This is one of the lead stories in this year’s Mountain Journal magazine. It is about an expedition to packraft the Dargo River in the Victorian Alps.
Content by Daniel Sherwin. Intro by Kelly van den Berg.
From the source of Dargo river near Mt Hotham, four mountain adventurers hiked, bushbashed and white water rafted their way 120 kms through some of the steepest, most remote and beautiful country the Victorian Alps has on offer. There were raft punctures, sketchy swims, dangerous strainers, painful portages and snakes, but the crew also encountered some of the most epic, continuous, technical and exhilarating white water that made this an adventure to remember.
Daniel Sherwin – splitboarder, packrafter and outdoor adventurer
Claire Gilder – climber, bushwalker and packrafter
Kelly van den Berg – backcountry guide, splitboarder, packraft and adventure enthusiast
Paddy Howlett – outdoorsman, adventure racer, white water kayaker, packrafter and ultra endurance bike packer.
Once a week during winter, we drive east on the Great Alpine Road, past the evocatively named corners and viewpoints of the Hotham ridgelines. On a sharp corner under Mount St Bernard stands a plaque marking the site of the historic hospice, here is the junction of the bridle trails that linked the goldfields of Omeo and the Dargo Valley. The Dargo High Plains Road (closed in winters) now services this route and the sign to Dargo beckons as we sail past towards cosy fire-warmed lodges. On days when the west face of Hotham is stripped of its winter habit of low level clouds, we venture out on splitboards and skis to play in the bowls and gullies of the Dargo River headwaters. Occasionally, in pursuit of longer descents we find ourselves stranded on the collapsing snow banks of the river or knee deep in its freezing waters.
When packrafts became widely available, I dreamed of skiing to the snow line and swapping my splitboard for an inflatable boat to follow the melt south to the eponymous Dargo itself. La Niña and a bare calendar brought a rare opportunity to attempt the river during the festive season of 2021. By mid morning on December 27, we sardined into a car for the shuttle from Dargo, via the Swifts Creek Bakery. With our last pastries and cold drinks consumed, we don packs, pose for the obligatory group photo and set off along a sunny alpine ridgeline. Heavy packs take their toll as we hurdle and limbo our way through snow gum debris before deciding to set a falling traverse off the ridge to the bottom of the valley. We choose a northern face, hoping for sparse vegetation and fewer blackberry bushes but are quickly disabused of the notion of any travel away from the fall line. Despite our best efforts, we find progress faster than 1 km/hr impossible. Fighting through steep undergrowth and ash deadfall, we eventually reach the river just before sunset at a narrow floodplain. We make camp here, amongst the head high grass, disappointed to have covered less than half the anticipated distance for the day and discouraged by the low flows evident in the river.
We set off early the next morning. The Dargo River has yet to gain sufficient volume to float, so we continue downstream on foot. Our progress is marked only by the susurration of the verdant grass forest and explosions of pollen and seed, as we disturb laden flowers and spikes. The river numbs our feet as we cross from bank to bank searching for the path of least resistance, following deer tracks and avoiding the increasingly common blackberries. As the day wears on, we’re grateful for the cool respite of water against the heat of summer. Progress remains extremely slow and my optimistic prediction of transitioning to boats by lunchtime is proven incorrect. By late afternoon and a solid 10 hour day, we have reached the Brocket mining ruins and elect to camp early again, rather than chance the encroaching dark in the gorge.
After portaging a set of sieves directly downstream of the ruins, we transition to our rafts and get underway. The river burbles happily away in typical alpine fashion, never really pooling nor presenting horizon lines. Dams formed over decades of trees swept together force numerous portages but, whilst in the flow, we sweep along with minimal effort and in near silence. The flora this far up remains unaffected by the most recent bushfires and deer are common sights. In a dark corner of the gorged landscape, we startle an unseen sambar; its alarm honk nearly causes me to capsize. A brief stop at the Mayford 4 wheel drive crossing allows Paddy time to charm ice-cold beers out of some surprised prospectors; we drink them on a small pebble beach downstream, as we dry our sodden layers by the campfire.
Spirits are higher the next morning as we push off, with the walking and worst portages behind us. We jostle each other as we settle into our boats for a long day, paying little attention to the small shelf in the water ahead which hides a captive branch. Moments later, most of us are swimming and the cleanup of the nautical yard sale begins. The river keeps falling away at a moderate rate, yielding mile after mile of wave trains interspersed with steeper grade 3 boulder gardens. We work as a team, hopping from eddy to eddy, keeping close together to ensure any loose boats can be recaptured before the river whisks them away. Coupled with the first day’s section, this is the longest continuous whitewater any of us have seen. By the end of the day, the requirement for unfaltering attention to the river means we find ourselves suffering some mental fatigue but all are deliriously pleased with what the river had given us today.
Breaking camp on the final day takes little time and we ease back into the river as the first birdsong of the day rings out. We quickly make our way through the last of the swiftwater, safely past Harrisons Cut and on to the gruelling flatwater paddle to Dargo. It is New Year’s Eve and the temperature in Dargo will reach 35ºC by mid-afternoon. Helmets are discarded for hats, as we drift downriver past huge blackberry fortresses guarding the banks. Closer to civilisation, we find plum trees crowding the banks and fill our helmets with the fruit, staining our hands and mouths with juice. The heat becomes oppressive, stifling all sound bar the occasional splash of a poorly caught stroke and wilting the vegetation until the air hangs redolent of wild mint. And so, withdrawn into ourselves, replaying the trip or planning post-paddle degustations, we float into Dargo and the raucous welcoming parade of New Year’s revellers lining the shallows. We had made it; from the source of the Dargo river down to the Dargo Pub. It certainly was a terrific way to end 2021.