Merrily down the Glenelg

Canoeists paddle through the spectacular Glenelg River gorge. Picture: Lynn Gunning.
Canoeists paddle through the spectacular Glenelg River gorge. Picture: Lynn Gunning.

ROSS Atkins reckons lawyers are the worst.

The co-proprietor of Paestan Canoe Hire at Winnap near Dartmoor has sent thousands of people, including groups of troubled kids, paddling down the Glenelg River during the past 21 years, and said groups of lawyers were the most irksome.

“They tell me what to do all the time with no knowledge of the of the subject and they want to change the indemnity form,” Mr Atkins joked.

As for the troubled kids, he said even the toughest usually came under the river’s tranquil spell after three days and became more positive and cooperative.

Mr Atkins is full of praise for the “foresight” of Parks Victoria that has turned the stretch of the Glenelg River from Dartmoor to the river mouth at Glenelg into “a paddler’s paradise.” 

He said Parks Victoria had been “visionary” when it set up numerous jetties and camping areas equipped with amenities such as toilets along the river in the national park to give people the opportunity of overnight paddling trips.

The 70-kilometre long stretch from the north boundary of the Lower Glenelg National Park to Nelson offers a great opportunity to unwind and get away from “the maddening crowd.” 

Jetties have been established about four to six kilometres apart, giving paddlers lots of options for stopovers.

Such a long stretch of flat water accessible to people from children to the elderly was rare and the paddling trips have steadily become more popular. 

“Having no white water entices family groups and novices,” Mr Atkins said.

A big attraction was the spectacular gorge section through 50 metre high limestone cliffs upstream of Donovans along the last part of the river.

Many of the canoeists were international visitors drawn by the excellent amenities for paddlers.

“The bird life is also tremendous,” he said

Fishing along the river is also popular with mulloway, bream and perch among the good eating to be had. 

While people had the feeling of being away from it all on the river, it was beguiling because it was a “highway,” Mr Atkins said.

“You do not know it because everyone is moving along,” he said.

The number of people on the river only became apparent sometimes at camping grounds when canoeists stopped for the night.

Most people took about three to four days to complete the stretch, giving them time to switch off from the world outside.

Mr Atkins has about 150 canoes and and has sent off up to 10 groups, some of them with up to 15 people, over a long weekend. School groups are a specialty.

He said some groups of business people kept paddling when they arrived at their pick up point, reluctant to stop after their idyll away from the mobile phone and computer.

Kelly Gibson, 84, worked for Parks Victoria for 29 years creating the jetties and campsites. 

Mr Gibson said he was proud of how the river had been opened up from the domain of territorial anglers and Western District holidaymakers with small leaseholds to now be enjoyed by the general public.

He said the decision by government in the 1960s to end leases had been controversial at the time and the removal of about 70 private huts and jetties had been phased in over 20 years.

Their replacements with canoe camps allowed visitation to the area to flourish, he said. 

The Glenelg was “a magic river” and “untouched” going through the Lower Glenelg National Park, Mr Gibson said.

“It’s as good as any in Australia,” he said.

Driving the piles for the jetties had been hard work and done without today’s safety precautions.

“I was the best one handed chainsaw operator because I was using the other hand to hold the pole. I would also be up to my neck in water with an electric drill,” Mr Gibson said. 

He has seen a number of floods on the river with the biggest in 1982 that put more than 15 metres (50 foot) of water above the Moleside landing.

High tides at Easter could also lift the river’s height by a metre with the tidal reach going as far up the river as Dartmoor, Mr Gibson said. 

Mr Atkins said the recent flooding along the Glenelg from heavy rains had been a rare event during his 21 years. The flooding closed the park for some time with flood debris putting some jetties out of action. 

However flooding in the last section of the river due to the river mouth being blocked had been more common, he said.

Mr Atkins said the river mouth had silted up during his 21 years, with one of the causes being low water flows during the decade of below average rainfall from 1996-2006. But he said underground streams and tributaries had kept the section below Dartmoor healthy.

 Mr Atkins said working on the river had taught him patience and acceptance of what “nature dishes up.” 

While he loves the river environment, Mr Atkins said it was the interactions with customers that he enjoyed the most.

When he started 21 years ago, he would often lead groups down the river but these days he mostly drops people off with his canoes and picks them up at the end.

“But every time I drive people in, I have conversations,” he said.

After 21 years of working seven days a week for eight to nine months of the year, the Atkins are slowing down slightly. 

They will still hire to groups but will stop doing day hire after the 2016-2017 season.


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