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Kayaking in the rainforest…

A pre-work paddle with a difference…

Since my trip to India last year, I have been living in Cairns,  Australia, working as a white water raft guide on the Barron River. As much as I love the Barron – and believe me, I do… it’s always nice to get out somewhere new. And so to celebrate Australia Day, we set our sights on the Russell…

An hour south of Cairns, the Russell river is a class 3/4  boulder garden run, known for its crystal clear water and beautiful rainforest surroundings. It used to be commercially sport-rafted by a local company, until a cyclone hit the area, causing a number of river-wide tree strainers that are nearly impossible to remove.

The old boys in the company lament about the loss of the Russell – it was a firm favourite amongst the veteran guides. Otherwise, it’s not widely spoken about.  A quick Google search finds only shaky old youtube videos from back in the day and a short guidebook extract from a local kayaking club. If people are still running it, it’s not happening very often, that’s for sure.

A group of five of us decided to go, luckily including three guides who had been there before and knew the way in to the river. We decided to take a small four-man raft to be R2-ed, a two-man sports raft and I managed to beg a medium sized Pyranha Burn 3 for the day. With a heavy tropical storm the night before over the local town of Babinda, we hoped for good levels…


We started the walk-in through the rainforest at 7:30. This was to be a dawn raid, to be back at work in time to guide on the Barron in the afternoon. The folded rafts were carried in on shoulders and we took turns to drag the kayak behind us as we stumbled and swore our way to the put in.


Although there is a recognisable path all of the way to the river, it didn’t look to have been used much recently and the rainforest had started to reclaim parts of it, Besides the usual Australian wildlife – which I try to force from my mind at such times – we were constantly watching out for two other nasties: “wait-a-while” and “stinging trees.”

Wait-a-while vines are long tendrils, covered in sharp barbs which allow them to cling to trees in their search for sunlight in the rainforest. They’re equally well adapted to getting caught on kayakers who brush past them, digging in their sharp thorns and not letting go. There’s a reason they’re called “wait-a-while” and not “just rip it off” as I soon found out, cutting my skin and holing my base-layer top.

Our real concern though was the “stinging tree.” Small, innocent looking, heart-shaped leaves that deliver a powerful burn like no other. I’ve heard it described as similar to being burnt by acid and electrocuted at the same time, with the effects lasting as long as two years. There are records of people being submitted to mental hospitals, driven mad by the pain. Not an experience that we wished to repeat…

The walk-in was pretty tough, but I’m glad that I experienced it. Keeping a sense of humour helped a lot…

We carried the boats over boulders, around trees and through creeks, which offered a brief respite from the heat and the 90% humidity.


Finally, we arrived at the river and jumped in straight away to cool off. When we got out, we attended to the next task – dealing with our new-found friends:

Once on the river, we noticed straight away that the level was much lower than we had hoped for. The first rapid was incredibly bony, with only the small sports raft having any real success.  The 4 man raft was too big to fit through many of the gaps and the Burn couldn’t bend like the inflatables, getting stuck at every opportunity. We told ourselves that it would get deeper as we entered each rapid.

It really didn’t.

In the end, it turned out to be easier to walk the boats around some of the major sections, to avoid pinning on everything. We had fun though, swimming through the pools and just enjoying being on the water.



It was easy to see that the Russell has the potential to be a fantastic river, with some great rapids when it’s at its normal runnable level. I don’t regret going though – as they say “there’s no such thing as a bad day on the river.” It also served to remind me of why I paddle – how many other people would have been lucky enough to experience being off the beaten track, moving through the rainforest environment?

Plus, we would never have bumped in to this little fella… “Bruce” the frog:

Would I go back? Of course – but I’d definitely wait for a higher water level…



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