Clarence River Adventure by Canoe
At the start of last year, I typed up my New Year’s resolutions, and mid way down the list wrote “To go on an ‘adventure’ of the 2004 – 2008 style”. In those years, with a couple of my friends I had some of the best (and remarkably cheapest) holidays that I reckon are even possible: in 2004 Lachie Paramor and I took a 20ft Proa (my high school major design project) down the Murray river over three weeks; in 2005 we bought a 14ft ‘Caper Cat’ and with our surfboards strapped to the deck, spent three weeks sailing from Sydney to Brisbane; in 2006 we tried (unsuccessfully) to land-(wind)surf from Port Augusta to Darwin up the Stuart highway (calling it quits at Coober Pedy); finally in 2008 Darren McKavanagh and I built a 12 foot plywood trimaran and sailed it across the Torres Strait stopping and camping on islands as we went.
Since 2008, a lot of great things have happened to me: I obtained a university degree, commenced a ‘real job’, and got married to my fantastic wife Kat. So for these great reasons, an ‘adventure’ (other than the odd Sydney to Hobart race) had not been a priority. But this was the year. Furthermore, I wanted to go on the adventure with Kat.
As you may have gathered, the rough criteria for an ‘adventure of the 2004 – 2008 style’, was: travel from one place to another on something you’ve made – and be your own tour guide. A bit eccentric in this day and age, but it was what I wanted to do.
With Kat being a high school teacher, the June school holidays looked like the appropriate time. Several ideas were thrashed around in February before deciding that a week’s canoe trip down the Clarence River would be a good idea, having watched a video of Beau Nixon paddling a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) down the river (see his blog site at www.donotfollow.com.au).
A couple of months down the track June was unfortunately no longer looking good at work. With one contract coming to an end and another one commencing, the decision was made that June was not going to be possible. Bugger, New Year’s resolution no longer on track!
After a few months of feeling sorry for myself about this “first world problem”, a small window of opportunity became evident in early June to take three days off (rather than a week), in early July. It wasn’t much time to prepare, but we grabbed the opportunity!
The trouble was we intended to paddle the river over a week, but I only had three days off work. With a regretful tone (and knowing that my dad had a near new 3.5hp Tohatsu we could borrow), I mentioned to Kat that we might have to make a motor canoe instead of a paddling canoe. At this, I watched a smile slowly creep over her face at the thought of no longer needing to paddle the entire river. And with that, we had a plan!
With three weeks to go I started sketching a design. My original post-school training was in Naval Architecture, so drawing it myself seemed the appropriate way to go. However, before long I saw that for $30 online a downloadable set of plans for a “stitch and glue” motor canoe, designed by Michael Storer could be procured. Did I feel I’d cheated by not designing it myself? Not at all! Michaels design was beautiful and just what I was after!
Now with two and a half weeks left, I spent my birthday afternoon at Bunning’s eating sausages and buying all the ply and timber we needed. Perfect day.
The boat went together beautifully (a testament to the designer), and Kat did some great finishing touches by making the seat cushions and assisting with the painting. The fittings went on around 1am the night before we left.
Time to go!
On a brisk July morning we set off from Sydney and headed up the F3 towards our first stop at Coffs Harbour. Just before Newcastle, our trusty Holden Rodeo started splurging badly. The revs would drop right down to the extent that the car would almost stop, and then shoot right up again. After around six phone calls, the trip was looking questionable before getting a glimmer of hope from Pacific Holden at Gateshead. They said they could have a look straight away. A few hours later, they’d fixed the car (turned out to be a computer problem), and after seeing we were on a trip wished us a good luck. Thanks guys, you saved our trip!
We left Newcastle at 3pm, and had a stress-free run to Coffs, checking in at the Surf Beach Motel at around 8pm. We headed to the Element Bar by the Jetty, where we watched the State of Origin, had an incredible prawn pizza and enjoyed a couple of pints of Stone and Wood Pacific Ale (unfortunately the Blues lost).
The next day we left Coffs early and proceeded North up the Pacific Hwy. After a couple of pie stops, and a visit to the Clarence Tourism office at Grafton, we arrived at Copmanhurst at 11am. Copmanhurst is great little one pub/ one general store town which is where the Clarence River’s rapids cease, and the navigable waters begin – making it the appropriate spot to start our journey.
On the water
We put the boat in the water for the first time (no leaks), gave it a quick test run, and after convincing ourselves it would survive the trip, dropped the car on the street outside the Police Station (seemed like a safe place). It was about 12pm, and we were off!
The boat travelled beautifully with the mighty 3.5hp Tohatsu, cruising nicely at about 6 knots. Having been in the thick of Sydney’s hustle and bustle only two days before, we found the Clarence River surreal and magnificent. A few highlights from the first day on the upper Clarence were: the beautiful cliffs, seeing lots of cows (not normal in my boating experience), passing under Rogan’s Bridge, and having our own island for lunch! At about 3.15pm, we completed our day’s travels by arriving at the beautiful Clarence River Bed and Breakfast at Seelands. The owners, Greg and Terry, have done an amazing job converting an old waterfront homestead into a B&B. The timber work throughout the building is incredible, which is a testament to Greg’s eye for detail and hard work. The verandas were spacious, late night Peronis in the waterfront heated spa went down well, feeding the baby joeys was fun and the food and overall atmosphere was incredible. If you ever get the chance, you need to stay there.
The next day, after an amazing breakfast, we said goodbye to Greg and Terry and set off down the Clarence. The first stop was Susan Island, which was around 16km down the river and directly opposite Grafton. Susan Island is a rare 16.5 hectare subtropical rainforest, with a large variety of flora and fauna. We pulled in to the wharf and had a short walk around, before heading across the river to Grafton.
In Grafton, we enjoyed a look around the main street, before getting a take-away coffee from Toast Espresso and setting off again. We definitely weren’t roughing it!
From Grafton we headed under the Grafton Bridge, after a brief stop to have a look at the wreckage of the SS Induna which is located on the Southern Bank of the River. The vessel had an interesting past, having been famous for carrying Winston Churchill from South Africa to England during the Boer War, before being converted to carry railway carriages across the Clarence River in 1925.
Grafton to Maclean via the Ulmurra Pub
After the Grafton Bridge we continued on down a much wider, but no less beautiful, section of the Clarence to Ulmurra (approximately 11km from Grafton). Ulmurra is well worth the visit. It is truly like stepping back in time with the entire village being classified by the National Trust. It’s a great example of a 19th Century river port having been established in 1857. We had a walk down the main street, and Kat enjoyed the book store, craft store and ‘op shop’ (fortunately there was little room on the boat, so she couldn’t buy much). A BLT burger and glass of white on the waterfront lawns of the Ulmurra Pub made for a perfect lunch.
We set off at about 2pm, and pulled into Brushgrove at about 3pm having travelled another 10km since Ulmurra. Brushgrove is at the western end of Woodford Island (reportedly the biggest inland island in the Southern Hemisphere). We stopped briefly, in order to have a quick look at the beautiful old Brushie pub, where we bought ourselves ice creams. We opted to take the South Arm around Woodford Island, having taken the advice of Beau Nixon on his SUP blog. The river was much narrower on this side and provided very interesting scenery.
After approximately two hours of travelling and another 21km down the river from Brushgrove (58km all up for the day), we arrived at Maclean as the sun went down. We had accommodation booked at the Maclean Hotel. A funny thing was: when we’d looked at the map, and asked them prior to booking, the pub was (for all intents and purposes) ‘waterfront’ – however upon arriving, we realised that ‘yes’ it was waterfront, but due to a large fence there was absolutely no way of accessing it by water! That was ok though, because a last minute thought the night before we left was to make a set of dinghy wheels. Problem solved. We took the boat to the nearby boat ramp, put it on the wheels, and with the help of Google maps wheeled it up the ramp, took a left at the roundabout, went straight down the main street and pulled into the driveway of the hotel. Built in 1904, our $70 ‘shared bathroom’ room didn’t quite offer the same degree of luxury as the Clarence River B&B (from the night before), but it was Friday and there was a live band, good food, and a good time was had by all.
In the morning we went for a short walk up the street to the boutique coffee shop and coffee wholesaler Botero Coffee Roasters, after a recommendation from Greg and Terry (our hosts from the B&B two nights earlier. We had a great breakfast, admired the coffee machinery, and bought some coffee for our family. We checked out and set off at 8.45am, taking the southern side of Harwood Island and enjoyed passing under the Harwood Island Bridge and going past the sugar mill. The tide was gushing so the boat had no trouble moving at 8 knots over the ground. Happy days.
The Home Stretch to Yamba
After a minor detour around ‘Palm Island’ (a tiny island embedded in Harwood Island), we were on the home stretch to Yamba. A bit of wind against tide created spray for the first time on the trip. But before long we took our final right hand turn and aimed at Yamba in glassy, sunny, and generally perfect conditions. In fact, the conditions were so good we took our mighty motor canoe (which didn’t yet have a name) out through the Yamba break waters to complete our ‘Country to Ocean’ trip properly! A final perfect surprise was surfing back in through the heads with dolphins.
From there we headed into Yamba (having done around 25km since Maclean), checked into the Moby Dick Waterfront Motel at around midday and collected a hire car from Thrifty at Yamba Marina to drive out to Copmanhurst and collect our Rodeo. By 5pm we had our Rodeo back, the boat was on the roof racks, and we were on the balcony of our motel room having a sundowner feeling very accomplished with our three-day adventure down the Clarence River. The room we enjoyed at Moby Dicks was fantastic (another hidden gem if you are ever in the area). Our trip had been approximately 110 km from Copmanhurst, and we’d had an absolute ball.
We woke up on Sunday morning, caught up with my old sailing mate Joe O’Keeffe and his lovely partner Emily for a coffee before driving back to Sydney feeling rested and recharged for work again the next day.
My concluding remarks: the Clarence River is a beautiful and unique part of Australia, and if you ever get the opportunity to experience it for yourself you absolutely should take it.