when canoeing this river, simply wrapping them in some Alfoil and roasting them in the coals. Take a lemon and some salt and pepper. You can use the heads to catch crays..
An entertaining little drop.
There is a car camp about 3/4 of an hour down the river on the right hand bank. It is now the only spot you can access the river by vehicle, though not so long ago there used to be several. You will see some wooden steps leading up to it.
Another long dolorous section. I used often to see deer along here particularly on the left hand bank.
There are a few Grade 2 rapids however. This one would be quite challenging if there was a bit more water.
A memento of earlier times.
Marble Quarry. This spot is where a gully flows into the river on the right hand side just above (West of) the C22.1 (Marble Quarry) track. There used to be a (marked) walking track up to the road above from this spot. You could go for a (tough) stroll and check out the interesting old pack track which led off to the marble quarry itself – on the East side about fifty metres before the end of the track. It slopes down and into the gully below.
There used to be a vehicle track to this pot down the ridge off the B3 track to a gold mine here, I guess in the 70s. The track is pretty overgrown today but could be accessed on foot or by motorcycle perhaps. I last drove down it about ten years ago – but it could no doubt be re-cleared by enterprising folk looking for a private camp site.
It led to the mining camp – a lovely peaceful flat camping spot just twenty yards from a great swimming hole on the river.
The first rapid downstream from here can be quite dangerous. You can portage it on either bank. As you can see it has a large boulder right in the middle at the bottom which has turned many people out, including me. A friend of mine once received a nasty knock ion the head from it.
There are many tranquil camping spots along the river often under the shade of these beautiful cottonwood poplars which are such a feature of the river – and its history.
A grassy spot at the bottom of Lammers Gully on the left.
The river slopes down perceptibly to the Deep Creek confluence.
With a few pleasant ripples along the way.
Lots of folk attempt to camp at the mouth of Deep Creek. I think it is not really flat enough, but it is a spot which holds many memories for me. I used to hunt Deep Creek (with hounds) many years ago. I can still visualise Harpoon and Belle bailing a large stag for me only metres upstream from this spot.
I always stop here for a bite to eat anyway.
You can wade up Deep Creek for miles as I have started to do here – all the way to Binns if you so wish (I have). There are plenty of small trout – and blackfish in the deeper pools.
After Deep Creek the river runs noticeable downhill for kilometres. There are two sets of islands in the river. Sometimes deer camp on them. I have startled them there in my canoe, and once or twice on foot. On one occasion I managed to blunder right into the midst of at least a dozen sleeping deer. They erupted in such a cacophony of action and alarm that I was quite nonplussed as to which way to point my rifle – so that they all made off in very direction quite safely!
There are several good camps along here. If you plan to camp before the Gorge, you should stop here. Good trout for your supper await a fly cast on the waters. You can see my ( alas, late) friend Steve Cleaver catch one or two such in this video of our trip on the river in 2006. We were so young – was it so long ago? Trout 15-20 minutes in.
Lots of these little guys along the river.
And a rather poor shot of a fox – practically the first fox I have seen in the bush in over thirty years hunting etc. They are usually so elusive in cover.
After the second set of islands,
Look out for a cottonwood tree with a sign on it announcing that you are half-way (doesn’t seem like it to me) and that this uncampable spot is the designated campsite on the ‘Thomson River Canoe Trail – there may still be a few DSE brochures about it in their offices. i doubt they have done any work on it since it was published at least thirty years ago!.
At the start of this flat about 200 metres upstream the T9 track can be accessed. It came within 50 metres of the river. There used to be a walking track from the end of it to the river. Walk down the track the last kilometre before you take a vehicle down as there is very little room to turn a vehicle around!
This spot should serve as a warning: if you are going to camp before the Gorge, do so now. There is one small spot on the left bank. Here it is:
The Gorge is committing, and takes some time. particularly if you fall out a few times, as it can be quite difficult to get back into your boat in high water. It also comes upon you unexpectedly. At the end of a deep section there is this gully facing you (photo below). The Gorge begins just around the corner to the left. I suggest you check out the first rapid from the left bank. It is a doozy! You can portage it on the right side.
Here it is (looking upstream). After a rough sort of chute on the left hand side with many boulders there is an abrupt turn to the right. Lots of folks will need to empty their boats again here.
And off we go down the gorge:
There are quite a number of entertaining little (and big) drops in the Gorge.
And long, fast deep sections.
This one would tip you out if you chose the wrong side.
And another. If you come out it can be difficult to empty your boat and get back in, but there usually are shallow places or tiny miniature beaches between drops (at lower heights). Sometimes though you might be in for a bit of a swim.
See that shallowish spot on the right. That might be as good as it gets – so don’t fall out. This is just one of the reasons why I say the river is not for novices.
About half way down there is this amazing little beach on the right hand side with a fabulous swimming (and fishing) hole. If you are a small party you could camp here.
This one would be tricky.
There is a drop near the end with a log-jam in it. Forgot to take a photo. You will have to portage it on the right hand side. After that, the river settles down a bit.
You could also camp here (one tent anyway) on the left bank. You would have plenty of firewood at least.
This spot pretty much at the end of the Gorge on the left hand side is chosen by many.
I have camped here several times. There is a fine pool for fishing/swimming. i thought I would travel on a bit further as I did not want company (unlikely though).Iit has happened to me before however.
I was canoeing the river with my friend, Brett Irving. We had set up camp for the night and were enjoying a few cold light ales and a yarn in the westering sun. I guess no more than half an hour before full dark. We had a small fire going. Idyllic really. Fish for tea. Along came half a dozen drunken, callow shirtless youths on sit-on-top canoes. Their ‘leader’ was convinced the weir was just around the corner and would not accept our advice that it was over four hours away – and impossible to reach in the dark. Some wanted to stay with us. We put an abrupt stop to that.
I gave them a cigarette lighter with the advice that they should stop at the first spot with lots of wood and gather as much as they could as it would be a very cold night without a fire. It is particularly cool in the Thomson Gorge. Well they sailed on foolishly until dark stopped them, and then lit a miserable little fire whose light was too feeble to reveal to them a thousand tonnes of firewood less that fifty metres away! We could hear them all night yelling at each other and having bouts of fisticuffs. Is it any wonder we were not eager to have them join us?
On this occasion I canoed on for another half an hour or so until I found another really nice spot on the left bank. No-one had camped here. There was lots of wood, though it was not cold enough for me to have a fire.
Here are some very amateur selfies of me enjoying myself in front of my Pocket Poncho Tent.
I will get better at these selfies I promise!
I had this delightful spot to myself all night – no company but the moon! Delightful! How many such nights I have enjoyed I hardly dare imagine. I am greedy and hope there will yet be many more, even at just shy of seventy.
See Also Day Two:
Ultralight Hiker Thomson River Canoe Trip 2006 (Video):
As a foretaste, here is Steve powering down one of the Thomson’s signature rapids: