The Blackwood River receives its name at the confluence or conflux of the Arthur and Balgarup Rivers, forty kilometres north east of the township of Boyup Brook although its source is a further 150 kilometres further into the wheatbelt.
With a mean annual average flow of about 660 million cubic metres per year the Blackwood is the biggest river in Western Australia’s south west. This flow compares with a figure of 320 million cubic metres for the Avon River (measured at Walyunga National Park) and 12,500 million cubic metres for the Ord River (greatest flow of any river in Australia – the peak flow of the Ord is enough to fill Mundaring Weir from empty to full in 38 minutes).
Measured at Winnejup Falls, about eighteen kilometres upstream from Bridgetown, the average annual flow of the Blackwood River is 300 million cubic metres. So it can be seen that the Blackwood picks up as much water after Winnejup as before.
The many signs seen during the Expedition indicating the height of the January 1982 flood show just what extraordinary volumes of water flowed through the Blackwood River Valley during this freak summer flood. At Winnejup Falls, the flow was recorded at 1310 cubic metres per second (the peak for the Ord River is 33,000 cubic metres per second). There was no flood over the weekend of 27-28 August 1994.
The Blackwood River was discovered on 6 May 1830 by Lieutenant Governor James Stirling, who led a party of settlers to found the town of Augusta. The exploration of the river on which this town was sited commenced the next day. Stirling, accompanied by Captains Currie and Molloy, James Woodward Turner, John Bussell and others ascended the river for a day and a half.
On Stirling’s return to Perth from Augusta, the Surveyor General of the fledging Swan River Colony, J.S. Roe, issued a Government Notice to advise prospective settlers of the area’s potential. The notice stated:
“The Inlet is of considerable extent and leads to a River named the Blackwood which was to the north about fifteen miles, and then ten miles to the East before it ceases to be navigable for boats.”
Stirling named it after either Vice Admiral Sir Henry Blackwood or Captain Blackwood, later of the Fly and the Bramble.
After a successful Murchison River Expedition in March 1994, I decided to run similar, short duration expeditions on local rivers. The promise of a very wet winter did not materialise and expeditions along the upper Moore River, the upper Avon River and the Gascoyne River had to be postponed. I planned an expedition for late August 1994 on the upper reaches of the Blackwood River, counting on its reliable flow.
The Power Dinghy Racing Club’s Moore River Sprint was scheduled for the same weekend, however, after a fortnight of fine weather and consequent falling water levels it was clear that the race would not take place. This allowed would-be competitors in that race to participate in the Blackwood Source Expedition.
We had unsuccessfully attempted to navigate the Blackwood River from its source to Bridgetown in November 1992, thwarted by low water levels.
Information from Ross Ivey, a farmer at Westcliffe, upper Blackwood, on the Wednesday before the 1994 Expedition indicated that conditions could possibly be similar to 1992 even though the date was 10 weeks earlier in the year. I informed Ross that the Expedition would go ahead regardless and planning proceeded apace.
Early interest from prospective participants was high. The Expedition would definitely be on! With thirteen participants and four boats the Blackwood Source Expedition was the largest expedition since the days of the Murray River Expedition ‘81 and the Darling Descent ’82 (both had 18 members).
Telephone calls confirmed that the expedition flotilla would consist of two inflatables (latest rigid floor design), one ‘glass’ boat and one aluminium dinghy. A good mix for such an historic trip. The Bus was packed on Thursday night.
I picked up David Whitney after he had arrived from Eaton by train at 4.30 p.m. on Friday, and soon after, the other participants started arriving. Last minute checks were made and the Expedition was ready to leave – only twenty minutes late.
Ten participants left Gosnells just before 6.00 p.m. on Friday evening.
Mike Lenz, Adrian Bock and Cameron Wilkie departed from Mt Lawley in Cameron’s 4WD and were to meet with The Bus crew along Albany Highway. It was a trouble free run to Arthur River.
I had decided earlier that it would be a non-stop trip to Westcliffe but as there was no sign of the crew in 4WD and, as the turn off was only a few hundred metres south, I decided to wait for them at the Arthur River roadhouse.
David Whitney got behind the driver’s wheel after a short break at Arthur River. His unfamiliarity with The Bus and its poor turning circle caused a few hearts to beat faster as he manoeuvred off Albany Highway into the Boyup Brook Road, taking out a white post in the process.
The adventure started at the Ualling Road Crossing – five kilometres from the Friday night camp. The old concrete crossing over the Blackwood River was partly washed out. The nearest way across the river was at Trigwell Bridge, many kilometres to the west.The road building exercise was a great team building exercise. By about 10.00 p.m. the holes in the crossing were plugged and The Bus was able to drive across.
Ross Ivey was waiting the arrival of the expedition and had moved machinery out of his shed to accommodate the crew. It was a very late meal but one appreciated by all. The Blackwood beckoned.
A pre-dawn rise, accompanied by misty rain, made for an early start. The crew wasn’t convinced that it was light enough to be awake so I turned on the lights. Seemed a simple enough solution.
The Start Point was at a bridge four kilometres up the Balgarup River from where it joins the Arthur River to become the Blackwood River. We made a small detour to Ualling Crossing to see the results of the previous night’s exertions.
Overcast skies and the hint of drizzle.
Just before 8.00 a.m. the boats blasted off down the Balgarup. It was the start of a history-making trip.
Experience from the previous attempt indicated that the land crew should wait until the boat crews were sure of getting through – the first major obstacle was only 100 metres downriver from the Start. Ross and Simon Ivey (who had temporarily joined the land support crew out of interest) and I watched the others in the land crew head downriver along the bank to give encouragement to the boat crews as they made their first portage.
After the apparent progress of the boat crews was confirmed the support crew sped off to the Ualling Road Crossing and waited. And waited and waited and waited.
They moved up the Crossing Pool. Reminiscent of ‘92. I sent the crew in the 4WD along the Boyup Brook Road (on the north bank) as far as Glenorchy Bridge. They returned and reported no sign of the boats. The hours were slipping away and it was time to take some decisive action to get the Expedition moving.
After the crew of the 4WD returned from their sortie, the entire land crew returned to where The Bus had been left at the Crossing. Ross and Simon Ivey went off to work on their farm. They telephoned farmers upriver from them (downriver from the Balgarup bridge). No sign of the boats.
Cameron drove the Landcruiser with Tony and I aboard back to the Start Point and then along Old Mail Road. We crossed a farmer’s paddock and headed down to the river. We spent a considerable time inspecting the banks and ti trees in an effort to ascertain if the boats had passed. Although virtually impossible to determine on a falling river, Tony and I both felt it was likely that the boats had not passed – a very concerning situation considering that this point was only four kilometres from the Start. Even though the available evidence suggested that the boats had not been through, ‘logic’ suggested that, with the extended passage of time, they must have passed by. After all, this spot was only four kilometres from the Start Point.
Meanwhile, on the water, the boat crews were tackling what was, for some of them, the toughest bit of boating they had ever done. Only seconds after passing under the Balgarup River Bridge they faced the first of the obstacles – huge clumps of ti trees. These proved to be a headache for the boat crews for the next three and half hours. As well as having to contend with the ti trees they had to continually manhandle the boats over log jams, drag them through shallow water, lift them over fallen trees and push them through fallen branches.
The banks of the river were sloping, muddy and slippery. The river was more of a creek than a river and the course was blocked by what seemed an impenetrable screen of rotting and fallen trees and vegetation.
Mike Lenz’s inflatable became the first casualty when he staked one of the pontoons. The ‘inner’ was still inflated and they were able to continue. Not long after this unfortunate accident the carburettor on his motor started causing trouble. The needle was sticking in the seat. Near the junction of the Balgarup River with the Arthur River a stop was called to dismantle the carby. Several more stops were made to tinker with the offending carby but with little positive result. A few hundred metres in the Blackwood John Haynes’ motor overheated and seized.
It was at this time that Tony and I were walking across the paddock to return to the vehicle. We heard the sound of outboard motors. We hurriedly opened the gate to the river paddock and it was then a mad dash in the ‘Cruiser to head off the boats. The 4WD nearly bogged in the soft centre of the paddock. As it turned out, there was no need to rush. The speed of the boats was not even normal walking pace. Contact was made 3 hours and 48 minutes after the Start.
Although Mike Lenz’s inflatable was still operable Dave Snooks advised that its motor would most likely continue to cause troubles. The rig was removed from the water and loaded on the trailer, as was John Haynes’ crippled craft. Craig Smetherham and John joined the land crew.
The two remaining boat crews were sent on their way – confident that the river would open out and the water would get deeper.
John Goodbody and Brent Barden in the glass boat beat the support crew back to Ualling Crossing. Adrian and Dave in the inflatable were not far behind. The arrival at the Crossing realised the efforts of 26 people in two expeditions spread over a period of nearly two years. Short though that section of river was, it represented a major achievement for the team and for power dinghy expeditions.
Brent Barden’s motor was brought out of The Bus and put on the aluminium boat. The Expedition had been very quickly reduced to two boats but was now back to three. John Goodbody, Brent, Adrian, Dave, John Haynes and Craig Smertherham departed in the boats around midday.
Tony and Cameron headed off in the 4WD to check the boats at the first big pool and The Bus crew called in to see Ross Ivey and thank him for his assistance.
John Goodbody’s twenty years of dinghy racing experience came to the fore over the remainder of the first day as he continually picked the channels and guided the less experienced crew down the river.
The upper Blackwood River is quite similar to the lower Blackwood – long pools separated by dense thickets of ti trees, occasional log jams and few rocks. The further down the river the boat crews progressed the longer the pools became. After a flat out blast down a long pool the boat crews were often brought back to reality by thick clumps of ti trees.
Old crossings (since replaced by nearby bridges) with only a few centimetres of water flowing over them provided interest and a challenge for the crews.
The country was covered by a carpet of intense green, typical of Western Australia’s south at this time of year. Wildlife was plentiful with a whole host of water fowl being seen including shags, swans and a great variety of ducks.
The Support Crew waited for thirty minutes at Ross Ivey’s second property (where the members of the November 1992 Expedition had camped) before they realised that the river split in two and the boat crews had taken the far channel.
While waiting at Condinup Bridge I sent Tony, David and Cam off to find a campsite. While not ideal, it was OK. On their return, Cam was left behind to inform the boat crews that camp was five kilometres further downstream. The others went on to set up camp at a spot about five kilometres upstream from Boyup Brook.
Campsites must be selected early in the day – see Murray River Expedition ‘93
The early evening was spent fixing a tear in Mike’s boat and cleaning the carburettor of the motor which had caused so much trouble earlier in the day.
A gamble was taken that it would not rain overnight and so the annexe to The Bus was not erected. David entertained the troops with hot air balloons made from a garbage bag and firelighter. After such a long and strenuous day it was an early night for all.
Early rise on a cold morning. The boat crews were on the water by 8.00 a.m. Mike Lenz and Cameron Wilkie were in a rubber ducky, Adrian Bock and Ewout were in the second rubber duck, John Goodbody and Hun were in the ‘plastic’ boat, and Brent Barden and John Haynes were in the aluminium dinghy. A full strength flotilla.
The support crew had a longer than expected wait at Boyup Brook although the boats were travelling well. Some dense ti tree thickets upriver from Boyup Brook caused the delay.
Tony offered $50 to any one of the support crew who was game enough to run along the pipe next to the bridge. He kept his $50.
The land crew arrived at the Upper Blackwood Bridge on Jayes Road and decided to check out the source of a great deal of foam floating on the surface of the water. Reference to the map showed that it was most likely caused by the old crossing about 500 metres upstream.
Leaving The Bus at the bridge David drove Tony, Craig, Dave and I up to the crossing in the 4WD. Tony insisted that, as the boats would have to be manhandled over the crossing, it would make an ideal spot to refuel.
The arrival of the boats caused mild panic when three of the crews chose a channel to the south of where the support crew were waiting. The land crew were not aware of the existence of this channel. However, the boat crew stopped long enough for me to splash through the shallows and meet up with them. They returned to the channel where the majority of the party was waiting. It took some time to refuel the boats and manhandle them across the shallow, rocky crossing.
The boat crews were faced with thick scrub immediately down river from the crossing. Ewout and Hun were enjoying their first stint of power dinghy style boating.
From Jayes Crossing to Winnejup on the water
The Support Crew travelled around to the Winnejup Falls in the 4WD and then walked down the river bank to the rapid. The boat crews had arrived by the time the land crew arrived. All boat crews assessed the major part of the falls. I was at pains to ensure that there was no pressure to shoot the rapid. It was the decision of each individual driver. No undue pressure was applied. The result was that only the crew of the two ‘rubber duckies’ decided to shoot the rapid. A wise choice. A lot of time was wasted at the obstacle. The remaining two boats were carried around. John Haynes checked out the Rapid for an alternative route to no avail. The Support Crew left with instructions for the boat crews to wait twenty minutes before departing. This would give the land crew sufficient time to return to where The Bus had been left and then continue to The Basin.
As it turned out the artificial delay was not necessary – the boat crews had a delay of their own.
After a long wait at The Basin I sent David Whitney and Dave Snooks upriver to find the boats. They saw them at Savage Creek crossing. The boat crews were presented with a problem – a huge log that completely blocked the river. It was impossible to go around it. At one metre out of the water it was too big to drive the nose of the boat up on. Six expeditioners were required to manhandle the boats over the log.
From the Basin it was only a short run into Bridgetown. Packing up was quick and the Team headed home. The Blackwood River had been successfully navigated from its source for the first time.
Text by Kim Epton
Use any part of this photo-essay with attribution.