Down the crazy river

Ben Stubbs thought he had survived the Nymboida's toughest rapids. Then he met the Mother-in-Law.

The rain sluices down my back and I shiver, though not from the cold. I'm sitting in a rubber boat looking down at a grade-four rapid as it smashes and swirls against the rocks in the Nymboida River, high on the Dorrigo Plateau. This rapid is known as the "Mother-in-Law" and it is infamous for terrorising white-water rafters.

We're on the water with Liquid Assets, a bunch of gung-ho guides from Coffs Harbour who thrive in the muddy, wet conditions of these old-growth forests in the misty hills of the Nymboi-Binderay National Park.

We are attempting a nine-kilometre rafting trip from the camping ground at Platypus Flat to the junction of the Little Nymboida River deep inside the forest.

Our guide is Mal Dawson, a local with 12 years' experience on the water here.

He leads from behind with gruff assuredness - giving my brother, Nick, and me enough confidence to volunteer to take the two spots at the front of the raft.

It is cold, slippery and raining as we arrive at the edge of the Nymboida River. With no sign of the weather letting up, Dawson suggests we wear two thermals beneath our lifejackets. "We're going to get wet anyway," he says as we begin our adventure downstream.

Our group of six begins paddling along a flat, easy section from the campground and Dawson instructs us to pay attention to his calls of "forward, backwards and hold on" while we make our way to the first sections of white water.

The sheer granite cliffs on the bank of the river hem us in and I watch enormous trees bent over the edge towards us as we drift.

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Thick fog rises from the bubbling water around us and I keep an eye out for the carpet pythons and red-bellied black snakes that Dawson says will drape themselves on rocks at the edge of the sclerophyll forest.

The first rapid we approach is aptly named the Shipwreck. Dawson barks at us to paddle into the current of "fast water" straight at the rocks that jut from the froth. My brother and I slap the water with our paddles in unison. Dawson steers us around the obstacles in one fluid motion and we shoot off the lip. "Back, back, back!" he yells and we obey his commands, hopeful it will save us from a cold bath. The raft swivels and we bounce down the drop. Someone screams in surprise - it could've been me - as water sprays up and the front of the raft submerges. I vaguely hear the shout to "hang on" as our inflatable vessel shoots down the two-metre drop of churning water to the bottom of the waterfall.

We emerge on the other side, intact. I swear I'm not an adrenalin junkie, though my hands are shaking from the buzz. There's no time to rest.

Ahead is KBs chute, a grade-four rapid (named after the beer they used to float down the river) and one of the most challenging obstacles we'll face. Dawson says he'll often see turtles and platypuses on the trip down the green river on good days, though it is impossible to tell with the mist and rain what lurks beneath us today.

Dawson tells us residents often call the forest here "Deliverance country" because it is so isolated. I'm happy to be seeing the rainforest from a raft.

I look and feel like a marshmallow, with my layers of padding, though as we roar into KBs I'm glad for the cushioning. Dawson yells, "Left!" and I scramble on to my brother's lap just as the raft tips and we avoid an overhanging boulder.

The raft slices down the rapid like a pinball and I'm careful not to open my mouth and smile until we're well clear.

As if the tap has been turned off, the river becomes quiet. We float beneath the tree canopy in the national park and watch water dragons scamper along the rocks. This area is one of the wettest regions in NSW; more than 388 millimetres of rain was recorded here in one day. The Nymboida River can flood up to three times a year, we're told. Dawson points to the scum lines on the rocks seven metres above us as evidence of how much the river swells.

Even when it's low, the Nymboida demands caution, with hidden pockets and jagged rocks.

We have to walk around Devil's Cauldron while Dawson slowly guides the raft down himself. This area is part of the Giingay Aboriginal people's land on the Dorrigo Plateau and, apart from our group of inflatable yellow rafters, we are alone.

We get back in the raft and continue along the twisting coil of river.

Our next challenge is the one we've been dreading, the "Mother-in-Law".

Dawson says it got its name "because it never stops" - just when you think you're clear, another obstacle presents.

Dawson has seen rafters tip and submerge in this section so we're careful to follow his instructions. We charge ahead and lean into the corners like pros. He directs us down the flow and we slalom through the white water.

We approach the last rapid, aptly named the "Trust Me" waterfall, a drop of 1½ metres through a minefield of shining boulders. Dawson wants to demonstrate how important our senses are. He tells us we're going down the rapid with our eyes closed. We've made it this far with his guidance, so we trust him. We close our eyes and start paddling. I can hear the roar of water getting closer.

He tells us to get right and then back up as the water begins funnelling on to my closed eyes.

I hear the call to "hang on!" and we fall over the edge in darkness.

I open again and we're drifting to the end. A barbecue is waiting for us when we float ashore, tired and soaked.

We have conquered KBs, Broken Elbow and the Decapitator rapids. Our real achievement was enduring the white-water "Mother-in-Law". Just like my own mother-in-law, it was a little scary at first. After the first introduction, though, it was nothing to worry about at all.

Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Liquid Assets and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

There are rafting transfers from Coffs Harbour to the Nymboi-Binderay National Park, 25 kilometres north of Dorrigo on unpaved forest roads from Dorrigo, Moleton or Nymboida. From Dorrigo, turn into Moonpar Road (unsealed; four-wheel-drive vehicle required in wet weather) off Tyringham Road or take the Megan road from Dorrigo, turning left at Cascade onto Moses Rock Road to reach the remote campsite of Cod Hole.

Rafting there

Liquid Assets runs one- and two-day white-water rafting trips in the Nymboi-Binderay National Park. The one-day trip described costs $185 a person, which includes training, equipment, transfers from Coffs Harbour, breakfast and lunch. See adrenalin.com.au.

Staying there

There are numerous accommodation options in Coffs Harbour. For something different, try Tuckers Rock Cottage in the Bongil Bongil National Park, 20 kilometres south of Coffs Harbour, which is a well-appointed and secluded, self-contained cottage, from $280 a weekend; contact coffsharbour@ljh.com.au.

Closer to the Nymboida River there are a range of accommodation options in Dorrigo; see dorrigo.com.

More information

See coffscoast .com.au; nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.

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