Skip to content

Packrafting the New River (The Valley of Horrors)

The following story about our 2001 New River expedition was published by Wild Magazine in 2006.

The Valley of Horrors

John McLaine relates an epic trip down the New River in South-west Tasmania that nearly cost him his life

In late December 2001, Dax Noble, Graeme Pennicott and I set out to travel through the remote and rarely visited New River region of Tasmania’s Southwest Wilderness World Heritage Area. The entire catchment of the New River lies beyond the reach of recognised bushwalking routes, making it fabulously wild. The only exception is the South Coast Track, which crosses the outlet to New River Lagoon at Prion Beach. Many walkers who pass that way gaze up the mysterious valley, wondering what lies beyond.

In 1824, Lieutenant James Hobbs, the first European to visit the coastal fringes of the New River valley, wrote, ‘The country appears totally unfit for any purpose useful to civilised man, being nothing but very high mountains, covered to the summit with impervious brush’. In the 1870s and 1880s at least three parties tried unsuccessfully to establish a route from Port Davey to the settled east coast via the rugged New River catchment. Osborne Geeves wrote of the third attempt in 1881: ‘But oh, the scrub, the scrub, the dense, everlasting, interminable scrub…I called it The Valley of Horrors.’

From 1900 to 1902 Tasmania’s legendary bushman TB Moore was contracted by the Surveyor General’s Department to cut an access track from Port Davey to the east coast via the New River valley. Dense scrub and steep ridges had to be negotiated and ladders constructed and fixed over rock faces. His party eventually broke through from west to east, having cut through what Moore described as ‘scrub and country the worst ever experienced’.

Due to the difficulty of the terrain this route was soon abandoned, and for the last 100 years documented visits have been very rare. While researching our trip, the most recent venture into the upper New River that I could uncover was by the Sydney University Bush Walkers in 1982.

We planned thoroughly, making a fly-over aerial inspection and carrying custom-designed scrub-resistant expedition packs and gear. On a drizzly, cold morning, we set off from Farmhouse Creek. Each of us was weighed down by massive packs containing 12 days of provisions, bushwalking gear and paddling equipment.

Dax: You know when you get dubbed the ‘brawn’ of the trip that your pack is going to be heavier than the rest. I remember weighing my pack at home and telling John it weighed 31.5 kilograms—to this was added about two kilograms of extra ‘communal’ gear. We were dropped off by John’s brother Rob and he picked up each of the packs and said, ‘Oh you’ve got the lightest, John…and yours is definitely the heaviest, Dax’. You see, John dubbed himself the ‘brains’ of the trip—I began to understand what I was in for.

 img020

With such heavy loads, we were content to reach the base of the Crest Range on day one, and prepare for the next day’s strenuous ascent. This was every bit as tough as we expected, entailing steep, slippery crags and strenuous groveling through thick, tangled scrub. The range is rarely climbed and there isn’t an easy route but the highest reaches offered glorious ankle-high vegetation, the only easy terrain for days. We topped out inside a dense cloud in late afternoon and decided to camp high with hopes of morning views of Federation Peak and Mt Hopetoun.

img019

In our best luck of the trip, the third morning was fine and the entire south-west was spread before us—a smorgasbord of peaks, almost all of which had been climbed by at least one of us. Nestled high in the Crest Range lies the jewel-like blue water of Satellite Lake, above which soars the most fantastic wilderness cliff, approximately 100 metres from base to summit and overhanging all the way, just begging to be climbed.

From the summit of the Crest Range we began our descent into Tasmania’s wildest valley: we didn’t see a sign of people or their passage for the next six days. We had been warned that the scrub on the southern flanks of the Crest Range might be ‘character building’ and it was: hour after hour of pushing through complex pandani mazes, deep moss-choked gullies, and craggy cliffs with vines and trees clinging at impossible angles.

img013

Scan-140531-0026

Scan-140531-0029

Scan-140531-0025

img018

Travel through thick Tasmanian scrub is very hard even with light loads but with 31 kilograms it is incredibly strenuous. Dax, the youngest and fittest of the party, shouldered the lion’s share of the scrub leading. At one point my guidance was unwelcome as Dax pushed a line under yet another vine-choked, horizontal log, ‘Just a bit lower, Dax’. Dax’s riposte: ‘I’m already on my stomach, how much lower should I go?’

Dax: John had a four-piece paddle especially made for the trip which fitted neatly into his pack. Over the years I had learnt the value of a pack that contained all your equipment, without anything protruding or strapped on the outside. However, I didn’t think too much of the pole protruding from the top of my pack, later to become my paddle. Unfortunately for the ‘brawn’ of the trip, one needs to consider such things when they’re first in line!

 

Virtually every log, whether standing or fallen, was covered in fragile moss, up to 20 centimetres thick. In the week when Lord of the Rings opened in cinemas nationwide, we forced our way deeper and deeper into our own ‘Middle Earth’. Finally, our first glimpse of the New River evoked more of Geeves’ words of 120 years ago: ‘Crossed a silent stream, running through moss-covered sticks as silent as death.’ We squeezed the tent into the first of many improbable sites on the steep, valley wall, close to the water.

Scan-140531-0036

Scan-140531-0034

This would be the first major river descent for Graeme and Dax, while for me it would mark the completion of all the major Tasmanian wild rivers. The difficulty of the approach walk precluded the use of any craft other than lilos, which with practice can be a stable and responsive (albeit minimalist) raft. The pack is secured to the lilo with a quick-release cinch-strap and the paddler sits upright, using the pack as a backrest. A full wetsuit is worn, as well as neoprene socks inside lightweight walking boots. A kayak paddle that can be dismantled and contained within the pack completes the kit.

Stretches of runnable water below the tent teased us into inflating our lilos and donning wetsuits to paddle the next morning. Rain squalls and chill winds accompanied us on to the river. The valley flanks were much steeper than most Tasmanian rivers, and for the next couple of days the river was contained at the bottom of tight chasms. Gorges with cliffs hidden under the rainforest made for very tough travel, which continually changed from strenuous scrub portages to river-rock scrambling. During two hard days in which we managed to cover only four kilometres, we encountered an unnamed rock arch over the river and a section where the entire river disappeared underground, only to resurface 100 metres downstream.

Scan-140531-0042

There was much more landslip activity on this river than on any other I’ve traveled in Tasmania, even though the underlying rock strata seems to be predominantly the same quartzite layers found elsewhere in the south-west. There was evidence of several slips from recent years.

These middle stretches of the river were very difficult: we had to travel through scrub, paddle and rock climb, all while weighed down by heavy packs. In a couple of places our short length of rope was invaluable for pack hauling and belaying each other over slippery rock faces. The weather kept us constantly cold in the water, while the scrub portages in our wetsuits warmed us up. At night the tent was squeezed into ridiculously precarious sites. The fifth night was New Year’s Eve and, exhausted after another strenuous day, we crashed out by 9 pm.

Scan-140531-0030

Dax: You hear people talk about walking two kilometres in a day and you think that they must be slow or not good in scrub: that is, until it happens to you! On our first two days on the river we covered four kilometres. We were up walking and paddling early and traveled until we were exhausted.

If I could transport you briefly to any stretch of the New River to see its sheer beauty, the gentle sections we passed on day six would be my choice. We found giant King Billy pines of perfect symmetry scattered through tall straight myrtles, leatherwoods and sassafras, sheltering an abundance of lush ferns, moss and creepers. Smooth river rocks glistening with fresh rain framed sun-dappled water diffracting a glorious spectrum of colours while still, dark pools of unknown depth alternated with quickening runs of rapid water. We felt the solitude of a wild valley and found untouched natural beauty to match the mental images we had anticipated.

Although lilos can be reinforced they remain fairly fragile. A spare is essential to allow progress to be maintained, unless a stop is forced by a second rip in a day. Over years of lilo travel, we’ve settled on a bombproof repair technique that can handle even the most massive rips: the rip is stitched together and a bead of seam-grip run over the stitching. The entire area is then patched with quick-contact adhesive before the outer edge of the patch is secured with seam-grip. Late on day six, we ensured that every lilo was in top condition as we approached the journey’s most daunting obstacle.

We knew the transit of the New River Gorge on day seven would be ‘interesting’. It’s a massive feature as impressive as any river gorge in Tasmania and rarely visited. The river splits the Gibraltar Ridge in two to a depth of about 300 metres, producing incredible, jungle-clad cliffs. Squalls of rain had become more insistent during our days on the river but the water levels had been good, neither too high nor low. We entered the gorge with a degree of nervous tension, knowing that the consistent rainfall might lift the river height while we were inside the gorge. The route-finding challenge through the gorge provided excellent sport, and finding satisfactory portage lines past the sections of the deepest chasms that couldn’t be paddled was extremely satisfying.

Scan-140531-0039

Scan-140531-0038

Scan-140531-0043

Scan-140531-0046

As we exited the gorge in the late afternoon the rain was intensifying and the river level creeping higher. Downstream of the gorge the river remains steep, tumbling over a series of huge boulders for quite some distance. We camped in our first flat site for a week, under a canopy of beautiful rainforest. By now, our teamwork was getting very slick and we were pleased with ourselves: we knew the next day’s paddling would become significantly easier as we worked our way downstream towards the New River Lagoon through the virtually sea-level stretches.

It rained throughout the night and, although day eight dawned cold and wet, our mood was buoyant as we tackled the final, difficult portage. Graeme took the lead and it soon became obvious that we would have to work hard to reach the vast, flat plains across which the river sprawled. It was some distance before the river left the final V-shaped valley, which was dominated by steep, boulder-strewn rapids, impossible for our little boats to handle.

We deflated the lilos and put them back in our packs as we resigned ourselves to a lengthy portage. The steep bluffs forced us high and the scrub was as malignant as ever; every metre of progress was earned by hard work. We leapfrogged leads for three hours until finally we saw the beginnings of a negotiable section of river and bashed down to give it a go.

We launched tentatively, with only limited views ahead, but the hard work was behind us. It was brilliant, fast paddling and we made the outrageous distance of five kilometres in the next hour! The valley walls disappeared and the rainforest receded across the flats surrounding the river. We whooped with elation—we had finally reached the flat plains before New River Lagoon.

The river continued to grow as tributaries entered, each extra litre of flow adding size and power to the rapids. We pushed on in cold rain, pausing briefly at the junction of the mysterious Salisbury River, home of the fascinating Vanishing Falls. The river gradually became tamer as it spread wide across shingle banks. We had begun paddling five days earlier at an altitude of 400 metres and were now only 12 metres above sea level.

At about 4 pm we lined up three abreast above a set of standing waves that looked pretty easy. A consensus: ‘Start central, draw left to avoid those logs, then exit.’ I pushed off first and an unseen cross-current kicked in about halfway—I knew instantly that we had underestimated this final rapid. I drew left as hard as I could, but I was swept into the logs on the right. I slipped off my boat in an attempt to push it up on to the top log, which was close to water level. It was a nasty spot but I was getting back under control and had forced my boat into a good position.

The other guys knew the drill—wait until the paddler in front is safely through—but unfortunately Graeme had overcommitted. He attempted to paddle past me but the cross-current slammed him into my back, driving me partially under the logjam and into deadly trouble. He bounced off with a shouted, ‘Sorry John!’ and careered off downstream, clutching my boat, which had swept off the log with the impact. My body was now being forced slowly under: the water was at chest level and both legs were jammed to the thigh in a constrictive sub-aqueous hole.

When confronted by possible death, your mind turns instantly to loved ones and thoughts of a future lost, before quickly returning to the situation at hand and considering every possible action to stay alive. With my left hand I clung to the black, slimy log. Graeme’s lilo and pack were wrapped tightly around my torso, the full force of the water squashing the breath from me and dragging me down. I figured that if I could get rid of Graeme’s boat, I might have a fighting chance. I tried to heave it away with my right hand, and sought the valve to deflate it—no such luck. In desperation, I clawed at the fabric of the lilo, attempting to rip it. Dax was trying to work his way down the river bank to me and I shouted to him for help. I gathered my thoughts for a few seconds. Dax was attempting to reach me but I knew there was nothing he could do: Graeme, downstream dealing with his own crisis, had the throw-rope in the pocket of his paddling jacket. I was on my own.

Chest heaving, I realised that holding on was quickly consuming my reserves and didn’t offer a solution, only an extra minute or so. My legs were completely trapped but had limited rattling space. If I committed my body to the current, there was a chance they might rattle free—either that or I would drown under the logs. If forced to fight for a gap between the logs, I thought it was better to do it while strong than exhausted and, in that moment of decision, I released my left hand’s grip on the slimy bastard log.

The current whipped my head under in a flash, leaving Graeme’s lilo and pack in my place. I recognised this as a very significant (and possibly terminal) moment of my life: if my legs remained stuck, this would be the position from which my body would be retrieved. I held my breath and shook my legs furiously. My changed position altered the alignment of my legs and they shook free. I pinballed under the remaining logs head first, my forearms up to protect my face, and struck several logs before I was spat out, tumbling into safer water. Gasping, I lay on my back and kicked to the steep, muddy bank, hauling myself out like a beached seal.

I pushed down the bank to where Graeme had come ashore with my boat. The adrenalin had masked the pain of a severe blow to my chest, received during the fight with the logjam, and the pain was beginning to set in. I recognised that I needed basic treatment for shock and let the guys set up camp while I got into dry, warm clothes. Graeme’s pack popped out of the logjam some time after I did and he managed to retrieve it.

At this point I was still focused on completing the final four days to Cockle Creek under our own steam, but we decided to monitor my condition and assess the situation in the morning. I spent a virtually sleepless night: sometime around 2 am I realised that I was too badly hurt to continue. I woke the guys at our usual time, 5:45 am, and showed them the huge red circle that had appeared in the middle of my chest. There was an intense, localised pain in my left ribs, within the general storm of pain across my chest. I tried some tests to establish my range of movement and it was obvious that I would be unable to paddle or carry a pack. I needed professional medical attention. We examined all our options for self-evacuation and finally looked at each other in silence as we struggled to accept the fact that our only option was external assistance.

The three of us have been voluntary participants in police search and rescues for years but never anticipated needing help ourselves. We packed up and identified a potential helicopter landing site on a shingle bank. After Graeme and Dax spread out our red lilos in a highly visible array, we activated my EPIRB at 9:30 am. As well as the chest pain, I felt sad, disappointed and disbelieving as we sat and waited in the rain. We had come so close to sea level, almost completing the passage to New River Lagoon and the easy South Coast Track home.

The helicopter found us about noon, and descended to hover just above the shingles. The paramedic jumped out to assess our situation and a few minutes later we clambered into the hovering helicopter and were on our way to Hobart, buffeted by strong winds and rain squalls.

The rescue service was extremely supportive, and the police later issued a press release praising our management of the situation, which gave us some comfort. An hour or so after our rescue I sat in a hospital ward, waiting for the X-rays that would reveal two broken ribs, watching the dark water of the New River ooze out of my sodden boots to form a brown pool on the clean floor. Our journey through ‘The Valley of Horrors’ was over.

Postscript

In November 2005, I returned to the New River with Matt Brain, Robert Daniels and Dale Lisson. On this occasion the main objective was the double summit of the Provis Hills, arguably one of the most difficult and rarely climbed peaks on mainland Tasmania. To get to the Provis Hills, our group carried kayaks along the South Coast Track (easier said than done), then paddled up the New River Lagoon and the New River to reach a point from where the scrub-fest of climbing Provis Hills could begin. When we returned to our high point on the river, near the site of my accident three years earlier, Robert produced four Guinness cans from a secret stash hidden at the bottom of his two monstrous rucksacks—a fitting way to toast our climb and celebrate my successful return to the magnificent valley.

John McLaine lives with his family in Launceston, Tasmania. He has been bushwalking, paddling, climbing and skiing in the wild parts of Tasmania and beyond for more than 25 years. His wilderness photography was first published in Wild in 1983.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: