This is Australia, After All: Whitewater Rafting on the Barron River

CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA- One of the many (or only) perks of working at a hostel is the chance to go on a “famil”. If you sell tours, which I did, you can arrange with various companies to go on an outing free of charge with the expectation that your knowledge about their tour will allow you to sell it better, since you can provide a first-hand testimonial. Doling out famils is a risky business model, but for the most part it works, and today I’m thankful to be going white-water rafting for free with two of my friends, Margot and Cher.

Your correspondent, Margot, and Cher

Your correspondent, Margot, and Cher


We’re picked up at 11:30am sharp by an congenial, half-black Australian guy with dreadlocks and a toothy smile named Mikey. Mikey looks like exactly the guy you want running your white-water rafting show: muscular of build, relaxed demeanor, piercings in all the right places, and a casual-but-no-nonsense attitude about filling out the disclaimer which waives their responsibility for your life. It’s a small group of rafters today. The weather is poor—overcast with a chance of rain, and apparently there weren’t too many paying customers keen to shell out $120 to raft down a river on anything but a sunny day. One person’s misfortune is another’s treasure, however, and the open spots meant that there was space for Margot, Cher and I to go on a famil.


There are only four others on the bus that seats at least thirty: a small Japanese girl who speaks little to no English, a pair of 20-year old German girls raised on a diet of bratwurst and air squats, and a demure French girl, who also doesn’t speak much English. Our driver is Roddy, a pot-bellied forty-year old with a biting Australian wit and a lip ring.


Everyone is joking and playing around on the bus ride until the houses start disappearing and we start winding through the back roads, the road steepening with every sharp turn executed. Whatever sunlight was peeking through the clouds dwindles as the tree cover grows denser, covering the tops of the roads and seeming to enclose us in the jungle itself. Road signs warning us about the pitfalls of jumping, unaided, into the swell tell us that the river is running on our left side, and before we know it we’ve reached a small clearing of trees that gives us a glance of the raging Barren River flowing to our left.


Roddy announces to us that “this ain’t shit—you should see it during the wet season. The water level reached up to the middle of that brown tree over there”, pointing to a tree across the river bank, the middle of which must be a good 30 feet above the current water level. “That’s when the real adventure begins”, he rasps, chuckling loudly to himself at the apparent simplicity of today’s task.


It’s not much further until we reach the mouth of the river where we are going to shove off. Disembarking, Margot, my firecracker of a southern lass friend from North Carolina, who coincidentally taught an outdoor skills class in college and is a considerably accomplished whitewater kayaker in her own right, immediately begins assaulting Mikey with detailed queries about the more technical aspect of the rapids. He’s uncomfortable with the attention, and Roddy answers most of her questions.


The only technical thing I’m really concerned with is what category the rapids are. I know they’re ranked one through five, and I want to be able to brag about how badass my day was…until I realize that today’s flow is a two. A two!? A two. Two out of five. Well, I think to myself, this is going to be a piece of cake. I thought this white water rafting business was supposed to be man flirting with danger, defying the odds to harness the raw power of a river’s torrent and be propelled downstream by a mix of brute strength and a finessed oar…but a two out of five? This can’t be that hard at all. I’ll leave that tidbit out of whatever stories I tell about my first experience white-water rafting for sure.


While donning our life vests and water-helmets, Roddy tells us that we’ll be in his boat today and Mikey will get the four kind-of-English-speaking girls. I’m a bit put off by this—Mikey seems like the obvious choice for a river guide…Roddy is older, overweight, and not as friendly as Mikey has been, but there are some things that you just can’t choose for yourself, and this is one of them.


These rafts normally accommodate eight people, and today we’ll only be four. Weight distribution is of paramount important yet tricky execution, considering the girls weigh perhaps a buck twenty each (and your correspondent not much more), and Roddy easily exceeds two-twenty. Yet I do feel more confident knowing that Margot is in my boat; numerous experiences in the wilderness have shown me that she does not screw around with her outdoor adventure sports, and she clearly knows what she’s doing kayaking in river rapids. To me, there’s little distinction between kayaking and rafting; it’s all the same. At level two, the differences must be trivial.


Loading into the raft, I have the good fortune to be placed at the front. If we’re going on a little, itty-bitty, level two category rapids, the least I  can do is be at what I presume to be the most death-defying position one can take. Roddy holds down the rear with his massive, guide-sized paddle, and the girls straddle the middle of the boat at either side. Before you can say Cat-2, we’ve shoved off a rock, slowly inching down river. Paddling proves to be as easy as I thought—it’s all a matter of getting the right rhythm with your crewmates. One-two-three, one-two-three, proves a helpful refrain to keep us moving steadily downstream in a straight arrow, not tilting to either reside.


Our disciplined approach contrasts greatly with Mikey’s raft, quite a few lengths behind us, as they spin in semi-circles left, right, left, right—it seems like they’re having a more difficult time keeping the boat moving in one direction without considerable effort. He’s laughing about it, but it’s obvious the lack of control—due either to his leadership, or the crew’s failure to follow instructions—has him a bit uneasy. Roddy is keeping an eye on them though, and all I’m supposed to do is keep my head straight, paddle in concert with my mates, and enjoy the view.


And what a view it is. Set in the middle of a large, forested gorge, the Barren River runs calmly for a few hundred yards at the beginning. Tree cover densely populates the banks, which slope steeply—60-70 degrees up for a thousand feet or more. The gloomy, overcast sky with clouds so close to earth gives the magical feeling that you are in a little snow globe, floating down a river of paradise. It’s a serene moment where you can tilt your head back and bask in the glory of the moment. If you listen carefully though, you can hear white noise in the background, white noise that is actually white—


“Get ready!”, shouts Roddy. “Hold your oars over the right side until I say so, and then paddle like hell until we hit that drop!”


Perhaps thirty feet in front of us, approaching quickly, is our first rapids. There are two large boulders on either side of the river, and a small drop between them leads us right into the belly of the torrential beast…since the drop is towards the left bank and we’re floating in the middle of the river, our aim is to gun for it so that we hit the middle of the current and pass through the two boulders without touching either one of them. Positioning myself on the right side, with my paddle over the water, ready to row, I hear Roddy give the OK. Sticking my paddle in the water, I furiously push, push, push, until the signal is given—“paddles up!”—and I need to secure it under my arm and hold onto the rope at the edge of the raft—and just like that, we’re going down this small drop, which fails to give my stomach the appropriate weightless feeling I’m anticipating, and we’re in the rapids. Our paddles still guarded under our arms; it’s Roddy in the back who is selectively navigating us through the self-guiding current. These are rapids, sure, but they aren’t scary rapids…we’re being swept along, but we’re not out of control, we’re not going too fast, and there’s certainly no danger of falling out. It’s exhilarating, but the most difficult part appears for Roddy to just steer us clear of the other large boulders situated in the middle of the river, which can’t be all that hard to do.


That stretch of the rapids over, we pull off to the side to await Mikey’s group. One of the downsides of group tours is…well, having to stay with the group. We can see them off in the distance, preparing for the initial drop between the two boulders. What was cake for our group, however, looks like a challenge for them. They’re having difficulty staying course, and keep bobbing from one direction to the other, failing to make the slow, measured approach that we executed, until they are suddenly entering the drop at a slight angle, the girls stacked towards the front of the raft and Mikey in the back, when the weight of the girls in the front lurches forward, pulling Mikey behind in the back of the raft, and he’s falling forwards; the raft momentarily collapsing over on itself, Mikey landing on top of the girls. It’s only a split second before things right themselves, and Mikey is nervously laughing at the trouble they had while paddling furiously to keep them on course through the first rapids. Roddy is watching with rapt attention from our little cove as they pass through obstacle after obstacle, eventually coming to rest a few yards from where we stand.


Mikey chuckles some senseless Australian wit about how’d ya like that, guys, looking over his crew, when he sees the Japanese girl is meekly holding her head and wincing in what could be pain. He seems unsure of what to do, and looks over towards Roddy, giving us the first indication of who’s actually in charge here.


“Bloody ask her if she’s OK, then, mate, why don’t you?”, Roddy barks to Mikey, obviously peeved at Mikey’s inability to make this connection himself.


Gingerly approaching the Japanese girl, Mikey asks her if she’s OK, and after a few minutes of hoping-she’s-OK yet anxiously-wanting-to-get-moving on our part, she’s given the thumbs-up and we can continue our rafting trip. She did sign the waiver, after all.


In the middle of the dry season The Barron River snakes lazily onwards, a series of calm stretches of meandering flow punctuated by meager rapids, the most notable of which is notable simply for being named the Devil’s Drop. It does nothing more than get Cher really, really wet after Roddy positions her in the front right of the boat, the obvious sweet spot for the most delicate member of his crew. White-water rafting is great fun—it’s somewhat of a challenge, somewhat of a thrill, somewhat of a flirtation with danger—but to be honest, it’s not wholly any of these things.


After we’ve passed the last stretch of rapids and are slowly floating downriver, comfortably ahead of Mikey’s raft, Roddy encourages us to go for a swim. Not needing further encouragement, we sit on the edge of the raft and drop backwards, James Bond-style. Since we have life vests on, we really don’t have to do much of anything to keep moving in the murky water. I can lay on my back and let my vest keep me afloat while the river drifts downstream. Gazing upwards at the edges of the Daintree Rainforest surrounding the river, I reflect what a wonderful, exotic place this is, as small raindrops begin to pepper the surface of the water and with it, my face. So many exotic creatures must be living in that jungle—so far from my home and the flora and fauna I’m used to…it’s so wonderful to be able to engage in such a peaceful, mind-calming activity in this serene setting.


Pulling myself back into the raft, having had enough of the mind-calming effects of the river float, we get chatting with Roddy about the white-water rafting company, which turns out to be his own. It’s soon obvious that we didn’t end up with him as our guide by chance; he knew we were here on a famil and wanted to ensure our experience was a  positive one. Grateful for this attention to detail, we get into a discussion about what it’s like to run a business here in Tropical North Queensland, and Roddy lets on that things, as a matter of fact, aren’t all that great. In recent years, tour companies have contributed to the development of a number of towns along the East Coast of Australia, particularly along the Sydney to Cairns route. By the time backpackers get up to Cairns, they’ve spent all of their money and are looking for work, not to spend $120 on a rafting trip. It makes us feel a  little bad since he is describing us: we’re backpackers that have come to Cairns, to find work, and have not spent money supporting his tour.


It’s a shame, since Roddy is particularly passionate about his business and most of all the Barron River. He grew up whitewater kayaking and rafting, and wants to be able to share his passion with travelers that come to see his home and experience the beauty of the surrounding environment. In the midst of telling us stories about the river, he points to a spot on the riverbank.


“You see that little cove, right over there, mate? There was a bloody wild pig that had died on the banks, right there. Big feller, it were. Me and me mates had to paddle across the river, and drag it upstream into the woods on there.", he said.


“Wow! Roddy, that’s crazy. Why did you guys go through all the trouble of moving the wild pig all the way up that hill? It’s pretty steep. What gives? You just want to keep the riverbanks looking good for us?”, we replied.


“Oy mate, the crocs! You see where the river narrows about through those trees down there? It empties out into a basin probably five hundred meters from that little mouth. There’s a ton a saltwater’s down there, mate, and when they catch a whiff of the pig’s scent floating downriver, they’ll swim up to get them a piece!”


“They’ll swim up HERE to get a piece of the pig?”, I choke out.


“Aw yeah, mate, not two weeks ago we saw a mid-sized croc swimming roight here! But no worries, mate, now that the pig’s gone, there shouldn’t be any crocs either.”


A cold shiver runs down my spine as I gaze into the murky brown water from which I had emerged no more than two minutes earlier, and I reflect that perhaps whitewater rafting was a bit more dangerous than I’ve given it credit for. This is Australia, after all.