Words: Penny Spoelder

The air was thick with excitement and anticipation as we boarded the bus at 4.30am. Paddle? Check. Water? Check. Crocs? Check. Courage? Boat loads… as this gutsy crew from Invictus and others from all over Oz were about to paddle the mighty Ord River in the eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia – one of the country’s most significant waterways. 

Having been welcomed to Miriwoong and Gajerrong country by the traditional owners at the briefing the night before, the spirits of country were on our side. The day was perfect – cool, dry, blue sky and calm water. And the crocs were still sleeping. The local Aboriginal name for the Ord River is ‘Cununnurra’, meaning ‘big waters’. Does the bigger the water mean the bigger the number of crocs? Snap.

A quick stop at Lake Argyle for breakfast to fuel up for what was to become an extraordinary adventure (or a matter of survival if things went a little off course).

We then crossed the dam wall of the massive Lake Argyle –  the biggest man made lake in Australia, and where we dropped down to the start of the Ord River Marathon 2022.

Having seriously questioned the wisdom of our choice – having opted for this adventure in a low-slung dragon boat-  we gathered our wits. With a steady paddle and a surge of courage we headed off.  Our Sweep Cath did a great job of safely shepherding us through some fast moving water (which looked more like Class 5 rapids from some angles!)

Maybe the adrenaline crashing through our veins honed our senses, as it was not long before we left behind the chaos and crash of water and began to enter the stunning gorges, our arrival heralded by the local birdlife and a few sleepy crocs.  As we descended through Carlton Gorge with its magnificent cliffs and rock overhangs, nature become large and loud and our presence insignificant to the rhythm of the river.

The gorges are made up of layers of sedimentary rock, each layer a signature of time. We tried to recall details we learned in geology – the truth, however, is that the place has too many dates, layers, and layer names (and we never really listened in class). In summary the gorges and rock formations are ancient. They overwhelm with their scale, kaleidoscope of colours, their sheer physicality, shrinking everything in our boat but our fate and soul.

We chatter, sing and laugh as our riverine caravan bobs downstream for 24 kms to morning tea. And yep – scones, jam and cream, shortbread, fruit, juice and an assortment of other goodies. “GOOOD MOOORNING ORD RIVER!

Back in the boat for another 10km for a quick pit stop and then another 14km until lunch. This was perhaps the ‘longest’ section of the marathon  – we were tired, hot and hungry. Lots of rest breaks, lots of photos and lots of team spirit.  The encouragement and steady hand of our fantastic sweeps, Harry, Floss and Boss got us through and as the narrow-walled canyon suddenly yawned open, our lunch stop came into view.

Fuelled up with another 10kms to go – this leg was perhaps the hardest. We were losing light and strength, but not our soul.  We pushed each other to the end, a Sleeping Buddha resting in a rock formation near Kununurra kept our journey in perspective and guided us home.  60km and 9 hours later we hear the sweet sound of that one tiny, four letter word – ‘Easy’ – the signal to down paddles and rest.

That evening at the ‘after party’, the joy of our biggest paddling day inflates as we realise that our effort and those who contributed to make it possible was magnificent. Beer, bubbles and stories flow. We stumble back to our beds, weary but not sore.

We understand now how a paddling trip down the Ord River is a memory that stays a lifetime. Every kilometre paddled has washed away layers of daily life from each of us, a random tribe of souls who found a collective commitment to do it, and now share a new sense of awe for this country and each other.

Fun Fact: Rising in the Albert Edward range, the Ord River flows in an easterly and northerly direction 650km. Its course runs around the edge of the Purnululu National Park, through Lake Argyle, along the western edge of Kununurra and on to the Cambridge Gulf, where it bends and curves through flat wetlands before opening out into the Timor Sea – and we are eternally grateful we did not have to paddle that leg.