Murchison River Expedition 1994


first ever boat journey along

Western Australia’s second longest river


“What are you doing next weekend? Drop everything, the Gascoyne River is in flood and we’re going to have a go at it”.   “I’m in!”

And so the Great Gascoyne Dash was underway. My phone calls sparked a rush of activity. The planning to get a major expedition underway in just nine days was intense. Numbers quickly grew to fourteen.

Mike Lenz took responsibility for preparation of the boats and motors. In conjunction with Cliff Hills (who was a last-minute withdrawal from the expedition) Andres Foss (a commercial boat-builder) and Phil Hargrave, he put in many hours work to get four boats ready. Phil was also busy preparing his 4WD Toyota Troop Carrier that was going to be used as the refuelling vehicle.

Meanwhile I was organising the preparation and repair of The Bus. Kim Thorson and Scott Overstone repaired the roof rack. John Haynes and I modified locker doors and repaired the fuel pump. John also made a hot water heater that was to be trialled during the expedition. Lists were made, gear was collected, equipment was serviced, packed and stowed, and then re-packed, more equipment was collected, checks were made, phone calls were made, arrangements were confirmed, food and other stores were purchased and at last the expedition was ready to go.

The day before departure information was received from Gascoyne Junction that the water levels had dropped too far. I made urgent phone calls to Stations along the upper reaches of the Murchison River and plans were modified to travel Western Australia’s second longest river. The Great Gascoyne Dash became the Murchison River Expedition. Flexibility is paramount in tackling the ephemeral rivers of outback Western Australia. Preliminary planning some weeks earlier also enabled the last minute switch to be made.

Eventually eleven power dinghy expeditioners, with three boats, set off on Thursday 10 March 1994 to drive throughout the night to Milly Milly Station, 800 kilometres north of Perth. The driving duties were shared in two hour shifts.

The roos and dust were bad on the trip to Milly Milly. The 4WD had to keep well back. One inquisitive roo nearly jumped in the open door of The Bus in its blinded state of confusion. The Mullewa-Gascoyne Junction Road was rough. During the night those sleeping in the bunks became airborne as The Bus went over some particularly vicious bumps. When The Bus crew returned along this road the next morning to the planned overnight camp they could hardly believe that a steady 80 kmh had been maintained the night before.

The convoy reached Milly Milly Station just as the sun rose on Friday morning. There was only barely enough water (300-400mm over the crossing) but after travelling that far from Perth the crew were not to be deterred. The plan was to travel 500 kilometres to the river mouth over the next three days and then drive back to Perth on Monday.

Friday 11 March 1994

Day 1

Regenerated by recent rains, bright green native grass new growth contrasted sharply with the rich, red-brown soils.

A level stretch of river flat, fifty metres east of the water, was selected as a suitable short stay site where the boats could be unloaded and prepared.

The hum of locusts in the trees and the buzz of the annoying bush flies were a constant accompaniment to the early morning heat and humidity. An indication of things to come.

Mike Lenz and Cameron Wilkie made an exploratory trip down river to ascertain water depth and to ensure the suitability of this crossing as a starting place for the Murchison River Expedition.

Phil Hargrave and I drove to Milly Milly homestead to meet the owners and let them know what was happening on their Station. Partners and brothers Simon and Eric Broad assured Kim that no-one had ever previously attempted to navigate the Murchison River.

Others busied themselves preparing boats, cleaning out The Bus, re-packing equipment, testing comms, cooking breakfast, making lunches and doing a host of other things necessary to get the expedition going.

Despite the lack of familiarity with the gear, the procedures and the overall method of operation, the expedition got underway within the two hour time period I had asked for.

Mike Lenz, John Haynes, Damien Bock, Scott Overstone, Cameron Wilkie and Peter Carboni were the first crews in the boats.

The mixture of apprehension and excitement normally associated with the start of any venture into unknown country was obviously present.

Six keen expeditioners took off in three dinghies, heading to Manfred Station, on the first-ever boat trip down the Murchison River.

Phil and I in the refuelling vehicle were shadowing the boats along little-used station tracks.

The Bus attempted to follow but after a few washouts and rough creek crossings the crew decided that it would be wiser to head for the planned overnight stop, at Murchison Crossing along the Meeberrie Wooleen Road, just ten kilometres off the Mullewa Gascoyne Junction Road (more correctly, the Carnarvon Mullewa Road).

After initially having to pick channels through dense thickets of trees and dead goats the boat crews got into more open water and were able to appreciate the magnificent scenery. Wildlife abounded — kangaroos, emus, goats, foxes, bungarras and a huge variety of birds.

The natural beauty of the river, the adrenalin pump of high speed boating in unknown waters, the knowledge of being isolated from civilisation and the certainty of being the first on the river all combined to make the start of the expedition an exhilarating experience.

The boat crews and the refuelling team rendezvoused mid morning, midway to Manfred. The consensus was that the water was low but “boatable”. The boat crews were confident of getting through and continued on their way. On land it was hot and the track was rough. Phil was enjoying the driving experience.

On one stretch of open water a friendly race developed between the three dinghies. The river abruptly forked. Two of the dinghies went right. Mike and Damien in the yellow ducky went left, careered over a log and became airborne. Landing safely, they continued around an island (or, more correctly, an ait) and came across another obstacle — three bulls crossing the river, directly in their path. Mike made a hard left turn, shooting the duck up the bank and narrowly avoided a collision with the startled cattle.

Suddenly the fun was over. The water level dropped and the journey turned into a slow, energy-sapping combination of boating and walking in 40oC heat to the first fuel stop.

The river split into two. Mike and Damien checked out the left branch but it petered out into a shallow lake. Cameron and Peter went down the right branch and found better water. The expedition was back on course.

Phil and I had lunch and swam in the river while waiting for the boats to arrive at Manfred. When they finally did appear they were 90 minutes behind the predicted time of arrival.

New to expeditions, the boat crews wasted 15-20 minutes at Manfred talking, stuffing around and not moving forward. They were not to know it then but that lost 15 minutes proved very decisive later in the day.

After refuelling at Manfred Station, the boats were sent on their way with the promise of more water farther downstream. The promise didn’t eventuate and the crew were again out walking, dragging and picking channels deep enough to start the motor.

The boat crews reached an old, disused barrage built in the 1920s. Since fallen into disrepair, it was designed to alleviate damaging floods. The river dropped about 1.5 metres at this point. The boats were manhandled through a shoot on the right bank.

Downriver from the barrage the water level dropped again. More walking. The river had a bed of coffee rock flanked by occasional rock wall banks up to three metres high.

At the Manfred refuelling point Phil negotiated the 4WD through the river at the crossing point. The heat was overwhelming on the land and by mid afternoon had climbed to 45oC. Phil and I had a long, hot, out-of-the-way journey in the 4WD to get from Manfred to Murchison Crossing to meet the boats.

The slow progress of the boats meant that The Bus crew of Darren Austin, Adrian Bock and Kim Thorson spent a waterlogged eight hours in the Murchison River, keeping cool while waiting. With later stints waiting for the boats, Kim claimed the world record for spending the most time sitting in the Murchison River.

 Mike making one of many, many prop changes.

John Haynes hadn’t been drinking sufficient water during the day, causing concern to his boat partner Scott. John suffered no ill effects and was persuaded to drink more water on subsequent days.

Once again the boats didn’t arrive by the planned time. The five members of the land crew cooled off in the river — unaware of the progress of the boats, and unable to find out.

About 5.00 p.m. they set about erecting the camp. Considering that it was the first time the procedure had been attempted it was an efficient job.

I made it clear that a search party would not be mounted as I considered the boat crews would not be in any danger If they spent a night on the river bank. That is something that just had to be accepted on expeditions.

Darkness fell and the boat crews still hadn’t arrived — but many of the locals had. The cool waters of the Murchison and the knowledge that “some crazy boaties” were “in town” attracted about twenty of the locals to the Crossing for an impromptu party.

Plans were made with the owner of Wooleen Station to use his light plane to look for the boat crews at first light the next day.

Meanwhile, increasing darkness and thick clouds of midgies impeded the progress of the boat crews to such an extent that they decided that they could not reach the planned overnight stop even though they had been making good progress as dark was falling. A suitable piece of real estate was selected as their temporary summer residence and they settled down for a long night. The camp was on a one metre high, wide, sandy bank with plenty of firewood around. Fortunately Scott had some insect repellent.

The crews used their lifejackets as pillows and by 8.00 p.m. had settled down for the night near a roaring fire.

Saturday 12 March 1994

Day 2

The land crew heard the buzz of the boats just after daylight.

Unaware of the distance left to travel and hampered by midgies and mozzies the previous evening, the boat crews had stopped just two kilometres short of the camp. Given their circumstances they managed a comfortable night and were none the worse for the experience.

Both camps had risen at the false dawn. The pressing heat and the ever-present mosquitoes made for an early start.

The boat crews fuelled the yellow duck and Mike and Damien took off to find the land crew. Scott, John, Cameron and Peter in the other two boats set off to drift downriver. After Mike and Damien realised that the Murchison Crossing was only a short distance from where they had camped, they returned upriver and towed the green ducky. The tinny powered down.

Did they remember the time wasted at the Manfred refuelling?

After breakfast and a partial crew change it was back to the business of “doing the Murchison”. Mike and Phil, and Kim Thorson and John in the two ducks and Cameron and Adrian in the tinny got underway about the scheduled time. No time was lost as a result of the ‘camp out’.

The water level had remained constant overnight — as constant as the view of the locals that the boats wouldn’t make it to Billabalong, the next station downriver. At the very least, they predicted, it was going to be very, very difficult. After 20,000 kilometres of river expeditions all over Australia, I had learnt that “local knowledge” is most often a contradiction of terms. After all, this expedition was the first boat trip down the river. Locals only see the river at crossings and occasional visits at various locations while mustering or on “mill runs”. Additionally, their knowledge of the capabilities of a boat is invariably based on a 10’-12’ V-hull aluminium dinghy, not a flat bottomed racing dinghy. I was confident that the boats would get through.

Although the road paralleled the river all the way to the planned stop, access looked like it would be difficult and in reality was only really practicable at two Stations and the Ballinyoo Bridge on the Mullewa Gascoyne Junction Road.

Not long after the boats left Adrian involuntarily checked the water temperature after his craft hit submerged strands of a fence line and came to an abrupt halt.

Overhanging trees, partly submerged logs, narrow and winding channels (some of which led nowhere) and innumerable sand banks were just some of the challenges presented by the fast flowing river.

Meanwhile, ten minutes after Peter and I took off in the 4WD refuelling vehicle the radiator temperature reading went off the scale. Fortunately, The Bus was still nearby and was called in by radio to tow the disabled 4WD to the isolated roadhouse at Murchison.

Scott and Darren were left to repair a burst radiator and (it was hoped) catch up with the expedition at Ballinyoo Bridge.

The Bus was now the refuelling vehicle and with the recovery operation taking some time it appeared that the refuelling schedule may be under threat.

However, on the water the boat crews were having dramas of their own which totally destroyed the planned refuelling schedule.

About an hour downriver from Murchison Crossing, John Haynes and Kim Thorson in the green ducky hit a sharp protruding branch that severely tore the skin near the rear of the starboard pontoon. After a close inspection the decision was made to repair the damage.

The repair kit was hauled out and after an hour of cutting, gluing and patching (and then waiting for it to dry) the stricken duck was ready for a test run. Thirty minutes downriver it was evident that the pontoon was losing air. The repair began to open. As it became worse a decision was made to rearrange the crew to lighten the load so planing speed could be maintained. 

The damage to the inflatable and low water slowed the progress of the expedition on the water.

The river had spread out into a vast flood plain several kilometres across. It was a real trial and error situation to find the main current. In actual fact, there was no main current. The river intermingled with vegetation and shallow creeks were going in all directions.

At the Murchison Roadhouse the repairs to the 4WD were completed and Scott and Darren rendezvoused with The Bus crew at Ballinyoo Bridge. The land crew at the Bridge again spent time sitting in the fresh water of the Murchison, keeping cool, waiting for the boats.

Scott and I discussed the non-arrival of the boats and decided to drive upriver to the Twin Peaks Station crossing. There they found a message left on the river bank by the boat crew explaining the problems they were experiencing.

Apart from the problems with the damaged duck, the boat crews had to deal with more shallow water. After a great deal of walking, paddling and running under power for short bursts the river gradually narrowed and deepened. Several crew changes were made in an attempt to get the optimum speed from the damaged duck. The sides of the duck were lashed inwards and Stretch took the tiller.

Mike and Phil manned the yellow duck and Kim Thorson, John and Adrian tripled-crewed the tinny.

It was full speed ahead for several hours.

Fuel supplies were running low and the land crew were not at the Twin Peaks Station crossing. A note was left and the boats pushed on to Billabalong, a few kilometres downriver.

After the crews manhandled the boats across the narrow wooden bridge at Billabalong, Cameron volunteered to walk up to the Station homestead. By a fortunate coincidence the land and boat crews arrived at Billabalong at the same time. As Scott and I greeted Col Young, the manager, and other station people, Stretch ran up, wearing his wetsuit and helmet. A sight the Station people had probably never seen before, and certainly not in the middle of the Murchison!

Stretch immediately got on the wrong side of Col Young when he said, “I saw a bit of shearing shed and figured there must be a house nearby.”

“Bit of a shearing shed!”, roared Col, “Bit of a shearing shed?! That’s one of the biggest sheds in Australia, mate!”

Everyone had a laugh and then it was off to the river.

The stricken rubber ducky was pulled from the water, Phil and John became part of the land crew, and the boat crews pushed on. The locals, mounted on their motor bikes and accompanied by the inevitable dog, reckoned that the water would “get better from here on down”.

Phil and John had a cramped, uncomfortable but short ride in the back of the 4WD to the Ballinyoo Bridge where the rest of the land crew were waiting.

After refuelling at Billabalong, the boat crews also had a reasonably quick run down to the Ballinyoo Bridge. It was decided to push on to Yallalong and hope the water was of sufficient depth to allow the boats to arrive before dark.

The temperature was climbing but it was not as hot as the previous day — only 44oC. Bus driver par excellence, Darren (unable to go in the boats because of an injury) manoeuvred the vehicle through numerous steep and sandy creek crossings to get it to Yallalong Station.

On the river the wildlife was plentiful, particularly the birds. Kim Thorson and Stretch sped around a sharp bend within a metre of the grassy bank. They surprised a large black swan that flapped and scrambled up the sloping bank to avoid the oncoming boat. The swan lost balance and momentum, tumbling back towards the river, wings flapping wildly, narrowly missing the boat.

The bright pink message tape tied across the river by the land crew was seen shortly before dusk. The concern about the lack of progress during the day and the possibility of another ‘camp out’ disappeared.

After crossing the river, the land crew had set up camp on a patch of level high ground overlooking the water. A vista one sees on picture postcards and part of the attraction of river expeditions.

Kim Thorson took particular care to remove debris from around the BBQ and annoying ‘double gees’ from the sleeping area.

It was still very hot and very humid. The flies were numerous and the mosquitoes were just waiting to take over when darkness fell.

Camp set up and meal preparation showed the benefit of the previous day’s experience.

A comfortable camp; the arrival of the boat crews as planned; quality meals prepared by Phil and Damien; good fortune in quickly locating the damaged inflatable; fixing a serious problem with the 4WD; a visit by the Vern Barndon, the Station owner, and a rising river concluded a successful day.

Sunday 13 March 1994

Day 3

The two boats were afloat where they had been left high and dry (and tied) the night before. Even with the rise in water level it was considered not possible to reach the mouth of the river in the remaining time. The target was the Galena Bridge on the North West Coastal Highway and the first stop was Coolcalalaya Station.

Since the demise of the green duck and its removal from the water around midday on Saturday the Murchison River Expedition had been reduced to two craft. Mike, Damien, Scott and Kim Thorson made up the boat crew.

Stretch and I set off in the 4WD to meet the boats along the bank of the river where its course looped north between Yallalong and Coolcalalaya Stations.

In our attempts to get to the river we punctured the sidewall of the left rear tyre. The loss of time in changing the tyre and the difficulty in finding a track to the river (many tracks had been re-aligned, new fences, gates and dams erected) I decided to ‘cut and run’ to ensure we stayed ahead of the boats.

This necessity to stay ahead of the boats is always a problem for the refuelling crew, made particularly difficult when the boats are unable to maintain a constant speed by which their progress can be judged.

There were numerous water crossings along the track to Coolcalalaya. Cameron and I caught up with Darren, Adrian, John, Peter and Phil in The Bus just short of Coolcalalaya. There seemed to be as many gates as there were water crossings.

Just for devilment we sent a radio message to The Bus crew.

“Tell Phil not to worry, it can fixed.”

“What was that? What can be fixed? What’s happened?”

… Static.

Guess who was first out of the bus when the two vehicles rendezvoused at Coolcalalaya Station Homestead?

After a wait of some hours at Coolcalalaya it became obvious that the boat crews were again experiencing difficulties — low water, mechanical breakdown, boat damage, injury to personnel — it was impossible for the land crew to tell.

Just downriver from the camp at Yallalong the river formed deep channels — but they still had to be picked out.

Some were only as wide as the boat and were generally found on the right side of the river’s course. They invariably ended with a stark white river gum against the cliff wall partially blocking the way. The channel would then open out into the river proper. After approximately 300-500 metres the river would narrow into another similar channel with the ubiquitous white gum at the end. The river proper was flanked by six to ten metre cliffs. This type of country continued for about fifteen kilometres.

The river widened dramatically. The drop in water depth showed up many gravel banks — propeller-wearing gravel banks.

The boat crews hugged the banks in an attempt to pick the deepest channel. On many occasions one side of the boat was scraping the bank. The channel changed sides on bends and when the crews attempted to cross the river to find the deeper water, the boats usually came off the plane.

This challenging, shallow water continued for about forty or fifty kilometres. Beautiful scenery and plentiful birdlife were once again a feature of the journey. And goats, lots of goats. White flecked coffee rock cliffs formed the banks.

Just as on previous days it was dragging, walking, boating, dragging, boating. Similarly, like previous days, it was very hot. Every so often the crews would fall into the water to cool off.

Closer to Coolcalalaya the river cut through the country in large sweeping curves. Twenty metre high cliffs with magnificent river gums clinging to them part way up ran for kilometre after kilometre. The occasional fence across the river was a reminder that the expedition was travelling through station country but caused no problem for the boat crews.

As Scott and Kim were crossing a shallow bank in the aluminium boat it grabbed on a hard rock. Mike and Damien turned around just in time to see Kim shot out the front of the boat and land in ankle deep water. Amazing how someone else’s discomfort is so amusing. So funny. So bloody hilarious.

The shallow, prop-destroying water continued for about fifty kilometres. Props were ground down to virtually nothing in this section. Mike and Damien used three props, Scott and Kim used two. Ten kilometres above the planned stop the water level rose and the boat crews were able to make better time.

Just before the boat crews reached the good water they chanced upon a goat that had been badly injured from a fall down a cliff. The two young kids with it were reluctant to leave until Damien drowned the animal to put it out of its misery.

The temperature was a little cooler than the previous two days — it was only 43oC — and the land crew again found relief in the waters of the Murchison River.

Sitting in a folding camp chair placed on the soft sandy bottom of the river with only head and hat protruding had become something of a ritual during the expedition.

Stretch took up a challenge from me that he could not catch one of the many sheep wandering along the banks of the river. We were in paroxysms of laughter as he stalked and caught a woolly jumper. The carton I had riding on the challenge was the best carton I have ever lost.

The boat crews arrived at Coolcalalaya at 2:15 p.m. This did not leave much time for the final run to the Highway. After refuelling and a complete crew change everyone was glad to get underway to escape the annoying sandflies. Adrian, Cameron, John, and Peter took over in the boats.

Shortly after setting off the motor on the ducky had gearbox problems. It was quickly swapped with the spare carried onboard. Even so, the time lost was valuable time, given the short amount of it left to reach the Highway.

The station owner predicted the boats would have trouble getting across the Vermin Proof Fence so Scott and I in the 4WD checked it out. No trouble to intrepid power dinghy expeditioners.

It was more trouble for Scott and I to get to the Fence through what seemed like a never-ending series of gates and fence lines.

The oppressive heat was affecting the performance of both vehicles and the personnel. One serious consequence was the failure of the fridge in the 4WD. Scott ‘Mr Fixit’ Overstone diagnosed a blown fuse and the problem was simply rectified.

On the water the ducky was still experiencing mechanical troubles — this time it was the motor. Thickets of trees, sand banks and dead end off-shoots punctuated the course for the next several hours. The birdlife was amazing. Huge clouds of ducks and swans rose from the water to avoid the fast approaching boats. The practice of birds fleeing downriver from the noise of the boats was a good indicator to the land crew of the impending approach of the boats. Birds would be seen well before the boats could be heard.

The land crew went to the public camp site at the Galena Bridge and established a comfortable camp. As time dragged on doubts about the arrival of the boat crews increased.

Flies were driving the land crew to distraction. I found them to be the most persistent and annoying I had encountered in all my travels throughout Australia. Finally, Peter’s mosquito net was found and we all sat at the picnic table under the net to await the boats.

The Murchison River Expedition was not yet over.

Rapids and rocky outcrops were negotiated in fading light. The relentless progress of the boats took them under power lines crossing the river — a sure sign of approaching civilisation.

Huge flocks of screeching cockatoos swarmed into the night air.

On the water the crews thought they would see the bridge across the highway with every turn of the river but it was not until 6:45 p.m. that they saw the dim glow of a signalling torch I was holding.

Phil Hargrave prepared another great meal.

Monday 14 March 1994

Day 4

Predicted to be the main obstacle to a successful run to the mouth, the Kalbarri gorges were an unknown quantity.

Some members of the group had been told that river in this section was impassable — or very nearly so.

With a few hours to spare before it was necessary to head off to Perth, an investigation of these spectacular gorges was a high priority.

On the way to the gorges an old lead mining area was explored. The group then walked down to the river and looked over a small rapid.

A number of similar rapids had been encountered the previous day from Coolcalalaya Station down to the Galena Bridge (the North West Coastal Highway).

In convoy the expedition headed west on the Kalbarri Road to find a couple of tracks into the gorges. Both tracks were unsuitable for The Bus.

It was decided that it was too much trouble to empty the gear from the back of the 4WD to make room for people so half the group jumped into the boat tied to the roof rack.

A combination of walking and riding on the vehicle got the group to the floor of the river valley at a place known as Emu Point.

A considerable quantity of water was flowing through the gauging station at Emu Point. Later enquiries with the Western Australian Water Authority revealed that the water level was ‘low’.

After a swim and a short exploration upriver it was time to make the steep, five kilometre walk back to the Kalbarri Road, battling the heat and the flies. John’s decision to wait in The Bus was a wise one.

The final 130 kilometres of the Murchison River yet to be covered will make an exciting expedition. Access is limited, the scenery is spectacular, the rapids are large and numerous and, if the water is up, the action will be exhilarating.

Overheating problems continued to plague the 4WD on the return trip to Perth.

It was a happy crew that returned to Perth, content in the knowledge that they had completed a journey that had never before been made.

Text and layout by Kim Epton.
5400 words
65 photpographs
Various members of the expedition provided photographs.
Any part of this story may be used with attribution.