When to go
Due to the variable nature of flows in the Darling River an ideal time of year cannot be pin-pointed. Basically you need to go when there is an adequate flow unless you are happy to do a lot of portaging. River Kings did their journey in May-July 2017 with about 400 Ml/day all the way and reported that there were no major problems with shallow water. I started in Brewarrina in August 2020 with about 900 Ml/day and I seemed to follow that water level down to Menindee. At these low flows the water travels at about 30 km/day which is about the same as what I was doing. After Menindee I had about 400 Ml/day which again presented no major problem. My experience on the lower Murrumbidgee is that flows of about 200 Ml/day will mean that occasionally you may need to drag your kayak through the shallows or over submerged logs without significant delay.
Water NSW lists all the gauging stations along the river. Conveniently there is an app called WaterLive where you can use on you mobile phone to check the latest data. Using these sites you can monitor the flows in the tributaries of the Darling and estimate when the flow will arrive at your start point. However, beware that just because there are good flows in a particular tributary, it does not mean that it will reach the Barwon or Darling River. After a spell of no flow much of the flow can be taken up by the filling of the pools in the river. Also, irrigators may take a lot or all of a particular flow. In July 2020 there was good widespread rainfall in several tributaries of the Barwon River in northern NSW. However, most of these flows did not make it into the Barwon River in any significant way. The exception was the flow from the Castlereagh River which I paddled on from Brewarrina to the Menindee Lakes.
The graph to the left is a screenshot from WaterLive showing the flow at Brewarrina for the 12 months from Nov 2019 to Oct 2020. It shows good flushing flows in Feb and April 2020 before returning close to zero flow. Winter rains produced an acceptable flow (more than 400 Ml/day) for about 6 weeks before returning to close to zero again. I was lucky to be able to start my journey on 11 August on the peak flow of 982 Ml/day.
With the Darling River proper starting in northern NSW, my preferred time was going to be late autumn to early spring in order to avoid hot weather if the water levels were adequate. Whilst there can be cold nights dropping below freezing, the days would be ideal for paddling with temperatures in the high teens to mid 20s. Daylight hours can be a bit short but generally the flies and mosquitoes won't be too much of a problem. By early October 2020, I experienced some days with temperatures in the high 30s and some days including the hot ones where the mosquitoes and flies forced me into my tent early to find relief.
I used the topographic maps obtained from NSW SIX Maps. I downloaded fragments of the etopo maps (see second dot point below), printed them, wrote notes on the maps (e.g. distances, information from earlier paddlers and expected Telstra mobile phone coverage) and highlighted sections such as the location of weirs. Then I finally laminated them for use on the deck of my kayak. You may be able to access them here: Darling River Maps.
NSW SIX Maps Here you can view and print NSW topographic and Satellite images of the whole state. There are various tools such as distance measurement.
NSW SIX Maps etopo You can download for free a PDF of the relevant topographic map and then in Adobe (free version) you can use the "Snapshot" tool (go to Edit -> Take a Snapshot) to select the part of the map you want. Then you can right click in the selected area to print that part of the map. This provides you with the official topographic map which includes 1 km grid lines. However, it can be annoying when the river crosses the border of the map multiple times!
I also used Back Country Navigator (BCN) on my Android phone. This app allowed me to download the topo and satellite maps from SIX Maps for offline use on my phone. Before the journey I marked river distances.
River Kings has gone through the hard work of measuring river distances every 5 km on a map. These are included in the Darling River GPX. Throughout my blog, when I refer to a river distance, it is based on River Kings measurements. During the first week of my journey, my companion Derek had his GPS measuring the distance paddled. He measured 200 km vs River Kings 205 km for Brewarrina to Bourke. A difference of only 2% is considered to be very good.
If you are seriously considering paddling the Darling you should have a close look at River Kings site. It has a lot of great information and it is what I followed for my journey. It is the first site to give a detailed account of a journey down the river from a paddler's perspective and is a valuable resource. However, everyone has different experiences, as conditions always vary, so the more you read up on earlier journeys, the more prepared you will be.
On my Darling River GPX file I have marked potential campsites. These range from sites suitable only for single tents to large broad beaches suitable for many tents. Many campsites are close to water level (where I had a flow of about 900 Ml/day between Brewarrina and Menindee) so if the water level is higher some sites may be underwater. What constitutes a suitable site will vary from person to person. Ideally, for me, it will have a sandy beach to get out of the kayak easily and flat ground close to the kayak for the tent. Other issues such as weather can render a site unsuitable e.g. shade will be important on a hot afternoon. In some areas I marked "Great Camp". This usually means a large suitable area. However, I was not consistent in my naming. "Good camp" can range anywhere between great and borderline acceptable. I generally did not mark sites at the tops of banks because from the water I could not see whether the ground was flat etc. Also, I did not mark all suitable sites especially in sections with lots of beaches. However, when sites were limited, I made a point of marking the suitable ones. The file may contain some errors so it is a good idea not to rely on it completely. I start marking sites from Brewarrina, it took me a few days to think of doing it. Generally the campsites downstream of Brewarrina were not too common and the banks generally were muddy and not sandy.
The nicest camping is usually on the inside of bends where often a sandy beach forms. However, on the Darling River the outside of the bends can sometimes have ledges or a gentle slope to the top of the bank where the tree cover is more sparse than the inside bends. This is something to bear in mind when searching for a campsite especially if suitable sites are limited.
The Darling River flows through remote locations. There are no major towns. The largest towns of Bourke and Wentworth are near the start and end respectively. I decided that it would be easiest for me to prepare all of my food before going and that I would have food posted to places along the way by my wife. If the place was connected by sealed road then the food package would be posted at least a week before my arrival date. If the mail had to go over unsealed roads then I would allow at least two weeks between posting and my estimated arrival date. I, or my wife, would contact the place before posting to ask then to hold the package till I arrived and it would be addressed to "Mike Bremers (paddler due xyz approx)". This worked well although it was a close call at Bindara Station where they only have mail deliveries once a week. My package was further delayed by rain which closed the roads meaning it arrived the day before I was going to depart Bindara.
Some paddlers in the past have driven along the Darling making their own food drops along the way. This is another feasible option but in my case it would have required a lot of extra driving from where I live.
My food consisted of muesli, powdered milk and honey for breakfast. A variety of muesli bars for lunch and snacks and freeze dried meals or dehydrated meals for dinner. My wife supplemented the packages with treats such as biscuits where space allowed. I assumed that I would paddle 30 km/day and catered for enough food to last me that time between resupply points plus any planned rest days. I also carried a 5 day emergency supply of food for unexpected delays. This consisted of two dry bags that were stuffed far into the bow and stern of the kayak with a trailing string so I could pull them out.
I posted food in one or two 5 kg parcel post satchels to the following locations:
Shindys Inn, Louth
Warrawong on Darling, Wilcannia
Nelia Gaari Station
At Bourke and Menindee, I was able to leave food in a vehicle or it was brought to me. Otherwise accommodation places would have been the locations to have food posted. Beware of picking up supplies from a post office as in small towns they may only be open on limited days for limited hours.
With frequent news of the terrible state of the Darling River, it is not surprising that paddlers are concerned about drinking the river water. If you are paddling the river whilst it is at low or no flow during drought then I think these concerns are justified. During early 2020 there were several good flows down the Darling which gave it a good flush so by the time I started paddling I had no concerns about drinking treated river water.
My treatment regime consisted of adding about a quarter teaspoon of alum to 10 litres of river water in a bucket and stirring thoroughly. You should start to see some coagulation after 5-10 minutes otherwise add a bit more alum, allow to settle for a few hours (or preferably overnight). The dosage rate will require a bit of trial and error. More turbid water may require a bit more alum or a longer settling time. Apparently the pH of the water will also affect the rate of settling. Carefully decant or scoop off the clear water. Sterilize the clear water by filtration, chlorine (or equivalent) tablets, UV or by boiling. I generally used Aquatab chlorine tablets. The treated water tasted fine.
However, late in the trip when the weather started to get hot, I noticed some blue-green algae starting to form on the surface in some parts of the river. At about this time the treated water started tasting rather earthy and unpleasant as drinking water but OK for cooking or made up drinks. This only lasted whilst the weather was hot. Instead of using chlorine tablets I filtered the water. This may have removed some of the unpleasant taste. I also noted that the earthy taste was even worse in the town water at Pooncarie than the river water that I had treated!
Gear and Safety
In addition to carrying standard kayaking and camping gear the following information may be of use.
The Darling River flows through remote areas. Good mobile phone reception can only be expected in the main towns. Telstra coverage will be better than other phone companies. In many places there was weak Telstra reception especially from the top of the bank. However, often the signal was only good enough to send a text message and voice calls or internet use was not possible. In my day to day accounts I have given an indication of the strength of Telstra mobile phone reception at each campsite.
As an emergency beacon I carried a Garmin InReach Mini. This unit also can send and receive text messages by satellite. It can be paired with a mobile phone for ease of typing messages.
I carried a small pocket radio to keep in touch with the outside world. I usually could get good reception from the radio stations at Bourke or Broken Hill or the ABC. This enabled me to get news, weather forecasts or even to listen to John Laws on 2BH if I was desperate - I thought he retired 30 years ago!
Solar Panel and Power Banks
To charge my phone and I had several power banks and a solar panel. The solar panel I used was a folding 10W Solar Mobile Charger from Jaycar. I found it most useful to attach it to the back deck of my kayak and use it to charge a power bank. It's by far most effective in full sun and generally I could produce enough electricity from the solar panel to keep my phone fully charged.
In addition to standard first aid items and personal medication I carried antibiotics. Before the trip I visited my GP and explained what I was about to undertake. He prescribed Amclavox as a general antibiotic for infected sores, ear or chest infections etc, and Metronide for giardia. Fortunately, there were no medical problems except for a strained back and a slightly strained elbow on which I used some Voltaren gel a few times.
In the weeks before the trip I had developed some soreness in my wrist so instead of my usual fiberglass sea kayak I opted to start with a Hobie Revolution 16 pedal kayak. The 2020 version has the kick-up fins that will pivot when an underwater obstacle is hit thereby preventing damage to the fin. The Hobie would give me the option of either pedalling or paddling and an opportunity to build up strength in my wrist. I hoped that the water flow of 900 Ml/day at the start would give me enough depth for the fins of the pedal drive mechanism to operate under the kayak hull without obstruction. I pedalled for about half of each day and on average would hit an underwater obstacle about once a day. This was with taking a bit of care in not pedalling when obviously shallow or in very snaggy areas. The visibility into the turbid water was at most 1 cm so no matter how much care is taken underwater snags will be hit sooner or later. I carried spare fins but did not need to use them.
One of the River Kings used a Hobie Revolution in 2017 on the Darling when the water levels were 400 Ml/day. I estimate that this generally equates to 50 cm in decreased depth compared to my levels. Apparently, the river was not deep enough to be able to pedal most of the way.
I kept going in the Hobie whilst conditions were good. In Menindee I swapped to my sea kayak. A friend met me there so I was able to swap kayaks. The reason for swapping was two-fold. Firstly my wrist was fine and secondly the river below Menindee is a controlled river which meant the good flow that I was travelling on was captured in the Menindee Lakes and the flow below Menindee was 400 Ml/day (up from the usual 200 Ml/day to encourage fish breeding). I knew I would have problems pedalling the Hobie in such conditions.
Tea Tree Oil
Smelly neoprene booties? I have found that by rubbing a few drops of Tea Tree Oil (100%) onto each foot each morning before putting on the booties, no smell develops. I also wear thin socks inside the booties as it is easier to wash socks than wash the inside of booties. I figure that the flakes of skin get caught in the socks rather than the booties. At the end of the day I dry the socks and booties as best I can (usually easy on a sunny afternoon in the dry air of the outback). Over the 65 days I did not have any unpleasant smell develop in the booties or socks. There was only a faint Tea Tree Oil smell.
In addition to sealing the seams of tents, seamer sealer is a great adhesive that is flexible. I found it useful for repairing holes caused by sticks in my neoprene booties just by putting a drop or two onto the hole. It sticks well and because it is flexible the repair lasts weeks before I needed to add another drop. It dries quickly. Seam sealer can also be used for small holes in clothing or backpacks etc to prevent those small holes becoming big ones. Thanks Dom for the tip!
Wide mouth thermos
I have a 710 ml wide mouth thermos. This is useful for rehydrating dehydrated meals. Just add contents and hot water to thermos and leave for a couple hours. No more simmering required with the risk of burning food onto your pot. I also make my morning coffee in the evening and put it in the thermos. I don't need to unpack my stove in the morning and it's just the right temperature to drink. Thanks Gemma for the tip!
Everyone has different experiences, as conditions always vary, so the more you read up on earlier journeys, the more prepared you will be.
If you are seriously considering paddling the Darling you should have a close look at the following sites.
River Kings paddled down the Darling from Brewarrina to Wentworth in 2017. It has a lot of great information and it is what I followed for my journey. It is the first site to give a detailed account of a journey down the river from a paddler's perspective and is a valuable resource.
ETA Unknown has a lot of detail for planning a journey down the Condamine/Balonne/Culgoa/Darling system including an analysis of past flows, towns and facilities along the route, maps etc. In early 2020 Alan paddled the floodwaters from QLD and made it as far as Bourke when Covid 19 restricts were coming into force and the journey was paused.