Australia: Up the creek

By Rob McFarland

Camping holidays can be stressful. As can spending long periods in a canoe. Combine the two and you run the risk of enduring the sort of hellish weekend away that deserves its own movie trailer-style voiceover: "Six friends came looking for adventure. But what they found turned their worlds upside down. For one of them harboured a secret that would put their friendship to the ultimate test ... Rob had forgotten the beer."

Choose your friends and your destination wisely, though, and an overnight canoe trip can be a magical way of getting away from it all. Well, that's what numerous Sydneysiders had told me, so I decided to put the theory to the test and headed off to a quaint spot two hours south of Sydney called Kangaroo Valley with five carefully selected paddling companions. And plenty of beer.

The main operator in the area, Kangaroo Valley Safaris, offers a range of self-guided trips, but by far the most popular is its Bendella to Tallowa Dam route - a two-day trip, with a night spent camping on the river bank.

Unless you're already staying nearby, I'd advise heading down from Sydney on the Friday night to avoid a torturous early start on the Saturday morning. We stayed in two cabins at Glenmack Caravan Park and enjoyed the relative luxury of a TV, DVD, fridge and hot shower. It meant we could have a leisurely breakfast the following morning in town and it was then only a five-minute drive to the canoe depot.

Bear in mind you'll only be able to take what you can fit in a 55-litre waterproof barrel so it's worth thinking carefully about what you'll need. Tents and camping stoves can be hired but everyone needs to bring their own sleeping bag, camping mat and food for two days.

You're advised to take water purification tablets so you can drink the river water but being wussy city-dwellers we chose to carry fresh water and that worked fine.

We hit the water just before noon and soon realised that making progress in a straight line isn't quite as easy as it looks. The secret is for the boat's two occupants to paddle in unison with long, smooth strokes on opposite sides of the canoe.

Eventually, we all fell into a steady rhythm and the gentle splash of paddles took on a hypnotic, meditative effect. Looking around at the lush, spectacular scenery, I could see what all the fuss was about. Being near any sort of water has a soothing effect but paddling under your own steam down a gently meandering river is particularly special. A windless day gave the river an eerie, glass-like appearance, which, with its tannin-stained colour, made it feel like we were gliding through syrup.

The river banks are lined with gum trees and river oaks and beyond them eucalyptus-covered hills rise through a misty, blue haze.

The area has an abundance of wildlife and over the two days we saw sea eagles, plovers, kangaroos, bellbirds, cormorants, pelicans and a goanna. One memorable scene came after rounding a bend and being greeted with a picture-postcard vista of the river framed by intensely green paddy field-like grass and soaring tree-covered hills. Two black dots appeared on the horizon and then gradually materialised into a pair of black swans that flew silently overhead.

That weekend 140 people were doing the same trip but the range of camping spots means every group is guaranteed some privacy.

We chose our spot - a gorgeous sheltered area at the end of an inlet - about 4pm and set up camp.

Envious glances were exchanged between me and the other guy as the four girls unpacked the sort of little luxuries that transform camping from an exercise in self-denial into an almost bearable experience: tea bags, milk, sugar, biscuits, inflatable pillows and hand wipes all appeared from within barrels.

Thank God I hadn't gone with just him. We might not have made it through the night.

After an instant packet meal of honey soy chicken cooked on a camping stove, we lit a fire and enjoyed one of those magical evenings from which memories are made. We shared beer, songs and stories while surrounded by a stillness you don't get in the city.

A huge moon rose slowly over the horizon, bathing everything in a ghostly half-light and, while gazing up at a densely packed sky, I saw my first shooting star.

The next morning we were up with the birds, packed and back on the river by 9am. Weary arms and shoulders were coaxed back into action and we followed the river as it weaved its way through a series of dramatic sandstone gorges.

We reached Tallow Dam at lunchtime and fell out of the canoes and into the river for a much-needed swim. We'd paddled 24km - three-and-a-half hours that day and four the day before.

Most of us hadn't canoed before so experience isn't necessary but a reasonable level of fitness is. Apart from that, all you need is good company, plenty of beer and a willingness to have a truly memorable weekend.

Rob McFarland was a guest of Kangaroo Valley Safaris.

* Kangaroo Valley Safaris, 2210 Moss Vale Rd, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales.

Cost: A$85 per person for a self-guided overnight trip in a two-person canoe. Includes return bus shuttle from main depot, parking and all safety equipment. Tents and camping stoves can also be hired.

* Glenmack Caravan Park, Main Rd, Kangaroo Valley, Budget cabins for four start from A$50 a night.

- Herald on Sunday

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