Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cape York Pt 2 - Dry Rivers

The Dry season on Cape York really is dry, unlike the 'Dry' in Cape Trib in which the rain is just not quite constant. The Wet season on Cape York is just as wet though, and for several months every year all the roads are closed as the rivers that seam across the Cape turn into deep, raging torrents. Evidence of the contrast between Wet and Dry on Cape York can be found in every riverbed, most of which were completely dried up when we passed through a couple of weeks ago. We camped where the rivers were still running, which often meant driving several hours further than planned, just to get to water (without a crocodile warning sign).

Cormorants on Coen

In New Zealand, you would never dream of camping on a riverbed, as the danger of rain upstream causing your campsite to flood is everpresent. In Cape York, however, there is no rain in the Dry and so I enjoyed the novel sensation of camping on sandy river bottoms sheltered between high banks, made taller by the only big trees ever seen in that landscape. There were always warm, deep swimming holes, yes, but mostly the water meandered shallow and sluggish, always west to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Up the Coen, with bathing beauty

My favourite thing to do on these rivers is to strike out from the campsite alone, meandering up or down stream, exploring as far as I safely can, either rock hopping, walking the wide squooshy sandbars, wading through shallow dappled water, or scrambling up the banks. Everywhere I go, I'm surrounded by a rag tag horde of different kinds of flies. Every time I sit down it's on top of an ant highway. But there is nothing scary here, nothing dangerous. I stop often to cool off in swimming pools, write under shady trees, watch unfamiliar birds and take lots and lots of photos. I indulge my obsession with trying to capture images of light on water.

Eliot Falls (detail)

I fall in love with these rivers, each with its own particular character. Exploring upstream at the Wenlock, the whole width of the river is suddenly deep between steep banks. Carrying my camera I don't want to risk wading so I scramble up a fallen tree onto a platform of fissured lava. This moonscape is harshly hot, and I push my way through twiggy low thickets plagued with flies looking for a way back down to the water, which I can glimpse: cool, shady and inaccessible. I find a patch of shade over a small bowl of coarse white sand and sit for a while before abandoning my upstream adventure and finding a long, dull way back to the campsite.

Wenlock River, downstream from the Lockhart Road ford.

The next day I head downstream, wading through stretches of knee-deep muddy brown water before coming to a long dry band of sand (hot, golden, barren) separated by a wall of rocks from the remaining water flow (dark, sinister, fecund). I think I recognise tracks of a wallaby as well as a pig, a dog, a man. There are many birds: kites, egrets, emerald green pigeons. The gum trees lining this nearly-dry river are tall and green with smooth white trunks, and I imagine in the Wet, their tops appear on the surface of the deep river like low bushes.*

Eliot Falls
As well as the unofficial campsites, we also spend a couple of glorious days at a Jardine River National Park camping ground next to Eliot Falls and Twin Falls. The campground is busy for the school holidays, with dozens of people in every swimming hole. In my compulsive search for solitude I find myself at the top of Eliot Falls, where the water flows shallow, wide and flat before abruptly dropping into a fish hook shape cut in the rock floor. Wading across the top of the falls to the opposite bank from the formed tracks, I find little shady shelves where I can sit, feet dangling over the cliff edge, wrapped in the dense white noise of falling water which insulates me from everything but the heat.

A mini waterfall viewed through a natural hole in the rock, downstream from Twin Falls.

When I am ready to rejoin the world of human company, there are lots of places to swim. At Twin Falls the double-decker swimming holes are separated by massaging waterfalls, and when not full of tour bus tourists, it is spacious and peaceful. Upstream at the Saucepan, the water falls over a wide low lip just the right height to sit and let it pound tense shoulders into submission. There is also a water chute, a very deep hole for diving and shallow holes like bathtubs (and the water is bath warm).

Coen River, upstream from the Bend

Returning to the Coen after 10 days further north in unbelievable heat, it was a novelty to feel a momentary chill when emerging from the warm water after a dip at dusk the first night. Next day, I set off upstream towards the top of the river valley which in the Wet must be white water but now is a dynamic sandstone chaos of hot rock, smooth beneath my bare feet. I love the way the Coen shows its bones in the Dry season. Centuries of flow have carved curves and cracks into the boulders as low water burbles fast and narrow between.

Coen River, looking downstream towards the campsite

Striding across crevasses, scrambling up tipsy walls, I find myself again in the stretch and pleasure of exploring alone. This kind of adventure requires my full attention, and anchors me in the present moment. At the head of the valley I sit and look back down the river I have traversed. It is our last day of camping and this viewing platform becomes a site to evaluate the whole trip.

For me, in Cape York in the Dry, the strongest element in the landscape was the water, despite its rarity. Simultaneously holding light and dark, movement and depth, clarity and murky sludge, it was perceivably being sucked up into the arid air. Swimming in fresh water was the greatest pleasure I found there and my long rambling river walks were a sanctuary. Just as the rivers are life to this barren Dry land they were delicious oasis of delight everywhere we camped.


* Unfortunately, when we returned to the Wenlock 10 days later, the river was even lower and murkier and worse, the campsite had been so comprehensively trashed that we decided to keep driving for two more hours down to Coen, even though we would have to set up camp in the dusk. In the intervening school holidays, the river bank had been used for a toilet without digging a hole, dirty toilet paper was blown across the whole site, and as well as an abandoned full rubbish sack, there was plenty of loose litter. We took the rubbish sack and some empty bottles away with us, but weren't willing to risk staying by water potentially contaminated by human waste.

1 comment:

Carol said...

A really inspirational and beautiful post with wonderful photos, and then such a sad ending. Thank goodness you saw so much wilderness before you got back to the Wenlock. What is is with humans that we can't all behave decently?