After a bit of a helicopter disaster on the North Johnstone River, AT Editor Greg Barton tries to work out how he got into this mess . . . and how he’s going to get out.
When you go whitewater rafting as a group, as with most organised tours, you really take your chances with the people you’re lumped with. For this trip — a four-day tackling of the far from friendly North Johnstone River south of Cairns — we’ve done great, for the most part. Four unbelievably talented river guides are taking care of eight of us.
There’s Drew the kayaking scout and filmmaker. It’s his job to zoom ahead in his lightweight one-man craft and determine if certain rapids are too dangerous to tackle, as well as occasionally stopping to film us capsizing and flailing about.
There’s Yung, a mysterious Zen-like Korean rafting master who says little, choosing instead to let his skills on the water speak volumes. He inspires confidence by wearing his 2002 World Whitewater Rafting helmet at a rakish angle. He’s a genius with a hand reel and tiny chunks of cheese, hauling in and throwing back fish like he’s plucking roses.
There’s Callum, an exceptionally dry, slightly bearded laconic local who’s every word should be heeded carefully if only to sort out the truth from the utterly fantastical (“See those clumps way up in the treetops? Cassowary nests. Swear to God.”) Beneath his jokey exterior lies the heart of a canny river man. He has a ponytail, though, so the jury’s out.
And then there’s Midge. Our fearless team leader, who looks like he could MacGyver his way out of anything with just his paddle and a determined air.
Our safety is wholly in the hands of these capable rivermen. For our part, we’re about as motley a crew as you could hope for, including a couple of identical looking Dan Aykroyds (without the wit) who are immediately and secretly dubbed “the Ballast Brothers”, an Iranian-born Texan with one of the most impressive noses I’ve ever clapped eyes on, a brooding, nuggetty cop who plays by his own rules, two young women eager to take on the mighty rapids, a mother of two from Perth who does 16km open water swims in her spare time, my extremely nervous fiancé, and me, who can just about swim let alone raft.
Welcome to the North Johnstone River. Please keep your arms inside the vessel at all times.
ONE DAY WE’LL LAUGH ABOUT THIS
After weeks of preparation on the part of Cairns-based RnR White Water Rafting – gathering materials and stocking our four riverside campsites – the big day has arrived. We’ve flown in from our various far-flung homes and are now up before dawn in a minibus zooming through green, lush Innisfail on our way to the chopper pick-up point. This is the only outfit in Australia offering a chopper-in, raft-out experience on the mighty North Johnstone. And here we are, high on a hill overlooking the classic hinterland sheltered by nearby Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest peak.
During the drive, Midge talks us through all the possible ways we can be hurt over the next four days. There are loads: at least five types of rainforest plant that can spike, snag, trip, sting or all of the above; basic snake stuff; a too-casual cassowary warning (they have very sharp toes) – and that’s before all the ways being near a helicopter or in a raft can hurt you. It’s around here that I receive the first of many pointed looks from my nervous fiancé, who’s beginning to wonder how and why she’s here.
First things first though; before we can get to the water we have to help load the chopper. We’ll be rafting down a 40km stretch of the North Johnstone in the ensuing days, broken up each night by four pre-stocked but extremely basic campsites. The first load to be piled into the huge rope-sling will contain a lot of food, all the inflatable rafts, Drew’s scouting kayak and a swag of other necessary equipment. One of the guides will ride with the first load to the distant drop-in point to begin inflating rafts. Packing and prep is a methodical process, interspersed with lectures from the pilot on how to approach his aircraft properly. (“Keep low and don’t go near the back. It’ll make a mess of you.”) We’ve heard it already from Midge in the minibus, but it’s nice to be scared all over again by a fresh face.
Finally, Midge is allowed to do the honours and hook the laden sling to the bottom of the hovering chopper. It’s a genuinely exciting moment as it lifts from our hilltop and banks away over a ravine towards the thick forest. A cheer goes up. We’re underway!
And then it happens.
LIKE A LEAD BALLOON
Only 100m after taking off and gaining speed, the hook on the base of the chopper malfunctions. There’s an awful frozen moment as the sling separates and drops like a stone, drifting left with its forward momentum. Midge’s hands go to his face, then further to the top of his head as he turns away suddenly from the edge, unable to watch. It’s over, surely. All that work. The trip is over.
There’s a sharp splintering of trees followed by a deep thump. “This is bad,” says Midge. “This could be really bad.” No-one can quite believe it’s happened. Before the echo of the thud has died down I’ve had the following thoughts: they can’t cancel, that one guy’s come all the way from Texas; I wonder if my fiancé is secretly pleased?; where are we going to stay in Cairns tonight?; how many pieces will Drew’s kayak be in?; my god, all the rafts were on that thing; and finally, I bet Midge will think of something.
And he does. Barely pausing for breath, he’s suddenly striding around willing the expedition to hold together by sheer force of personality. We’ll climb down there. If the rafts are salvageable, we can haul them out, get another chopper and start over. You, you and you: grab some rope and come with me. You girls: make some tea. We’re not out of this yet . . .
The next few hours are an exhausting rescue operation as we pull together to drag everything by hand out of the impenetrable forest. Hovering low overhead, the chopper pilot spots the bright yellow of Drew’s precious kayak (bits of it anyway), and miraculously we’ve got a bead on where everything’s come to rest. Part of an RnR riverman’s credo is that no trace whatsoever of their presence be left in this stunning corner of the country, so we haul out even the broken bottles of chilli sauce, packets of grated cheese and shattered crockery (there goes Mexican Night on the camp trail).
It suddenly occurs to me you could stage an episode like this – a malfunctioning hook and a plummeting payload – as some kind of corporate bonding weekend. Convince the group you’ve suffered a major mishap and see how they deal with it. Who steps up? Who uses his body to flatten wide areas of stinging nettle? Who volunteers to wait by the car because his legs are feeling wobbly?
Luckily the mop-up operation is drawing to a close because my mind is clearly wandering. The biggest casualty, Drew’s expensive kayak, is barely recognisable. He copes with the loss by gathering together a family of field mice he’s found living in his kayak’s pointy end and killing them one at a time right in front of me. Crack, crack, crack go their little heads on the edge of the boat. This guy is so outdoors it’s unbelievable. Glad my fiancé wasn’t around to see that one.
“Imagine that,” says one of the Ballast Brothers. “You make a nest in the quiet end of a kayak, survive a bus ride here and being dropped out of a helicopter, then that happens to you.”
We regroup back at the chopper take-off point, exhausted and hours and hours behind schedule to scratch our scratches, rub our bruises and follow more of Midge’s sharp, effective instructions. Will we ever get to do some actual rafting?