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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 8 - Adventures on a Lilo

Spencer George

A walk that I completed with the Coast and Mountain Walkers of New South Wales in 1968 was the starting point for what has become a feature of the Melbourne Bushwalkers' activities - long, summer lilo trips. From Sydney we caught a steam train to the small station of Tallong in the Central Highlands of New South Wales. Here our leader persuaded a local farmer to load us and our heavy packs onto the back of his truck and drive us the 9 kilometres to Badgerys Lookout, which is on top of huge sandstone cliffs. Directly below, twisting through a gorge, is the Shoalhaven River. You can easily pick out the deep pools and shallow crossing places. Directly opposite, the countryside stretches almost uninhabited for over a hundred kilometres.

We walked downhill all the way, following the river to Bomaderry Railway Station, which is the terminus of the South Coast Railway. The first couple of kilometres dropped 500 metres as we followed the rough track that leads from the lookout to Badgerys Crossing. Mr Badgery was a dairy farmer and used this track and river crossing to lead his cattle to the grasslands on the southern side. A deep pool below the crossing had a sloping sandy beach beside a grassy area with trees. Here we stopped for a late, but long lunch with swimming and sunbaking.

The sides of the Shoalhaven River are a mixture of pebbles, jagged cliffs, sandy beaches and prickly scrub. The depth of water varies from ankle-deep to well above head level. For an enjoyable walk along the river it is necessary to continually watch ahead, looking for cliffs on the current side and easier walking on the opposite bank. The start of shallow rapids just before or immediately after a large pool often provides a suitable crossing. Sometimes the river is crossed 10 times during an hour; at other times it is possible to stay on one bank for a couple of hours.

The Shoalhave River

Our first camp that year was at Canoe Flat where Tallowal Creek joins the river and where there is a long pool about two metres deep with a sandy bank along one edge. High above the normal level of the river are a sandbank with a grassy top, plentiful supplies of sun-dried driftwood near by and casuarinas giving shade.

At this point the river enters the true gorge. Sandy beaches are less common, dense scrub often lines both river banks, casuarinas grow closely together, steep cliffs at water's edge become frequent. The sandstone walls above the river come closer together. The rate of progress slows. River crossings increase and sometimes it is necessary to climb up and over when there are cliffs on both sides.

After a day and a half of slow progress the valley widens again, signalling the entry of Kangaroo River, which is deeper, shorter and colder than the Shoalhaven. A delta where the two rivers joined, with a number of channels that varied from year to year, has now disappeared under the concrete wall of Tallowa Dam.

From here to the junction with Yalwal Creek the Shoalhaven meanders through wide, grassy river flats and the pools in the river are joined by shallow gravel races that are easy to cross. From Yalwal Creek to Burrier the southern bank is forested while the northern bank is dairy paddocks with lots of fences and smelly evidence of many cows. Our final camp was in the thick grass just below the pumping station that supplies water to Nowra.

Next morning our leader organised a ride on the back of the truck going to the milk depot so we had plenty of time to buy train tickets for our trip home along the ocean beaches of Kiama, Bombo, Austinmer and Stanwell Park.

Melbourne Bushwalkers' first trip to the Shoalhaven River

For the next four years I went on a summer trip such as the one described above with my friends from New South Wales. In 1972 it was suggested that I lead an MBW trip at Christmas in this area. It seemed a good idea but needed some changes: a trip from Tallong to Nowra is ideal for walkers living in Sydney, but is not so suitable when starting from Melbourne. I studied my maps.

The Shoalhaven River begins near Bendethera, northeast of Cooma, and heads more or less north for over 160 kilometres. It makes a dramatic change in direction near Marulan and heads generally east for the remainder of its journey to the Pacific Ocean. With a hit of a car shuffle from Marulan Railway Station we could start walking above Great Horseshoe Bend and finish our trip above Bundanoon Creek, a tributary of Kangaroo River.

Great Horseshoe Bend is surrounded by the river on three sides. From the car down to the river takes less than an hour if you are in a hurry. Downstream there are lots of gravel races, deep swimming pools and grassy camp sites.

Seven kilometres from Great Horseshoe Bend is The Blockup. Twisted slate cliffs tower above a deep section of the river about a kilometre long. This section of river cannot be walked. It is necessary to waterproof packs and swim. No matter how heavy the pack, provided the contents are enclosed in waterproof containers, the pack will float and support a couple of people. Strong, competent swimmers have no difficulty in pushing their pack for the kilometre through The Blockup. While slowly swimming there is plenty of time to admire the beauty of this gorge.

From The Blockup to Badgerys Crossing there are wide banks, usually on both sides of the river, so there are few compulsory river crossings. But walking is hot work in summer, so often the river is crossed simply to cool off. Then, having got wet, a swim and a rest under a convenient shady tree seem a great idea.

More walking, swimming and some liloing on the Shoalhaven River

The previous trip was so enjoyed by the party and the leader that it was repeated the next year, 1973-74, but made a day longer by starting further upstream, at Nerrimunga Creek. The new party was larger and included a few poor swimmers. One member bought a water safety vest for The Blockup and the leader decided he would carry a lilo and a long length of nylon cord for use when the party was swimming The Blockup. At the start of The Blockup all packs were waterproofed, then attached while floating in the river to the nylon rope. With a strong swimmer at each end of the rope the packs were easily pulled through the gorge; the weaker swimmers used the lilo for support, while the better swimmers had no problems as they did not have to worry about their packs.

The first real Lilo trip, 1978-79

In summer a trip along an uninhabited river through spectacular scenery with lots of time for swimming and pleasant, flat, waterfront camp sites is an extremely enjoyable experience. On the previous trip we used a lilo to 'swim' The Blockup. Instead of walking why not use a lilo for most of the trip? For the next summer I planned an easy lilo trip.

The Shoalhaven River twists and bends. East of Marulan, Canoe Flat and The Blockup were only 6 kilometres apart. I knew there was an old mining track down to The Blockup from the eastern side. Could we get up through the sandstone cliff above Canoe Flat? Maybe, and if it proved impossible we could always walk back to Badgerys Crossing where there was a track up to the south.

My plan was to start at Bungonia Caves, descend via Bungonia Gorge and Bungonia Creek to the Shoalhaven at Hermits Flat. Here we would inflate the lilos and float along the calm water of Louise Reach, gaining confidence before we shot the rapids and gravel races between Barbers Creek and Canoe Flat. Then a day was allowed for exploration of the scrubby spurs and cliffs, another day to walk across country to The Blockup, a whole day exploring The Blockup by lilo and a couple of days to return by river to Bungonia Creek. From here in the cool of very late afternoon, even with the added weight of a lilo, a couple of hours should bring us back to the cars just before dark.

As the middle section was unknown I wanted a small party so I was pleased with a group of three, all of whom I knew were strong swimmers and excellent bushwalkers. It was a delightful trip. We camped early every afternoon, had no problems with any of the rapids nor any major difficulty with the cross-country section. On the exploratory day we took less than two hours to climb from the sandy beach of Canoe Flat to the top of the cliffs. Having found the route, next day carrying packs we took slightly more than an hour for the climb and then walked through open forest until we found the small hut and nearby track junction that was the key point for our descent back to the river.

A longer trip - Long Point Lookout circular, 1979-80

This trip was slightly longer and had a larger group. Again Marulan Railway Station was the meeting place. This time there was an even shorter drive to the start of the walk at Long Nose Point Lookout, Tallong, which is almost immediately above the area where the river changes direction from south to east. It is the best place for observing the current state of the river from the comfort of your car. A well-graded track zigzags down to the junction of Barbers Creek and the Shoalhaven River. This junction is the end of a very long, wide, deep pool on the river shown on some maps as Lake Louise.

Lilo disaster on one of Spencer George's trips to the Shoalhaven River, 1979-80.
Lilo disaster on one of Spencer George's trips to the Shoalhaven River, 1979-80.
Rob Harris collection

There were many new liloists on this trip so the morning was spent in learning some liloing techniques. Knowing how to waterproof your pack is important if you are to be comfortable for a few days on a lilo! Camp for the day was under King Pin on a grassy area among the casuarinas. Directly opposite was a slate cliff disappearing into a clear deep pool with a small rapid at each end. On our side there was a sandy beach for the length of the pool. Piles of dry wood, left behind by a flood, were within easy reach. We spent a lazy afternoon shooting the rapids.

The party was large. The leader stayed at the back, keeping an eye on the less experienced liloists and enjoying the slow pace. Lunch for the leader's group was under a shady tree beside the deep pool soon after Badgerys Crossing. About 3.00 p.m. this group rounded a bend and there were the fast group, who were quite ready to end their three-hour lunch break. Another hour and everyone was at Canoe Flat, which was the camp site.

Next day we were up at sunrise and started climbing an hour later, so the ascent would be finished in the cooler part of the morning. With a large party the climbing was a bit slow, but we reached the top with no major delays. It was going to he a warm day. After following an old track in vaguely the required direction, we set a compass course for an old hut, reaching the hut and its welcomed water tank for an early lunch. The day was hot so it was decided to rest in the shade for two hours.

The scrub became less open, the air much warmer and the large party was not easy to keep together in the tall trees so our progress slowed. It was late afternoon before everyone had reached the top of the long spur down to the river. To further slow progress, the spur became almost vertical when it neared the river. Before retiring the leader declared a late start, 'about eleven', for the next day. Leader and party slept well that night.

It was an easy day, starting about 11.00 a.m. and reaching camp about 3.00 p.m. with many small rapids and gravel races between long shallow pools. The area where we camped had been well worked by gold seekers. Some of the names on the map are: Assay Buttress, Panning Hill, Bonanza Hill, Fossickers Spur, Eldorado Ridge, Paradise Creek and New Chum Ridge. Our swimming pool was a bit shallow - only about a metre deep and with a sandy bottom, so the water was warm. But no one suggested we should move on and find a deeper pool.

After enjoying some easy rapids as we paddled, about midday next day we were in The Blockup. Most people drifted through admiring the ragged cliffs and the slowly moving white wisps of cloud above them. I landed on a small sandy beach and climbed a few metres up the slatey cliff. Below me was the group of liloists with their feet pointing in 13 different directions as they were moved slowly along by the river.

Camp for the night was opposite 'the chimneys'. Many years ago, while searching for gold, someone found a deposit of copper ore about halfway down the spur on the opposite bank of the river. Using horse power, bullock power and pick-and-shovel human power, a rough track was constructed to the top of the gorge above us. Then a flying fox was built down a spur on our side and across the river where a smelter was constructed. The mineral lode was discovered in 1904 and the aerial cableway completed by 1909 but the high arsenic content of the ore made smelting very difficult so in 1912 Tolwong Mineral Company went into liquidation.* Some of the brick buildings still remain, their position marked by the tall brick chimneys among the encroaching eucalyptus trees. It is worth spending a hour wandering among the ruins, reflecting on what humankind achieved before bulldozers and helicopters.

Next morning more small rapids brought us to Bungonia Creek. After setting up camp we explored the creek into Bungonia Gorge. At first the stream was shallow with a series of small pools, the walking track alternating between sides. Then our way was blocked by huge limestone boulders with vertical limestone cliffs above them. By scrambling over, through and around these boulders we forced our way into the main gorge, which had a sandy bottom with cliffs 300 metres high on both sides. At the far end was a muddy pool into which the creek disappeared, flowing under the sand and below the huge limestone boulders.

On the final day we swam, sunbaked and relaxed. Then in the cool of late afternoon we paddled the last two kilometres along Lake Louise down to Barbers Creek. Here our lilos were deflated and dried before we started the zigzag climb hack to our cars.

O'Allen Ford to Bungonia Gorge, 1980-81

Apart from the overland section, everyone had enjoyed the leisurely summer trip and suggested that it be repeated with improvements. So a couple of years later another trip was planned - a long, downhill (most of the way) excursion from O'Allen Ford to Bungonia Creek.

From Marulan a road heads south towards Nerriga. In the gold-rush days this road crossed the Shoalhaven River by pebbly ford. Now the ford has been replaced by a low-level bridge which is submerged when the river is in high flood. Sydney Water Board plans to build a dam about five kilometres above the ford. When required for Sydney or Woolongong, water will be allowed to flow down the river to Tallowa Dam and then pumped into the current supply system.

Some cars were left at the finishing point, Bungonia Lookdown, above Bungonia Gorge and then we drove to the river at O'Allen Ford for the start of our trip. For the first day there were some small rapids, lots of large sandy beaches and the river was just below the surrounding countryside. Camp for the night was a large beach alongside a very big, deep, wide pool.

Here the character of the river changes. It cuts its way deeply into the surrounding rock as it heads steeply downhill towards sea level. No longer are there sandy beaches or long deep pools that must be paddled if you want to move forward. You paddle furiously to maintain your desired direction while the river tries to wreck you on high rocks or scrape you alongside the rugged sides of the gorge. Sometimes it drops a metre or two as it heads downwards. If you are silly enough to he sitting on your lilo before this happens then you will not be on top of the lilo after the fall. Fortunately the sound of the water rushing over these drops is heard a considerable distance upstream, giving warning to the liloist to head for the bank, pick up lilo and pack, then walk until below the drop. All rapids in this section must be carefully inspected before heading towards them. When in any doubt, you get off and walk. Canoeing books describe this section of the river as dangerous and non-canoeable. It is also un-walkable as the cliffs often disappear sheer into the water from both sides.

After a day of this adventure there are two big waterfalls to negotiate followed immediately by a large pool where the Corang River enters from the west. This was where we camped.

Up until now we had been heading mainly north, but for the next two days the river ran mainly west. Numerous waterfalls and dangerous rapids continued to intersperse the rapids that are so exciting for liloing. We walked about 30 per cent of the time, and travelled quickly on our lilos for the other 70 per cent. We were lucky this time as the water level was low, which was good for liloing; there was a sense of excitement but no real danger. In the afternoon of the fourth day the river went over a major waterfall in a series of drops and pools. Balancing packs and lilos we negotiated our path down the side of the watercourse.

Then the valley of the river changed once more, with small rapids and long pools while the main direction became north - pleasant liloing and even pleasant walking along the side. One member walked alongside the river for the whole of the sixth day. Walking was as quick as liloing. Our fifth camp was on Skull Island, completely surrounded by water. Sitting around the camp fire at night, the fireflies put on a display for us among the rocks and trees on the main hank of the river. Once a party from the Coast and Mountain Walkers were marooned here for two days when the river flooded, rising at night while they slept.

After an hour's paddling next morning we passed a party of canoeists preparing for a trip to Burrier. They had carried their canoes down the steep spur from Sewell Point. This section is ideal for liloing: small rapids, some current in the river and lots of long pools. There is plenty of time to relax and watch the scenery as it slowly moves past.

The junction with the Endrick is a disappointment. One could walk past it without noticing a big river that oozes its way in between lots of small boulders and assorted scrub. Both sides of the Shoalhaven River are covered with pebbles for a kilometre below the junction. We retraced our steps above the junction and found a camping spot with level ground, firewood and drinking water but we did not have our customary swimming pool. Footprints on the sand and a messy fireplace indicated that there were 'natives' nearby. The level of water in the river was low, the party was large, we were enjoying ourselves, but we were running out of time and the planned end of the trip was many kilometres down river.

Next afternoon we camped after the junction with Nerrimunga Creek - a pleasant spot, with an extra large swimming hole as recompense for the previous camp site. We had only two days left for the planned trip and Bungonia Creek was 24 kilometres downstream. We decided to divide into two parties: a small group would pick up the cars while the main group continued at a leisurely pace and climbed up at Great Horseshoe Bend to walk along a track and meet the cars.

Early next morning the rapid party of three headed downstream paddling quickly, passing Little Horseshoe Bend and then rounding Great Horseshoe Bend where we found most of the 'natives' whose presence we had noticed for the last three days. They were travelling from Sewell Point to Tallowa Dam on two large rubber rafts. They had never done such a trip before and had accidentally left their maps at home. The river level was so low that they were forced to carry their rubber rafts much more frequently than we carried our lilos and they had so much equipment that they required three trips for each portage - one with the rubber rafts and then two additional trips to transport food and tents. They were now overdue, imagined that the dam was not far off and were worried because they had run out of cigarettes. Two of them had gone on ahead to tell those waiting at the dam what had happened. We pointed out that they were many days walking from the dam and suggested they wait until our main party arrived in the afternoon and then walk out with them the next day.

About half an hour after we left them, a noise in the sky became increasingly loud and soon an airforce helicopter was flying low over-head. We pointed upstream and they acknowledged our signals. Soon they were returning with the rescued adventurers. The young people collected their heavy equipment from Great Horseshoe Bend the following weekend. It took four trips over two days to carry it all to the top of the spur. The moral of this story - travel light, but carry your maps.

Before we reached The Blockup a strong wind was blowing, in the opposite direction to the flow of the river. In The Blockup there were small waves on the surface of the water and as soon as we stopped paddling quickly the wind blew the lilo upstream. After a struggle we reached the sandy strip of beach at the far end. Progress on the river was so slow that we deflated the lilos, put them in our packs and walked alongside the river until we reached Bungonia Creek. During the day we had passed four camp sites from the previous year's trip and travelled 24 kilometres.

Derrick Brown entering a rapid on the Shoalhaven River above The Blockup Gorge. New Year's Eve, 1991.
Derrick Brown entering a rapid on the Shoalhaven River above The
Blockup Gorge. New Year's Eve, 1991.
Stephen Rowlands collection

Early the next day we walked up Bungonia Creek, climbed with our packs through the huge boulders guarding Bungonia Canyon and followed the creek that comes out of Efflux Cave up to The Lookdown. Wecollected the cars and a supply of cold drinks and drove to meet the main party near Hillside. They were very pleased to see us slightly before the appointed time.

Lilo Derbys at Lerderderg Gorge

Darley Ford on the Lerderderg River was the scene of many pleasant lilo weekends. Weekend walkers would camp and explore the area before meeting up with the Sunday walkers. After lunch the competitive events took place - a series of races on lilos along the pool. It was a pleasant way to spend a hot, summer weekend. The Lilo Derby was a regular, yearly event for many years. The last Lilo Derby weekend of the eighties was held on 16-17 January 1982.

Other rivers, other trips

In 1982-83 Jopie Bodegraven led a trip along the Colo River from Newnes to Upper Colo. The Wolgan River is very shallow with a sandy bottom. We set off along a track that followed it downstream for three days before there was sufficient water to float the lilos. The liloing then became better, with long deep pools, some rapids and lots of water.

Dennis von Maarenberg and Rex Filson racing on lilos. Lerderderg River, circa 1965.
Dennis von Maarenberg and Rex Filson racing on lilos. Lerderderg River, circa 1965.
Bob Steel collection

Below the junction with Wollangambe River were grade 6 rapids, which we walked alongside.

Jopie then took us to Clatterteeth Canyon in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Large vertical cliffs of sandstone sometimes overlaid with basalt produce soil that grows luxurious vegetation. The creek cuts its course through the sandstone, producing deep gorges with vertical cliffs only a few metres apart. The direct rays and warmth of the sun rarely reached us as we followed the twisting course of the creek. Some wise people dressed in wet suits, while others added a couple of woollen pullovers.

An eight-day lilo trip on the Kowmung River was organised in 1986, again by Jopie Bodegraven. We followed the river through granite country and over many waterfalls with scrubby sides to climb down magnificent waterfalls, superb swimming holes, excellent company, but not good liloing for the first three days. Then the valley widened so that it was possible to walk along the banks. It was possible to sit on the lilo, relax and let the water take you downstream, without fear of impending death from a drop over a waterfall.

The last day was a slow climb back along Roots Route to Kanangra Walls, the last section on top of the vertical sandstone walls. Across on the other side of the valley a series of waterfalls cut their way down to the creek. It was a spectacular finish to a spectacular trip.

The Mitchell River was the scene of weekend lilo trips in 1982, 1985 and 1986. The river here is shallow, slow flowing and warm with farm paddocks and willow trees on the banks. Then the river leaves the farm-land and twists among the mountains. There were lots of small rapids, and a number of medium rapids, some swimming pools and a few sandy beaches.

A unique mode of travel in a uniquely beautiful place. Liloing through a white granite gorge on the Upper Kowmung River, New South Wales. Club trip, Christmas 1986.
Jopie Bodegraven collection

Other Bushie lilo trips include:

* The Goulburn Post, 9 November 1987, has an article on Tolwong Mineral Company.