Ian Sutherland soaks in the countryside during a 50-kilometre canoe and camping trip.
The Glenelg River rises as a series of trickles and swampy springs high in the Grampians. It meanders across the plains to the south and west, deepening and widening as it goes. Salt water from the sea travels 50 kilometres or more upstream, mingling with water that has fallen as rain far inland. In the lower reaches, the banks get steeper and limestone cliffs rise high above. Finally, the river enters the Southern Ocean near the town of Nelson in the far south-west corner of the state.
Twelve of us meet at Moleside, a tranquil campsite set among thick bush in the Lower Glenelg National Park, to canoe the lower reaches of the Glenelg. Our party ranges widely in age and experience from Lucy, 9, to some paddlers well into their 50s. One has never been in a canoe. Our destination is Nelson, 50 kilometres and four days downstream.
We have hired canoes, sturdy craft, dependable and stable. They hold a surprising amount of gear tents, Eskies and barrels fit in snugly. All the gear that must stay dry sleeping bags and mats, clothes, cameras disappears into the barrels. The Eskies are full of good food and wine. No one is going to go hungry.
We launch our craft and set off in a ragged line. Reeds, crackling quietly in the breeze, line the banks. Dense forest rises above the dark water. A pair of wild ducks burst from the water and fly downstream. It is a deep, slow river, the Glenelg.
At first, the canoes feel awkward. It takes us a while to find our rhythm. Before long, we are more in tune with each other and our little boats. Our paddles dip into the water and come up dripping silver.
After 1½ hours of paddling, we are getting hungry. Mid-river, we manoeuvre the canoes next to one another, then each person takes hold of the canoe beside them. The six canoes become one raft, drifting gently with the breeze. We pass around home-cooked cakes, biscuits and other snacks. "Rafting up" becomes a twice-daily ritual, a time to share food and commune with the river.
The raft disbands and we paddle on. A flock of black cockatoos streams overhead, wailing. We round a few more bends then come ashore for lunch, washed down with mugs of hot tea.
Paddling on into the afternoon, we make good time and soon arrive at our campsite. We drag the canoes ashore, upending them to keep the interiors dry. The campsite is cosy and welcoming. We light a fire, cook and eat again. Possums forage and kangaroos and wallabies barely bother to hop a few steps away as you approach. Night noises of owls, gliders and possums echo in the stillness. During the night we hear the determined munch of teeth as kangaroos or wombats graze close to the tent.
Morning comes. We stoke the fire and have a long, slow breakfast. Once on the water, it takes a while for muscles to warm up and to find rhythm again. We try towing lures behind the canoes as we paddle. Bang! The rod bends, a fish is on. Soon the flash of colour in the dark water, then the bronzed back of a solid bream shows. By afternoon we have five good fish. That night we eat fresh fish cooked in the coals of the campfire.
The days have a quiet rhythm. In the morning, we paddle for an hour or two, raft up and eat, paddle some more, then stop for lunch. In the afternoon we paddle again, raft up and eat more. Mid afternoon we stop, make camp. We share dinner, wine and stories. Time seems to pass slowly, though the days slip past as water slides from the paddle.
On the third day, we enter gorge country. Limestone cliffs tower above the water. We paddle right in against the base of a cliff and into a shallow cave. Tonnes of rock are above us and only water below. There are secret places along the edge, ferns trailing in the water, trees reflecting.
Our last day dawns thick with fog. Swans bugle in the mist. As we launch, the mist clears and perfect blue arches above. A few kilometres downstream, we cross the border into South Australia. Shacks line the water, many with fishing rods on their balconies, lines trailing in the water. The river curves back into Victoria. We paddle on downriver to Nelson, slopping through the wash of speeding ski-boats. Back into civilisation.
Nelson is about 395 kilometres from Melbourne via the Western and Glenelg highways, or 430 kilometres from Melbourne via the Princes Highway.
Campsites along the Glenelg River can be booked through Nelson Visitor Information Centre, phone (08) 8738 4051. Cost is $3.50 a person a night.
There are eight canoe-only campsites along the river, and another eight campsites with vehicle access. All campsites have water, fireplaces and pit toilets. Campsites and picnic areas have wooden landings where you can easily launch and get out of the river, as long as the river mouth is open - when it closes, the river rises and the landings may be under water.
Parks Victoria, phone 131 963 or see parkweb.vic.gov.au.
Canoe hire from Nelson Boat and Canoe Hire, phone (08) 8738 4048. Cost is $45 a day and includes life-jackets, bailers, paddles and waterproof barrels. Pick-up or drop-off at any of the campsites is about $35.