A ripple in time: Kayaking the Glenelg River

Oslo Davis illustration with birds

Anson Cameron

Posted April 13, 2018

Paddling the Glenelg reveals magnificent birdlife and remnants of a simpler Australia.

I grew up in the north-east of the state where we were fully aware nothing could compare to The Murray. So when we put our canoe into the Glenelg in the Lower Glenelg National Park near the South Australian border, I was pretty surprised at the size, beauty and wildness of the river.

This far down the Glenelg it is estuarine, salty, receiving a tidal pulse twice a day. A gentle river, wide and deep and meandering, bounded by impenetrable bush and spectacular limestone cliffs.

The people around here say it used to flow harder before the Rocklands Reservoir was built 300 kilometres upstream at the foot of the Grampians in the ’50s. For locals the Rocklands Reservoir is a bogeyman, brought up in conversation regularly.

Water that once snaked through here to the sea at Nelson is piped out to the Wimmera and Mallee now, and locals talk of the Glenelg as diminished. In Australia it’s pretty common for people living downstream of a dam to regard the thing as a type of larceny.

On our first day canoeing the river we saw only two other people. Musk ducks paddled along half-submerged like Civil War ironclads. White-faced heron groaned when we got close and climbed the ladder of their wingbeats.

And the salt-loving chestnut teal trailed strings of ducklings across the mud making for the shelter of the combungi beds. We saw a little eagle and several sacred kingfishers.

No signs of habitation or civilisation apart from the canoe jetties spaced every five or 10 kilometres along the river through the park. Each leads to a campsite with fireplaces and toilets. These are used by canoeists and hikers on the Great South West Walk. We camped at Pattersons Canoe Camp, by ourselves. We walked only a few kilometres of the trail, but saw emu, kangaroos, wallabies, echidna, and birds and orchids in abundance.

The possums here become gangsters after dark, so you must secure your food. Our provisions were pillaged though my wife fought a running battle with them half the night. I had wisely used a single malt Scotch as a possum-muffler and slept soundly through the hostilities.

Oslo Davis illustration with kangaroo and birds

On our second day, getting closer to the river mouth, the limestone cliffs rise yellow, white and grey and you paddle through gorges pitted with caves, where grass trees and melaleucas cling to ledges above you.

We took a tour of the Princess Margaret Rose Cave, just one Italian tourist and us. The cave is a dripping pink waxworks of geological gargoyles. So many formulations in there look like Boris Johnson on a bender.

I asked our guide if any thylacine bones had been found in the cave. “No xylophone bones were found here,” he told us. “I’m fascinated by xylophones. A local pub claimed to have a full xylophone skeleton on display. So I drove over there, but it was just an old blue heeler.” I have a happy vision of the Italian trying to decode this conversation for his friends in Rome.

The shacks reminded me of a Victoria I saw the tail end of before it vanished in the ’60s.

After the cave the river loops into South Australia for a few kilometres. Here shacks balance on stilts in the water, each with a boat housing underneath and rod holders on their verandah rails. They are tiny, dishevelled getaways and look as if they were spanked together with scrounged materials; cement sheet, tin and timber.

They reminded me of a Victoria I saw the tail end of before it vanished in the ’60s. Being on land leased for life, and the lease not transferable, the owners and edifices are edging toward death hand-in-hand.

No one spends money on a building marked for destruction, so they are becoming derelict, though many show vestiges of love. “ROUND THE BEND”, “DRY CREEK”, “MISBE-HAVEN”.

Ross Atkins, owner of Paestan Canoe Hire, put us in the river at Battersbys and took our car to Donovan’s Landing next day so we could continue our drive to Robe without backtracking.

He told us around here you either loved the shacks or hated them; there wasn’t much in between. To me they seem precious. They have a rare dilapidation that evokes images of happy freckled kids, long leaps into green water, women shelling peas, and men smoking pipes while boiling up river crays in massive pots. No pioneer village is a truer record of a time and place, I think.

The Glenelg flows into the sea without ever running through a city. And it seems to me 400 kilometres from Melbourne and nearly 500 from Adelaide is about where a river needs to be to retain some of its natural lustre.

Getting around

The Lower Glenelg National Park is in south-west Victoria and adjoins the South Australian border. Visitors can fish, canoe, camp and picnic along the river, which can be explored on sections of the Great South West Walk, a 250-kilometre loop from Portland. The Princess Margaret Rose Cave can be reached from the walking track or by road or river cruise from Nelson.

About the artist

Oslo Davis is a Melbourne-based illustrator, cartoonist and artist who has drawn for publications including The New York Times, The Age, The Monthly, Meanjin, SBS and The Guardian. The Lower Glenelg National Park was a meaningful subject for Oslo who once lived in nearby Portland: “I know this part of the world so it was great to revisit the river through Anson’s writing and my own collection of photos and sketchbooks.” See more of his work at oslodavis.com.